The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution so you'll find no admission prices to visit, but tickets are required.
As one of the oldest zoos in the United States, the National Zoo is sure to be a highlight of your visit to Washington, DC, especially for the young and young at heart. Use this post to explore the options at the National Zoo.
The Giant Pandas are scheduled to leave by November 15, 2023.
Hours & Admission
The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institute and is open every day but Christmas (December 25).
The outdoor parts of the Zoo open earlier and stay open later than the buildings so you can explore many of the outdoor areas before the rest of the Zoo opens.
- Grounds: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last admittance 4 p.m.) | 7 p.m. closing in summer* (last admittance 6 p.m.) (some days during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions the Zoo will close at 3pm.
- Exhibit Buildings: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. | 6 p.m. closing in summer* (Amazonia opens at 10 a.m. all year)
- Important Note: There are often changes to what areas of the Zoo are open, especially during inclement weather. If there is a particular animal you want to see, be sure to check their website first for updates.
How to get National Zoo Tickets
The National Zoo is free but timed tickets are required.
There are two types of passes:
- Entrance Passes are required for every person of all age, even infants. They are free. You can reserve up to 15 at a time.
- Parking Pass is the only option if you want to park at the Zoo. You still need to get entrance passes for each person in the car.
Free Entry Passes to the Zoo are not timed. You can enter at anytime that day.
If you wish to leave the Zoo and return later that day, you can get a hand stamp at the exits (either main entrance or pedestrian entrance onto Harvard St NW)
During certain peak times, the Zoo may set up security tents to enter.
This is usually around Easter but can be done at the zoo's discretion.
TIP FOR LOCALS/FREQUENT VISITORS:
If you plan on parking at the National Zoo at least three times in one year, becoming a Smithsonian National Zoo member is well worth it.
You receive free parking (a certain allotment each year with additional for special events as the zoo decided), discounts at the shops and at food, early access to reserving special events and a lot of extra perks.
How long does it take to walk through the Smithsonian Zoo?
As a local Zoo member, we go multiple times a year and have never been able to spend less than 2 hours - we even tried to be quick.
There is just a lot to be distracted by at the Zoo!
It is best to plan 2-4 hours at the Zoo if you want to see the majority of the habitats.
There are food options (pizza, hot dogs, chips), a few vending machines and carts throughout the Zoo if need some fuel during your stay.
Best Time to Visit the National Zoo?
The best time of day to visit the National Zoo is in the morning. With the heat of the afternoon and full bellies from lunch, many animals will be asleep and hidden from view.
You'll also find that cloudy, even slightly rainy days are great for animal watching. The entire facility will be less crowded and there are lots of indoor habitats if it starts to rain hard.
The Zoo has a lot of unique events year round that make it an unique time to visit:
- Brew at the Zoo (September)
- Boo at the Zoo (October)
- Zoolights (December)
The Zoo also often has birthday celebrations for the animals, special keeper talks and animal demos every day!
How to get to the National Zoo
The National Zoo's address is 3001 Connecticut Avenue NW.
When adding it to a GPS for driving, make sure it is taking you to the Connecticut Avenue entrance as vehicles are NOT allowed to enter through any other entrance.
We highly recommend taking public transportation to the National Zoo.
The National Zoo is in the Woodley Park neighborhood of NW DC, so a bit further afield than most tourist attractions, but it is worth the journey.
Tip on Public Transportation to the National Zoo: There is a Metro Station called "Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan " on the Red Line. However, we recommend taking the Metro one stop further to Cleveland Park.
It is a 10-minute walk from either stop but from Cleveland Park, the walk is downhill instead of uphill from the Woodley Park stop!
Parking at the National Zoo
There is parking at the zoo.
Advanced reservations of $30 (as of Nov 2023) required per car. You can get a parking pass at the same time you get entry passes. They are DATE SPECIFIC but not time specific.
There are multiple parking lots and your parking pass does not allow you to choose. When you arrive (via the Connecticut Ave NW entrance) they will check your parking pass and direct you to either turn let into Lot A (which is closest to the Visitor Center and the Asia Trail)
Once that is full, you'll be directed to turn right and the first lot is Lot B (closest to the Pandas and Elephants). When that is full they will close it and direct you to the bottom of the Zoo lots. Lots D and E are closest to the Kids Farm.
While there is street parking, it is a residential area and we do not recommend relying on finding a spot.
Exhibits at the National Zoo
Giant Panda Habitat:
Sadly, the Giant Pandas must go back to China on November 15, 2023.
The Giant Pandas at the National Zoo are the most popular exhibit. There are two adult-Giant Pandas on loan from China, named Tian Tian (male) and Mei Xing (female).
Their offspring born at the National Zoo are kept for a few years and then moved to a conservation center in China.
The Giant Panda Exhibit has two parts for visitors - an outdoor viewing platform and an indoor exhibit where you can also view the pandas if they are inside.
The inside area also has exhibits about Giant Pandas and the conversation efforts to protect them.
On busy days, the trail through the exhibit is one-way allowing visitors to walk through the outdoor exhibit and then the indoor area.
Expert Tip: Check out the National Zoo Panda Cam to find them before heading over! The Panda Cam offers two cameras so you can watch the Pandas wherever you are.
You'll also find sloths, red pandas, and Asian elephants nearby on the Asia Trail.
The National Zoo is home to 6 Asian Elephants which can be viewed on the Elephant Trail.
Asian Elephants are currently an endangered species and you'll see that they are smaller than African elephants.
The Kids' Farm
Experience life on the farm with goats, donkeys, hogs, and cows.
Lesson I learned the hard way ... don't call this a petting zoo. You cannot pet the animals!
Great Apes and Primates
You'll find three types of lemurs on an island surrounded by a moat, including the well known ring-tailed lemur. The Zoo is also home to gorillas and orangutans.
The orangutans have the ability to travel from one enclosure to the next via the O-line, which from a guest's perspective means they walk right above you!
You can even play tug of war with them in the Think Tank. There is a tall outdoor section to allow gibbons to swing around as they would in the wild.
The Small Mammal House
A variety of foxes, rats, and smaller monkeys are housed in the Small Mammal House.
The American Trail
Along the American Trail, you'll be able to experience the variety of animals and plant life native to North America.
There are seals and otters, wolves, and bald eagles, among others. There are also two American bison at the American Bison exhibit.
Lions, Tigers, and ... Cheetahs. (Don't worry, the zoo has bears, too). On Lion and Tiger Hill, you can find African lions and two types of tigers.
Next door is the Cheetah Conservation Station which mimics the Savannah. You'll find cheetahs but also wolves, gazelles, vultures, and more.
You can walk through this exhibit to experience the flora and fauna found in the Amazon.
There are many corals, frogs, and other aquatic animals, but also sloths and monkeys.
The Reptile Discovery Center
There are over 50 species of reptiles and amphibians in this exhibit. You'll find tortoises, snakes, alligators, and even a Komodo dragon.
Tours of the National Zoo
The National Zoo offers a Zoo Highlights Self Guided Tour on their website.
It starts at the Cheetah Exhibit at the Connecticut Ave NW entrance and ends at the Big Cats exhibit at the bottom of the hill, making the walk downhill.
For younger visitors, there is an Animal Adventure Guide - my kids love the act it out parts!