A Guide To The Smithsonian’s National Zoo

September 20, 2013 8:00 AM

A sloth bear cub (Hank) was born at the National Zoo on Dec. 19, 2012. (Photo credit: Abby Wood, Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

The nation’s capital is home to one of the best zoos in the world with more than 400 species of animals in one large, 163-acre park in the center of the city. The best part is that it’s free and open to the public 364 days per year. Refer to this guide on your next visit.

Smithsonian’s National Zoo
3001 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008
(202) 633-4888

Getting There

The zoo is easily accessible by foot, car, bus or metro. The metro station is not located at the zoo, but rather in between two metro stops on Connecticut Avenue NW: Woodley Park and Cleveland Park. It’s about a quarter of a mile, but you can hop a bus line if you don’t feel like walking. Parking at the zoo is easily accessible, but often crowded and costs $16 for up to three hours, and then $22 after that. The weekends tend to be very busy, so the best way to access the park is through the Rock Creek Parkway entrance to avoid a long line. You can also reserve a space in advance on the website.

Giant Pandas

The giant pandas in the National Zoo have long become an icon of Washington, DC. On loan from China until 2015, the pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have been viewed by millions of visitors. Their exhibit is expansive and runs from their indoor playing area out to a large enclosure where you’ll often find the lazy bears resting in a tree chomping on the bamboo forest. The zoo recently closed the indoor exhibit, but the bears can still be seen on the zoo’s webcam. If you love the gorgeous red pandas, be sure to visit their exhibit on the Asia Trail.

Kids’ Farm

The kids’ farm is a great place for children to learn about and interact with several different species. A truly educational experience, animal caretakers talk about how they care for hogs, cows, donkeys, goats and alpacas. The Caring Corral allows children the opportunity to help groom both goats and donkeys along with the staff. The pizza garden offers kids a look at how different ingredients that go into making a pizza are grown.

Asian Elephants

The newly developed Elephant Trails exhibit offers an expansive habitat for these giants. With both indoor and outdoor options, visitors can see the elephants up close and romping outdoors. There are several viewing areas along the elephant trek. The one view is seen from high above when you walk through the Asia Trail near the giant pandas. Then the other is its own designated Elephant Trail that leads into the American Trail. Indoors, it’s common to see the elephants playing with their tire swings.

Related: Best Zoo and Aquarium Events in Washington DC


Many birds in the zoo are free to roam as they are not easily kept in the Bird House. Remain vigilant in your walks around the zoo as there are birds located all over the park, including some that just fly in to join. The Bird House is a feast for the eyes with many species large and small. The exhibit includes smaller cages for the birds and then opens up into a tropical forest with free-flying birds that move from branch to branch or walk around the floor as you stroll through their natural environment. Located outside of the Bird House is a large outdoor flight cage that allows birds to interact in an extended outdoor environment. Practice your bird-spotting skills as you watch the vibrant peacock, stately wood ducks or hard-to-spot cormorant. Check out the ponds nearby for large birds like cranes or flamingos.

3417 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008
(202) 244-7995

After a long day at the zoo, you’ll want to sit down with a nice glass of wine and enjoy some local food at the gorgeous and whimsical Ripple located a little north of the zoo on Connecticut Avenue NW in Cleveland Park. Sit down in the gorgeously adorned restaurant or belly up to the bar where you can enjoy a great selection of wines from both Europe and the US with multiple rosés, crafted cocktails and beers. Its dinner menu features modern American cuisine that changes daily because the restaurant’s ingredients are sourced from local farms. Ripple has a wide selection of artisanal cheeses and charcuterie, including its own house-made smoked pork rillettes, chicken liver parfait and testa-trotter terrine. Early in the evening and late at night, the bar offers gourmet grilled cheese filled with delicious ingredients that your mother never dreamed of putting together. Be sure to save room for the house-made ice creams and desserts.

Related: Best Bars for Foodies in Washington DC

Jamie Hardin is the counter-culture Washingtonian in the know. Inspired by food, sustainability issues, and public health, she prides herself on finding DC’s off-the-beaten path treasures. When she isn’t enjoying organic food or reducing her carbon footprint, Jamie’s traveling on her scooter or walking her two pit bulls. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.

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