The United States of America is home to some fantastic zoos and wildlife parks that never fail to amaze visitors. These zoos have assembled incredible collections of animals from all over the globe to help celebrate and conserve the world’s wildlife.
While answering the common question of “what is the best zoo in the U.S.?” is tricky, it’s not hard to show you a shortlist of the best. A list of just the top 10 zoos in the United States wouldn’t quite do justice to the many amazing contenders, so we’ve chosen the 25 best zoos in the U.S. instead.
Philadelphia Zoo – Pennsylvania
Philadelphia Zoo is a much-loved institution and easily one of the top zoos in the U.S. That honor is partly due to it being one of the oldest zoos in the U.S. It opened in 1859 and was officially chartered in 1874 after being delayed by the Civil War, earning it the title of “the nation’s first zoo.”
The history isn’t the only interesting element of this zoo, which counts many endangered species among its nearly 1,300 animals. Within its 42 acres, you’ll find beautiful creatures such as black-and-white ruffed lemurs, Amur tigers, and giant otters.
Recommendation: Gain free admission to 30 attractions and tours in Philadelphia, including the zoo, with the Go Philadelphia All-Inclusive Pass.
Bronx Zoo – New York
While the state has quite a few impressive zoos, Bronx Zoo is definitely among the best zoos in NY. The zoo covers 265 acres within Bronx Park, which makes it one of the largest metropolitan zoos in the country.
Bronx Zoo opened in 1899, but it began its legacy of promoting animal welfare and conservation when it created the first modern hospital for zoo animals in 1916. Its exhibits now house over 6,000 animals from 700 species, including typical favorites like tigers, lions, and gorillas, as well as smaller creatures like lemurs and reptiles.
Oakland Zoo – California
To see all manner of animals native to California at one of the best zoos in America, head to Oakland Zoo. Its California Trail exhibit focuses on indigenous species such as grizzly bears, gray wolves, and bison. Of course, there are other exhibits and facilities across Oakland Zoo’s 100 acres too, including a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital and a large butterfly garden.
The zoo originally opened in 1922 in downtown Oakland. It’s now located in Oakland Hills’ Knowland Park and home to over 700 native and exotic animals, such as sun bears, reticulated giraffes, and hamadryas baboons.
Zoo Miami – Florida
Of the countless zoos across the country, Zoo Miami is the only subtropical one in the continental U.S. It also happens to be the largest and best zoo in Florida. Officially known as the Miami-Dade Zoological Park and Gardens, the zoo opened in 1948 and was relocated to its current site in 1980.
Miami’s subtropical climate is important here, as it provides a naturally warm and humid environment for the zoo’s animals, which originate from Asia, Australia, and Africa. These animals include exotic species such as Malayan tapirs, Komodo dragons, and Matschie’s tree-kangaroos, as well as old favorites like gorillas and lions.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium – Nebraska
If you take its combination of land area and number of species into consideration, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo claims the title of the biggest zoo in the USA. Since starting out in 1894 as Riverview Park Zoo, this beloved zoo has made a name for itself as a leader in wildlife conservation and research.
Henry Doorly Zoo holds well over 900 species on its 130 acres. You’ll have the chance to see rhinos, tigers, lions, and elephants here, while the on-site aquarium lets you get up close to sharks and sea turtles.
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium – Ohio
Whether or not it’s the best zoo in Ohio, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is certainly one of the largest zoos in the United States, thanks to its 580 acres of land. Found in Liberty Township north of Columbus, this nonprofit zoo opened in 1927, and it has expanded over the years to include its own 18-hole golf course.
The zoo’s sprawling grounds are divided into eight groups of exhibits, each reflecting a different geographical region. Leopards, bobcats, penguins, and kangaroos are among its 7,000-plus animalsfrom over 800 species.
San Diego Zoo and Safari Park – California
Easily the best zoo in California – and one of the best in the world – is the famous San Diego Zoo. Founded in 1916 as part of Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo has become a headline attraction for the city and the most visited zoo in the U.S.
One reason this zoo is so popular is its wonderfully diverse wildlife, with 650 species totaling over 3,500 animals. To showcase this diversity, the zoo is separated into eight exhibits, each for a different habitat or geographical region. One of its most popular exhibits is the Australian Outback, which includes koalas and Tasmanian devils.
Denver Zoo – Colorado
What started as a gift of an American black bear to the mayor of Denver in 1896 has grown into Denver Zoo, a groundbreaking Colorado institution. This zoo was the first of its kind in the U.S. to introduce naturalistic habitats for the welfare of its animals. Since then, the zoo has worked hard to extend its conservation efforts beyond its own animal population, running global conservation programs on four continents.
With a visit to Denver Zoo, you’ll support these conservation efforts and get to see more than 3,500 animals from 400-plus species. The zoo is still known for its bear population, as well as its Amur tigers, Asian elephants, and special Stingray Cove exhibit.
Fort Worth Zoo – Texas
You can find quite a few great zoos in Texas, but the Fort Worth Zoo is the state’s contribution to the best zoos in the United States. While it had a very modest number of animals when it opened in 1909, the zoo has grown considerably, now featuring 7,000 animals from over 540 species. Two of its most popular exhibits are the 2.5-acre World of Primates, where you can see all four species of great apes, and the Museum of Living Art, which is home to many endangered reptiles and amphibians.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo – Colorado
Sitting 6,800 feet above sea level in Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo holds the title of the highest zoo in the U.S. Founded by philanthropist Spencer Penrose in 1926 as a place for his personal collection of exotic animals, the zoo has grown to hold 800 animals from more than 200 species. Over 30 of those are endangered species, including black rhinos and lar gibbons. You can even view animals from an aerial perspective by taking the Mountaineer Sky Ride, a ski lift that runs over the grizzly bear and Amur tiger enclosures.
Brevard Zoo – Florida
For one of the best East Coast zoos, check out Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida. Over 900 animals from more than 195 species live on this 75-acre property full of classic Florida landscapes. These creatures come from all over the world, but there are also species native to the state, such as the Florida black bear and the American alligator.
Taking a novel approach, Brevard Zoo emphasizes interaction with the animal residents. You can hand-feed giraffes and walk with kangaroos here – and even enjoy adventurous activities such as kayak tours and zip-lining.
Saint Louis Zoo – Missouri
Given its free admission, it’s hard to imagine not wanting to visit Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri. Part of Forest Park in the city’s western area, Saint Louis Zoo (formally known as Saint Louis Zoological Park) is certainly one of the top zoos in the country.
Thanks to public subsidies, Saint Louis Zoo is free to enter, allowing everyone to see its 13,000 animals from 555 species. The exhibits include red pandas, polar bears, two-toed sloths, puffins, and all kinds of reptiles and amphibians.
Audubon Zoo – Louisiana
New Orleans has no end of things to do, but Audubon Zoo is one of its most adored and enduring attractions. Although the zoo itself didn’t open until 1914, the site has hosted interesting animals since the 1884 World Cotton Centennial.
The zoo grounds cover 58 acres, including the only genuine swamp you’ll find in Uptown New Orleans. Its most popular attraction is the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit, which showcases rare white alligators and Louisiana black bears, but also highlights the interplay between the Cajun and Native American cultures and the local wildlife.
Woodland Park Zoo – Washington
You can find another great American zoo in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood of Seattle. Dating back to 1899, Woodland Park Zoo has a long history of wildlife conservation.
The exhibits are broken up into different bioclimatic zones, totaling over 900 animals from around 250 species across the zoo’s 92 acres. You’ll need to explore various zones to see the zoo’s most incredible creatures, such as the snow leopard, flying fox, and hippo.
In true Seattle style, Woodland Park Zoo also hosts Brew at the Zoo, an annual event where you can taste craft beers from local breweries. This is usually in October, making a good case for visiting Seattle in the fall!
Recommendation: Get free admission to Woodland Park Zoo and four other major attractions in Seattle with the Seattle CityPASS, which is perfect for a couple days of sightseeing.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens – California
Covering a massive 1,800 acres, Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is the largest zoo in the U.S. Located near Palm Springs in California, the zoo has been showcasing desert flora and fauna since 1970.
Much of the zoo’s grounds have been left in their natural state, providing an ideal habitat for over 450 animals from desert environments all over the world. These include wallabies from Australia, Mexican wolves from North America, and cheetahs from Africa and Iran. Besides visiting the animal exhibits, you can experience animal encounters, such as giraffe feedings, or take to the nature and hiking trails.
Alaska Zoo – Alaska
Since Alaska is so famous for its nature and wildlife, it makes sense that it has an excellent institution to showcase its native animals. The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage has been the state’s only zoo since it opened in 1969, starting with a baby elephant that a local grocer won in a contest.
Naturally, the zoo’s 100-plus animals include many species native to Alaska, such as Canadian lynxes and polar bears. You can see plenty of non-native creatures too, of course, including snow leopards and Tibetan yaks.
Bear Country USA – South Dakota
Located in Rapid City, South Dakota, Bear Country USA offers a completely different experience from your typical zoo. This attraction – a common stop on the way to Mount Rushmore – is actually a drive-through wildlife park where you’ll have the chance to see bears, wolves, and other North American animals up close from the comfort of your car. You’ll drive through 200 acres of forest and meadow, following a 3-mile route that moves through different enclosures, which allows some up-close experiences with the park’s residents.
Brookfield Zoo – Illinois
If you visit Chicago, keep Brookfield Zoo in mind when planning your time in the city. Officially called the Chicago Zoological Park, this zoo covers 216 acres in the western suburb of Brookfield but is easy to reach from downtown.
Brookfield Zoo is managed by the Chicago Zoological Society, a nonprofit dedicated to animal welfare and care. In fact, when it opened in 1934, the zoo introduced the idea of using moats and ditches for enclosures rather than cages.
You can see all sorts of creatures here, including orangutans, pangolins, and pygmy hippos. With the zoo’s Animal Ambassadors Program, you can even have up-close and personal experiences with certain animals.
Recommendation: The Chicago Explorer Pass includes free admission to Brookfield Zoo and up to four other major attractions in Chicago, depending on the option you book.
Indianapolis Zoo – Indiana
The American Midwest is spoiled with incredible zoos like this one. Sitting just across the White River from the downtown area, the Indianapolis Zoo is one of the city’s most cherished attractions.
Since opening in 1964, the zoo has continually expanded, moving to its current 64 acres in White River State Park in 1988. It’s now home to more than 1,200 animals across 230 species, plus roughly 47,000 plant specimens in its outstanding botanical garden. You can admire creatures such as macaws, black mamba snakes, and orangutans – and even touch smooth dogfish sharks in the aquarium.
Lion Country Safari – Florida
Florida’s Lion Country Safari is another one of the country’s relatively few drive-through wildlife parks. Located inland of West Palm Beach, this safari park covers almost 600 acres with natural habitats for its wildlife. You’ll experience the park from the safety of your car on a 4-mile drive through seven sections that represent specific bioclimatic regions, spotting animals like giraffes, African lions, and kudu.
The park also offers a walk-through safari experience full of birds, reptiles, and smaller mammals. It even has an amusement park that includes a petting zoo and a water park, complete with slides and other family-friendly activities.
Memphis Zoo – Tennessee
Having been around for well over 100 years, the Memphis Zoo is a proud Tennessee landmark. The zoo has been part of Overton Park in Midtown Memphis since it opened in 1906.
Covering around 76 acres, the zoo has three zones with a total of 19 exhibits, which require a walk of roughly 2 miles to complete. It hosts around 3,500 animals belonging to over 500 species from all over the world. While the giant panda exhibit is one of the most popular, don’t miss the hippos and Nile crocodiles in the Zambezi River Hippo Camp or the jaguars and capybaras in Cat Country.
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden – Ohio
One of the oldest and finest zoos in the country, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is not to be missed. The zoo officially opened in 1875 with just a handful of animals, but it’s grown a lot throughout its distinguished history. Found to the north of the city, the Cincinnati Zoo now occupies 75 acres and supports more than 500 animal and 3,000 plant species.
You’ll have the chance to see exotic animals such as Komodo dragons, bonobo chimps, and polar bears here. A comfortable way to explore the zoo is to take a ride on the popular Safari Train, which rolls past multiple habitats.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo – Ohio
Yet another Ohio zoo on our list – and another one of the country’s oldest – is the historic Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Since opening in 1882, the zoo has moved and grown to occupy 183 acres in the neighborhood of Old Brooklyn.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo features various exhibits showcasing different habitats and geographic regions, totaling more than 3,000 animals among 600 species. These exhibits include The RainForest, with its Bornean orangutans and two-toed sloths, and Wilderness Trek, which is home to Amur tigers, grizzly bears, and wolves.
Houston Zoo – Texas
It’s no surprise that a major city like Houston has a zoo worthy of mention here. The Houston Zoo occupies 55 acres of Hermann Park, right in the heart of this Texas city.
The zoo is home to more than 6,000 animals from 900 species that come from all over the globe. Whether you want to see gorillas and zebras from Africa, anteaters from South America, or wildlife native to Texas, the Houston Zoo has you covered. It also offers a nice selection of animal encounters, letting you get up close to elephants, okapi, or Galápagos tortoises.
Recommendation: If you’re visiting Houston as a tourist, consider purchasing the Houston CityPASS. You’ll get to visit five major attractions, including the zoo, at a significant discount with this pass.
Smithsonian’s National Zoo – Washington D.C.
Last but certainly not least is the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington D.C., often just referred to as the National Zoo. As part of the Smithsonian Institution, the zoo offers free entry to the public. Founded in 1889, it’s also one of the oldest zoos in the U.S.
Throughout the zoo’s exhibits, which span 163 acres, there are around 2,700 animals across more than 390 species. You’ll have no trouble finding beloved animals such as giant pandas, lions, and tigers here. There are also some incredibly rare creatures, including the critically endangered black-and-white ruffed lemurs and the scimitar-horned oryx, which is now extinct in the wild.
That just about sums up the best zoos the U.S. has to offer. Clearly, you have plenty of choices and will never be too far from one, so keep them in mind on your next vacation!