The Family Fun Guide to the National Zoo in Washington DC!

The National Zoo in Washington, D.C. (also known as Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute) is a large zoo spread out over 163 acres in the heart of Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park.  Open 364 days of the year and always free admission, it is definitely a “must-do” if you’re traveling to DC.  After a recent visit, I put together a quick travel guide along with helpful tips and links to important information (metro, zoo maps, activity sheets for kids, and more!)  Happy traveling!

Getting There:

  • Parking around the zoo lot is extremely limited and fills up fast.  However, you can pre-pay using an app I love called Parking Panda.  Simply enter the address/location and it will pull up available parking all around.  You can compare costs and proximities then reserve and pre-pay to completely eliminate the hassle of trying to find a spot upon arrival.
  • The Metro Rail has 2 stops within walking distance to the zoo, the Woodley Park stop and the Cleveland Park stop.  Woodley Park is the stop where you have to walk slightly uphill to get to the zoo, but it isn’t too bad, especially because you be walking around the hill-filled zoo grounds anyway.
  • The Metro Bus – The L1 and L2 buses stop in front of the Zoo’s main entrance on Connecticut Avenue.
  • The DC Circulator – Click here for schedule and interactive map


When you arrive, you have to go through a security line (if you have a bag) to have staff go through it. After that, head to the visitor’s center on your left for maps, restrooms, a place to refill water bottles, and gift shop.

*Travel Tip: the visitor’s center will charge you $5.00(!) for a map, but you can also see it online for free on the zoo website.

Dining Options:

There are several dining options within the zoo, but also consider eating outside of the zoo too. The National Zoo is located in the Woodley Park neighborhood, a lovely historic area of Washington with stately residences, high rise apartments, and tons of dining options. Click here to check them all out!

*The zoo also allows visitors to bring their own picnic lunch to enjoy too.

Here’s what’s on the zoo grounds (check the Zoo site for hours and some are under renovation):

  • Mane Grill (Lion & Tiger Hill)
  • Heirloom Grill (Lion & Tiger Hill)
  • Seal Rock Cake (American Trail)
  • Panda Overlook (Asia Trail)
  • Panda Grill (Panda Trail)
  • Hot Dog Diner (Across from the Small Mammal House)
  • Plus, catering for groups and various food kiosks and stands throughout the zoo

Things To See:  

Note, not all animals are on view all of the time, in fact we were surprised at how many were not on view the day we traveled there.  Different factors like hot/cold weather, routine veterinary checkups, repairs, and renovations may affect the ability to see certain animals.  Also nocturnal (active at night) animals may be hidden away and sleeping too.  

Top 10 Animals To See:

Note: I selected these items by how big the crowds were around the exhibits (popularity with the public) + how excited my own family was to see them (popularity with us!) For the full directory, click here or check out the map.

  • Panda Pavilion – huge area dedicated to panda viewing from many angles and up high and ground level too.

  • Asian Elephants – So neat to observe and be sure to find Ambika, the zoo’s oldest elephant, born in 1948 and given to the zoo in 1961 as a gift from the children of India.

  • Lions & Tigers – I put these two together because they are side by side and easy to see with a few steps of each other.

  • Amazonia – OK I kind of lumped a lot together on this one, but this was more like an experience as you walk through an Amazon rain forest setting with the animals and lovely birds to see.  Hanging over our heads was a monkey and a super friendly bird that came right up to say hello:

  • Gorillas – very interactive with viewers (behind glass) 
  • Wolf – beautiful animal, just note that they are nocturnal and this one was taking an afternoon nap.
  • Reptile House – This was top on our list but sadly closed that day.  Includes many reptiles like 
  • Porcupine – we were fortunate enough to catch feeding time and the zoo keeper actually climbed in and gave the porcupine a quick pet too!
  • Sloth – the one we saw was laying around and snoozing, but still so neat to see.
  • Cheetah – At the time of our visit, these weren’t on view because there were a bunch of new baby cheetahs that were just born.  However we could see a cheetah cam and learn a little more about these beautiful animals.

Quick Tips:

  • The zoo gets super hot and crowded during the warmer spring and summer months.  There are water mist stations that you can walk through throughout the zoo for a quick cool off.
  • The zoo is also very large and quite hilly in some places…be sure to wear comfy shoes.
  • If you’re eating on the zoo grounds, try having lunch a bit early or later if you can.  Getting a table can be difficult during peak times.  We noticed as “lunch time” came and went, the crowds almost completely cleared out.  There are also outside dining options for seating and some folks will choose to sit on the grass under a shade tree too.
  • After your zoo visit, check out the many restaurants in the surrounding neighborhood, Woodley Park.  You can also find ice cream and coffee shops too.
  • Keep the kiddos busy and engaged with several activity sheets available.
  • Stroller and wheelchair rental is available.  Visit any information kiosk for more info.  When you arrive, the first one you’ll see is right across from the visitor center.
  • Outside food/drinks are allowed for visitors to bring in.
  • A highlights tour is available on Saturdays and Sundays and must be scheduled ahead of time.  Check here for more info and times of the tours.

For more family fun, be sure to follow Sparkle & Splatter for the latest projects and activities!

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