Washington DC is surrounded by excellent zoos perfect for family days out. Just a short drive from the national monuments of the city, top zoos like the National Zoo, have diverse animals in their natural habitats. These zoos are very kid friendly and are wonderful places to learn about conservation and see fascinating species from around the world.

Smithsonian National Zoo: A World-Class Wildlife Experience In Washington, DC

The Smithsonian National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution. It is one of the oldest zoos in the United States. It is a premier wildlife sanctuary located in the heart of Washington, DC. 

Also called the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, it is home to a myriad of species. Unfortunately, the beloved giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian left the zoo in late 2023 and were returned back to China. The zoo’s Asia Trail is a highlight, featuring endangered species like the Asian small-clawed otter in their natural habitat.

Visitors can explore the Elephant Trails and the Cheetah Conservation Station, getting up close with these majestic creatures. The American Trail showcases North American wildlife, including bald eagles and American bison, while the Great Ape House and Think Tank offer an insightful look into the lives of great apes. For families with young kids, the Kids’ Farm and petting zoo provide interactive fun, and the Small Mammal House and Reptile Discovery Center are full of fascinating creatures.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is not just about animal exhibits; it’s a center for wildlife research and public awareness, playing a crucial role in conservation efforts for endangered species. The zoo’s history, dating back to the time of William Temple Hornaday, reflects its long-standing commitment to wildlife preservation.

Getting To The Smithsonian National Zoo

Located on Connecticut Ave NW, the zoo is easily accessible by public transportation, including the red line metro stations. The two closest Metro subway stations to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. are:

  • Cleveland Park Metro Station (Red Line)
  • Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metro Station (Red Line)

The Smithsonian National Zoo entrance is located at 3000 Benjamin Franklin Drive NW, Washington, DC, along Connecticut Avenue between these two Red Line stations. Both stations are within a 20 minute walk of the zoo’s entrance.

Parking is available in several parking lots, though it may require a small fee. The main entrance, at the bottom of the hill near Connecticut Avenue, welcomes visitors to a world of exotic animals and conservation efforts.

Pricing For The Smithsonian National Zoo

Admission is free to the zoo. However, you will need to make a reservation for your car if you are arriving by car. If you use public transportation there is no cost. With no admission fee for visitors, it’s a must-visit destination for anyone in Washington DC, offering an unforgettable experience for visitors of all ages.

NovaWild – Drive Thru Safari In Virginia

NovaWild is conveniently located within a 30 minute drive from the DC area. It has a thrilling and interactive animal encounter that guarantees fun for children of all ages. This exciting establishment offers a unique drive-thru safari experience, enabling visitors to explore the wonders of wildlife while driving their own vehicles. Interactions with a diverse variety of animals, which boldly approach the vehicles, create unforgettable memories. 

Additionally, NovaWild features a walking portion, augmenting the enjoyment and providing ample opportunities for families to revel in the company of various captivating creatures. The presence of such a delightful assortment of animals makes NovaWild an ideal destination for families seeking a diverse and enchanting experience.

Visiting The NovaWild Zoo

NovaWild is generally open from 10 to 4 PM everyday. You can buy tickets online or on site. The tickets are valid for any day in the future and they do not expire. The walkable portion of the zoo and the safari are open til 4 but the safari starts to shut down by 330 so plan accordingly.

Pricing For NovaWild

Here are the pricing details for visiting. You do not need to purchase ahead of time, but can choose to for a more seamless visit when you arrive. 

  • Adult (ages 13-64): $20
  • Child (ages 2-12): $15
  • Senior (ages 65+): $15
  • Military/First Responder: $15
  • Under 2: Free

Some additional pricing details:

  • Parking is free

The Maryland Zoo – Book A Penguin Encounter

The Maryland Zoo is located in Baltimore is about a one hour drive from downtown DC, but spans an expansive 135-acre park. Distinguished by its four distinct special zones, the zoo offers visitors a range of captivating experiences. 

Among these zones, one stands out for housing the zoo’s renowned giraffes, captivating creatures that never fail to mesmerize spectators. You can also book a special penguin encounter. Encounters are limited to 6 people and last about 30 minutes. It costs about $60 and you are able to pet them as well as take pictures and videos.

Entrance To The Maryland Zoo
Entrance To The Maryland Zoo

Entrance To The Maryland Zoo

Additionally, the Maryland Zoo provides a children’s zoo replete with a host of engaging activities tailored to entertain kids of all ages. With its wide range of attractions, the Maryland Zoo ensures an enjoyable experience for individuals across all age groups, making it a highly recommended destination.

The Leesburg Animal Park

The Leesburg Animal Park is located around 45 minutes away from downtown DC, presents a delightful amalgamation of a farm-like atmosphere and a traditional zoo setting. While the park is home to exotic animals such as monkeys and lemurs, its main draw lies in the enchanting farm attractions it offers. Visitors can immerse themselves in the delightful experience of walking among a variety of gentle sheep and goats. 

Moreover, the park provides an array of kid-friendly activities, including slides and other engaging endeavors. Given its diverse range of offerings, the Leesburg Animal Park serves as an ideal destination for individuals of all ages seeking an enjoyable and interactive experience.

The National Aquarium In Baltimore

The National Aquarium is located on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It is one of the most popular activities in the Inner Harbor. 

Exhibits And Animals

The National Aquarium houses thousands of animals across hundreds of species. Visitors can learn about a wide range of aquatic life, from Atlantic puffins and peacock mantis shrimp to blacktip reef sharks and harlequin tuskfish. The exhibits are designed to showcase the connection these animals have with water, whether they’re from the ocean depths or the rainforest canopy.

Getting To The National Aquarium

You can drive here from the DC area as there is ample parking in parking lots in the area. If you don’t want to drive you can also opt to take the train from DC to Baltimore and then a taxi or ride share to the Inner Harbor area.

National Aquarium In Baltimore

Cost Of Entry

The Aquarium has various special ticket prices, such as discounted rates for AAA members, active military/veterans, and half-price tickets on Friday evenings. They also have membership programs that provide unlimited admission for a yearly fee. Here are the average prices for admission:

  • Adult (ages 18-64): $49.95
  • Youth (ages 3-17): $39.95
  • Child (ages 2 and under): Free
  • Senior (ages 65+): $39.95

The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve 

The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve is a 50-acre zoo/wildlife park located about 20 minutes north of Frederick, MD. This is about a one hour drive from Washington DC. It has a remarkable collection of animals, including jaguars, zebras, alligators, and unique exotic creatures from Madagascar. 

Spanning a massive 50-acre area, this park boasts interactive sections that cater to visitors of all ages. Its captivating array of animals, coupled with its interactive exhibits, ensures an entertaining experience for everyone. The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve is undoubtedly a destination that promises fun and excitement for individuals of all ages.

Plumpton Park Zoo

Plumpton Park Zoo is about 2 hours away from downtown DC. It has an exciting and enriching wildlife experience. While tigers and bears reign as the zoo’s main attractions, visitors will be enthralled by the sheer variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles on display. The zoo’s diverse collection showcases an impressive array of captivating creatures, ensuring a memorable and educational visit for all who pass through its gates. 

Located along Maryland Route 273, Plumpton Park Zoo proves to be a perfect stopping point for those journeying along this route. With its convenient location and abundant wildlife offerings, the zoo promises a delightful interlude for travelers seeking a unique and immersive animal encounter.

Metro Richmond Zoo 

The Metro Richmond Zoo is located on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, and situated approximately three hours from DC. This zoo stands as a premier destination for animal enthusiasts. Boasting an extensive collection of exotic animals, this zoo captivates visitors with its remarkable variety. From majestic rhinos and awe-inspiring tigers to fascinating wolves and graceful hippos, the Metro Richmond Zoo showcases a mesmerizing menagerie of creatures from around the world. 

Whether passing through or specifically visiting Richmond, this expansive zoo provides an exceptional experience for individuals of all ages. Known for its size and the quality of its exhibits, the Metro Richmond Zoo undoubtedly ranks among the top-tier zoological parks, ensuring a day filled with wonder and adventure for all who enter its gates.


The Natural Bridge Zoo is located approximately 3 hours away from DC. In December 2023, Virginia authorities raided the Natural Bridge Zoo after receiving reports of animal neglect and cruelty from undercover informants.

During the raid, officials seized over 120 animals including giraffes, tigers, monkeys, and other species. They also found over 28 dead animals in a freezer. Court documents revealed animals were living in unsanitary conditions, receiving inadequate food and medical care. Some had untreated injuries or infections.

An emaciated tiger was euthanized due to the poor condition of its health. Inspectors had cited the zoo over 150 times since 2000 for violations. The owners were charged with animal cruelty. An investigation uncovered endangered species and animals not properly acquired or housed.

In January 2024, a judge ruled some seized animals could be returned, while others like big cats would remain with the state due to the zoo’s inability to properly care for them.

The raid and ongoing criminal case sparked outrage over the mistreatment of animals and lack of oversight at the roadside zoo attraction. It remains closed while authorities continue their investigation.

Zoos In Washington DC And Aquariums: Summary

The zoos near Washington DC offer a unique way to spend a day exploring the region’s natural beauty and wildlife. Whether you prefer African safaris, Asian jungles or close-up marine life, one of these zoos is sure to captivate all ages. The region is fortunate to have such invaluable resources for wildlife lovers in its backyard.

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