The 10 Best Zoos in America to Visit This Summer

Picture of giraffes and zebras in a zoo
Picture of giraffes and zebras in a zoo

For many Americans, one of the earliest memories people have of childhood family outings is a trip to the local zoo. There’s something nostalgic about spending time marveling at exotic animals and in some cases, getting up close and personal with them. While most people have probably visited the local zoo in their city, these world-famous venues also make for great attractions when traveling to new places. If you’re staying on America’s shores, here are 10 iconic zoos to add to your itinerary.

San Diego Zoo (San Diego, CA)

Sunny California is a popular destination, but the San Diego Zoo is world-renowned for good reason. The San Diego Zoo is best known for its open-air cageless exhibits. Most importantly, this zoo is one of the few located outside of China that is home to Giant Pandas. For a real thrill, guests can also visit their sister site, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for their popular 2-hour safari park rides. This excursion offers a closer look at African and Asian big animals while riding in a covered open-air truck.

Indianapolis Zoo (Indianapolis, IN)

Most people only talk about Indy (as it’s called by locals) when discussing the Indianapolis 500 — one of the biggest racing events of the year. But this city is also home to the Indianapolis Zoo. While not as large as other zoos across the US, this one offers a chance to swim up close and personal with the dolphins. For more adventurous visitors, opt for the Indianapolis Zoo’s animal artist excursion that allows people to paint works of art with select animals like elephants, dolphins, rhinos, penguins and seals and the help of zookeepers.

Woodland Park Zoo (Seattle, WA)

For a zoo that’s swimming in accolades, don’t miss Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. This is the second most awarded zoo in North America. Especially for travelers that prefer authenticity in their excursions, the Woodland Park Zoo should be at the top of the list. This particular zoo focuses on recreating the natural habitats for the animals that call Woodland Park home. Check out the African Savannah where zebras and other native animals roam freely. And older travelers can enjoy Brew at the Zoo, an immersive craft beer tasting event.

The Bronx Zoo (Bronx, NY)

The Bronx is known as a cultural zeitgeist that gave society Hip Hop and the Yankees. But the Boogie Down Bronx is actually where the largest metropolitan zoo in the world is located. Set on 265 acres of land in the northernmost borough in New York City, The Bronx Zoo is home to over 6,000 animals that enjoy painstakingly recreated natural habitats. Get up in the air with the Nature Trek exhibit which is a safe climbing activity that allows visitors to get an aerial view of the grounds. Little ones will enjoy the daily penguin and seal interactive feedings. The Bronx Zoo is located across Pelham Parkway from the New York Botanical Gardens, making this a great all-day activity.

St. Louis Zoo (St. Louis, MO)

Most people would never guess that the star of the St. Louis Zoo is a polar bear. Of all the animals from the 600 species housed here, Kali the polar bear is a fan favorite. His home, a 40,000-square-foot habitat, is one of the most popular exhibits in the zoo. Beyond the exhibits, the St. Louis Zoo is well known for its efforts in animal conservation, management, research, and education.

Living Desert Zoo (Palm Desert, CA)

Can a desert be exciting? There’s only one way to find out and that’s by visiting the Living Desert Zoo. Fans of niche zoos will find this one particularly ideal as it is a grassy oasis that focuses exclusively on plant and animal life that’s native to desert regions. Plant lovers will appreciate the 50 gardens situated throughout the park dedicated to desert specific flora.

Henry Doorly Zoo (Omaha, NE)

Omaha might seem like an unlikely place for a popular zoo but don’t sleep on the plains states. The Henry Doorly Zoo is prepared to blow visitors’ minds with its unique exhibits.. This zoo has recreated the American southwestern Sonoran Desert, Africa’s Namib Desert and Australia’s Red Center Desert to serve as a habitat for animals indigenous to those regions. When you’re tired of the desert, visit Kingdoms of the Night which is the world’s largest nocturnal animal exhibit.

Cincinnati Zoo (Cincinnati, OH)

Some people prefer zoos with a historical angle. For this type of visitor, the Cincinnati Zoo is ideal as it’s one of the oldest running zoos in the U.S. Opened in 1894, this zoo is best known as being home to some of the world’s most endangered species such as the Malayan tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, and Masai giraffes to name a few.

Pittsburgh Zoo (Pittsburgh, PA)

Fans of a two-for-one deal will love the Pittsburgh Zoo. It is a must-see because it’s a rare combination with a zoo and an aquarium. This zoo is organized by thematic exhibits. Set on 77 acres of land, the Pittsburgh Zoo is perfect for children because it emphasizes interactive activities. Adults will appreciate the numerous sip & learn events on the zoo’s calendar.

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

If Washington, D.C. is on the travel lineup, try to carve out time to check out the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Also known simply as the National Zoo, animal preservation is a key tenet and the organization has been caring for protected species for over 100 years. Beyond caring for animals on the endangered or vulnerable lists, the zoo also works to treat animal diseases which can also threaten animal populations. Highlights here include the Elephant Community Center and the Kid’s Farm Exhibit which is essentially a petting zoo where tots can feed farm animals.

Honorable Mention Zoos

With a country as large as the United States, it’s impossible to limit the best zoos to a top 10 list. However, it’s also unrealistic to create an article that’s impossibly long to read. The zoos listed above are known for their biodiversity and usually center conservation or create an immersive environment for people to learn about the animals in their care. However, here’s a quick list of zoos that should be considered because of their unique location or niche focus.

  • The Alaska Zoo

  • Fort Worth Zoo

  • The Houston Zoo

  • Busch Gardens Tampa

  • The Columbus Zoo

  • Audubon Zoo New Orleans

  • Brevard Zoo

Get Up Close and Personal with the Animals

Zoos are fun for all ages and a great way to create an immersive learning experience for everyone. Whether they’re the anchor excursion or an add-on to round out an itinerary, it’s a great way to spend time in a laid back environment while also learning a thing or two about the animals that roam this planet.