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The first zoo I ever visited was the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC. I was 8 years old and our family was taking one of those iconic family vacations to the nation’s capital. I don’t remember much from that trip, but when my family moved to the DC area a few years ago, I knew it wouldn’t be long before we would visit the zoo again. There are so many reasons to love the National Zoo. It is truly a national treasure and near the top of any families’ Fun Things to Do With Kids in DC travel list. Read on to find out why!
Fun Things to Do With Kids in DC: The National Zoo
I will never forget the first time I heard the lion roar. We arrived early in the morning (9AM) for Sweet Pea’s first visit. She was (and still is) a Daniel Tiger fan so we made a bee-line for the ‘Big Cats’ exhibit. As we rounded the corner, the lion let loose a roar that shook that entire section of the zoo. It was massive. It was powerful. I was hooked immediately. That roar is my favorite reason to love the National Zoo in DC. Here are some more:
Highlights of the National Zoo
- The Giant Panda Habitat! The Giant Panda Bears are probably the National Zoo’s most iconic animals. It is the most popular exhibit (or at least it seems that way), but wow– when you get a good look at the Tian Tian or Bao Bao playing, it is just so much fun! We have seen them climbing trees, licking honey out of a pink crate, and having a grand time. The National Zoo is worth a visit just to see the panda bears.
- Elephant Trails and Elephant Outpost: The National Zoo is home to seven elephants and you can see them is various habitats. It is fun to watch the elephants play and take a bath in their outdoor pond. During inclement weather, you can also see them in the elephant house.
- Amazonia: This indoor exhibit is totally cool! Seriously. We first visited this exhibit in early spring and even though it was cold outside, it was lush inside Amazonia.
- Great Apes! Whether the gorillas are outside or inside, they are just plain mighty. You can’t get great pictures of the apes inside because the glass is pretty fuzzy. However, you can still get a fantastic view of these phenomenal animals pouncing around their habitat. The outside habitat is pretty great too.
- O-Line: Speaking of primates, the orangutans are super fun. The zoo set up an ‘O-Line’ between the Great Ape House and Think Tank. If you are lucky you get to see the orangutans swing across the main zoo walkway. Just watch out! There is no net!
- Reptile Discovery Center: There are quite a few indoor exhibit buildings at the National Zoo. For whatever reason, we had not visited the Reptile House until our most recent visit. However, you should definitely make time to check it out because it is excellent! Highlights include tons of snakes (including an anaconda.. that snake is HUGE), chameleons, lizards, giant tortoises, and quite a few alligators. Snap, snap, snap!
- The American Trail: This is a super fun part of the zoo where you can see sea lions play, and also catch a glimpse of the bald eagle and a few wolves. Also don’t forget to check out the American Bison habitat that is near the Giant Panda exhibit.
- The Andean Bears: We had the pleasure of seeing the Andean Bear cubs relatively soon after they were born. We had just left Amazonia and one of the bear cubs was high up in the tree messing around, oblivious to the fact that anyone else was around. It was so much fun! We watched him play for a good 15 minutes.
- Cheetah Conservation Station: Every time we have visited the National Zoo we have been able to get a great look at the cheetahs. They are so cute… I still wouldn’t want to dance with them though! The zebras are in the same area, even though you can’t always get a good look at them.
- Kid’s Farm: This is a fun part of the zoo for little kids. They will get an up close look at cows, goats, and even alpacas.
- Speedwell Conservation Carousel: $3 will get your little one a ride on a super cool carousel. The carousel has pretty much every animal. Sweet Pea has asked to ride the tiger (of course), the lion, and even the ladybug.
- Small Mammal House: Tons of smaller monkeys like tamarins, howler monkeys, and marmosets. There is a super cute meerkat exhibit and elsewhere in the zoo you can also get up close to gibbons and lemurs.
- The Great Cats Habitat! Again, this is consistently our favorite part of the zoo. There are currently six rapidly maturing lion cubs, as well as the very ferocious Mommy and Daddy. The tigers are equally impressive… even if they are more elusive.
Tips for Visiting the National Zoo
- This is a fairly large zoo. If you are ambitious, you could probably see the entire zoo in one day. However, if you have small children, you may want to plan to see highlights or concentrate on one area.
- The National Zoo is on a big hill. Seriously. You will be doing a ton of walking, and much of it will be uphill.
- If you have smaller children (even preschoolers), bring that stroller! At the end of the day, your kids will either be in the stroller or you will be carrying them.
- Wear very comfortable shoes.
- Bring water. When you are walking uphill and the sun is beating down on your head.. you will appreciate being able to take a drink for less than $3 a pop.
- The park is free, but parking is $20 per vehicle unless you purchase a FONZ membership. The parking lots fill up very fast on nice, weekend days. Many folks park in lot D or E (at the bottom of the hill) so that you are walking uphill at the beginning of the day and downhill at the end of the day.
- From our limited experience, the park is relatively un-crowded during the week. On our most recent trip, Sweet Pea and I parked in lot B, right across from the elephant habitat. It allowed us to make a bee-line for the Giant Pandas first thing in the morning before it was too crowded.
- The exhibit buildings do not open until 10AM. However, the zoo grounds open at 6AM. That means, you can (and should) arrive early. Particularly in the summer months, the animals are much more likely to be outside and active in the morning.
- You are allowed to bring your own food. The zoo concessions are not bad… but they are also not inexpensive.
- For more information and tips on visiting the zoo, check our their website.
So, I hope this has inspired you to make the trek to the National Zoo in DC. I can promise you will remember your trip for a long time!
Thanks for reading!