A trip to the zoo or aquarium is truly a “wild” way to spend family time. Where else can you get nose-to-nose with a polar bear, eye-to-eye with a jaguar or watch a family of great apes at play?
Zoos and aquariums have evolved since the days of metal cages and undersized fish tanks. Animal attractions today are fun and educational, replicating natural habitats and offering hands-on creature encounters.
America is home to some of the world’s best animal attractions, including these nine standouts.
America’s first zoo was chartered in 1859 in Philadelphia, though the Civil War delayed its opening until 1874.
Today, the 42-acre zoo is home to more than 1,300 animals. Among its animal habitats is the popular Big Cat Falls, named for the waterfall at the exhibit’s heart. Here, visitors get up-close views of endangered felines from around the world, including Amur tigers and a rare black jaguar.
A star exhibit is the McNeil Avian Center, located in the circa-1916 Bird House, where visitors walk among free-flying rare and exotic birds, such as an ivory-billed aracari, native to South America.
The zoo’s historic landmarks include The Solitude, the 1784 country estate of John Penn, grandson of Pennsylvania founder William Penn. The neoclassical-style home is open for tours.
Visit philadelphiazoo.org or call (215) 243-1100.
New York City
Opened in 1899, the nation’s largest metropolitan zoo—and one of its oldest—is the 265-acre Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo, a natural oasis in New York’s urban jungle.
The zoo’s founders were conservation pioneers, a mission reflected today in exhibits of rarities such as snow leopards and the Kihansi spray toad, now officially extinct in its native Tanzania. Not to be missed is the 6.5-acre Congo Gorilla Forest, where you can get face-to-face with more than 20 western lowland gorillas, which are native to African rainforests.
Many buildings are historic landmarks, including the circa-1903 Lion House, which now exhibits flora and fauna from Madagascar.
Visit bronxzoo.org or call (718) 220-5100.
John G. Shedd Aquarium
The nation’s second-most attended aquarium, with 2 million visitors a year, Shedd Aquarium also is among the world’s largest and houses 32,500 animals. Located more than 1,000 miles from the nearest seacoast, the attraction opened in 1930 as the first inland aquarium in the United States.
The Shedd’s Beaux Arts-style main building is a Chicago landmark. Standout exhibits include the newly renovated Oceanarium, where you’ll see beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea otters and penguins.
At Waters of the World, visit Granddad, an Australian lungfish that is the world’s oldest living aquarium fish. The creature has called the Shedd home since 1933. Hourly “animal encounter” programs and the 4-D theater are a hit with kids.
Visit sheddaquarium.org or call(312) 939-2438.
Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens
Jacksonville’s “walking safari” is unique because its botanical gardens are integrated into the zoo, allowing visitors to feel truly immersed in the habitats of animals.
Founded in 1914 and redeveloped in 1992, this zoo is known for its award-winning Range of the Jaguar exhibit, the nation’s largest collection of jaguars. At the Palm Plaza Café, diners can have lunch alongside the big wildcats, separated only by floor-to-ceiling glass.
Kids will love unique hands-on experiences such as giraffe feeding and stingray petting. Another must-see is the endangered bonobos, considered the most human-like of the great apes.
Visit jacksonvillezoo.org or call (904) 757-4463.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo
The Omaha Zoo’s famous Desert Dome is the world’s largest glazed geodesic dome. It contains the world’s largest indoor desert and Kingdoms of the Night, the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit, home to cave-dwelling animals and nocturnal creatures. The dome also contains the world’s largest indoor swamp, which you can tour on a floating boardwalk.
Don’t miss the 1.5-acre Lied Jungle and the Cat Complex, one of North America’s largest big cat exhibits.
Visit omahazoo.com or call (402) 733-8400.
Audubon Nature Institute
For New Orleans’ real “wild” side, visit the Audubon Nature Institute’s attractions: the Audubon Zoo, Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Insectarium, which opened in 2008.
If your kids love bugs, then the Insectarium is a must-see. Located in the historic U.S. Custom House, it is North America’s largest freestanding museum devoted to insects.
See exotic bugs from around the world, as well as critters found in your own backyard; get hands-on with live insects; and stroll among hundreds of free-flying butterflies. Kids can even taste a cookie sprinkled with chocolate-covered grasshoppers.
Visit auduboninstitute.org or call (800) 774-7394.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Located on central California’s scenic coast, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been a trendsetter for naturalistic aquarium exhibits since opening in 1984.
Its three-story kelp forest is the first and largest living kelp forest in any aquarium in the world. Another stunning exhibit is its display of delicate jellyfish.
The Splash Zone is an aquarium gallery designed for families, filled with interactive, hands-on exhibits.
Visit montereybayaquarium.org or call (831) 648-4888.
San Diego Zoo
World famous for its variety of wildlife, the 100-acre San Diego Zoo features more than 4,000 animals. Star exhibits include the Elephant Odyssey, which combines museum and zoo experiences, and Polar Bear Plunge, which allows visitors to get within feet of the Arctic giants, separated by a mesh barrier, a first for a North American zoo.
Another must-see is the Giant Panda Research Station, home to three of the endangered bears native to China. Beginning this summer, visitors can trek through bamboo forests marked by traditional Chinese landscapes to learn about animals that share habitat with the giant panda, including takins, red pandas and the Mangshan pitviper.
Visit sandiegozoo.org or call (619) 231-1515.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Baltimore’s aquarium received its “national” designation when opening in 1981. In 2003, the nonprofit organization took over operation of the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., the nation’s first public aquarium.
Despite its moniker, National Aquarium features animals from around the world. More than 660 species of amphibians, birds, fish, reptiles and marine mammals—some 16,500 animals in all—call the aquarium home.
The aquarium is best known for its award-winning Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit, which represents an Australian freshwater river gorge, where visitors encounter Down Under aquatic and terrestrial life, and come away with a better understanding of water’s importance to an ecosystem.
Other popular exhibits include stingrays—the aquarium has one of the nation’s largest collections—and dolphin shows.
Exhibits are toured via moving walkways and escalators, so strollers are not allowed. Backpack child carriers are available on-site.
Visit aqua.org or call (410) 576-3800.