DC Zoo Tips - Smithsonian's National DC Zoo 2023

Museums Washington DC

The Smithsonian's National Zoo in DC is much more than your average zoo! It is a beautiful park on 163 acres with hundreds of animals, birds, reptiles, and of course, the world-famous pandas. The Zoo is also a live-action science research institute. Our family has enjoyed going to the Zoo since our kids were babies. Below are all my DC Zoo tips after over a dozen visits!

national DC zoo tips

Table of Contents:

  1. DC Zoo Hours and Ticket Information
  2. Parking and Metro at the National Zoo
  3. Best Time to View the Pandas
  4. Recommendations for Babies and Toddlers
  5. Recommendations for Elementary Age and Teens
  6. Food Options At the Zoo and Nearby
  7. Ways to Save at the National Zoo

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DC National Zoo Hours and Ticket Information

  • The Zoo is open every day from 8 AM to 4 PM (except December 25th). The last admittance is 3 PM.
  • Summer Hours: From July 1st to October 1st, the Zoo is open daily 8 AM to 6 PM with last admittance at 5 PM.
  • Cost: Free entry for everyone! But you must have timed entry passes. You can reserve your free passes here. (It does not "sell out" often, only on summer weekends)
  • See Parking Info for more about paid parking passes.

Mom Hacks for the DC Zoo

  1. Beat the Crowds: Weekends between 11 AM - 2 PM are the busiest times. It is a very large zoo so there are plenty of places to spread out from the crowds!
  2. Plan Your Day with "The Hill" in Mind!
  3. Unless your babies have a specific favorite animal at this age, the easiest visit is to stay in the lower half of the Zoo. That way you are not lugging all your gear up the hill and back!
  4. Gift Shop Alternative: (and more Money Saving Tips at the bottom of this post): A memorable alternative to the gift shops is a ride on the Conservation Carousel! Located halfway on the Zoo's hill, the carousel highlights beautiful animals and is a hit with kids and adults of all ages! Cost is $4 per ticket.
  5. ⁣In the summer, find the spray stations to stay cool and check out the indoor exhibits like the Primates which have AC!⁣
  6. The Zoo is completely paved and wheelchair and stroller friendly. However, please note that the Zoo is on a very large hill. I recommend parking at the bottom in Lot E so you can stroll downhill at the end of your visit.
    1. Wheelchair Rental: Currently manual wheelchairs are free to rent and Electronic Convenience Vehicle: $25 for members, $30 for non-members. More info on Accessibility here.
  7. Specific Zoo Rules: No pets except service dogs. No balloons, scooters, or bicycles are permitted although there are bike racks to lock up your bike at the entrances.
Panda DC Zoo Hours

Parking and Metro at the National Zoo DC

Parking at the DC Zoo

  • Paid Parking is available at the Zoo for a flat fee of $30 per vehicle or free with some Zoo Memberships.
  • Be aware that in the Spring and Summer months, parking can be filled early in the day. But now with pre-purchasing parking, you will know which days area available.
  • You can also look for street parking around the Zoo and reserve withSpot Hero. I've used Spot Hero in the past for DC and has worked out great. (not an affiliate or ad, just wanted to let you know my personal experience!)

Best Metro and Bus for the Zoo

The Zoo is equal distance from the Cleveland Park and Woodley Park Metro stops. I recommend Cleveland Park because you have to walk uphill from the Woodley Park Station. See www.wmata.com for schedules, maps and trip planner.

The L1 and L2 Buses stop in front of the Zoo's main entrance on Connecticut Ave.

dc panda national zoo

Best Time to View the Pandas at the DC Zoo

The Giant Panda Habitat is an amazing experience and the main attraction of the Zoo. The Pandas have an indoor viewing area on the Asia Trail and typically have outdoor access between 7:30 AM and 2 PM. (weather and Panda dependent!)

On peak days, there can be a wait to view the pandas indoors but recently when we've visited the line has moved very quickly. Since the National Zoo is also a research institute, you can see zookeepers watching the pandas and recording their movements. My kids love getting a peak into the life of a researcher!

And don't forget the cute red pandas right next door to the giant pandas.

Asia trail map at the DC zoo
panda viewing at the dc national zoo

Babies and Toddlers Tips for National Zoo

It is nearly impossible to narrow down the best places for babies and toddlers at the National Zoo because it is all so wonderful for this age! However after countless visits with my own kids and plenty of playdates with other children this age, below are my Top 3 Recommendations:

  1. Kids' Farm: Located at the bottom of the hill near Parking Lot D, the Kid's Farm is tons of fun for this age! There are tons of friendly animals including cows, hogs, chickens, the goofiest alpacas, and the funniest goats. There are also tons of hands-on activities/little games to play along the wooden pathway and also high fences to keep the running toddler along the path.
  2. Right after the Farm, make sure you check out one of the newest additions to the National Zoo, the Me and the Bee Playground! Located near the Farm and Conservation Pavilion, it's a 5,000 square feet outdoor playground with rubber surfacing which is great for babies who might be learning to walk. Kids can crawl inside hollow trees and climb on honeycombs and slides.
  3. Finally, make sure you venture into the Tide Pool on the American Trail near the Sea Lions. From June to October, the Tide Pool releases water for a fun surprise to cool off! (Open March-October)

DC Zoo Travel Tips for Babies:

  • The entire zoo is on a hill so strollers are a great idea!
  • Nursing: There are lots of shady benches for nursing outside. Also, the indoor exhibits all have benches (Reptile House, Great Ape House, Amazonia when open) that can be more private.
  • Check maps for bathrooms because sometimes they can be a 10-minute walk away! Very clean bathrooms are in the lower part of the Zoo near the Farm and behind the Mane Grill.
dc pandas national zoo tips

Elementary & Teens Age Can't-Miss Spots at the National Zoo

I recommend showing your kids the Zoo Map on your phone or purchasing one at the kiosk and asking them to pick 2 of the 3 colored sections to focus on. There is SO much to see at the Zoo that picking the Upper Zoo or Lower Zoo will probably help everyone's day!

  1. The Giant Pandas at the National Zoo are really the main attraction and for good reason! They are a leader in giant panda conservation and currently there are 3 pandas at the Zoo. You can view them in their indoor home at the Panda House on the Asia Trail or outside in their beautiful habitat. The Red Panda nearby is also adorable and has been known to be very mischievous, even escaping into DC once!
  2. The Great Ape House is my personal favorite place at the Zoo. You can watch gorillas and orangutans in their indoor and outdoor habitats on floor to ceiling viewing panes. There is also an interesting exhibit called Think Tank on animal brains. Finally, make sure you look UP outside because you might be lucky to see an orangutan travel along the O-Line (50 foot high suspended cable track) that they can walk along!
  3. The Reptile Discovery Center is really an incredible building filled with rare reptiles including a 100 year old tortoise, Panamanian golden frog which is extinct in the wild and a Komodo dragon named Murphy.
  4. There are TONS of Daily programs that change based on the weather and animal availability so make sure to check at the Info Kiosk or online at for your particular day. Our kids loved watching the Zookeepers brushing Jetty the seal's teeth! 
kidwell farm at the dc zoo

Food Options at the DC Zoo and Nearby

  • My #1 recommendation for food at the Zoo is to bring your own! There are tons of picnic tables and benches to have a nice picnic and you will save money and probably eat better food. Some of our family's favorite picnic spots:
  • Elephant Outpost off the main Olmstead Walk (you can watch the elephants and a restroom nearby!)
  • The benches under the Orangutan Line (Look up!) - Along the beautiful Asia Trail.
  • If you buy food at the Zoo, be aware that the cost is high. However, at the Mane Grill, Elevation Burger has some pretty good burgers, Vegan Shakes, and even Auntie Anne's Pretzels.
  • Lots of snack and dessert stands throughout the zoo like Dippin' Dots, cotton candy, and gelato stands.

Kid-Friendly Food Options Near the Zoo

  • There are tons of shops across from the main entrance on Connecticut Ave including Starbucks, 7-11, Frozenyo, and Duke's Counter (a gastropub).
  • There are also some great restaurants 2 blocks north on Connecticut Ave in Cleveland Park near the Target including Cracked Eggery, Paragon Thai, and our favorite secret garden bakery Saku Saku Flakerie.
dc zoo tips food options

Ways to Save at the DC National Zoo

Although admission is free, a day at the Zoo can add up as a family! A couple ways to save money:

  1. Look for street parking in the neighborhoods around the Zoo rather than paying $30.
  2. Bring snacks and a lunch. A burger and fries can be around $25 and a lemonade close to $10. Bringing snacks or a lunch is easy and allowed. There are lots of picnic tables and benches.
  3. If you know your child wants to get a souvenir, consider ordering one ahead of time to save from the high prices at the many gift shops and carts. Here are some from Amazon:
    1. Panda Mom holding Baby Stuffed Animal 10" ($15.99)
    2. Panda Purse with Panda Stuffy 7" ($13.76)
    3. Panda Necklace ($7.99)
    4. LEGO 3in1 Safari(23.99)
    5. Melissa & Doug Zoo Animals Sound Puzzle ($14.99)
    6. Melissa & Doug Animal Rescue Shape-Sorting Truck($27.99)

There is so much to do in the DC area with kids! Here are links to the 10 Best Playgrounds and DC Family Friendly Restaurants!

the dc zoo waterfall