Fun & Weird

How to See the Wild Animals In DC

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The Washington DC Zoo, officially known as the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, is a great place to visit whether you’re a tourist taking the sights or a local out for a stroll. It’s bigger than it looks though, so here is some info to help make the most of your visit.

Admission is Free

The Washington DC Zoo can’t compare to the likes of the San Diego Zoo, but it comes with one big advantage! It’s free and doesn’t require tickets, saving you the $20+ charged by other zoos around the US.

Washington DC Zoo Seal Feeding

Getting There

The zoo is located in Washington, DC so you don’t need a car to get there. If you’re taking the metro though you do need a little bit of stamina — it’s .4 miles slightly uphill from the Woodley Park-Zoo Metro stop and .8 miles slightly downhill from the Cleveland Park Metro station. If entering on the East entrance, its .8 of a mile from the Columbia Heights Metro Station.

This doesn’t sound like much, but the zoo is deceptively large and you’ll easily get your 10,000 steps for the day wandering the exhibits. So if you’re staying downtown and have small children, I suggest splurging on UberX to get there and save your stamina for the fun stuff. FYI: UberX in DC is at least 25% cheaper than taxis.


If you will be driving in, parking at the Zoo is $22 for the day and often fills up by noon on peak weekends. There is also very limited metered parking on Connecticut Avenue or you can check out Parking Panda for nearby discounted options or to reserve your parking spot in advance. If you plan to visit the zoo multiple times in a year, consider signing for Premier Membership for $80 which comes with free parking.

When to Go

During the summer the Washington zoo grounds open at 6AM and close at 8PM, the exhibit buildings (think birds, elephants, monkeys, etc) are open 10AM-6PM. GO EARLY! Show up at 8:30 or so and see the animals in their enclosures, by the time you’ve finished that, the buildings, located mostly at the eastern side of the park will be opening.

Washington DC Zoo Lions Playing

Washington DC Zoo Big Cats at Play

3 good reasons to go early:

  1. The animals are active. I tended to downplay that, but for the first time last Sunday saw the pandas running around, the elephants trumpeting, the big cats playing with each other, etc. Definitely a better experience than seeing them sleeping in the shade.
  2. Much much cooler! DC summers can be a nightmare with heat indexes well over 100 degrees. At 8:30, it’s in the 80s and much more enjoyable.
  3. Way fewer crowds. There will still be a lot of people in the zoo, but about a 1/5 of the crowds you’ll see going in the middle of the day.

Beware the Hill

The Washington DC Zoo sits on a substantial hill running the length of the park. So if your way out is Connecticut Avenue, be aware you have a bit of a climb on your way out. If you take public transportation to get to the zoo, consider starting at Connecticut Avenue, working your way down to the Harvard Bridge Entrance and catching an Uber or Lyft from there to the nearest metro.

Where to Eat

The in-zoo options feature the usual array of ice creams, lemonades, popcorn, pizza, etc but there are slightly more interesting options as well. There’s a Po’ Boy stand near the Panda Trail, Grilled Salmon, and Fetoosh salads, even gourmet hot dog options.

Directly across from the Connecticut Ave entrance is an upscale 7-Eleven offering packaged sandwiches and other deli items. South of the Woodly Park-Zoo metro is a McDonald’s and Chipotle. Also a Lebanese Taverna location which is quite good!

Head north to Cleveland Park and there’s a wider variety of food options including Fat Pete’s one of DC’s best BBQ places (supposedly).

Don’t Miss

Tucked down by the Harvard Bridge entrance are the sea life exhibits. The Amazonia Exhibit house is surprisingly well done. See giant fish, piranhas, and even a miniature rain forest on the second floor which doesn’t seem possible within the DC city limits.

Washingto DC Zoo amazonia exhibit copyright Heels First Travel

The seal exhibit also offers many great underwater viewing options and has a water play area great for kids, or for cooling off your feet on a hot day. 🙂

Washington DC Zoo water playground

And I’m not a big fan of monkeys, gorillas or orangutans, but the zoo does have a cool feature: the O Line. It’s a series of cables hung high above the ground in between the primate house and another exhibit hall that allows the orangutans to move freely between the two buildings outside. Pretty cool!

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