The 12 Best Zoos in the U.S. to Add to Your Bucket List
Get your fill of animal encounters with these coast-to-coast options.
While nothing can replace a trip into the wilderness or a visit to a national park, a visit to the zoo can be an eye-opening, educational, and family-friendly way to experience the animal kingdom. Besides providing the opportunity to view rare species that are all but impossible to see in nature in the U.S., the modern zoo experience is also one that has become more humane. Today, there's a deepening focus on recreating larger habitats and heightening awareness about preservation efforts that's taken top priority. And fortunately, there are plenty of options from coast to coast for anyone looking to feel a closer connection to animals. Read on to see which zoos in the U.S. experts say you need to add to your bucket list.
Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium (Omaha, Nebraska)
Head to Omaha, Nebraska, and you can visit the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, which is consistently listed as one of the top five best zoos—not just in the U.S., but in the entire world.
"A visit to Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium in Omaha should be on any traveler's bucket list," Taylor Beal, owner and author of the travel blog Traverse With Taylor, tells Best Life. "Officially the largest zoo in the United States, there are more than 17,000 animals on-site, making it the perfect place to visit no matter what your favorite animal is!"
Since its founding almost 130 years ago, the zoo has expanded its offerings and exhibits for its visitors.
"The more than 160 acres at Henry Doorly Zoo are made up of national award-winning habitats like the African Grasslands, the Desert Dome, and Gorilla Valley," Beal says. "Their Expedition Madagascar building is magnificent—pairing exhibits with ongoing conservation projects and partnerships in the real world so that visitors can learn about them!"
Even better, the zoo pays it forward. "The zoo practices what it preaches, creating unique programs like a tiger breeding center in order to help prevent an endangered species from becoming extinct," Beal explains.
The Oregon Zoo (Portland, Oregon)
While there's no shortage of things to do around Portland, the city still stands out for providing a world-class zoo for visitors and residents alike.
"The Oregon Zoo, located just two miles from downtown Portland, is more than just a family-friendly tourist attraction—though it is certainly that!" Adam Marland, travel photographer and blogger from We Dream of Travel, explains. "This important place protects 64 acres of greenery, houses over 2,500 animals, and participates in conservation efforts to assist in repopulating several endangered species."
The attraction's layout can also make it a manageable experience, no matter how much time you have in your schedule. "For visitors, a day at Oregon Zoo is far more than a quick stroll by some sleeping critters. The zoo is separated into five distinct ecosystems, including Great Northwest, Elephant Lands, Africa, Primate Forest, and Discovery Zone, providing so many experiences that it's impossible not to marvel at them," Marland says.
The Bronx Zoo (New York)
There are very few things that New York City doesn't do big. Experts say the Big Apple's most notable local zoo is no exception.
"Hands down, the Bronx Zoo is my favorite place to send families," says travel writer Tomika Anderson. "Not only is it never-ending with hundreds upon hundreds of exhibits, this one is unique in that it is the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States and among the largest in the world. And its animals aren't just relegated to cages: They are able to thrive in their natural habitat in many cases, with enclosures extending into the lush Bronx Park and Bronx River, which flows directly to the zoo."
The Nashville Zoo at Grassmere (Nashville, Tennessee)
Thankfully, the best zoos in the U.S. have taken the opportunity to modernize in recent decades—and not just for the benefit of human spectators.
"Nashville's zoo has been quietly building over the last 10 to 15 years, which is an exciting phenomenon for many zoos," Nick Mueller, travel expert and director of operations at HawaiianIslands.com, tells Best Life. "Most zoos are landlocked at this point. Nashville is uniquely positioned to have hundreds of acres of undeveloped land, giving them ample opportunity to build world-class exhibits for their animals."
Just a six-mile drive from downtown, the 188-acre facility is home to 6,230 animals. Guests can expect up-close experiences with kangaroos, take a ride on a zip line, or let out their inner animals at the park's jungle gym.
Central Park Zoo (New York)
You can actually hit two of the best U.S. zoos while you're in New York City: There's another must-see spot at Manhattan's famed Central Park.
"The Central Park Zoo is smaller than the Bronx Zoo by quite a bit, but is one of the most special zoos in the county!" Becca Siegel, travel writer of Halfhalftravel.com, says. "Located right in the iconic Central Park, it's home to some very lively sea lions in a central pool. Believe it or not, this smaller zoo has bears, as well as penguins and red pandas!"
But Siegel's favorite thing about this part is something that you won't find at other zoos.
"My favorite part of the zoo isn't a live animal at all, but the historic Delacorte Clock, which has rotating animal figurines every hour and half-hour," she explains, noting that a visit to the Central Park Zoo is easily worked into any day trip in NYC.
The San Francisco Zoo (San Francisco)
For many people, the public's relationship with zoos has been in dire need of retooling. And in some major cities, local operations have been able to make good on keeping their most important inhabitants happy and healthy.
"For me, the San Francisco Zoo is easily the best," says Veronica Thompson, travel expert and chief operating officer of Everyday Power. "Before, I was not a fan of big zoos as my childhood memory of visiting them includes my deep pity for the animals who are inside cages. But in San Francisco, they have revamped their zoo by removing small enclosures and replacing them with natural habitats. They believe that true conservation can only be achieved with nature-focused interaction, and I totally support that."
Thompson explains that there's more to do than just take in the sights. "It's home to over 2,000 animals, which includes endangered, rescued, and exotic animals. They also have conservation and wellness programs that constantly welcome volunteers, so if you want to lend a helping hand, then you can easily do so," she adds.
The Saint Louis Zoo (St. Louis)
In modern trip planning, the idea of an exceptional experience being completely free is becoming more of a novelty. However, some cities have prioritized keeping their exhibits open to the public at no charge.
"The Saint Louis Zoo is undoubtedly one of the best in the country, housing more than 500 different animal species and one-of-a-kind exhibits, such as the 'Sea Lion Sound,'" Carly Brown, travel blogger and owner of Seek Out Serenity, tells Best Life. "More so, it is completely free to visit and fully funded by local taxes and donations. As a lifelong St. Louis resident myself, this fact alone claims the number one spot in my opinion, since there are very few free zoos in the U.S.—and in my opinion, none of which hold a candle to its size and reputability, which sees three million people annually and highly encourages repeat visits."
Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago)
There's nothing wrong with sprawling facilities with thousands of exhibits. But sometimes, a zoo's convenient location and long history can make it a heavy hitter in its own right.
"Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago is completely free, a rarity when it comes to zoos across the country," Agnes Groonwald, travel blogger and creator of Travel on the Reg, tells Best Life. "While it's not as large as Brookfield Zoo in the Chicago suburbs, it comes with the historical heft of being one of the oldest zoos on the continent—it was founded in 1868! And because of its location, once you're done checking out the animals, you'll be close to some of the best views of the city, too."
Other experts point out that the exciting variety of animals keeps guests returning. "We enjoyed seeing the baby lion this summer, and the red panda was something we'd never seen before," says Jude Boudreaux, travel blogger and owner of Road Trips with Kids. "And anyone who's a huge penguin lover like me should consider the Arctic tundra exhibit a must-see."
Fort Worth Zoo (Fort Worth, Texas)
Even though they're meant to get guests up close and personal with animals, some zoos stand out for the hands-on exhibits that make them worth visiting.
"Fort Worth Zoo in Fort Worth, Texas is a must-see for animal lovers," says travel blogger and owner of Dreams Built In, Melanie Hartmann. "They offer the opportunity to feed giraffes from a balcony, daily live shows with unique animals not usually on display, a petting zoo, and an immersive kids' play area with additional learning opportunities and live animals to learn about."
Guests can also look forward to observing nearly 7,000 animals spread out across an easily navigated layout. Habitats include Elephant Springs, African Savanna, and even the Museum of Living Art (MOLA), a 30,000-square-foot award-winning herpetarium.
San Diego Zoo (San Diego)
There's arguably no zoo in the U.S. with more name recognition than San Diego's most famous attraction. But experts say besides its impressive size, the organization also lives up to its eco-conscious mission.
"The San Diego Zoo should be on everyone's bucket list as it is one of the biggest zoos in the world that's also famous for its conservation efforts," Brittanie Harbick, co-host of the Travel Squad Podcast, tells Best Life. "There are so many exhibits, trails, and entertainment, you could spend an entire day roaming around the attractions! My favorite exhibits are the tigers, gorillas, and the Galapagos tortoises, which are a must-visit for me when I visit my hometown zoo."
Experts point out that the sprawling zoo takes a little extra coordination to do right. "Double-decker bus tours make it simpler to grasp the lay of the land because the site is huge, and navigating can be a little overwhelming on foot," says Jenny Ly, travel blogger and founder of Go Wanderly. "The 2.5-acre elephant habitat, the African Rocks exhibit with its penguin population, and the Australian Outback koalas are a few of the most well-liked animal attractions. And the lovely red pandas are also a site that everyone adores."
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The Smithsonian National Zoo (Washington, D.C.)
A trip to the nation's capital provides full access to some of the best museums and monuments anywhere. Fortunately for animal lovers, this doesn't stop at historical objects and prized paintings.
"The Smithsonian National Zoo is one of the best in the U.S. for so many reasons—including that it's free and public transportation accessible, of course!" Heather Herbert, a Virginia-based travel advisor, tells Best Life. "Then, there's also the pandas! There are only three domestic zoos with them, and not only is the National Zoo one, but we have a pandemic panda: Xiao Qi Ji, a male panda cub, was born there in 2020. He will likely be returned to China in December 2023, so it is best to visit him soon," she advises.
But there are still plenty of other animal inhabitants for guests to observe. "In my opinion, the Orangutan Walk is one of the coolest zoo features and animal enrichment activities ever," Herbert adds. "The primates deftly climb over visitors' heads on two ropes about 30 feet above, using the walk to get from one enclosure to another."
Panaewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens (Hilo, Hawaii)
Most zoos go to great lengths to try to recreate exotic ecosystems for the benefit of animal inhabitants. But there's one unique operation that uses nature itself to provide an authentic habitat.
"The Panaewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens in Hilo is a hidden Hawaiian gem and the only zoo in the U.S. located in a tropical rainforest," Tabitha Bailar, owner of Travel Compositions, tells Best Life. "This free zoo houses exotic and endemic animals like Bengal tigers, giant anteaters, lemurs, poison dart frogs, pueo, nene, and so much more."
While the site only spans 12 acres, it still hosts a petting zoo for younger guests and plenty of educational events throughout the year.