15 Best Zoos to Add to Your Bucket List Across America

Lions and tigers and bears? Yes, please! Here are the best places to find them.

feeding giraffe in zoo
Updated May 28, 2024
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Summer break is the perfect time to visit zoos. These magical places full of animal encounters bring out joy in everyone, from kids to any adult with a robust inner child.

Each zoo on this list offers something special, from groundbreaking conservation efforts to immersive exhibits that bring you closer to wildlife than ever before.

If you are looking to step up your travel game this summer, consider visiting one of the following great zoos.

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Animal Kingdom at Disney World

JHVEPhoto/Adobe animal kingdom in orlando

A zoo inside of Disney? Sign us up! Animal Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is a 580-acre park that blends wildlife with theme-park experiences. Enjoy fun rides alongside well-curated animal habitats.

Highlights include Kilimanjaro Safaris, where you can see elephants, lions, and giraffes. Another standout destination is Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail.

Audubon Zoo

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Known for its lush grounds, the award-winning Audubon Zoo in New Orleans has more than 1,700 animals, representing more than 350 species. The Louisiana Swamp exhibit is a highlight, showcasing local wildlife such as alligators in the context of Cajun culture.

Wings of the World is also a fan favorite. It is a large, immersive bird exhibit that helps endangered species thrive.

Bronx Zoo

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The Bronx Zoo in New York is one of the largest and most renowned urban zoos in the world. Spanning 265 acres, it has more than 11,000 animals in beautifully constructed habitats.

The Congo Gorilla Forest is exceptionally popular, as it brings visitors up close and personal with primates and more. It is open March through December.

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Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

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The second-oldest in the country, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden zoo is famous for its gorgeous gardens and impressive animal exhibits. Celebrities Fiona the hippo and Rico the porcupine call this park home.

Gorilla World has been dubbed an especially impressive habitat, while manatee conservation efforts have earned praise. A ride on the wildly popular Safari Train is a must.

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

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Home to more than 9,000 animals, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio became famous in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to former director Jack Hannah. Famous twin gorillas Mac and Mo were born during that period, too.

Of note are the Congo Expedition, manatee habitat and rehab efforts, and elephant bathing experience, which is available in summer.

Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

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The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is a famous zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, is one of the best in the nation, with truly larger-than-life exhibits.

It features the biggest indoor rainforest in the nation, the Lied Jungle. You will also find the equally impressive Desert Dome, a geodesic dome housing several desert ecosystems. It is the world’s largest indoor desert

The Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium gives visitors an amazing underwater experience.

Indianapolis Zoo

Electric Wolf/Adobe smiling boy swimming alongside dolphin

The Indianapolis Zoo is notable for its combination of zoo, aquarium, and botanical garden. Of note is the International Orangutan Center, which gives guests a close look at these fascinating primates.

The Flamingo Mingle is another highlight. The weather is beautiful in the summer here, and you can even swim with a dolphin.

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

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Located in Palm Desert, California, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens specializes in desert animals and plants, which makes it stand out.

The African Safari exhibit features giraffes, cheetahs, and zebras, while the Wild Americas exhibit has mountain lions and bobcats. A rhino encounter is a must here.

Memphis Zoo

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The Memphis Zoo in Memphis, Tennessee, has more than 3,500 animals on its beautiful campus. Cat Country stands out, with lions, cheetahs, tigers, and more in a gorgeous, open-air setting.

Modeled after Yellowstone National Park, the Teton Trek transports you to the park with grizzlies, wolves, elk, and even a geyser.

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Philadelphia Zoo

MNStudio/Adobe boy looking at an alpaca

The Philadelphia Zoo — America's first zoo — is home to nearly 2,000 endangered and rare animals. Of note is the Zoo360 trail, which allows animals to roam above and around visitors, making it an immersive experience.

Key exhibits include Big Cat Falls, where you can see lions, tigers, and pumas up close. Also, don’t miss KidZooU, an interactive children's zoo.

San Diego Zoo

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The San Diego Zoo is world-famous for its expansive, beautifully landscaped grounds that feature more than 12,000 animals and 680 species and subspecies.

The Elephant Odyssey, Africa Rocks, and Australian Outback are all excellent exhibits. A trek through the vast Safari Park in Escondido is a must.

San Francisco Zoo

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The famous gorilla Koko was born at the San Francisco Zoo, a 100-acre zoo that sits next to the Pacific Ocean.

Zoo highlights include the African Savanna exhibit, featuring giraffes, zebras, and ostriches. Don’t miss the Lemur Forest, the biggest outdoor habitat for these animals in the U.S.

The Primate Discovery Center and Penguin Island also stand out.

Smithsonian National Zoo

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Once known for its giant pandas, the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is still a world-class destination. The Elephant Trails, Great Cats, and Amazonia exhibits are noteworthy.

They also have endangered Przewalski's horses at the park. As part of the Smithsonian Institute, admission to the zoo is free.

Saint Louis Zoo

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With warm summer weather and free admission, a visit to the Saint Louis Zoo in St. Louis is a must.

The Primate Canopy Trails steal the spotlight, although Polar Bear Point and the Penguin & Puffin Coast shouldn't be missed. Sea lion shows are a great summer offering.

Enjoy trips on the popular Emerson Zooline Railroad all day long.

Zoo Miami

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Zoo Miami is the sole subtropical zoo in the continental U.S. The Florida: Mission Everglades exhibit is an incredible display of local wildlife, while the Amazon & Beyond exhibit has animals from Central and South America, including a giant anteater.

The weather will be hot and muggy in summer, but the crowds will likely be smaller than during peak season.

Bottom line

New Africa/Adobe happy couple near aquarium

Summer vacation is as American as apple pie, and so are road trips to our favorite zoos. These are great places to learn about wildlife and let your inner child run free.

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Cat Lafuente

Cat Lafuente is a Florida-based writer and editor with extensive experience in digital and print content spaces. Her own personal finance journey — particularly consolidating debt and paying it off, in turn boosting her credit score and becoming a homeowner — inspired her to join the FinanceBuzz team; she hopes she can help others do the same.