Walking through the door of an aquarium is like walking through a portal into a mystical, watery world. Not only do the best aquariums open our sense of wonder by offering a glimpse of creatures who spend their lives beneath the sea but they also help preserve and protect those animals and their environment. Whether you're looking for something to do on a rainy day, a trip to take with kids, or just want to spend the afternoon getting lost in an aquatic universe, our experts have rounded up their picks for the best aquariums in the U.S. to help you plan your excursion.
READ THIS NEXT: The 10 Best U.S. Cities to Visit for History Buffs.
The Best Aquariums in the U.S.
1. New York Aquarium in Brooklyn, New York
"There are many beautiful aquariums in the U.S., however, I was astonished by the New York Aquarium," says Kami Turky, founder (CEO) at AquariumLife. What impresses her the most is the aquarium's goal of conserving all of the world's wildlife and wild places. She was also delighted with the size of the New York Aquarium, which is home to over 500 species of marine wildlife spread out over 14 acres.
Located off the Coney Island Boardwalk, the New York Aquarium is the oldest continuously operating aquarium in the country. While you're there, don't miss the 40-foot shark tunnel at the Ocean Wonders Exhibit which puts you within inches of stingrays, a colorful coral reef, and over 18 species of sharks.
2. The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland
If you are a shark lover and can't make it to New York, the National Aquarium in Baltimore is another awesome option. "[A] great reason the aquarium tops my list is shark alley: a 225,000-gallon exhibit of sharks near the exit," says Lola Akingbade of Deyewa. "Being so close to the sharks completely captures the essence of the aquarium and is a nice way to end the tour."
She also loves the events the aquarium puts on. "How amazing would it be to have a sleepover in the aquarium? You can bring that dream to reality at this aquarium," she says. "Guests get to explore the entire aquarium after dark and enjoy all the beautiful sights and lights and behind-the-scene spaces."
3. Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California
Paul Hudson of Playas y Plazas is an admirer of the important work being done at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "[It's] one of the finest aquariums in the United States because of its relationship with both the international research community and the local conservation community," says Hudson. "The aquarium has been the means by which the Scripps Institute of Oceanography communicates its scientific research with the public for more than a century. It is one of the most important centers for global earth science research and education in the world."
Hudson goes on to praise the aquarium's unique setting, "on a more local note, the Scripps Pier is one of the most famous surfing beaches in San Diego County because of the clean water and great waves." The aquarium overlooks the coastline from La Jolla Cove to Black's Beach, an area that Hudson says has managed to preserve a sense of environmental stewardship in a major urban center. "Lots of San Diego locals have learned how to interact with the ocean with the help of the aquarium and gained an appreciation for the marine life we share these waters with," he says. "San Diego loves the beach and the Birch Aquarium helps foment that relationship."
For more travel advice delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
4. The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia
Have you ever wanted to pet a stingray (in a safe setting, of course)? If so, make your way to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. "The Georgia Aquarium is the largest in the United States, and it's home to more than 100,000 animals, including whale sharks, beluga whales, and manta rays," says Matt James of Vistingly. "There's also a 4D theater, a touch tank where you can pet stingrays, and a walk-through tunnel where you can see sharks up close."
While you're in the area, don't miss the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, which is also rated one of the best gardens in the U.S.
5. The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, Louisiana
You probably don't need another excuse to visit New Orleans. The city is filled with jazz, breathtaking architecture, and some of the best food on the planet. In addition, James says New Orleans also has one of the best aquariums in the country located along the Mississippi River right next to the historic French Quarter.
"The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans is home to more than 10,000 animals including alligators, penguins, and sharks," he says. "There's also an interactive stingray pool, a jellyfish gallery, and a 4d theater."
6. Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California
James Brad from travare.net can't speak highly enough about Monterey Bay Aquarium. Located on Cannery Row in Monterey, this world-renowned institution is home to more than 35,000 marine animals and features over 200 exhibits. "As one of the most popular tourist attractions in California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must-see for anyone visiting the area," says Brad.
His favorite attractions include the Open Sea exhibit, where you can see sharks, tunas, and other large fish swim overhead, and the Kelp Forest, a two-story exhibit that simulates a kelp forest ecosystem. "There's also a touch pool where you can get up close and personal with stingrays, sea stars, and other invertebrates," he says.
7. The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Florida
The Florida Aquarium is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state and is home to more than 20,000 animals, representing over 500 species.
While you're there, Brad says you shouldn't miss the Coral Reef Gallery, where you can see fish, coral, and other marine life from the Caribbean Sea, and the Wetlands Gallery, which features animals from the Florida Everglades, including alligators and crocodiles. The Florida Aquarium also offers a variety of tours, including a popular one that takes visitors behind the scenes of the manatee exhibit.
8. Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Located in downtown Chattanooga, the Tennessee Aquarium is housed in two glass peaked towers.
"One tower includes marine and wildlife from freshwater sources, such as rainbow trout, sturgeon, and lively otters," says Kyleen Bontrager of the bonnie traveler. "The second tower contains saltwater habitats, and curious creatures like jellyfish, sharks, and even a butterfly enclosure. With over 12,000 animals, the Tennessee Aquarium is sure to spark curiosity and wonder."
Chattanooga is located on the Tennessee River in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains so be sure to take some time to explore the area while you're there.
READ THIS NEXT: The 10 Most Bizarre Museums in the U.S.
9. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois
Matthew Bowley of Solmar Villas was one of many experts who chimed in to recommend the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. "They offer a kid-friendly submarine ride and an underwater observation area at the Polar Play Zone. where kids can dress up like penguins and learn about life at the North and South Poles," he says. "In summer, guests interested in a conservation eco-tour can join Shedd Aquarium for kayaking trips along the Chicago River."
Or you can travel to another environment without having to leave the aquarium: visitors have the opportunity to interact with simulated humpback whales in Tonga. For those who are unable to make it ti Shedd, you can also experience some of the attractions virtually.
10. The Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, Washington
Bowley also recommends the Seattle Aquarium. "The six primary displays at this Seattle landmark provide a wide range of avian, mammalian, fish, cephalopod, and invertebrate species for visitors to enjoy," he says.
You can view local fish in their 400,000-gallon habitat in the 360-degree Underwater Dome or observe marine creatures at play. "The sea otters are a crowd favorite," says Bowley. At the Family Activity Center, visitors of all ages may take part in interactive exhibits to learn more about the plight of the orcas (commonly known as killer whales) in the Pacific Northwest and what they can do to assist. The aquarium has a species recovery program that employs a variety of conservation strategies to prevent the extinction of imperiled animal populations.