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The Smithsonian National Zoo, a review

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Everything you need to know about visiting the Smithsonian National Zoo with kids.

We’re not big ones for zoos on our travels, once you’ve seen one group of caged animals, you’ve pretty much seen them all but on researching our trip to Washington I kept hearing such great things about the conservation work the Smithsonian National Zoo does, I knew we had to visit.

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Like all Smithsonian institutes, a visit to the zoo is completely free so it can be a great value day out. I highly recommend getting the metro – it’s about a 15 minute walk from the Woodley Park stop but it will save you around $20 for parking and feel free to bring a picnic, there are some pretty good restaurants onsite but if you’re on a budget, no one will mind you bringing a packed lunch to enjoy at one of the many seating areas.

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We only bought some dippin’ dots ($5 from a vending machine), I totally blame Youtube for this craze!

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Unlike most other Washington attractions, the Zoo opens at 8am (grounds) and 9 am (buildings) and I advise getting there as early as you can. The animals are more likely to be up and about before it gets too hot and the crowds really arrive at lunchtime. If you’re visiting from the UK, take advantage of the jetlag and start early.

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I loved how large the elephant enclosure is, these are beautiful, elegant and absolutely huge creatures and they deserve plenty of space to call home. The zoo is home to seven Asian elephants and you can watch their keepers feed and shower them on a daily basis inside.

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The Giant Panda exhibit was probably our favourite, we’ve never seen them before but I think it’s also everyone else’s favourite as it was the busiest part of our visit. They are on loan from China and the zoo works very closely with researchers to progress conservation efforts for these vulnerable creatures.  

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The indoor exhibits were an absolute saviour in the DC heat so we spent quite a lot of time exploring inside. We loved the small mammals house, although it was a little smelly, the little monkeys were super cute.

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We also loved the rats exhibit with its cute tunnels and living areas. We learnt all about how smart they are, how great their short term memories are for navigating mazes, their natural habitats and the usual misconceptions we have. The naked mole rats were like nothing I’ve ever seen but totally adorable!

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The great ape house was fantastic, It was great watching the apes play with their toys and interact with each other. There’s also a fab walkway/swingway for the orangutans, brilliant to watch when the weather’s good, you can then visit the 7 onsite orangutans in the Think Tank although the two males are not housed together.

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The great cats exhibit will give you goosebumps, they have lions and tigers, make sure you visit this area as early as possible, although the cats have plenty of shade, they will be pretty lethargic when it gets hot.

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In the reptile house you’ll find frogs, giant tortoises, salamanders and alligators.

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Alongside lizards, komodo dragons and loads of snakes. It’s a lovely, cool environment.

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The seals and sea lions were amazing, you can view them from under the water and outside of the water, swimming and playing.

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Another great thing about this zoo is that it is very well geared up for coping with kids in the heat, there are plenty of spray stations dotted about which Piper loved hunting down.

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There's also a great little splash pad down by the seals, we didn’t need a change of clothes as we dried out so quickly but you might want to take one just incase.

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There’s also a lovely carousel you can buy tickets for just $3.50, great fun if you fancy a break from the animals. All profits go to the conservation initiatives carried out by the zoo.

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There are loads of opportunities to learn about conservation as you go around and some interactive exhibits alongside the animal enclosures. It made for some great conversations with Piper about the impact we’re having on our planet and the creatures who call it home.

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As you can see, we covered a lot of ground and visited many of the enclosures but we still didn’t manage to see it all. Make sure to pace yourself, especially in the heat take plenty of breaks and spend time indoors. If you have enough time in DC, you can always return – it’s free, if you’ve only got a morning, plan your visit beforehand to make sure you see the kids favourites. There are numerous webcams you can watch if you miss anything and be sure to visit the website for guide sheets and activities so the kids can learn more before or after your visit.

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There’s a kids petting zoo which we didn’t have time to visit but it looked like it would be great fun for little ones.

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The zoo is built on a hill so if you’re visiting with really little ones it might be best to start at the bottom (near the petting zoo and work your way up so you don’t have to carry kids back up the hill at the end of the day.

Have you been to the Smithsonian National Zoo with kids? We’d love to hear what you think, just leave us a review of the zoo or pop a comment below. 

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What you need to know

Smithsonian National Zoo

3001 Connecticut Ave.,

NW Washington,

DC 20008

 202-633-4888

Closest metro stations are Cleveland Park and Woodley Park

Opening hours

Grounds: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (last admittance 6 p.m.) | 5 p.m. closing in winter
Exhibit Buildings: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. | 4 p.m. closing in winter (Amazonia opens at 10 a.m. year round)
Dining & Shopping: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. | 4 p.m. closing in winter
Visitor Center: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. | 4 p.m. closing in winter

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If you're looking for things to do in Washington DC, you might also enjoy our review of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum 

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