Ultimate Family Guide to Visiting the National Zoo
Mom 'n Dad Co.'s ultimate guide to taking your family to the Smithsonian National Zoo.
Table of Contents
Whether you've got kids or not, the National Zoo is awesome. The 163 acre park, situated within Rock Creek Park, brings in 1.8 million visitors per year to enjoy looking at and learning about 2000 animals.
And it's free.
This ultimate guide to the National Zoo will help you and your family get the most out of your trip, whether you go once in your lifetime or once a week.
Let me start with my top tip for the National Zoo: Premier membership. Yes, the Zoo is free. But if you've got kids and plan to visit the Zoo even just two times in a year, it's a no-brainer. For $92, you get three parking passes ($30 each), discounts at the restaurants and shopping in the park, and free, unlimited rides on the carousel – which otherwise costs $4 per ride. Plus, it's tax deductible.
Basic Facts about the Smithsonian National Zoo
Address: 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., last admittance 3 p.m. Open every day except December 25.
Prices: The Zoo is free! It costs $30 to park. Reserve passes here.
Phone number: 202-633-2614
Getting to the Zoo
You can take the Metro to the Zoo. The Zoo's on the Red Line between the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Station and the Cleveland Park Station. Even though "Zoo" is right there in the name of the other station, the walk from each station is roughly the same. From Cleveland Park it's downhill to the Zoo, so some folks recommend that stop.
But it's gonna be uphill when you leave the Zoo. When do you think you'll be more tired?
If you get off the Metro at Cleveland Park, walk in the direction that puts Target on your left. You should quickly get to Macomb St NW and the library. Continue on and the Zoo is on your left.
If you get off the Metro at Woodley Park-Zoo, go in the direction that puts the stores and shops on your right. To your left will be a big grassy hill bordered with a stone wall. Because "Zoo" is in the name of this stop, there's probably going to be other people heading toward the Zoo from here too.
It's about a seven to ten minute walk. Here's a tip if you've never been before: there is a Starbucks right outside the entrance most convenient to the Metro.
In our family, we generally drive to the Zoo. Get there using your GPS, but be advised that you might want to use the address on Connecticut Avenue (3001 Connecticut Ave NW) because you can end up going all the way around the Zoo if you come up Beach Dr. from the Rock Creek Parkway.
Parking is $30 in advance. Make sure you book this before you go because it sells out. It is theoretically possible to find street parking and walk to the Zoo without paying $30, but I can't remember a time I accomplished that, even after looking for an hour. To me, it's not worth the gamble. If you are going to come back to the Zoo in the same year, you should definitely get a Premier Membership. They don't pay me to recommend that, but they are welcome to.
You likely won't have a choice of which lot to park in. They are all fine, but the best ones IMO are lots E and D. They lie at the bottom of the hill, which means you are going uphill while you are freshest and downhill on the way back to the car. The playground and Kids' Farm are close by.
Where to Eat at the National Zoo
Food for Sale in the Zoo
🍔 Elevation Burger at the Mane Grill. Hours: 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Despite not being particularly good, the food we get most often at the Zoo is from Elevation Burger. It's at the bottom of the hill near the playground, Kids' Farm, big cats, and carousel, so it's a natural stopping point for us. I love that there is a veggie burger option, and kids will find the chicken tenders and fries yummy (though not exactly nutritious).
There's some outside seating, which is normally pretty competitive during lunchtime. Inside there's a lot more seating, and in the summer it can be nice to be in the AC for a while.
🥨 Auntie Anne's & Carvel. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
This is right outside the Mane Grill. We love the lemonades!
🍕 Sbarro. Hours: 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
It's pizza. It's Sbarro. It's...fine. This is in Panda Plaza, which is an outdoor food court.
Food Trucks -
- 🍦Ben & Jerry's - the location I am familiar with is near the entrance at the bottom of the hill, near the playground. While I love B&J's, for me it is a strictly after-sunset food, so I have no personal experience with what is available at this truck. Feel free to share your knowledge in the comments!
- 🍖 Bootheel Bar B Que - once upon a time, I was not a vegetarian. Back then, I tried BBQ from Bootheel, and found it only ok and very expensive. Your mileage may vary.
Located in Panda Plaza.
- 🍦Dippin Dots - it's Dippin Dots! They're not just for malls anymore. If I'm remembering correctly, this is near the carousel.
- 🍦Dolci Gelati - Along the same lines as B&J's and Dippin Dots, we don't normally get gelato. I'm too busy inhaling coffee and chasing my toddler. Please share your info in the comments.
- 🍿Popcorn Wagon - Another trip to the Zoo is needed...for research. Drop us a line if you have the info!
- Vintage Views - You may not bring your own alcohol to the Zoo, but it's available for sale. Vintage Views sells craft cocktails out of a cute trailer. My experience here is the lemonade, which was...not a good value. Tasty, yes, but do not buy the lemonade.
Bringing Food and Where to Picnic
If buying the Zoo food isn't your thing, you can bring your own food to the Zoo. Whether you make a lunch at home or pick up something to go, there are a lot of good places to sit and enjoy what you've brought. The only rule is no alcohol (well, and don't feed the animals – do I need to tell you that?).
Some of the best options for picnicking are:
- the grassy field near the big cats and the Mane Grill,
- the benches along the Zoo paths
- the (shaded!) tables on the path connecting the Elephant House to the American Trail
- the Great Meadow, a grassy field near the Think Tank
- the tables in Panda Plaza, although there is a lot of competition for somewhere to sit at lunch
Food for Sale Near the Zoo
Zoo members and visitors get discounts and certain restaurants near the Zoo. Check them out on this page. As long as it's not alcohol, you can bring it into the Zoo to eat it there if you like.
Best Times to Visit the National Zoo
Get to the Zoo when it opens. In the hot months it's less hot in the morning. In the cold months it'll be less crowded in the indoor exhibits.
Plus, although the Zoo's website says it takes two to three hours to see everything in the Zoo, there's just no way to do that. Sure, you may only stay that long, but you did not see everything – especially not if you are going on the carousel or stopping to eat. Getting to the Zoo early gives you more opportunity to stay longer if you want.
If you're driving, the biggest consideration will be traffic and how you can minimize time spent in traffic. Early on a weekend is a safe bet.
Of course weekends and holidays (like Labor Day, less so Thanksgiving) are more crowded. If avoiding crowds is your goal, remember you can visit the Zoo on a rainy day and spend time at indoor exhibits like the Reptile House, Small Mammal House, or Amazonia.
For times of year, our favorites are fall and spring. In cold weather, many of the animals who have a choice about it go inside, which sometimes means you won't see them.
Things to do with Kids at the National Zoo
Seeing amazing animals isn't enough?! Fair. Here are some of the great other things available for kids at the Zoo.
- Carousel. Divided into four habitats and featuring animals from each, the carousel is loads of fun for young kids. It's near the big cats – another favorite spot for kids as they typically love lions and tigers – and you can't miss its carnival music. Tickets are $4 per ride per rider, but with a Premier Membership you can ride unlimited. Little kids needs a parent or guardian to ride with them.
- Playground. Near the Kids' Farm at the bottom of the hill is a playground. It's also convenient to some bathrooms and the stroller rental, so it's a great place to visit early in your trip. Equipment is on the limited side, with a few pieces for climbing and one slide. It's less of a "let's play on the playground" playground and more of a "mom's using the bathroom so climb on this for a second" playground.
There's also a little playground area near the prairie dogs. It had been closed for a long time, but I believe it is now open again.
- 🐄 Kids' farm. As much as I love seeing exotic animals, it seems kids like seeing what's familiar. And after so much singing about Old MacDonald, the Zoo lets kids see the real thing. There's cows. There's goats. There's alpacas (I always forget those when I sing Old MacDonald). Allegedly there is a pig, but I have not seen it in many visits.
- Squirt Zone. Great for hot months, this is a water play pad area along the American Trail. Plan ahead, because your kid can definitely get so soaked they need a change of clothes.
- Interactive kid kiosks. Throughout the park there are hands-on activities for kids. In the Elephant House there are several interactive displays, as well as at the top end of the American Trail and around the big cats. There are too many to list, so be on the lookout for them and encourage your children to use them – they are fun and educational. Fun-ucational.
This post is updated regularly! Our goal is to provide the best information and advice to you we can. Is your question about taking your family to the Zoo not answered here? Do you have an amazing tip you'd like to share? Comment below!
Mom 'n Dad Co Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.