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Two familes, seen from the back, look up at a metal chute walkway in which a big cat looks down at them.
Photograph: Jay Fusco for VISIT PHILLY

The best zoos in the U.S. for all kinds of sightings

Get up close and personal with the beautiful beasts of the world when visiting the best zoos in the U.S.

Written by
Lauren Rothman
Jen Woo
Erika Mailman

Zoos have had a checkered history, but when they are done right, they provide an excellent opportunity for visitors to connect with animals and build empathy for them. And a key shift in thinking about their mission is that they provide space for endangered species to be protected and to hopefully thrive and reproduce. Where habitats once were brutally small, exposed to the elements, their inhabitants are treated more as museum displays than living creatures, today more care is taken to build habitats that provide comfort and space to move, with areas where animals can hide if they are uninterested in being stared at. We all want to feel wonder at the beautiful diversity of the animal world, and zoos can deliver on that emotion. Just watch young lemurs play with each other, and you’ll be hooked. Here is our list of the top zoos in the U.S.

Top zoos in the U.S.

Renowned across the country, San Diego’s zoo, founded in 1916, is home to over 12,000 animals of more than 650 species and subspecies. Among them are red pandas; African elephants; and bonobo apes. Check out immersive experiences such as a behind-the-scenes peek at zoo life with the 'Inside Look' program, and hop on the Skyfari aerial tram to get a birds-eye view of all the zoo’s habitats. The zoo is recognized by the American Alliance of Museums for its work with its wildlife alliance arm, making strides in population sustainability, genetic diversity, disease, and reproductive sciences.

The highlight of this western gem is its glazed geodesic dome, the largest in the world. Inside, find meticulous recreations of the southwest US Sonoran Desert, southern Africa’s Namib Desert, and Australia’s Red Center Desert. The dome’s 84,000 square feet boast desert plants, sand dunes, reptile species, bobcats and rattlesnakes. 'Kingdoms of the Night' makes up the lower level as the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit. Centered around conservation, the zoo also explores molecular genetics, conservation medicine, and reproductive physiology.


The Mile High City’s zoo stands out among Denver’s attractions, offering a jam-packed daily schedule of fun, interactive events like encounters with the zoo’s llamas Jorge and Fernando, and diverse cultural performances. Kids will clamor for the chance to participate in the zoo’s 'Bunk with the Beasts' overnight stay, which includes up-close-and-personal visits with the animals as well as a pizza dinner, snack, and breakfast. Behind the scenes, its Field Conservation and Emergency Wildlife Response teams work to protect species from habitat loss, human encroachment, and more. New at the zoo: a sloth pup, white gators, and a new giraffe!

Pittsburgh Zoo is a 77-acre zoo and aquarium and home to over 4,000 animals from 475 species, 20 of which are listed as endangered. The Kid's Kingdom contains interactive exhibits, while the Asian Forest contains species from Eastern and Southeast Asia (come to coo over the two new Amur leopard cubs!). The Aquarium is a two-floor, 45,000-square-foot tank, and the Tropical Forest is an indoor rainforest mostly hosting primates. Check out the 21+ Summer Safari Event with food, live music and cocktails.


Dallas Zoo is a 106-acre site that was first established in 1888. From humble beginnings and just two deer and two mountain lions, it is now the largest and oldest zoo in Texas, providing sanctuary to more than 2,000 animals from 406 species. Major exhibits include the Chimpanzee Forest, Gorilla Research Center, Koala Walkabout, Giants of the Savanna and the Penguin Cove. Plus there's the Endangered Tiger Habitat, a two-acre area that has been designed to look like a re-growing logged forest, where visitors can observe Sumatran tigers and Malayan tigers.

Sprawled over 265 acres, New York’s beloved Bronx Zoo is one of the largest metropolitan zoos in the world. It’s renowned for its painstakingly reproduced habitats with more than 6,000 animals, of which the Congo Gorilla Forest—populated with western lowland gorillas, mandrills, and okapis—is among its most visited. A variety of unique experiences keep it interesting including Treetop Adventure, where guests can zipline through the trees. For a low-key experience, visit the zoo’s Butterfly Garden, where over a dozen types of gorgeously painted insects flit among meadow flowers and nectar trays. 


The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden started with just under 66 acres in the heart of the city and has since been extended to over 75. It's one of the oldest zoos in the country and offers a home to 1,896 animals from 500 species. It has a successful breeding program and was the first to breed California sea lions. It also breeds a number of other endangered animals such as Masai giraffes, Malayan tigers, western lowland gorillas, Sumatran rhinoceros and South African cheetahs.

Brookfield Zoo boasts the country’s most diverse collection of tropical wildlife. The zoo’s insulated, all-weather Tropical World exhibit is a wonder, teeming with fascinating species of whom its primates are the stars. Hailing from three continents, the group includes spider monkeys and tamarins from South America; gibbons and orangutans from Asia; and colobus monkeys and lowland gorillas from Africa. Don’t leave the zoo without visiting the Penguin Encounter room, where you can mingle with adorable Humboldt penguins. Conservation efforts include educational programs as well as dedicated initiatives and partnerships to support conservation research and programs around the world.


Established in June 1922, Oakland Zoo is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of wildlife both locally and globally. It's home to more than 850 native and exotic animals and is recognized in particular for its leadership in animal welfare and for its 17,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art veterinary hospital—the largest wild animal veterinary facility in northern California. In addition to state-of-the-art enclosures, the zoo also provides interactive exhibits and play areas for children where they can learn about ring-tailed lemurs, pot-bellied pigs and lots and lots of bugs in the Bug Room.

We might not have much time left to view Arctic animals in their natural climate, which makes this small Anchorage zoo a standout among the country’s parks. Populated by animals who have evolved to thrive in frigid conditions—think snow leopards, Canadian lynx, reindeer, and muskoxen—the zoo is a snowy wonderland that also serves as a rescue facility for injured, abandoned, or orphaned animals including moose calves and black bear cubs. A number of unique, hands-on visitor experiences include encounters with the park’s wolves or big cats, where you can participate in cleaning and training alongside the zookeeper.


This 55-acre park is home to more than 6,000 animals, belonging to about 900 different species, roaming a variety of habitats. Aspiring ornithologists take note: the zoo boasts one of the country’s largest collections of birds, more than 200 species divided between three exhibits. True animal lovers can even have a sleepover at the zoo, and every ticket sold helps support over 40 wildlife conservation projects across the globe. Check out the brand new Galápagos Islands habitat, rolled out for $70 million and differentiating the Houston Zoo from any other zoo in the world. The exhibit’s 2.5 acres house a penguin habitat, a sea cave, a 40-foot acrylic underwater tunnel, and a 19,000-gallon aquarium, all geared to reveal the extraordinary wildlife, unique landscapes and oceanic environment of the islands.

San Francisco Zoo is a public institution established in 1929 and managed by the non-profit San Francisco Zoological Society. Today, the 100-acre site provides a home to over 1,000 wild animals from over 250 species. It is noted as the birthplace of Koko the gorilla. Major exhibits include the African Savannah with reticulated giraffes, the Primate Discovery Center with black howler monkeys, chimpanzees, macaques, mandrills and more, plus the Cat Kingdom with Indian rhinoceros, hippopotamus, African lions, snow leopards, Sumatran tigers...and anacondas.


The recipient of 65 awards, Seattle’s Woodland Park is a wildlife conservation organization and zoological garden that strenuously recreates its animals’ natural habitats. Check out African lions, giraffes, and zebras roaming the 'African savannah,' brown bears, gray wolves, and snowy owls populating the 'Northwest Trail' and red pandas and Kunekune pigs in the 'Temperate Forest.' Unique experiences offered by the zoo include Brew at the Zoo craft beer and cider tastings and behind-the-scenes tours with proceeds benefiting the zoo’s conservation efforts.

Founded in 1868, this is one of the oldest zoos in North America—the fourth to be exact. Spanning 35 acres, there’s an abundance of critters to visit and free admission. The zoo is also an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and boasts one of the largest zoo-based conservation and science programs in the United States with constant behavioral monitoring, as well as initiatives set up around the world. Come see three new lion cubs, all male, born in January.


Memphis Zoo provides a home to more than 3,500 animals representing over 500 different species. Located in Overton Park, the zoo was originally established in April 1906 on 76 acres, but now it's divided into three zones and has 19 major exhibits, including Once Upon A Farm, Primate Canyon, Cat Country, Dragon's Lair, Tropical Bird House, Animals of the Night, Herpetarium, African Veldt, the Zambezi River Hippo Camp. It's a lot to take in on foot, but there is a tram that provides guided tours and you can hop on and off at your leisure. This June, check out the Cocktails and Conservation event for the 21+ crowd.

It only makes sense that the largest theme park in the world has an accompanying wonderland spanning 580 acres, filled with animals. Described as a zoological theme park, you can certainly see exotic creatures like Asian tigers, African lions, and western lowland gorillas, but there’s also a barrage of other experiences like a guided tour of an African savannah, a tropical jungle trek, and rides and restaurants. Best of all, the park has helped grow its giraffe and elephant herds and transferred a white rhinoceros born there to reintroduce it to Uganda at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.


Spanning 90 acres within The Gateway City’s massive Forest Park, St. Louis is home to 12,000 animals, representing 500 species. Newest to the park’s naturalistic exhibits is the primate canopy trails, a $13 million 35,000-square-foot outdoor expansion with eight outdoor homes for primates. Recognized internationally for its wildlife conservation, the zoo has two organizations: the WildCare Institute which protects animals from disease, poaching, and shrinking habitats; and the Institute for Conservation Medicine, studying infectious diseases on animals, humans, and ecosystems.

In the '80s and '90s, frequent late-night television guest Jack Hanna drew attention to this zoo, of which he was the director. The park hosts a world-renowned 100,000-gallon coral reef aquarium teeming with tropical fish and a Congo habitat. Kids will love the experiences including visiting reindeer and giving an elephant a bath. They also fund projects for animals (land and sea) across the world, including medical help for gorillas in Africa, coral conservation in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, and prairie habitat creation in North America.


Founded in 1962, Phoenix Zoo is the biggest non-profit privately owned zoo in the USA. The zoo has more than 1,400 animals and contains 2.5 miles of walking trails that stretch between four themed areas: the Africa Trail, the Arizona Trail, the Tropics Trail and the Children's Trail, which includes a petting zoo. The zoo has been conservation-minded from the very beginning and of its most successful conservation projects was Operation Oryx, which initiated the reintroduction of the Arabian oryx back into the wild after they had been on the verge of extinction.

This 750-acre zoo with more than 100 exhibits has 3,000 animals on site, many of them tropical species well-suited to Florida’s balmy climate. Observe creatures such as Malayan sun bears, Asian elephants, clouded leopards, komodo dragons, and more. The zoo’s air-conditioned monorail is a great way to cover distance at the park, making four stops at the different habitats. For a truly unforgettable experience, visitors can feed the zoo’s enormous Indian rhino, or other animals like giraffes, camels, and parrots. The zoo also maintains a range of flagship programs, grants, and scholarships, and awards specifically for conservation.


Check out more than 1,400 specialized species at this desert-themed zoo, where giraffes, gazelles, cheetahs, and camels roam the sands. Plant lovers will appreciate the premise’s incredible variety of flora, spanning from native Coachella Valley species such as creosote, desert lavender, and white sage to the Madagascar Garden’s baobabs, triangle palms, and elephant trees. The nonprofit also collaborates with conservation organizations across the globe in initiatives like preserving and restoring a section of the Colorado Desert and building insurance populations of endangered desert animals and plants.

Most beloved at the Smithsonian is their family of giant pandas: Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji, though the 163 acres of DC’s Rock Creek Park is home to 2,700 animals, representing more than 390 species. Behind the fuzzy faces, there’s plenty of conservation work happening, extending to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, in Front Royal, Virginia where researchers seek ways to save endangered animals from extinction.


Located in Swope Park in Kansas City, Missouri, Kansas City Zoo provides a home to over 1,300 animals. Founded in 1909 and covering a 202-acre site, the zoo is divided into five zones: Australia, Africa, Tiger Trail, The Valley, and the KidZone. The realistic Orangutan Canopy is particularly popular and the Helzberg Penguin enclosure is a must-see.

This Midwest zoo has one particularly special experience: the opportunity to wade in the water to engage with dolphins. Additionally, observe about 3,800 animals of more than 320 species. The zoo’s 'Animal Art Adventures' allows visitors to create paintings with animal artists; dolphins, elephants, penguins, seals, and rhinos are among the park’s artists. They also offer monetary support via the Indianapolis Prize, as well as direct aid to animals like the endangered ring-tailed lemur and African elephant.


Here at this small zoo, visitors can view more than 200 animals from around the world. From the height of a feeding tower, you can feed giraffes, while there’s also a petting zoo, reptile house and train. An American red wolf born and raised at the zoo, Waya, sired the first pups of this endangered species—on the brink of extinction—to be reintroduced to their native wild habitat since 2014. Interested in butterfly migration? The zoo is a certified monarch waystation to help support the butterflies on their journey back and forth to Mexico. The zoo’s name is interesting: it was actually established in 1952, but when the county stopped funding capital improvements, a nonprofit called the NEW Zoological Society started covering new exhibits and improvements, including a connected adventure park created in 2014 with ziplines and such, open seasonally.

With a stated mission of saving animals from extinction, the zoo has a fascinating history; it began with a donated alligator purchased on a Florida vacation and has gone on to see more red pandas born here than any other zoo in the world. It’s also the first to hatch critically endangered northern spider tortoises, along with other conservation firsts. A new 2-acre Asian Trek habitat lets guests watch tigers in two different habitats explore “temple ruins” or swim in a deep pool. Plus: adult zoo camp! We wanna go, too.


Enjoy a ton of hands-on experiences; you can brush a goat for free, and pay a little extra to feed it or a chicken, giraffe or stingray. The carousel features endangered species to ride on, and there’s a sky safari, train, and Crocodile Creek adventure ride. For the small people in your life, the exhibits are built at their eye level so you don’t have to pick them up (although that’s nice, too). This summer, Red Panda Ridge will open with one of the largest red panda habitats in the U.S. It will have endangered Chinese and Himalayan Red Pandas. The new area will also introduce the Chinese Muntjac (a small deer) and several Asian birds, including Red-billed Blue Magpie and White-eared Pheasant. Bonus: there will be an interactive bamboo maze to get lost in—we mean, to explore.

This is the oldest zoo in the country, with more than 160 years of experience in caring for animals and making strides in protecting and conserving wildlife, including fruit bats of Rodrigues and Brazilian golden lion tamarins. The zoo also works with Uganda’s New Nature Foundation to protect threatened species—and in the zoo itself you’ll find more than 1,900 rare and endangered animals. Check out a new exhibition called "Staying Power: Be Distinct, or Go Extinct!", a multi-sensory experience that just opened last month. It features life-sized animatronic dinosaurs—including the Gigantosaurus, larger than T-Rex—and super-sized animatronic insects. You can also purchase a vintage zoo key in the shape of a dinosaur to unlock story boxes throughout the zoo. In June, sample more than 100 specialty brews at the zoo’s fundraising Summer Ale Festival, along with live entertainment, food trucks and more. 

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