There are many wonderful things about the Smithsonian National Zoological Park – commonly referred to as the National Zoo – but undoubtedly the two best are the price and the pandas. Let’s begin with the price, which is nothing, nil, nada…zero dollars. That’s correct, because the zoo is under the larger Smithsonian umbrella, there is no admission fee. That is not to say you will not pay for anything, however, in fact you will pay for just about everything except admission. Even a park map will set you back a few dollars, although we’ve never needed one since the zoo is well signed and there are frequent in-park maps. An alternative is their mobile app, although that is $1.99 itself and we’ve found it sluggish and, unfortunately, not very useful.
Another thing that will set you back is parking, which is currently $22 (and can be reserved in advance via ParkingPanda.com, something useful since parking fills quickly). The good news is that the zoo is right in between two Metro stops, Woodley Park-Zoo and Cleveland Park. The walk is about ½ mile from either, although the slope of Connecticut Ave means that you’ll be walking slightly uphill from the Woodley Park station to the zoo, but slightly downhill from Cleveland Park. There are also several restaurants near each station, good for a meal before or after the zoo, or to pick up food for an in-zoo picnic, which is allowed (no alcohol).
While we’re on the subject of walking up hills, it feels like a good time to mention that the National Zoo is built entirely on a hill. The basic layout is simple: a main path – the 0.8 mile Olmsted Walk – meanders the length of the zoo, with various exhibits and trails leading off of it. The design is such that you will rarely be far away from Olmsted Walk, but you should continuously check the signs to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
When you get to the bottom of the hill, you turn around and go right back up. With the exception of a side trail that starts at the Kids Farm at the very bottom and winds through the Amazonia exhibit, most of what you pass on the way up is the same as the way down. One of our favorite tricks, if you do decide to drive, is to park in Lot D, which is right near Kids Farm. That way, you go uphill first, leaving the downhill for the second, more tired, half of the tour.
So what will you actually see at the National Zoo? In short: quite a bit. There are about 1,800 animals from 300 different species including apes, elephants, big cats, orangutans, bears, and bison (added in 2014). What really draws the crowds, however, is those pandas. After the famous Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling lived at the National Zoo for 28 years, Washington, D.C. welcomed Mei Xiang and Tian Tian in 2000. Unlike many Giant Pandas, they have had cubs together: Tai Shan in 2005 (who now lives in China) and Bao Bao in 2013, who will leave for China at the end of February 2017. Most recently, a panda cub was born on August 22, 2015 named Bei Bei. Only 3 other American zoos – Atlanta, Memphis, and San Diego – boast resident pandas.
The National Zoo can be a lot of walking, but it allows the opportunity to see many animals that most would not likely see otherwise. Receiving their funding entirely through the Smithsonian Institute not only means that admission is free, but that all additional money spent at the zoo goes directly toward education outreach, research, and conservation efforts.
3001 Connecticut Ave NW
Grounds: 6:00 am to 8:00 pm (6:00 pm in winter – generally November through March)
Exhibit Buildings: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm (4:30 pm in winter)
Shops and Concessions: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (4:30 pm in winter).
Free, parking is $22