Are you planning a trip to Washington D.C.? The Smithsonian's National Zoo is a great option for families.
We have visited the San Diego Zoo and other major zoos in the U.S., and the National Zoo is on par with the better ones. For my animal-loving son, this was one of the highlights of our Washington D.C. trip and I have to agree that those pandas are awfully cute.
One of the best things about the National Zoo is that there is NO ADMISSION CHARGE. You won't even see a ticket booth. Just walk in!
Here are my tips for making the most of your day at the National Zoo.
Getting to the zoo is easy on Metro. The Smithsonian's National Zoo is located about halfway between the Cleveland Park and Woodley Park-Zoo Metro stops on the Red Line, which are both about half a mile from the zoo entrance. I recommend getting off at Cleveland Park because your walk to the zoo will be slightly downhill instead of slightly uphill. We walked down to the Woodley Park-Zoo station and ate lunch near there afterward.
Limited parking is available at the zoo, but according to the zoo's website, lots often fill by 10:00 AM. I do not recommend renting a car in Washington D.C. because parking will be a hassle nearly everywhere you go.
Like most zoos we've visited, the National Zoo is built on a big hill. If you use Metro to get there, you'll start at the top. Exhibits are located on both sides of one main pedestrian highway.
Related: 3 Days in Washington DC with Kids
Can't Miss Exhibits
One word: PANDAS!
The Smithsonian's National Zoo was the first U.S. zoo to have giant pandas, starting in 1972. The zoo is currently home to three pandas, which can usually be found in either their outdoor or indoor habitats. Expect crowds and lines at the panda habitat, especially during the middle of the day.
The National Zoo is home to all the other showcase animals that most families love to see, including elephants, lions, tigers, cheetahs, great apes and more. My son is crazy for otters, so after the pandas, finding them on the American Trail was a top priority for us. Want to see if your favorite is there? Check out the zoo's Animal Page.
Most of the exhibits are outdoors, but there are several indoor exhibits including the giant pandas, Amazonia, reptile house and others.
Throughout the zoo, we found lots of educational hands-on activities – mostly geared toward children. There is also a carousel.
We visited the National Zoo on a Saturday in July. By arriving right at opening time, we missed the worst of the heat and the weekend crowd. In our experience, animals are more active in the morning when temperatures are cooler.
Pack a lunch
You can pack your own lunch or snacks into the National Zoo, and you'll save a lot of money at the concession counter – and probably eat healthier – if you do. At the very least, I recommend bringing your own water bottles. You'll be glad when it's time to hike back up the hill.
Good to Know
Where: 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington D.C. The National Zoo is located in Rock Creek Park near downtown Washington D.C., but not within easy walking distance of the popular monuments and government sites.
When: The National Zoo is open every day of the year except Christmas. Hours vary by season, but everything is usually open by 9 or 10 AM. Check current hours HERE. March-July is peak season. Summers are hot and humid.
How Much: FREE!
How Long: I recommend 2-4 hours to see the whole zoo.
Amenities: Food service, gift shops, restrooms, rentals (wheelchair, scooter, stroller), parking
Native Washingtonian here. Remember although access to the zoo is free, you have to pay for parking ($25, I think). also, 2-4 hours is extremely optimistic estimate to cover the entire zoo. If you’re going to explore the exhibits, I would spend the better part of the day. TBH, I never try to cover the zoo in a whole day.
Tips from locals are the best! Thank you for your advice. I agree that 2-4 hours is optimistic if you want to explore the zoo in depth. There are so many great things to do in DC that we focused on the pandas and a few other standout exhibits, and skimmed through the rest.
We have to check out of our hotel, is there a place we can check our bags in st the zoo until we leave?
I have not been able to find luggage storage on the zoo’s website. However, you can probably leave your bags with your hotel’s front desk if that’s a convenient place to return. Another possibility is to use a luggage storage service like Luggage Hero, Vertoe, Bounce, Stasher, or Radical Storage. They may have locations near the zoo. I have not personally used any of these services (yet).
Does the zoo have a tour bus
The National Zoo does not have a tour bus at this time. There has been a shuttle service with a couple of stops in the past, but according to the website, it’s not running right now. We did not use the shuttle during our visit and had no problems. The National Zoo is built on a hill. We started at the top, so our strategy was to walk all the way down and then slowly work our way back up.