Best Zoos in the U.S.

What are the best zoos in the U.S.? There are a lot to choose from with differences between them depending on what visitors want

By Rick Gonzales | Published

best zoos in the u.s.

Across the United States, there are thousands of homes for exotic, rare, and endangered animals. Zoos, as they are referred to by the layperson, come in many different shapes and sizes. A number of them began to attract animals and then visitors before the turn of the 20th century and to this day continue to showcase animals. So, we are going to take a rundown of the best zoos in the U.S. and explain why they are considered to be the top of the line.


The title of the oldest zoo in the United States has been a hot topic, well, since zoos were built. The Philadelphia Zoo is, for the most part, considered to be the oldest zoo in the nation, though before they opened their gates to customers, a number of cities had already set up menageries years earlier. So, by the time 1875 rolled around and the Philly Zoo said “welcome,” these menageries all had sizeable animal collections, which adds to the debate that these were considered early zoos.

As you will see in the following list, there are quite a few “zoos” that predate the Philadelphia Zoo. As you will also see in our list of Best Zoos in the U.S., although a few of these zoos have been around for a very long time, they are still considered one of the best our country has to offer. So, let’s start with some of the oldest zoos before we get into the best zoos in the U.S.

10. Oregon Zoo – established in 1888 in Portland, Oregon.

9. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo – established in 1882 in Cleveland, Ohio.

8. Maryland Zoo – established in 1876 in Baltimore, Maryland.

7. Binghamton Zoo – established in 1875 in Binghamton, New York.

6. Buffalo Zoo – established in 1875 in Buffalo, New York.

5. Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden – established in 1875 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

4. Philadelphia Zoo – established in 1874 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

3. Roger Williams Park Zoo – established in 1872 in Providence, Rhode Island.

2. Lincoln Park Zoo – established in 1868 in Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois.

1. Central Park Zoo – established in 1864 in Central Park, New York City, New York.

Many of the zoos from early inception through the past 20 years or so were pretty much looking at caged animals. Through the many animal rights activists coupled with tremendous work put forth by zookeepers across the country, the best zoos in the U.S. have become extremely more animal-friendly, albeit still in captivity, than they ever have been. Most have taken the animals out of the cage to create environments animals would see in their normal habitat. They have the freedom to roam and play and also be protected as many zoo animals are rescue animals. Now that we have seen the oldest zoos in the nation, let’s take a look at the best zoos in the U.S.


We have scoured the countryside to bring to you the best zoos in the U.S. These are not presented in any particular order, though we will try to explain why they are routinely considered to be the best.


Best Zoos in the U.S.


WHY WE LIKE IT – Not only is the Henry Doorly Zoo considered one of the best zoos in the U.S., but it was also recently named one of the best in the world. This zoo is one of the elder statesmen having been established in 1894 and on its 130-acre property sits well over 17,000 animals from 962 species. The zoo also has numerous world-class exhibits along with amusement rides and other fun goodies. A couple of the zoo’s highlights include the Desert Dome, which is the world’s largest indoor desert working under the world’s largest geodesic dome. Another attraction is called the Kingdom of the Night, which features the world’s largest indoor swamp. Watch out for gators.


Best Zoos in the U.S.


WHY WE LIKE IT – Back in 1991, the Oakland Zoo developed something they called “protected contact.” This was a new method that separated the zookeepers from the elephants which resulted in a much happier animal. This method is now used around the world and is one reason why it is considered one of the best zoos in the U.S. The zoo is now home to over 700 native and exotic animals, many of which are rescues.


Best Zoos in the U.S.


WHY WE LIKE IT – First off, the Miami Zoo is the only subtropical zoo in the U.S. Living on the over 750-acre zoo are Asian, Australian, and African animals that you don’t see too often. Among them are Komodo dragons and tree kangaroos as well as over 40 endangered species. Because of the oft-felt humidity, the zoo offers $5 river rides through sprinklers and also has a free water and misting area.


Best Zoos in the U.S.


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WHY WE LIKE IT – How can one argue with free? The lack of price is not why the National Zoo is often considered one of the best zoos in the U.S. The zoo is a mere 2 miles from downtown D.C. and was brought to life in 1889 by former President Grover Cleveland. In its current state, the zoo is best known for its giant pandas that were gifted to it back in 1972 by China. If you venture out that way, you will get to see the habitat surrounding Bei Bei, Mei Xiang, and Tian Tian.


Best Zoos in the U.S.


WHY WE LIKE IT – This is another of the original menageries. Not large (started with 65.4 acres and has expanded to 75 acres) but is home to some 1,900 animals from 500 species. It is known for its breeding programs and was the very first zoo to successfully breed California sea lions. Not only were they successful with sea lions, but they also saw success with South African Cheetahs, western lowland gorillas, Malayan tigers, Sumatran rhinos, and Masai giraffes.



WHY WE LIKE IT – The Pittsburgh Zoo combines itself with an aquarium and is one of the few combos seen across the country. The zoo is located on 77 acres and is home to over 4,000 animals from 475 species. The zoo is fun as it is separated into seven thematic sections that include the Kid’s Kingdom and the Asian Forest. The Kid’s Kingdom allows the young ones to crawl through tunnels so they can see what it is like to be a meerkat.



WHY WE LIKE IT – The Brookfield Zoo is Chicago’s largest zoo. It first started seeing customers in 1934 and since that time has expanded to housing over 2,300 animals over its 216 acres. This zoo is very well known for using moats and ditches instead of using cages to keep the animals contained, giving them much more freedom to roam.



WHY WE LIKE IT – Since 1909, the Forth Worth Zoo has been not only educating visitors but also being known as the only zoo in the nation that offers animals from all four great ape species. Besides this, the Forth Worth Zoo is considered one of the best zoos in the U.S. for other fun activities such as the Texas Wild! Petting Corral, a fun carousel, and a laser target shooting gallery.



WHY WE LIKE IT – The Bronx Zoo is not only one of the oldest zoos in the nation, but it is also one of the largest, sitting on 265 acres. The resides only a few miles to the northeast of the new Yankee Stadium and will get over two million visitors each year. It is considered one of the best zoos in the U.S. because it houses over 4,000 animals that represent over 650 species. This place is huge.



WHY WE LIKE IT – How can you not mention the San Diego Zoo as one of the best zoos in the U.S.? The place is world famous and a major destination for those visiting the West Coast. The zoo has over 3,700 animals that represent 650 species and was the very first zoo to introduce cageless enclosures. There is so much to see and do at the San Diego Zoo that one day won’t cut it.



WHY WE LIKE IT – Another one of the oldest zoos in the country. The Lincoln Park Zoo is also one of the smallest, sitting on a mere 35 acres. For one to get in and see the over 1,100 animals from 200 species you will not have to spend a cent as admission is free. One of the highlights that aren’t animal related is the burr oak tree that sits smack dab in the middle of the zoo. This tree is older than the city itself.


The above are just a few zoos that are considered to be the best zoos in the U.S. There are plenty of others that get a shout out which include Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado; St. Louis Zoo in St. Louis, Missouri; Memphis Zoo in Memphis, Tennessee; Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon; and Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Florida. How many of these have you been to?