Animal lovers don’t have to plan a safari or fly to a tropical rainforest to see creatures of all shapes and sizes up close. Instead, they can visit one of the U.S.’s many popular zoos. Appreciated by kids, adults and seniors, zoos offer their guests a unique opportunity to view and learn about animals native to places around the world. Although there are zoos of all sizes around the country, we’ve highlighted the 14 best zoos in the U.S. When evaluating zoos, the animal conditions, variety of species, quality of facilities, and overall quality of experience for visitors were all considered.

Top U.S. Zoos

Image Credit: Ales Krivec

1. Smithsonian National Zoo – Washington, D.C.

Located just 20 minutes from the National Mall, the Smithsonian Zoo is a classic American institution with a reputation of conservation, public education, and beautiful facilities. An impressive collection of animals - 400 distinct species - call the zoo home, including giant pandas, gorillas, elephants, and much more. Those looking for a more interactive animal encounter should head to its petting zoo, where visitors can get up close and personal with alpacas and goats. It’s best to wear walking shoes when you visit, as the National Zoo is spread over 163 square acres. Admission is free, and exhibits are open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during winter hours, which run from November through March, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. all other times.

2. Brookfield Zoo – Brookfield, IL

Brookfield Zoo features one of the largest indoor zoo exhibits in the world. Its animals receive exceptional treatment, as veterinarians and nutritionists closely monitor and care for them. Visitors to the Brookfield Zoo can also learn from their world class staff about animals, conservation, and biodiversity, guaranteeing that a visit is both fun and educational. The zoo features 2,300 species and is renowned for its primates, which include South American spider monkeys, Asian white faced gibbons, and gorillas from the lowlands of West Africa. The museum is open 10 a.m. -5 p.m every day and admission costs $17.85 for adults and $12.50 for children and seniors. Parking is $11.

3. Cincinnati Zoo - Cincinnati, OH

The Cincinnati Zoo is currently continuing its tradition of pioneering species conservation and quality visitor experience. Renowned for its gorilla exhibit, diverse collection of amphibians, and botanical garden, there are countless fantastic attractions within the Cincinnati Zoo. In addition to its conservation efforts, the zoo is concerned with sustainability, as demonstrated by Project Saving Species, which collects donated cell phones in order to recycle metals and minerals whose mining causes gorilla habitat destruction. The zoo is open from 10 a.m. -5 p.m. and tickets cost $27 for adults and $21 for children and seniors at gate, or $25 and $20 online, respectively.

4. Denver Zoo – Denver, CO

Spanning 80 acres in Denver’s popular City Park, The Denver Zoo offers one of the most diverse zoological experiences in the United States. With 700 species of animals, visitors are sure to find their favorite animals when touring its expansive facility. The zoo’s super fans can stay at the zoo overnight as part of the ‘Bunk with the Beasts’ program. This zoo is open from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. everyday and tickets cost $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $10 for children. A portion of the ticket sales goes toward supporting the Denver Zoo’s 75 field conservation projects in 22 countries worldwide.

5. Philadelphia Zoo Philadelphia, PA

Chartered in 1859, the Philadelphia Zoo is the oldest zoo in the United States, a must-visit attraction when in the City of Brotherly Love. In addition to being famous for its title as the country’s first zoo, it is also world-renowned for breeding animals that have typically been challenging to breed in captivity. With a wide range of animals, from turtles to rhinos, the zoo houses animals of all sizes from around the world. Those who don’t think a day’s visit is enough may arrange to spend the night. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for two to eleven year olds, and kids younger than two enjoy free admission. The Philadelphia Zoo is open 9:30 a.m. - 4 p.m. everyday.

6. San Diego Zoo - San Diego, CA

3,700 rare and endangered animals occupy this 100 acre facility, situated in the city’s beloved Balboa Park. With 650 animal species and 7000 plant species, the zoo promises to please all plant and animal enthusiasts of all ages. The San Diego Zoo has been instrumental to the restoration of giant Panda populations and the restoration of the California condor as well as 33 other species back into the wild. Some of the zoo’s most popular animals include bonobos, arctic wolves, camels, polar bears, elephants, and more. As one of the world’s most famous zoo’s, a visit to San Diego is not complete without a visit to the museum. Tickets cost $48 for visitors 12 and older, $38 for guests ages three to eleven, and admission is free for those three and younger. The zoo is open from ours: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. 365 days a year.

7. St. Louis Zoo - St. Louis, MO

With 19,000 animals, it's no surprise that the St. Louis Zoo attracts over two million visitors a year. Red pandas, flamingos, hippopotami, and monkeys represent just a few of it’s popular creatures. As expected, this leading zoo is deeply concerned with biodiversity and conservation. “The St. Louis Zoo has taken a holistic approach to troubled ecosystems and is working on several research projects dealing with endangered and near-extinct wildlife worldwide,” reports Forbes Traveler. Admission is free, though the St. Louis Zoo hosts many seasonal special events, which typically cost no more than $7 each. It is open daily from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

8. Como Park Zoo and Conservatory - St. Paul, MN

Featuring a golf course and amusement park, The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory is a must visit for the thrill seekers as well as the animal lovers. Home to an array of animals, including tigers, zebras, and bison, as well as numerous beautiful gardens, you’ll want to bring your camera along when you visit this special St. Paul attraction. Admission is free and it’s open 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. daily.

9. Bronx Zoo – Bronx, NY

America’s largest urban zoo is home to lemurs, mongooses, Nile crocodiles, hissing cockroaches, zebras, giraffes, lions, and over 20 western lowland gorillas. The zoo contributes to species conservation by protecting endangered wildlife and engaging in public education about our planet’s vulnerable species. A visit to this famous zoo, open 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., costs $16 for adults, $14 for children and $12 for seniors.

10. Houston Zoo – Houston, TX

Featuring a komodo dragon, alligators, sea lions, jaguars, Asian small-clawed otters, grizzly bears, mandrills, warthogs, red pandas and many more alluring creatures, the Houston Zoo is one of the Southwest’s premiere zoos and centers for species conservation. The zoo recently invested $40 million in the 6.5-acre African Forest, where chimpanzees, white rhinos, cheetahs, and giraffes now roam. Make time for a visit soon to witness its adorable baby giraffe! Tickets cost $13 for adults, $9 for children and $7 for seniors and the museum is open 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily.

11. Woodland Park Zoo - Seattle, WA

Zoos of the pacific Northwest are quickly catching up with their more well-established counterparts throughout the country. Woodland Park Zoo’s nearly 1,100 animals, which represent nearly 300 different species. With mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, a visit to this zoo offers awesome animal encounters and countless learning opportunities. Make sure to experience the Woodland Park Zoo on your next visit to the Emerald City. Tickets cost $13.75 for adults and $9.25 for children and the museum is open 9:30 a.m. - 4 p.m. daily.

12. Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium - Tacoma, WA

The only dual zoo and aquarium in the Pacific Northwest, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium’s diverse animal exhibits attract 700,000 visitors each year. Two of the park’s top attractions are the camel rides and the Asian Forest Sanctuary, home to elephants, leopards, tigers, otters, and many more beautiful animals. Like the other leading zoos, PDZA is committed to wildlife conservation and animal well being. In fact, it was instrumental in preserving the western red wolf and reintroducing them into the wild. To see a full list of PDZA’s animals and learn more about its conservation, sustainability, and community commitments, visit the zoo’s website. Tickets cost $17 for adults ages 13-64, $16 for seniors ages 65+, $13 for kids ages 5-12, and $8.75 for three and four year olds. Admission is free for kids ages 2 and under. While Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium’s hours vary, it’s typically open 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

13. Oregon ZooPortland, OR

One of America's best new zoos is in one of its hippest cities, Portland. Its condor and elephant exhibit are top-notch, as are the zoo’s five major areas, which group animals by their native geographies: Asia, Fragile Forests, Pacific Shores, Africa and the Great Northwest. If you’re planning a visit to Portland around the holidays, walk through the zoo in the evening from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. to experience ZooLights, a brilliant display of a million and half lights throughout the zoo’s grounds. Tickets cost $11.50 for adults 12 and older, $10 for seniors, $8.50 for kids three – 11 years old and admission is free for kids two and younger. The Oregon Zoo is open 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Summer.

14. Zoo Miami – Miami, FL

The only tropical zoo in the United States, Zoo Miami is home to a myriad of fun attractions and exhibits for visitors of all ages. Standout activities for guests to Zoo Miami include touring the Asian Trail, feeding parrots and giraffes, riding camels and cooling off in Playworld Playground, a 1.5 acre playground and waterpark. To read about all of their awesome attractions, visit Zoo Miami’s website. The zoo is involved in many research and outreach projects related to its animals and can be booked for parties and events. A perfect place to explore when you need a break from the beach, Zoo Miami is one of the city’s top attractions. Tickets cost $19.95 for adults and $15.95 for children. Zoo Miami is open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., 365 days a year.

Suggested Zoo Packing List: What to Bring to Ensure a Great Visit

  1. Binoculars - Get a closer look at your favorite critters!
  2. Reusable Water Bottle - Save money by bringing your own bottle!
  3. Sunglasses - Prepare for a day in the sun!
  4. Packed Snacks - Have access to snacks you and your group will enjoy!
  5. Selfie Stick - Fit you, your friends and the critters in the picture!

This article was written by Nic Shipley.

Hero Image Credit: Maarten van den Heuvel