Everyone knows about the various Smithsonian museums along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. but did you know they also operate the National Zoo? This 163-acre park on a hillside is a thrill to explore with lots of animals from around the world. It’s fairly easy to reach the zoo and even easier to walk around the wide sidewalks while spotting the animals in different enclosures. Make a day out of it with the family or use this as the perfect date night!
I’ve been to the National Zoo twice now and I can tell you without doubt the cooler fall months, or early spring months, are the best times to visit any zoo. My first visit in the heat of mid-August brought out very few animals and those that were outside were sleeping in the shade all day. But during an October visit I was treated to more activity and amazing sights.
Olmsted Walk is the main sidewalk through the heart of the zoo. I started on Connecticut Avenue so I had a long downhill walk to the bottom of the zoo and, of course, an equally long climb back uphill. The zoo sits on a hillside so be prepared to do some walking and climbing during your visit. It’s not as steep as mountain hiking trails but there is just enough of an incline coming back up to leave me out of breath by the time I reached the top again.
The zoo is divided into different sections based on where in the world the animals are native. One of the most popular areas to visit is the Giant Panda Habitat. This habitat has an indoor and outdoor area and the pandas are usually allowed to choose where they want to be. You can enjoy some pretty good views of the pandas both inside and outside but be wary of long lines and lingering viewers.
Starting at the Elephant Trails Habitat a long loop through the bottom half of the zoo takes visitors past anteaters, andean bears, seals, and the Kids’ Farm. It’s a casual walk past these habitats and there are restrooms and eateries along the way.
But my favorite section of the national zoo is the Great Cats Habitat. This circular habitat is divided into three sections and features lions, tigers, bobcats, and lynx. The day I visited in October I found one of the tigers roaring around the enclosure. Not sure if this tiger was just grumpy or what but it sure was a nice display. Despite the big teeth showing and air-piercing roar I would still have rather been in the wild to see this.
The national zoo is well balanced between animal habitats, restrooms, eateries, and indoor locations. It’s a nice balance for hot and humid summer days and dreary, rainy days. Panda Plaza has a couple of eateries for simple foods like hamburgers and hotdogs along with dozens of tables with large umbrellas. Benches are scattered around the national zoo so you almost always have a place to sit if you need to rest for a few minutes. If all else fails there is a shuttle bus that makes a loop from one end of the zoo to the every 15-20 minutes.
There is parking available at the national zoo but like everything else in the city you’ll have to pay for it (admission to the national zoo is free). Parking is $22 per vehicle flat rate regardless of how long you stay. However parking is extremely limited and during the summer months, weekends, and holidays these spaces are usually gone within a few hours of the zoo opening.
When I visited the national zoo in October I took advantage of the free street parking along Connecticut Avenue between Porter Street and Macomb Street. Of course this can be very hit or miss, it’s parallel parking on a busy street, and you’ll have quite a walk to the entrance of the zoo.
By recommendation, especially if you are visiting the area, is to take public transportation. My favorite way to get around D.C. is to use the Metro, the city’s subway system. From any point in D.C. you will want to take the Red Line to the Cleveland Park stop. While you could also use the Woodley Park stop it is an uphill climb from the stop to the zoo’s entrance while it is a comfortable flat walk from Cleveland Park.
You can also use the bus to reach the zoo’s entrance on Connecticut Avenue. Both the L1 and L2 buses stop right in front of the entrance making it the easiest way to reach the zoo.
Things to Keep in Mind
Here are a few things to keep in mind during your visit to Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
- There are ATM machines throughout the zoo if you forget to bring cash
- The gift shops and visitor center accept debit and credit cards
- The crowds on summer days, weekends, and holiday can be quite large
- The best time to visit, and have the zoo to yourself, is September, October, April, and May on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
- You’ll do a lot of walking so wear good shoes
- The zoo offers single stroller rentals for $9 and double stroller rentals for $12
- You are allowed to bring your food so you can save some money and have a family picnic at one of the outdoor dining tables
3001 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC | 202-633-4888 | https://nationalzoo.si.edu | Admission is Free