If you love animals, the outdoors, and free things, then the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC is the place for you.
At the Smithsonian National Zoo, you can see giant pandas, lions, and tigers. Indoor houses give you up-close opportunities to see elephants, gorillas, and orangutans.
And maybe most surprising of all? Admission is completely free.
Read on for essential tips to plan your visit to the Smithsonian National Zoo!
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There are several options for getting there
The Smithsonian National Zoo is located in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, DC. You have several options for getting there:
- Metro: There is a Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan stop on the Metro’s Red Line. This stop is just a ten-minute walk from the zoo. Be warned that Metro trains do not run frequently during non-rush hour times (which is probably when you’d be going to the zoo).
- Uber/Lyft: There’s a drop-off spot for Uber/Lyft right outside the zoo’s main entrance.
- Drive: There is ample parking at the National Zoo, but it comes with an ample price tag: $30 per day. Depending on where you’re coming from, a roundtrip Uber/Lyft may be cheaper than driving.
Admission is free!
As a member of the Smithsonian Institution, admission to the National Zoo is completely free. No charge for adults, kids, the young, or the young at heart!
However, if you’re planning on driving to the Smithsonian National Zoo, expect to pay a pretty hefty parking fee – $30 for the day.
Pro Tip: If you get the premier Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) membership, parking is free and you get 15% off food and merchandise. The cost is $84, so do a cost analysis before going to see if this cost would be offset by your planned parking, food, and merchandise spending.
Confirm whether you need an advance ticket
While admission to the zoo is free, you may need to get an advance, timed ticket.
Many of the museums/parks associated with the Smithsonian Institution (like the National Zoo) require free, timed entry passes to help control the volume of people at any point in time.
Check here before your visit to see if you need an advance ticket.
Don’t worry about where to park
If you’re driving to the Smithsonian National Zoo, don’t worry about which lot you’re parking in.
You’re going to have to back-track wherever you park, so there’s no one place that’s better than the other.
If doing rideshare, get dropped off/picked-up at different spots
When arriving at the zoo via Uber or Lyft, I recommend getting dropped off first thing in the morning at the zoo’s Connecticut Avenue entrance.
Plan your path so that you end up at the zoo’s Beach Drive entrance when you’ve finished touring the zoo. Then order your Uber/Lyft to pick you up at that spot.
This method will result in the least amount of backtracking at the zoo.
Get there first thing in the morning
The animals at the National Zoo tend to be most active first thing in the morning (including the giant pandas). So plan on arriving at the zoo as soon as it opens.
Another bonus to arriving early? You can avoid the crowds. In my experience, the first two hours after opening tend to be the least crowded.
Plan on doing a lot of walking
As far as zoos go, the National Zoo isn’t huge. But its sections follow a fairly circular pattern that results in you circling back to some of the areas you previously visited.
This means you’ll be doing more walking than maybe you anticipated by just looking at a map of the zoo.
So plan on wearing comfy shoes that you’ve already broken-in.
Wear your sunscreen
Although there are a number of trees at the National Zoo, there are plenty of open areas that are exposed to the sun.
Don’t be the poor person who gets sunburnt and can’t enjoy the rest of the day (or trip) because of it.
Apply sunscreen throughout the day.
Go to your favorite animal first
When you first arrive at the Smithsonian National Zoo, I recommend going to see your favorite animal first.
This is because the animals aren’t always outside or active.
If this is the case for you, you can check on your favorite animal first. If they’re not outside or active when you first visit them, you can go back and check on them later in your visit.
Go into the indoor enclosures
Some of your closest encounters with animals will be in the indoor animal enclosures.
I almost didn’t go into the Elephant Community Center the last time I visited the National Zoo. But I’m so glad I did.
The second I walked inside, I uttered an amazed “woah!” Everyone who entered behind me did the same thing.
That’s because there was a gigantic elephant standing right next to the door (behind a substantial fence).
It was amazing to see an elephant that close-up.
You’ll also be able to see gorillas and orangutans up close and personal in the Great Ape House.
Even if there’s a line to go inside any of these animal enclosures, it’s worth the wait. Plus, in my experience, the line moves quickly.
You can bring your own food and beverages
Shockingly, you’re allowed to bring your own food and beverages to the Smithsonian National Zoo.
Since so many other places try to charge you an insane amount for food and drink, this is great!
At a minimum, I recommend bringing a refillable water bottle. There are lots of water fountains for you to refill your water bottle.
I wouldn’t get too carried away with the food. You don’t want to lug around a bunch of extra weight. A sandwich or snack for everyone in your group will go a long way.
Leave the heavy bags at home
When you’re out and about for the day, you can be tempted to pack a full backpack or purse with everything you could possibly need.
But what you end up needing is a massage at the end of the day for your aching back.
You’ll be doing a lot of walking at the National Zoo. Bring a lighter backpack with the bare minimum so that you’re not carrying around a heavy bag all day long.
Take breaks during the day
When I’m visiting someplace like the zoo, I’m tempted to keep going and going…until I’m completely exhausted and not enjoying myself.
Don’t be like me. There are lots of different benches and food places around the zoo where you can rest.
Take advantage of these spots to rest throughout your visit to the zoo.
If you push yourself too hard, you’ll find that you’re not having a good time.
Get your hand stamped for re-entry
Assuming that the National Zoo continues to require timed-entry passes, you’ll need to get a hand stamp if you want to leave and re-enter the zoo.
But why would you want to leave the zoo and come back? Well, there are a couple of cool eating spots to visit across from the National Zoo on Connective Avenue. Baked by Yael has incredible cake pops, including a Panda Pop! You can also get an unbelievable burger at Duke’s Counter.
If you want to visit these spots, get your hand stamped at the National Zoo’s Visitor Center close to the Connecticut Avenue entrance.
The hand stamp will allow you to leave and then re-enter the zoo.
Check out the panda cam
The National Zoo has a breeding program for giant pandas.
When a giant panda is first born, it’s not introduced to the public viewing area for a few months.
But you can still see the new baby panda on the panda cam! Check out the panda cam here.
Attend after-hours events
The Smithsonian National Zoo hosts some pretty cool after-hours events.
These events aren’t free, but are generally fairly inexpensive. And they’re well worth the cost.
I hope you have a wonderful time visiting the Smithsonian National Zoo!