The 15 Best Zoos in the U.S.

Pretty much every big city in America has a zoo—there’s probably an awesome animal sanctuary within driving distance of where you live—but that certainly doesn’t mean they’re all comparable. Some seem to sprawl forever and have critters from all four corners of the globe, while others are smaller and more specialized. Zoos, like amusement parks, stand out as one of those great family-friendly attractions that aren’t just for kids. Who doesn’t love seeing a majestic tiger in the flesh or getting up close and personal with a giant anaconda from the safety of a plexiglass enclosure in the serpent house? Ready to take a walk on the wild side? (That’s far from the last animal pun in this piece.) Scroll on for the 15 best zoos in the U.S. to get your fix of furry, scaly and spiky creatures.

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1. San Diego Zoo (san Diego, California)

It would be criminal to put together a roundup of the best zoos and not feature the famous and widely popular San Diego Zoo. Founded in 1916 and located in Balboa Park, this world-leading institution protects and cares for more than 650 different species from across the globe—including the Amur leopard, the most critically endangered big cat on the planet. The massive 100-acre San Diego Zoo is split up into eight different geographic areas, so it really feels like you’re traversing the globe on each visit.

2. Lincoln Park Zoo (chicago, Illinois)

One of the oldest and best zoos in the country, the free-to-the-public Lincoln Park Zoo dates all the way back to 1866. More than 200 species of animals—among them the vulnerable Asian small-clawed otter, endangered African penguin and the Guam Kingfisher, which is actually extinct in the wild—call this 35-acre Chicago icon home. Don’t leave without visiting the Helen Brach Primate House, where cute black-and-white colobus monkeys and Francois' langurs swing from hanging vines. Farm-in-the-Zoo as well as Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove are other popular exhibits.

3. St. Louis Zoo (st. Louis, Missouri)

Each year, more than 2.5 million people flock to the Saint Louis Zoo to see 12,000 animals representing over 500 species in a picturesque setting within Forest Park. We dig all six zones, but if you’re in a time crunch, definitely prioritize Judy and Jerry Kent Family Sea Lion Sound, an award-winning exhibit that boasts North America’s first walk-through underwater tunnel in a sea lion habitat. Did we mention admission to the St. Louis Zoo is free of charge?

4. Columbus Zoo And Aquarium (columbus, Ohio)

Covering a whopping 580 acres and with 10,000 animals, the non-profit Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, where Jack Hannah serves as Director Emeritus, ranks among the top spots to admire amazing wildlife in the country. It’s divided into seven distinct sections—all of which are worth visiting. Go on the prowl for lions, zebras, gazelles and giraffes in Heart of Africa. Head to Asia Quest to peep pythons, elephants, red pandas and critically endangered rhinos. Kiddos will especially love the pony rides and train voyage around the North American part of the park.

5. Bronx Zoo (new York City)

The “concrete jungle” is home to a real-life jungle—plus African plains, gorilla forests, Himalayan highlands and butterfly gardens—full of incredible creatures. Yep, we’re talking about the Bronx Zoo. At 265 acres, it’s the largest metropolitan zoo in the country. So, yeah, there’s a lot of ground to cover and stuff to explore. Seek out cheetahs, crocodiles, porcupines, lemurs and sloths or listen to a zookeeper chat. And what kid wouldn't jump at the chance to sit atop a giant grasshopper on the Bug Carousel?

6. Smithsonian National Zoological Park (washington, D.c.)

Not only is the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. one of the oldest and most beloved zoos in the country, but it provides free entry to the public (and, no, gratis admission doesn’t factor into why people dig this place so much). There are 2,700 animals across more than 390 species, so whatever animal you’re most obsessed with almost certainly lives at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Join fellow wildlife lovers in spying everything from zebras and leopards to critically endangered Chinese three-striped box turtles.

7. Brookfield Zoo (brookfield, Illinois)

Located in the Chicago suburbs, the 216-acre Brookfield Zoo is a wildly popular attraction that appeals to kids, parents and pretty much anyone who likes animals. On the agenda? Say hi to snapping turtles, alligators and river otters at The Swamp, then head to Desert’s Edge to glimpse meerkats and naked mole rats. And don’t forget to swing by the Great Bear Wilderness. One of the most epic activities at Brookfield Zoos? Feeding giraffes leafy greens out of the palm of your hand.

8. Como Park Zoo & Conservatory (saint Paul, Minnesota)

There’s an almost dizzying amount of stuff to do at Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, which is managed by Saint Paul Parks & Recreation, free to enter (it’s a suggested donation situation) and open 365 days a year. On any given outing, you might see Arctic foxes, bison, cougars, Galapagos tortoises, giraffes, gorillas, orangutans, penguins and more. Don't forget to check out the gorgeous water garden, amusement park with rides galore and the pollinators exhibit inside a 2,500-square-foot greenhouse.

9. Denver Zoo (denver, Colorado)

Always leading the pack in innovation, the Denver Zoo—which began with the gift of a black bear cub back to the mayor in 1918—was a pioneer in the introduction of naturalistic habitats to improve quality of life for critters big and small. It seems to be working, because all 3,500 inhabitants of this Mile High City institution seem pretty darn happy. BTW we hear that the newly opened sloth exhibit and animal hospital are not to be missed.

10. Houston Zoo (houston, Texas)

The Houston Zoo welcomes two million people each year, making it the second most visited zoological park in the country. What's cool is that ticket sales help fund 49 wildlife conservation projects around the world. Another way to support animals in need? Up-close encounters, like cooing over giant river otters from a birds-eye-view platform, tossing treats to native alligators, snapping selfies alongside slow-moving sloths and interacting with cuddly goats.

11. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden (cincinnati, Ohio)

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! That’s not all you’ll find at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. In fact, this Ohio landmark protects a wide range of creatures—aardvarks, black rhinos, cheetahs, flamingos, lemurs, otters and snow leopards to name a few. On the top of the must-do list? It’s a tie between saying what’s up to the famous hippo named Fiona and beelining to the Gorilla World. If you have time (and a little extra spending money), definitely sign up for the Kangaroo Walkabout.

12. Pittsburgh Zoo & Ppg Aquarium (pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

Situated in Pennsylvania's Highland Park, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium cares for 4,000 mammals, amphibians, fish, reptiles and birds, including many endangered and threatened species. With 77 acres to explore, you certainly won’t have any trouble filling a day. If you’re wondering what to prioritize, the underwater polar bear and sea lion exhibits are both fan favorites. It would be impossible to oversell the majesty of African lions. Did you know the king of the jungle is the only cat known to live in prides?

13. Philadelphia Zoo (philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Amur leopards, gorillas, lions and Caribbean flamingos aren’t native to the City of Brotherly Love, but they do all live in specially designed habitats at the Philadelphia Zoo. This historic zoological park has 1,500 animals from all seven continents. So yes, there’s a lot to see and do. Wondering how to divide your time? Hit Big Cat Falls, followed by Bear Country and Bird Valley. Perhaps the coolest and most groundbreaking feature is Zoo360, which allows critters to roam around the park in a network of elevated mesh trails.

14. Dallas Zoo (dallas, Texas)

Spread across 106 acres, the Dallas Zoo proves yet again that everything is indeed bigger in the Lone Star State. This Texas-size zoological park offers a wildly impressive variety of exhibits and activities. Dollars to donuts (or, in this case, wild dogs), you can’t beat the unforgettable experience of a 90-minute backstage safari guided by a zoologist who will give you a behind-the-scenes look at how to care for animals. Did we mention that 100 percent of proceeds go towards the zoo’s conservation efforts?

15. Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo And Aquarium (omaha, Nebraska)

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium promises to delight kids, adults and everyone in between. More than just a place to gawk at tigers, red pandas, Indian rhinos, porpoises and more, this world-class sanctuary is dedicated to conservation, research and education. So you can feel good that your fun-filled outing helped fund such worthwhile causes as the advancement of animal reproductive sciences and medicine.

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Freelance PureWow Editor

Lindsay Cohn is a travel writer and serial trip planner who has visited 46 countries across six continents (and counting). When not globetrotting, she’s most likely either doing...