Few things in this world compare to the beauty of the underwater ecosystem, and fortunately for those who are fascinated by life under the sea, a trip to one of these top aquariums will allow you to see first hand sea creatures of all shapes and sizes. There are relatively few ways to explore the bounty of the oceans, and even fewer that can be found without venturing to far off corners of the world. Your local aquarium offers you and your family a chance to feel the wonder and excitementof deep-sea exploration. While there are dozens of aquariums in the United States alone, these twelve have been deemed “don't miss” because of their size, exhibits, creativity, and impact. Some of them will wow you with thousands upon thousands of different species or exotic creatures, while others are notablefor their appeal to children, or their conservation and community outreach efforts. The very best aquariums have all of these elements.
Best Aquariums in the U.S.
Notable mostly because of its size as the largest aquarium in the world, the Georgia Aquarium is over 550,000 square feet and holds more than 8 million gallons of water and many of thousands of fish. Its extraordinary marine life includes whale sharks, a mantaray, and even beluga whales and bottlenose dolphins. Hours of operation vary significantly, though it is open 365 days a year. Tickets are roughly $40/adult and $30/child (including tax) – though many discounts are available online through their website.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is famous all over the world for its efforts in marine life education and conservation. This Northern California aquarium sets the global standard for engaging the public in fun, informative, and engaging exhibits. Honored by many as one of the best in the country – including USA Today, Parents magazine, and coastalliving.com – thisaquarium is home to more than 500 different species of marine life. Parents and kids both love the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Splash Zone. Loaded with 45 interactive exhibits, this fun section is perfect for kids under nine. Adding to its intrigue, the aquarium is perched right on the Monterey Bay itself, which acts as a field laboratory for staff scientists and conservationists. Hours are generally 10am-5pm, with tickets ranging from $25 to $40 for children and adults, respectively. Also, if you're visiting Monterey, you can go whale watching!
Another aquarium that has earned spots on several 'best of' lists, the National Aquarium boasts over a dozen exhibits with more than600 species to watch and admire. The aquarium houses more than marine life, as it’s home to a rooftop rainforest, where visitors can search for exotic birds and other tree-dwelling creatures. Located in close proximity to other major attractions, and just a hop, skip, and a jump from the nation's capitol, it's no wonder that this aquarium attracts over 1.5 million visitors each year. Hours vary, but generally approximate 10am-5pm. Tickets cost between $25-$40. As with many of the aquariums on this list, the National Aquarium is anon-profit entity that uses admission profits to fund conservation, restoration, and rehabilitation efforts.
Another heavy-hitter on this list, the Shedd Aquarium is widely considered one of the best aquariums in the country and, perhaps, the world. It is a leader in conservation efforts, earning Director Ted Beattie the R. Marlins Perkins award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Built in 1930, the Shedd Aquarium is recognized for its longevity, its distinctive architecture and impressive collection of over 32,000 critters. The impressive three-level Oceanarium features dolphins, beluga whales, and more. Hours of operation generally hover around 9am-5pm, and prices vary based on availability, but are generally in line with the industry average of $25-$40.
Though not comparable in size to some of the other facilities on this list, the Audubon Aquarium of America in New Orleans is still worth the visit if you find yourself in the Big Easy. The aquarium sustained substantial losses due to Hurricane Katrina, but reopened with critical acclaim shortly thereafter. Named one of the top five aquariums by USAToday, the facility features a Caribbean reef exhibit as well as a walk through tunnel. Most notably, the Audubon is a crucial stakeholder in regional environmental policy and acted as a steward for the community after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These are the kinds of unassuming roles that aquariums can play in times of need, and the Audubon Aquarium of America has clearly blazed the trail. Support this aquarium by visiting between 10am-5pm Tuesday through Sunday for a price of $15-$25.
The Seattle Aquarium earned its spot on this list by being a leader in community outreach. This is primarily evident when visitors first arrive at the aquarium and notice a distinct lack of exhibit signs. Rather than invest in signs, the Seattle Aquarium employs extra staff members that are encouraged to act as guides through the building, engaging visitors and teaching about the wonders of marine life. Going beyond that, the Seattle Aquarium also trains volunteers to act as beach ambassadors for the aquarium, patrolling the beaches of the Puget Sound region and offering educational interactions for families up and down the coast. This sort of out-of-the box programming and outreach earns the Seattle Aquarium a nod as on of the “don't miss” aquariums in the country. Admission runs $15-$25 and is generally open from 9:30am to 5pm. If you're visiting from out of town, do yourself a favor and purchase a City Pass, which provides access to the aquarium in addition to other attractions around the city.
Nestled in the cozy beach town of Newport, this aquarium gets the nod for being especially kid-friendly and affordable. Coming in at #9 on the parents.com list of best aquariums for kids, the site gets praise for including an outdoor component complete with trails, a butterfly garden, and an outdoor wave-crash exhibit. Most popular amongst young visitors is the Passages of the Deep exhibit, which stretches for 200ft in which the little ones are surrounded on all sides by marine life. Groups can rent out this portion of the facility for a one-of-a-kind salt-water experience. As noted, the cost of admission is just $12-$20 and the hours are 10am-5pm (closed Monday and Tuesday during the winter).
This aquarium makes the list for balancing the need to provide quality community programming with the desire to contribute to global research on ocean health and marine ecology well-being. This Long Beach, California aquarium has plenty of notable exhibits (including the Shark Lagoon), exotic species, and hands-on exhibits for the kids. It also houses some leading conservation research and scholarly guest lectures. It also recently opened the Molina Animal Care Center, a LEED certified building that provides state-of-the-art rehabilitation for aquatic animals in need. Admission to this TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice award-winning facility will cost you $15-$30 and the facility is open 361 days a year, 9am-6pm. While you're in Los Angeles, you can also check out these Los Angeles kid-friendly attractions.
With 10,000 creatures representing 350 different species, Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies holds its own against some of the larger aquariums on this list. Beloved by those in the community, this Aquarium is often voted into fan-favorite aquarium rankings, and its easy to see why. Beyond the collection of sea creatures, this aquarium provides plenty of creative programming to engage the community. For an additional fee, you can pet a penguin, paint with a penguin, go on a behind-the-scenes tour, propose to your beloved, drop the kids off for a night out, and more. Tickets range from $10-$30 and though hours vary by season, the aquarium is open 365 days a year.
TripAdvisor.com and Parents Magazine have recognized The Florida Aquarium as one of the top aquariums. It is home to over 20,000 aquatic plants and animals separated into nine different exhibits. The Coral Reef exhibit is a stand-out, offering breathtaking panoramic views normally exclusive to deep-sea scuba divers. In fact, certified divers have the option of paying an additional fee for the opportunity to dive with the sharks in the tank. Kids love this Tampa Bay aquarium’s two-acre outdoor water adventure zone, and everybody loves the Goliath Grouper, the aquarium’s famously massive fish. While the facility houses some exotic animals from around the world, it aims to focus on marine life native to area. Tickets can be purchased online for $15-$25, and the aquarium is regularly open 9:30am-5pm.
Another fan-favorite, this aquarium can be found in Chattanooga on the banks of the Tennessee River. Focusing on fresh-water diversity, this aquarium has some unique superlatives, including being the home of the more turtle species than any other U.S. zoo or aquarium. It's also home to a 3-D IMAX theater, so be sure to plan time for that feature. For an added fee, aquarium-goers can take a trip on the River Gorge Explorer – a 2-hour river cruise guided by an aquarium naturalist. Otherwise, this aquarium is fun, educational, and approachable. General admission runs $15-$30, and hours of operation are 10am-7:30pm.
With its prominent position on the Boston harbor, this conservation-focused aquarium has been able to develop relationships within the fishing industry to have a major impact on ocean health. This focus is abundantly clear in the programming offered by the aquarium such as 'Sustainable Seafood' and 'Marine Animal Rescue'. Even the slogan is aligned with this mission: “Protecting the Blue Planet”. The New England Aquarium walks the conservation walk, but maintains balance by providing fun and interactive exhibits alongside its own IMAX theater. The aquarium also leverages its unique location and partnership with Boston Harbor Cruises to offer guests the opportunity to go whale watching! Guests are guaranteed a whale sighting or offered a complimentary ticket. Both the IMAX and Whale Watching Tours cost extra, but general admission runs $15-$30 and hours are 9am-5pm.
This article was written by Maxx Kaplan and edited by Lexi Perman.