Pandas, elephants, tigers—Smithsonian’s National Zoo has them all … and for FREE. The Zoo houses a whopping 2,000 animals from 400 different species—of which close to twenty-five percent are endangered, like giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Set in Rock Creek Park, the 163-acre National Zoo attracts more than two million visitors each year and, like its sister Smithsonian museums, admission is completely free. It operates every day except Dec. 25 and its grounds are open between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the winter. Many of the animals can be seen outside, such as lions, zebras and birds, while some exhibits are entirely indoors. The National Zoo is a national treasure that’s fun for the whole family.
Use the National Zoo map to plan the exhibits you want to see on your visit. Lions, cheetahs, gazelles and zebras are among the creatures comprising the African Savanna, while Amazonia features everything from poisonous frogs to two-toed sloths and other tropical rainforest dwellers. For a more native experience, wander the American Trail and see the gray wolf, California sea lions and the regal bald eagle. Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and baby Bao Bao, the famous giant pandas, can be found along the Asia Trail, near the popular Elephant Trails exhibit’s four resident Asian elephants. Use your brain at Think Tank, where orangutans hang out. And for a unique hands-on approach, visit Kids’ Farm, where children can interact with alpacas, cows, donkeys and more.
Smithsonian’s National Zoo is one of only four zoos in the U.S. which currently house giant pandas (and a baby panda cub!). The two adult panda tenants here are named Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, both on a ten-year loan from China as part of a successful research and breeding program. The cub, a girl named Bao Bao, was born in August 2013 and is not the panda couple's only offspring.
In 2005 Mei Xiang gave birth to Tai Shan, who was sent back to China in 2010. The indoor-outdoor Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat is home for these two creatures, whose species, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, literally means "black and white cat-foot.” The two giant pandas are endangered and are among an estimated 1,900 remaining in the world today (1,600 of which live in the wild in Central China). If you can’t wait any longer and have to see the pandas ASAP, head here to get a live camera look-in.
Seeing exhibits is a great way to experience the National Zoo, but on any given day, there are also other one-of-a-kind programs. Spend 15 minutes learning about how sloth bears eat or meet a great ape keeper and ask all your burning questions about gorillas and orangutans. For a complete list of the daily programs, click here. In an effort to inform others and to promote conservation science, the Zoo hosts a number of educational programs, like Snore and Roar Overnights, Conservation Campouts and even Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) classes for all age groups. The National Zoo also hosts fundraisers and events, like Brew at the Zoo in summer or Halloween’s Boo at the Zoo.
One of the easiest ways to get to the Zoo is via public transportation. The front entrance rests between two Red Line Metro Stations, Woodley Park Zoo/Adams Morgan and Cleveland Park. Each station is about a .4 mile walk from the front gates of the National Zoo on Connecticut Avenue. Meanwhile, the McPherson Square Circulator bus ends its route at the Woodley Park metro stop. Capital Bikeshare has two docks, one at the front entrance on Connecticut Avenue and another in the rear entrance at the Harvard Street gate. If you’re traveling in a car, you can park at the zoo—the first three hours costs $16.
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo was founded in 1889 by an Act of Congress. There is a second campus of the National Zoo known as the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which exists in Front Royal, Va. The majority of the zoo’s funding comes from the federal government, while donations from the FONZ total as much as $8 million annually. The Zoo’s zoological medicine residency training program and professional conservation and veterinary medicine courses have educated more than 2,000 people from 80 countries.
Familiarize yourself with the rules of the park. For instance, scooters, bicycles and wheelie shoes are prohibited on the grounds. Grilling is not allowed at the zoo, but there are plenty of food options and kiosks to keep hunger at bay. There is a free shuttle that operates on the hour between the Kids’ Farm and Panda Plaza/Bus Lot from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. during summer. All exhibits are wheelchair-accessible, and non-motorized wheelchairs or electronic vehicles can be rented for a fee.