Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Zoo houses more than 400 species of animals. The zoo’s founder, naturalist William T. Hornaday, developed the zoo because of his concern over the decline of many native American species. Hornaday envisioned a facility that would breed endangered American animals in captivity and educate the public about wildlife. Although he eventually left the National Zoo, it continued to grow and today is known around the world for its collection of uncommon animals.
Located in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Northwest Washington D.C., the National Zoological Park is part of the Smithsonian Institution and covers over 160 acres in the picturesque Rock Creek Park. One of the oldest zoos in the United States, the attraction is home to more than 400 different species of animals. The best-known of these residents are the giant pandas. The acclaimed zoo collaborates closely with China to breed, study and nurture these beloved black and white creatures. Approximately 25 percent of the animals that inhabit the park are rare or endangered. Attracting over 2 million visitors annually, this is a sight to see for animal lovers and families.
History of the National Zoo
Boasting two large lion sculptures at its main entrance, the National Zoo was founded in 1889 to care for and safeguard endangered animals indigenous to the United States. It evolved from the National Museum’s Department of Living Animals that was established three years earlier. Aviation pioneer Samuel Langley was director of the Smithsonian during this era and played an instrumental role in creating the park. William Temple Hornaday, founder of the American conservation movement, was the zoo’s first director. Frederick Law Olmsted and Company, one of the nation’s most influential landscape architectural firms, designed the park-like zoo. Created to serve as a reminder of the nation’s disappearing western frontier, the spacious landscaped setting was a departure from the traditional 19th-century practice of confining animals to limited areas. During its early years, the National Zoo focused mainly on displaying one or two examples of various species. When a large number of animal species began to decline in the wild, the zoo was one of the first institutions of its kind to design a scientific research program to study, protect and breed threatened and endangered species. The zoo received its first giant pandas in 1972, which would become its hallmark.
The David Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat is situated in the Asia Trail exhibit and features outdoor and indoor viewing areas. It is home to the zoo’s two adult and two juvenile pandas. The pandas are typically outside from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. and the indoor viewing area is open to visitors from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Lines can be long, so you should arrive early. Flash photography and video are authorized so make sure you remember to bring a camera.
While the giant pandas are the most popular attraction at the National Zoo, there are several other highly regarded animal viewing areas. Along with lemurs, meerkats and naked mole rats in the Small Mammal Exhibit, you can see lions, tigers and giant anteaters in the Big Cat Exhibit. Other animals on display include elephants, American bison and primates like gibbons, monkeys and lowland gorillas. Observe tortoises, Gila monsters, pythons and alligators up close at the Reptile Discovery Center. While Amazonia features animals from South America like the Andean bear and the red-bellied piranha, the American Trail exhibit highlights species from North America. You can view beavers, bald eagles and harbor seals. The Bird House is home to several very colorful species.
Younger children will enjoy the petting zoo, which features cows, sheep, chickens and miniature donkeys. The zoo also has a playground and an interactive garden where children can learn how pizza ingredients like tomatoes and herbs are grown as well as fun facts about pizza from crust to sauce. The zoo also sponsors various special events throughout the year like Boo at the Zoo during Halloween and the holiday season Zoo Lights celebration that feature live entertainment, keeper talks and animal encounters.
Museum Information & Travel Tips
The National Zoo is open from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. during the summer and closes two hours earlier during the winter. The zoo is open every day except Christmas. Admission to the zoo is free. Several restaurants, snack bars and food carts are located throughout the zoo offering a variety of menu items, including dishes that accommodate various dietary requirements. With the exception of assistance animals, pets are not allowed at the zoo.
Parking is available for a fee, but be aware that the limited spaces fill up fast during the spring and summer months and off-street parking in Northwest D.C. is difficult to find. Because of this, it’s recommended you arrive at the zoo via alternative transportation. The zoo is accessible by public transportation, taxi, or ride sharing services. It’s equidistant from the Cleveland Park and Woodley Park metro stops.
Serving as the sixth largest cathedral in the world, the National Cathedral is a Neo-Gothic edifice that was completed in 1990. Known officially as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the building features intricate architectural details and ornate stained glass windows as well as gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.
A decorative arts museum, Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens is the former residence of philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post. It features a collection of Faberge eggs, 18th- and 19th-century French artwork and one of the finest orchid collections in the country.
Embassy Row is the informal name for a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. running from the United States Naval Observatory to Scott Circle. The roadway is lined with the embassies and diplomatic missions of various countries often housed in spectacular historic buildings. There are also numerous sculptures and other pieces of public art.
The nearby Adams Morgan neighborhood is a popular dining and entertainment destination in the city. A hub for nightlife, it also hosts a variety of street fairs and other cultural events throughout the year.