The 15 Best Aquariums in the U.S.
Vacationing with kids can be stressful, but the right family-friendly attractions can make all the difference between the trip you talk about for years afterward and the one that brings you to your “never again!” breaking point. (Let’s be honest, with little ones or even teens, a museum visit often ends in snooze-fest or temper tantrum territory.) A trip to the aquarium, like a day at one of these awesome zoos, is a guaranteed win. Interesting underwater creatures, helpful guides and interactive exhibits mean that everyone will learn something—and have a blast, too. Ready to dive in? Swim, err scroll, on for the best aquariums in the U.S. that kids of all ages will love.
1. GEORGIA AQUARIUM (ATLANTA, GEORGIA)
The largest aquarium in the world, the Georgia Aquarium invites visitors to come face-to-face with sharks, rays, dolphins, penguins, sea lions, seals and beluga whales! This iconic Atlanta institution also promises a special treat for toddlers—the chance to wade in a pool with slippery sea creatures, enjoy story time, do crafts and hang with costumed characters.
2. NATIONAL AQUARIUM (BALTIMORE, MARYLAND)
With nearly 20,000 critters, the National Aquarium has plenty to enthrall animal lovers young and old. There's an Indo-Pacific reef habitat filled with blacktip reef sharks and colorful fish. While the ring-shaped, 225-gallon Shark Alley exhibit lets visitors get up close and personal with toothy predators. (Just maybe don’t watch Jaws before you go.)
3. MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM (MONTEREY BAY, CALIFORNIA)
Located on historic Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is an education and conservation superstar that’s home to more than 500 different species of marine life. At the highly interactive Splash Zone, kids can play on a waterbed, discover an enchanted kelp forest and watch penguins being fed. (Parents will most certainly have a blast, too.)
4. NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM (BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS)
Planning a family trip to Beantown? Beeline it to the New England Aquarium. This giant marine center on Boston Harbor offers interactive exhibits (the shark and ray touch tank is a must-see), a giant IMAX 3D theater and whale-watching excursions through a partnership with Boston Harbor City Cruises that depart from Central Wharf.
5. OREGON COAST AQUARIUM (NEWPORT, OREGON)
What’s there to do at the Oregon Coast Aquarium? Well, that depends on how many hours you have free. Step back to prehistoric times in Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline, watch sea lions and harbor seals twirl through water, try to spot the elusive giant Pacific octopus and learn about the annual migrations of coho salmon.
6. SHEDD AQUARIUM (CHICAGO, ILLINOIS)
The highlight of the Shedd Aquarium is hands-down the vast Great Lakes exhibit, which showcases some of the region's most notorious native species. It also gives visitors the opportunity to touch sturgeon—scale-free fish that date back to the days of the dinosaurs—and see toothy sea lamprey (Google it if you dare) up close.
7. SEATTLE AQUARIUM (SEATTLE, WASHINGTON)
With an ever-important emphasis on conservation and mission to improve the health of Puget Sound, the Seattle Aquarium is a family outing you can feel good about. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s brimming with local marine creatures, from tidal pool inhabitants such as hermit crabs and deep-dwelling splitnose rockfish to birds that nest on the rocky shores of the Pacific Northwest.
8. AUDUBON AQUARIUM OF THE AMERICAS (NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA)
The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, which sits just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans, shows off its Southern roots with fascinating marine life exhibits from the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. There’s even a Geaux fish display that highlights Louisiana’s fishing industry. This Big Easy favorite also protects endangered species such as African penguins and rare white alligators.
9. MYSTIC AQUARIUM (MYSTIC, CONNECTICUT)
Mystic Aquarium boasts the largest outdoor beluga habitat in the United States. How cool does BeluYOGA at the Arctic Coast underwater viewing area sound? If stretching beside beautiful whales isn’t enough of a selling point, why not dive deeper into the world of northern fur seals and Steller sea lions or let kids safely interact with non-threatening sharks at the touch habitat?
10. COLUMBUS ZOO AND AQUARIUM (POWELL, OHIO)
One of the best zoos in the United States, the sprawling Columbus Zoo and Aquarium doesn’t just have lots of cute land critters. The various bodies of water at the Shores & Aquarium houses an amazing assortment of sea life. Meet friendly manatees, take the kiddos to touch sea urchins and peep torpedo-shaped zebra sharks.
11. THE FLORIDA AQUARIUM (TAMPA, FLORIDA)
The Florida Aquarium is the perfect place for under-the-sea exploration. It’s jam-packed with aquatic animals from marine ecosystems around the Sunshine State and beyond. Conservation initiatives focus on local sea turtles, coral populations and sharks. Want to see majestic aquatic mammals in the wild? Hop aboard the Bay Spirit II for a 75-minute dolphin cruise led by naturalist guides.
12. NEW YORK AQUARIUM (BROOKLYN, NEW YORK)
Hopefully, your Big Apple itinerary has room for one more attraction, because the New York Aquarium is not to be missed. Expect exciting shows at the Aquatheater, rides, sea otter feedings, wild encounters and the fan-favorite Spineless exhibit, which spotlights beautifully bizarre invertebrates such as moon jellies, zombie worms and the highly intelligent Pacific octopus.
13. TENNESSEE AQUARIUM (CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE)
Did you know that North American river otters use special flaps to stay submerged underwater for up to eight minutes in a single breath? How about the unique way sand tiger sharks reproduce (hint: it involves intrauterine cannibalism)? These are the sort of deeply fascinating facts you’ll learn on a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga.
14. MAUI OCEAN CENTER (WAILUKU, HAWAII)
There are so many great things to do in Hawaii. If you dig the mysteries of the deep and marine conservation, the Maui Ocean Center deserves a spot on that list. It’s a fantastic place to glimpse endemic Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles. The Ocean Aloha program teaches parents and kids the importance of caring for the ecosystem below the tides.
15. RIPLEY’S AQUARIUM OF THE SMOKIES (GATLINBURG, TENNESSEE)
You might not anticipate the charming Tennessee town of Gatlinburg would have a truly sea-tacular aquatic center, but surprise...it does! Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies gives guests a front-row seat to the underwater world with glass-bottomed boat adventures, plus numerous fish-filled galleries. Youngsters will go especially wild for the cleverly named Touch a Ray Bay and the penguin painting experience.