Spending a day at the National Zoo is a perfect outing with children: admission is free, the gates are open from dawn to dusk, and it’s a great alternative to being cooped up inside a museum.
But let’s be honest: the average two year old isn’t particularly interested in taxonomic classifications, and she doesn’t care to observe the gazelle that is sleeping under a bush in the far corner of its enclosure. Here are some tips on how to keep your trip to the National Zoo smooth and happy:
Take the Metro and Walk
The National Zoo is located on Metro’s Red Line, in between the Cleveland Park metro stop and the Woodley Park/National Zoo metro stop. Get off at the Cleveland Park stop when going to the zoo: head south, on Connecticut Avenue, and the walk will be downhill. When you leave, head south again (also downhill!) toward the Woodley Park stop.
Washington Hilton is also located a little over one mile south of the National Zoo on Connecticut Avenue and is about a 20 minute walk from the zoo.
Driving to the National Zoo
Some of the best highlights for smaller children are located at the National Zoo’s entrance off of Rock Creek Parkway. Consider parking in Lot D: you will be a stone’s throw from the Kids’ Farm, the Carousel, the Prairie Dog Playland, and the rest rooms. Another benefit of starting from Lot D: The zoo is built on a very steep hill; if you start uphill at the beginning of your journey, you will be grateful to head downhill at the end of the day!
Plan to arrive early — most of the parking spaces are taken by 10:30 am during the most popular times of the year. Also note that there is a cost to park at the National Zoo, currently $16 for up to three hours and then $22 for more than three hours. If you are a regular zoo goer, one option to consider is a FONZ membership that continuously gives back with discounted or free parking and also offers reciprocal benefits of discounted or free admission at other participating zoos. And there are some great ones on this list!
Should I Bring a Stroller?
If your child will still sit in one, bring it! The paths are often long and uphill. If you forgot your stroller, you can rent one. There is a stroller kiosk across from the entrance to the Kids’ Farm and another near the Panda Plaza. Keep in mind that some buildings do not allow strollers inside — always bring your valuables along with you!
Little Kid Favorites
The Kids’ Farm offers a small petting and grooming stable, and a larger than life pizza that serves as a jungle gym, which reopens later this month. The solar powered Carousel, located across from the Prairie Dog Playground, is a fantastic brand new addition. Another new feature for warmer weather is the splash park across from the seal and sea lion exhibit on the American Trail.
Check out the Bird House’s Outdoor Flight Cage, even though it’s off the beaten path. We rarely see many other people in the cage when we are there, and the free flying birds are active and curious about visitors. I’ve been pickpocketed by a cormorant, and the boys have had some excellent close encounters with peacocks and exotic ducks.
Another favorite is the Invertebrate Exhibit, tucked behind the Reptile Discovery House. Check out the nautilus, the busy spiders and the Pollinarium, where you can walk inside a room of flitting butterflies.
Best Time to Visit
As you might expect, the animals are happier and most active when the weather is cooler so visiting in the fall or spring is ideal. But if your travels only bring you near the National Zoo in the summer, don’t fret. Just arrive early. The grounds open at 6 a.m. and you’ll find plenty to explore before the exhibit buildings open at 10 a.m. And if your children have a favorite animal they hope to learn more about, make sure to look at the daily program guide before you arrive to time your visit so that you’re near that area when you need to be.
Restaurants near the National Zoo
If possible, do not eat at the zoo. The cafeterias are expensive, crowded and serve disappointing fare at best. For something quick, you would be better off at Open City or Chipotle in Woodley Park, or Firehook Bakery or California Tortilla in Cleveland Park. And good news: there is a Starbucks right across from the zoo entrance on Connecticut Avenue!
Get the App!
For $1.99 you can have the “Smithsonian’s National Zoo” app: it’s the same price as a paper map, and offers a daily, updated description of all tours and activities.
Many people think their visit to the zoo will be “free,” and are surprised when parking, food, even maps cost more then they expected. Remember that the National Zoo is supported primarily by taxpayer dollars, and it struggles to maintain the well-being of its animals on that budget; extra income made from parking and other services is sorely needed to keep the Zoo open and available to everyone.
Know Before You Go