Tian Tian, the male giant panda at the National Zoo.

© John Baggaley / Getty Images

Smithsonian's National Zoo

Upper Northwest DC

Home to more than 2700 animals and more than 390 species in natural habitats, the National Zoo is famed for its giant pandas, Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Bei Bei. Other highlights include the African lion pride, Asian elephants, and orangutans swinging 50ft overhead from steel cables and interconnected towers (aka the ‘O Line’).

This Smithsonian Institution zoo was founded in 1889 and planned by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park. The zoo’s grounds follow the natural contours of a woodland canyon, and the exhibits are noted for their natural-habitat settings. The zoo is intensively involved in worldwide ecological study and species-preservation work. High points in the past decade include giant panda and lowland gorilla births.

Even non-zoo fans will find the National Zoo entertaining. The panda house offers fun facts on the creatures’ sex lives (they only go at it three days per year – indeed Mei Xiang's pregnancy was the result of artificial insemination) and bowel production (behold the hefty replica poo). Big-cat fans will enjoy visiting the Cheetah Conservation Station and most visitors seem to find the Electric Fishes Demonstration Lab in the Amazonia exhibit quite fascinating.

The grounds are well-marked, but there is a map on the zoo's website and printed versions can be purchased at the main entrance. Check the sign there for each day’s event program, including animal feedings. Note that the Bird House is undergoing a major renovation and is closed until 2021.

If coming by Metro, the walk from Woodley Park is uphill and the walk from Cleveland Park is flat. If driving, parking costs $30.

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