The Smithsonian National Zoo: Why It Should Be a Stop on your Washington DC Family Vacation

There is never a time when we go to Washington D.C. that we don’t end up going to the Smithsonian National Zoo. Some times it’s the outing we plan for a day, walking the zoo and learning about the animals. Other times, we may just be swinging by the zoo to say “Hi” to some of our favorite furry (or scaly) friends.

There are so many reasons to visit this zoo, whether you’re a repeat customer like us or just happen to have some free time while you’re taking in the city on a “one and only” visit. No matter why you’re here though, the National Zoo should be on your capital city itinerary.


First of all, there’s the fact that it’s free. Yes. Free. I know, I know. Nothing in life is free. But entrance to the National Zoo really is free. You can just walk up to those big gates and saunter right in. (You may have to slow down for a bag check or metal detector, but, unfortunately, that’s the name of the game these days.) So maybe you’ll get sucked into your little person’s big, round eyes as they beg to take home a stuffed panda…(not speaking from experience here though). And, yes, there’s some expensive (yet mediocre) food to be had. And you do have to find a way to get there, which means you might be paying for parking. But truthfully, all of these potential added costs can be mitigated by, well, will power and planning ahead. So, with a bit of forethought, a day at the National Zoo can actually be a fairly inexpensive outing.

That is definitely not a pink panda that I caved and bought her. Not. At. All.


If, in a moment of weakness, you do end up buying a bucket of safari animals or a purple panda, console yourself with the fact that you are contributing to the zoo’s conservation efforts (again, I have never ever done this personally, nope, not at all). The actual full name of the zoo is the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Now, the zoo doesn’t get to tack that second half onto its title without actually having some conservation efforts under its belt.

The SCBI operates on a global scale in efforts to save wildlife species from extinction as well as create future generations of conservationists. To learn more about SCBI and the National Zoo’s role in this endeavor, you can go directly to their website.

Some of the information regarding pandas and their habitats, something the zoo is working to save.


And pandas? Yes, pandas. This zoo has pandas. Three pandas to be exact, the youngest of which was born in 2015, so that means there’s an almost-baby panda (it’s ok to squeal; we do that often here when it comes to animals). In their habitat you can watch them play, sleep, eat. Sometimes they’re indoors and at other times they’re in their outdoor habitats climbing trees and causing trouble. Fortunately, you can see them in both environments.

The pandas have been a part of the Smithsonian Zoo since their first arrival in 1972. Since this time scientists have been able to observe and research the animals, developing this program into one of the foremost Giant Panda conservation programs. They’ve managed to gain a wealth of knowledge in the quest to save the species from extinction. It’s definitely one of this family’s favorite stops at the zoo.

Animal searching. (While we were watching these animals, someone was having a birthday party at the zoo and the group was learning about the animals. It looked AMAZING!)

Other Animals (because there are other animals)

But zoos are more than pandas, right? Thankfully this zoo knows this, so even though the pandas are the stars of the show, the other animals do get their moments to shine. Whether you’re interested in sand cats or white-nosed coatis, yellow-spotted Amazon river turtles or lesser kudu (yes, I totally had to look those up), the National Zoo has animals of every kind. (Except giraffes. So, you shouldn’t tell your giraffe-loving toddler that you’re going to take him to see giraffes the night before you visit. Because it may create a scenario in which said toddler has a bit of a fit brought on by utter devastation. Just some advice. (It was not a good scene people, not at all.))

One great aspect of the zoo is that the animals aren’t just confined to the outdoors, so even on rainy days or cold days you can visit the zoo to get a glimpse of some amazing little animals. This zoo doesn’t have to just be a sunny-day activity. We’ve spent hours in the Small Mammal House and the rainforests of Amazonia (we have spent considerably less time at the Reptile Discovery Center, though, because, you know…snakes and stuff…). Even the elephants have an indoor space where they can be observed escaping the weather for a bit. (Note: in hot months, the zoo has shade structures and mist stations set up for the relief of the humans.)

One of the favorite stops of this travel tribe is the Great Ape House. Here there are floor to ceiling windows that allow us all to watch the animals climbing trees, swinging on ropes, or just lying around. And one of the best parts of this habitat is the overhead O-Line, where the orangutans move between the Great Ape House and the Think Tank on a cable 50 feet in the air! Above your heads…directly.

Checking out the elephants in their (relatively) new habitat. Inside their “house” there’s walls of information about the elephants, which is worth a visit even if they’re outside that day.

Activities for Kids

So the zoo may not have giraffes, but we found one way to console our absolutely devastated, melt-down weary, middle little: the kid’s farm. Here little people can get up close with fish, cows, donkeys, goats, and our favorite-alpacas. This exhibit allows the littles to get hands on with the animals. And who doesn’t want to pet a cow? And at the kid’s farm there are animal introductions twice daily, which are suited specifically for the younger crowd.

The zoo also has “Daily Demos” throughout the day. So, at preset times, zoo keepers can be found interacting with the public as they feed the otters or perform daily health check ups on the elephants. You can also watch them train seals and sea lions, learn what it takes to be a Big Cat Keeper, or meet a Naked Mole-Rat. Check their daily activities, as they can change or get canceled.

At the zoo on a hot day in Washington DC? Well, fortunately, the zoo has a “Tide Pool” for children to cool off in (it’s a very shallow wading pool). The tide pool is located on the American Trail, near the seals and sea lions. And best of all? It’s free! (It does close, though, in inclement weather.)

In addition to the tide pool, the zoo offers a few other activities, or “attractions” as they have dubbed them, each of which costs either $3.00 or $3.50. One of the attractions is the National Zoo Choo Choo, which takes 2-11 year olds on a 3-5 minute train ride around the Great Meadow. It costs $3.00. They also have ZooTubes, which is a 100 foot long slide located at Lion/Tiger Hill (it runs seasonally as well), and it too costs $3.00. And finally, there is the Speedwell Foundation Conservation Carousel, located across from Lemur Island. This attraction costs $3.50 and tickets can be bought at the carousel or in gift shops in the zoo. 100% of the proceeds from this solar-powered carousel go towards the zoo’s conservation efforts. (Added bonus? It’s not carousel horses, but, rather, it’s made of other animals, including…giraffes!!!)

Sleeping Pandas! Inside the Panda habitat.


Beyond just the daily activities, the zoo also hosts a variety of events during the year that engage little people and help make their experience at the National Zoo unforgettable. In addition to a number of adult-only events (think BrewLights at ZooLights and Night of the Living Zoo), the zoo hosts family friendly outings. During the holidays they have ZooLights with live music, special treats, and popup markets. Additionally, they host Boo at the Zoo close to Halloween with special treat stations, live music, and special exhibits open only after zoo hours. There’s ZooFiesta and special Easter Monday events as well. Finally, if you’re feeling a bit risky, they also host family sleepovers. Their ever changing events (Panda birthday parties anyone?) can be found on their events page.


This easily accessible gem of DC can be a welcome relief after fighting the masses at the traditional Smithsonian Museums at the National Mall. The tranquility of the zoo is a welcome relief the hub and bub of downtown. It’s located along Connecticut Ave, adjacent to Rock Creek Park, creating a bit of an outdoor oasis, which is surprising given it’s entrance is literally right off a major DC avenue. And, fortunately, if driving isn’t your thing, there are two red line metro stations that are within an easy walk to the entrance, Woodley Park and Cleveland Park.

A free zoo? In the middle of a city? With plenty of animals to keep everyone happy? (Except that one that really really loves giraffes though.) And a million ways to learn? Sounds like a perfect spot to spend a day or spend an hour. And the beauty is that no matter what amount of time it is you can manage to eek out of your busy (or not so busy) day it will be totally worth it.