Lion roaring at The Smithsonian Zoo in D.C.

Across the US, you will only find a limited number of free zoos. One of these happens to be the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C. As this zoo is one of only 3 US zoos home to pandas, there is a great incentive to make room for the zoo during your D.C. visit. If you can pull yourself away from all the historical attractions for a bit, this zoo is a nice place to enjoy nature away from the bustling Capitol Hill crowds.

While most free zoos are pretty small, The Smithsonian National Zoo is quite large at 163 acres. 2700 animals, including 390 diverse species, call this zoo home. The animals all have nice nature-inspired enclosures and the grounds are spacious enough to get in a nice workout. The terrain is a bit hilly, so be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes!

Conservation efforts at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia include global efforts to save endangered wildlife species. Scientists study more than 20 species including the once extinct
black-footed ferrets.

Below are a few of the can’t-miss exhibits!

The Pandas

Panda at the Smithsonian Zoo in DC

The highlight of the zoo is definitely the Panda exhibit. You will want to head straight over here as soon as you arrive to beat the crowds. If you are lucky, the pandas will be up eating bamboo, climbing trees, and frockling about. The zoo currently houses 3 pandas. Each panda lives in a separate enclosure to ensure no fighting. Check out the zoo’s panda cam to see Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Bei Bei in action.

Why do we love pandas?

Adorable panda at the Smithsonian National Zoo in DC

Why do we all love Pandas? Is it because they are so rare, being native only to China? Perhaps, the endangerment factor plays a role? Or, it could be because they look so exotic in comparison to other bears? Moreso, the real reason is because we all find them completely adorable! People come from all over the world to see the Pandas at these 4 US zoos, with the pandas being the prime attraction and tourist driver at each one.

Asian Elephants

Asian elephants at the Smithsonian National Zoo in DC

Asian elephants are much smaller than their African counterparts which you typically see at zoos. They inhabit parts of India and Southeast Asia, although poaching and habitat loss have placed them on the endangered list. The Asian Elephant exhibit at the Smithsonian Zoo is very nice, and conveniently located right behind the Panda exhibit.

Gorgeous Asian elephant at the Smithsonian National Zoo in DC

Scientists at the Institute have been studying these beautiful mammals for more than 50 years, both at the zoo and in the wild. By studying their genetics, biology, & behavior, scientists are able to give them a better life at the zoo, as well as save many in the wild.

On an interesting side note, they are extremely intelligent, so much so that they can recognize themselves in the mirror! Besides humans, only dolphins and apes have this level of self awareness.

Big Beautiful Cats

Lion relaxing at the Smithsonian National Zoo in DC

After the pandas, the Big Cats exhibit is the next best part about visiting The Smithsonian Zoo. Lions and tigers are such awe-inspiring animals, and a highlight of any visit to a zoo is seeing these magnificent cats up close. We were lucky enough to hear a lion roaring early in the morning! On hot days, you may have the rare opportunity to see the cats take a dip in the water!

Cheetah Conservation Station

Cheetahs at the Smithsonian National Zoo in DC

To encourage the cheetahs to hunt as they naturally would in the wild, zookeepers hide food throughout the exhibit. This also keeps the cheetahs moving around, ensuring they get plenty of exercise.

Gorgeous cheetah at the Smithsonian National Zoo in DC

The zoo is home to 3 male cheetahs: Justin (named after Olympian bronze medalist Justin Gatlin), and Donnie & Copley, whom were transferred from the San Diego Zoo.

Update: As of 2023, 2 female cheetahs, Sarah and Carmelita, inhabit the conservation.

Gray wolves

Gray wolf at the Smithsonian National Zoo in DC

Gray wolves are the largest member of the canine family. While at one point they possessed the largest land range of all mammals, they now are exclusively found in North America.

Pictured above is Coby. Unfortunately, in late April Coby’s littermate Crystal passed away at the age of 14.


The Smithsonian zoo houses over a dozen species of primates. The Great Ape House will give you the opportunity to view gorillas and orangutans up close.

Allen’s swamp monkeys, lemurs, Norway rats, and white cheeked gibbons are also found within the exhibit.

Of course, there is much more to see! Check out the full list of animals currently inhabiting the Smithsonian Zoo.

Best time to visit

The morning hours here are so peaceful, especially for the first hour or so after opening. You will even see many locals taking advantage of the tranquil setting by jogging or racking up miles on their pedometers. Then, all the school field trips and locals begin to arrive, and the place gets busy! I highly recommend getting up early and getting to the zoo right at opening to enjoy the grounds crowd-free (for at least a little bit.)

Overall, this is a great zoo to visit while vacationing in D.C. All the exhibits are well-maintained and the animals seem to be well taken care of and happy with their surroundings. If you need a break from all the informative, yet exhausting museums and historical attractions in D.C., the zoo makes for a great little side trip. Despite the lengthy drive/uber ride, it’s well worth a visit for the leafy scenery and wonderful exhibits. Plus, a free zoo never hurt anyone!

Additional details

The zoo is located at: 3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008. Plan for a 30 minute drive/ride from the Capitol Hill region.

Admission is free, although there is a $30 parking fee. I recommend taking a Uber/Lyft (about $25 from the Capitol Hill region) as parking is often a hassle, especially during the busy spring and summer season. Additionally the Metro Bus and Rail both have stops directly in front of the zoo.

It’s best to reserve tickets online as only a handful of tickets are available at the gate. You do not want to get all the way over here only to be turned away.

Hours are 8am-5pm (summer), 8am-3pm (winter)