The opportunity to view giant pandas is an excellent reason to put the National Zoo on your D.C. trip itinerary.
Only three zoos in the U.S. have pandas. (The other two are Atlanta and Memphis. When I first wrote this article in 2012, San Diego also had pandas, but they have since been returned to China.) Other reasons to include the National Zoo on your D.C. vacation are that it has free admission and that it is a nice change of pace from memorials, government buildings, and museums. Don’t get me wrong–we loved seeing all that stuff, but I like every vacation to have a variety of activities.
The zoo entrance is hard to miss.
When planning your visit to the National Zoo, keep in mind that the zoo grounds are open for longer hours than the exhibit buildings. We were there for a late afternoon and evening visit, so we planned to see the building exhibits during the earlier part of our visit.
The zoo is laid out with a single main walking path through the zoo, with some smaller side paths to different exhibits. The walk is all downhill which means that at the end of our visit, you have to walk uphill to get back to the entrance, so keep that in mind. My family’s top priority was to see the pandas, which are located close to the entrance. But before the pandas, we stopped to see a couple of animals on the way. Cheetahs are such amazing animals!
Here are some oryx:
Did I impress you that I knew what those were? In actuality, I had to look them up. The website says they are desert antelope. I also found out they are extinct in the wild.
Then we went to see the pandas. When we visited, the National Zoo had two adult pandas, the male Tian Tian, and female Mei Xiang.
During our visit we saw a very hungry panda. I tried figuring out whether this is Tian Tian or Mei Xiang by comparing it to the zoo’s pictures, but I’m just not sure. If I had to guess, I’d pick Mei Xiang.
Are there any panda experts who can figure it out? Here’s a side view:
Another highlight of our visit was watching the orangutans. Researchers at the National Zoo perform research on how animals think at the Think Tank Exhibit. Outside there is an overhead line where orangutans can travel between the Think Tank and the Great Apes exhibit building. I love this photo of my son and an orangutan staring at each other. I wonder what the orangutan is thinking. My guess is, “I want a pair of glasses like that,” but I’m not an animal researcher, so I can’t be sure.
I was not in the mood for reptiles that day, so I handed my camera to one of the kids to take into the Reptile Discovery Center. This was the picture I got:
I’m glad I wasn’t nose-to-nose with that thing!
The National Zoo has many other exhibits that either we didn’t have time to see or I didn’t photograph. Amazonia is a 15,000 square-foot rainforest exhibit that combines fish with tropical vegetation and animals like frogs and monkeys. Kids can interact with animals at the Kids’ Farm. Prairie Dog lovers will want to check out the Prairie Playland. Depending on your family’s interests, you might want to include the Great Cats, Lemur Island, Invertebrates, or Bird House in your visit.
Daily Activities include various demonstrations such as a Great Ape Research Demo in the Think Tank, spider and fish feeding, and many more. The website or app will have the most current information on the daily programs. Make sure to check the schedule and plan your visit accordingly.Smithsonian National Zoological Park
This attraction appears in my e-book, How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips.
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