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Get lost in halls of wondrous fishes and exotic marine mammals with a trip to the nation’s top aquariums. Millions of visitors flock to America’s best aquariums each year to be swept under the tides of various salt and freshwater scenes with the most unique and intriguing marine life found in the world. Some of the top aquariums in the US display an assortment of species that live anywhere from the cold rushing river waters to the flourishing coral reefs found along tropical shores. Check out the best aquariums in the US to see what lives beneath the surfaces of the world’s lakes, streams and seas.
1. Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, GA
The Georgia Aquarium is the largest aquarium in the world with 550,000 square feet of exhibits, including over 100,000 animals. The Georgia Aquarium is home to the only whale sharks outside of Asia. One of the newest exhibits is the $110 million dolphin exhibit that features the theatrical “Dolphin Tales” show. Also see belugas, sea otters, African penguins, and a variety of manta rays. Much of the Georgia Aquarium is meant to add to the educational experience with various programs in the ‘Learning Loop’. The aquarium also offers trainer and animal performances, as well as productions about underwater life in the iconic 4-D Theater. General admission is $39.95 for adults, $31.95 for seniors and $29.95 for children.
2. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, IL
The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois receives over 2 million annual visitors and houses over 8,000 marine animals. This aquarium opened its doors in 1930, when it became the first inland aquarium to display a permanent collection of saltwater fishes. The Shedd Aquarium is, as Forbes Traveler puts it, “awe-inspiring” between the dolphins and beluga whales that put on a show, and the chance for kids to dress up like penguins and enter a small kiddie submarine at the Polar Play Zone. From anacondas, to piranhas, to sharks, to California sea lions, you’re sure to leave feeling impressed and well educated. General admission is $8 for adults and $6 for children.
3. National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD
The National Aquarium in Baltimore opened in 1981 and is certainly a hands-on experience with many opportunities to get up close and personal with marine life. The dolphin shows provide a unique educational experience as trainers reveal gestures used during presentations and interactive sessions. The National Aquarium allows you to get acquainted with the 16,000 marine animals that live in its halls, ranging from the fishes and sharks to the land animals such as two-toed sloths and puffins. This particular aquarium is ranked No. 1 by Coastal Living and costs $34.95 for adults, $29.95 for seniors and 21.95 for children.
4. Aquarium of the Pacific, Longbeach, CA
The 5-acre Aquarium of Pacific in Longbeach, California holds over 500 species of marine animals to include over a hundred rays and sharks. The Aquarium of the Pacific allows each visitor to discover the depth of the world’s largest ocean—the vast Pacific. A world of underwater animals call this aquarium home, from seals and sea lions to the Magellanic Penguins taken from ‘the bottom of the world’ or the tip of South America. They now feature a NASA show that offers an educational look at Earth’s rhythms. Admission costs $25.95 for adults, $14.95 for children and $22.95 for seniors.
5. New England Aquarium, Boston, MA
The New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts holds a diverse collection of marine life from all over the world. From the African penguins and Austraian spotted jellies, to the Northern fur seals, sharks and giant octopus found in more familiar waters, New England Aquarium offers a firsthand glimpse into the extent of biodiversity found in the world’s oceans. The facility is home to 20,000 animals making up 600 different species to see. Kids will love the Edge of Sea touch tank and live presentations with animals and trainers. The aquarium costs $24.95 for adults and $17.95 for children.
6. Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach, SC
Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach offers guests a glimpse into the ocean’s past with a chance to touch the prehistoric horseshoe crab. This aquarium covers 85,000 square feet with exhibits displaying anything from piranhas to poison dart frogs. Many exotic and even poisonous species can be found throughout Ripley’s Aquarium, and yes, it has sharks—with the bonnethead and leopard sharks to name a few. Ripley’s Aquarium offers you plenty of chances to get closer to marine life and touch sharks and stingrays. General admission costs $21.99 for adults and $11.99 for children.
7. Steinhart Aquarium, San Francisco, CA
The Steinhart Aquarium is a fun and educational experience with over 38,000 animals from across the globe. You can watch the sharks and stingrays swim the waters beneath your shoes and come face to face with African penguins all in one day. With over 900 species, don’t be surprised if you come across a creature you’ve never seen before! Not only will you learn from the abundance of animals onsite, but the exhibits offer an eye-opening look at the water as a major life-sustaining substance here on Earth. Steinhart Aquarium costs $34.95 for adults, $29.95 for senior, student and youth, and $24.95 for children.
8. Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, CA
Just minutes from Pebble Beach, Monterey Bay Aquarium rests along the Pacific coast. This aquarium is among America’s favorite aquariums for its impressive collections and playful marine mammals. You get the chance to see sea otters, giant octopi and one of the most diverse and largest collections of seahorse species around. The aquarium offers daily activities and underwater shows—so check the website before you go! General admission at Monterey Bay Aquarium costs $39.95 for adults, $34.95 for seniors and students, and $24.95 for children.
9. Newport Aquarium, Cincinnati, OH
Featuring 70 sprawling exhibits and 14 galleries, all placed within over a million gallons of water, this aquarium showcases thousands of animals from around the world and houses the largest jellyfish gallery in the Midwest. Their rain forest habitat includes Oriental Small-clawed Otter, Burmese pythons, Kookaburra, and a number of colorful lorikeets. Gator Alley is home to white gators and Mighty Mike, the largest american alligator outside of Florida. Penguin Palooza is home to King penguin, Inca tern, Chinstrap penguin, Gentoo penguin, Macaroni Penguin and Rockhopper penguin. They also have dangerous and deadly specimens like the gila monster, red lionfish, pinecone fish, electric eel, gaboon viper, and the whitespotted bamboo shark. General admission is $23 for adults and $15 for children.
10. Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, New Orleans, LA
The New Orleans aquarium has made a nice recovery from the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina. It features African Blackfooted penguins, exotic birds such as parakeets, sea otters, white crocodiles and even a hurricane simulator. Discover a Caribbean reef with a walk-through tunnel and a 400,000-gallon tank with sharks and tarpon. Kids get hands-on experience with sea creatures in a touch pool at the Animal Grossology exhibit. Their Amazon exhibit provides a humid, climate-controlled greenhouse that is a prominent feature of the riverfront and includes macaws, piranhas, an anaconda, freshwater stingrays, and other specimens from the area basin. Admission is $22.95 for adults, $17 for seniors and $16 for children.
11. Downtown Aquarium, Houston, TX
Located in downtown Houston, this 6-acre, 500,000 galloon aquarium opened in 2003 and houses over 200 species of aquatic animals and features a popular restaurant where guests can view the aquariums 110,000-US-gallon centerpiece aquarium–which is the largest cylindrical tank in the United States–all while dining to some of the best gourmet fare in town. Exhibits include alligators, lionfish, bullfrogs, clownfish, macaws, stingrays, catfish, nurse sharks, bamboo sharks, and even white tigers. As if all that wasn’t enough, they also have an on-site ferris wheel, train, carousel, and even a 65-foot drop ride! Admission is $9.99 for adults, $8.99 for seniors, and $6.99 for children 2-12.
12. Florida Aquarium, Tampa, FL
Known for its arching glass roof, this aquarium focuses on native Florida species. The famed Coral Reef Gallery offers panoramic windows and walk-through tunnels, and packs quite a fun experience into a fun time. Children love Explore-A-Shore, a 2-acre watery outdoor playground with water canons, geysers, and animal shows (bring swimsuits). Bonuses include the opportunities to swim with fish and sharks, or take a relaxing two-hour boat eco-tour of Tampa Bay. Regular priced admission is $21.95 for adults, $18.95 for seniors, and $16.95 for children under 12. They also offer reduced online ticket prices.
13. Dallas World Aquarium, Dallas, TX
Step into the rainforest exhibit, where exotic birds, such as Cocks-of-the-rock and many species of toucans, can be seen in their beautiful habitat. Spot active Two-toed and Three-toed sloths, the endangered Orinoco crocodiles, Giant river otters, Antillean manatees and several species of monkeys. The aquarium portion is home to Japanese crabs, jellyfish, and even Leafy, Weedy and Ribbon seadragons. Black-footed and Blue penguins can be seen swimming as guests enjoy the outdoor South Africa exhibit. Sharks, rays and sawfish can be found in the Mundo Maya cenote. Whether you’re coming to spot the abundance of reptiles and amphibians, or simply to get a reason to spend a few hours experiencing quality family time, the Dallas World Aquarium never fails to disappoint! Admission is $20.95 for adults, $16.94 for seniors, and $12.95 for children.
14. Miami Seaquarium, Miami, FL
This smaller version of Orlando’s SeaWorld is a true must-see for anyone in the Miami area. The 38-acre Miami Seaquarium features the opportunity to play with dolphins, see a sea lion shows and killer whale presentation, and good ‘ole hang out time in the Main Reef Aquarium, a 750,000-gallon saltwater aquarium that comes packed with reef fish. Reef Presentations let you observe a diver as they hand feeds the tropical fish, groupers, cobia, loggerhead turtles and moray eels. See manatees, seals, and stingrays. They are currently celebrating Flipper’s 50th anniversary because this aquarium is where the classic Flipper TV series was filmed. This celebration will include a number of new events, activities, initiatives and happenings throughout the property and beyond, more of which can be read about here. General admission is $41.95 for adults and $31.95 for children.
15. Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga, TN
The largest freshwater aquarium in the world at the time of its opening, The Tennessee Aquarium continues to delight and educate those of all ages. The River Journey and Ocean Journey buildings are currently home to more than 12,000 animals, including fish, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds, 20 penguins, countless butterflies, and so much more. The original River Journey facility is organized around the theme of the Story of the River, following the path of a raindrop from high in the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. The self-guided tour takes visitors through three living forest exhibits that teem with life above and below the water’s surface, all while visitors see animals like free-flying song birds, snapping turtles, sandbar and sand tiger sharks, stingrays, river otters, and moray eels. Ocean Journey, which opened in 2005, includes more hands on displays, such as a large shark tank and ray touch tank, large macaws, jellyfish, cuttlefish, giant Pacific octopuses, and Japanese spider crabs. Admission is $24.95 for adults and $14.95 for children.
16. Texas State Aquarium, Corpus Cristi, TX
After more than 20 years of preparation, the highly anticipated Texas State Aquarium opened in 1990. Several tanks display a variety of ecosystems found in the Gulf of Mexico and coastal Texas, from coral reefs with sharks and barracuda swimming about to jetty systems with crabs and flounders to East Texas swamps and their alligators. Spot octopuses, turtles, and sea horses, and even find stingray or bamboo shark in the touch tanks. One of the latest additions to the aquarium is Dolphin Bay, a protected environment for Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins that are unable to survive in the wild. Admission is $18.95 for adults, $17.95 for seniors, and $13.95 for children.
17. Moody Gardens, Galveston, TX
See penguins, seahorses and seals in this 12-story pyramid with 1.5 million gallons of water that house over 10,000 marine animals, divided into four areas based on: The Caribbean, The South Atlantic, The North Pacific, and The South Pacific. Come face to face with sharks in the underwater tunnel. Also see tropical plants and birds in “one of the most authentic rainforest recreations in the world,” with 10,000 species of plants in this 10-story glass pyramid. They also have an IMAX theater, a paddle-wheel excursion boat, a golf course and a luxurious hotel. Admission to the aquarium pyramid is $21.95 for adults and $17.95 for children. Or a combination day pass can be purchased for everything at an online rate of $46.95.
18. Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, OR
Sitting on 23-acres in the city of Newport, this aquarium first opened in 1992 and has grown to attract nearly half a million visitors each year. Unlike many larger aquariums, this medium-sized aquarium holds a strong focus on animals from all across Oregon’s coast. These include turtles, sea otters, seals, sea lions, many kinds of birds, and a wide variety of jellyfish. They play a strong rule in educating and informing, while also focusing on conservation and animal rehabilitation. For an added fee, “Animal Encounters” turns visitors into personal chefs for octopuses, sea otters, sharks, or sea lions. General admission is $18.95 for adults, $16.95 for seniors (ages 65+) and young adults (13-17), and $11.95 for children.
19. Ripley’s Aquarium, Gatlinburg, TN
See 35 penguins at the aquarium that has been voted as the number one aquarium in America by TripAdvisor. Come just steps away from deadly 12-foot sharks, see the giant sea turtle, thousands of exotic sea creatures and schools of colorful fish as you enjoy the state-of-the-art clear underwater tunnels throughout the Aquarium! Their newest exhibit is called “Slime,” giving guests the chance to see over 30 interactive exhibits that give the opportunity to touch jellyfish and see over 15 new tanks with snails, slugs, worms, mud puppy, discus fish, hagfish, African lungfish, and a number of others that you’re likely to have never laid eyes on before! See dive and feeding shows, pet horseshoe crabs and stingrays, and so much more at this fun-filled family experience in the heart of Gatlinburg, and just a short drive from nearby Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. General admission is $24.99 for adults, $14.99 for children ages 6-11, and $6.99 for children ages 2-5.
20. Alaska Sealife Center, Seward, AK
Alaska’s only permanent marine mammal rehabilitation facility dedicates itself to the research, rehabilitation and education of native Alaska marine species. Get the opportunity to have an aquarium experience unlike one that you’ve ever had before, such as shadowing researchers working with area harbor seals or touring the center’s aviary with a bird keeper. See large two-story high habitats with sea birds and sea lions, touch an anemone, and simply take a minute to take in the fresh air while admiring the views of Resurrection Bay. General admission is $20 for adults, $15 for students ages 12-17, and $10 for children ages 4-11. For an additional $5, visitors can take the behind-the-scenes tour to see what the aquarium is doing in the form of research and rehabilitation.
21. South Carolina Aquarium, Charleston, SC
Prior to the aquarium’s opening in 2000, Charleston was known for being more adult friendly and having a tad bit less to offer for the playful kiddos. Nowadays, kids will enjoy a break from the old world charm, all right here inside Charleston’s world class local aquarium. See more than 10,000 plants and animals, including North American river otters, loggerhead sea turtles, great blue herons, hawks, owls, lined seahorses, jellyfish, pufferfish, green moray eels, horseshoe crabs, sea stars, pythons, and sharks. This 93,000 sq. ft. building includes 9 sprawling galleries that range from showcasing a rare albino American alligator (one of only 50 in the world) to an interactive stingray feeding exhibit. Return time and time again for their elaborate changing exhibits, which currently features “Madagascar Journey,” which is where ring-tailed lemurs, white spotted bamboo sharks, and Tomato frogs can all be seen! Admission is $24.95 for adults and $14.95 for children.
22. New York Aquarium, New York City, NY
This is the oldest continually operating aquarium in the United States, having opened in Castle Garden in Battery Park, Manhattan in 1896. Since 1957, it has been located on the boardwalk in Coney Island, Brooklyn. See 14 acres, as this aquarium boasts over 350 species of aquatic wildlife, with species including Pacific walrus, sea otter, California sea lion, black-footed penguin, and numerous colorful fish. Its mission is to raise public awareness about issues facing the ocean and its inhabitants with special exhibits, public events and research. A massive new $157 million addition is currently in the works, which will be titled Ocean Wonders: Sharks! and it is scheduled to open in the summer of 2016. It will feature more than 100 species of marine animals, both local and from around the world, including sharks, rays, sea turtles and many others. General admission is $9.95.
23. Downtown Aquarium, Denver, CO
Much like the Houston Downtown Aquarium, the Denver location features over one million gallons of marine life, showcasing fascinating ecosystems around the world. Witness over 500 species of animals, including the interactive Stingray Reef touch tank, and even tigers! The girls will be especially stoked about seeing their real life mermaids who gracefully swim amongst the fish in the “Mystic Mermaids” interactive show that is choreographed to music (be sure to check their website ahead of time for show times)! Dine at the Aquarium Restaurant, Dive Lounge, the Nautilus Ballroom and amusements for the entire family. Tickets are $17.99 for adults, $16.99 for seniors, and $11.99 for children.
24. Adventure Aquarium, Camden, NJ
See over 2 millions gallons of water with nearly 10,000 animals from around the world at this popular Philadelphia area aquarium, which was formerly called the New Jersey State Aquarium. Witness Nile hippopotami, sea dragons, jellies, Giant Pacific octopus, along with a diverse selection of sharks. Make appointments ahead of time to get to actually swim with the sharks in the tank itself by actually snorkeling along the outer edge of the tank in a concrete channel. That can all be done in the newer North Building; the original South Building features an abundance of native Atlantic specimens, an ocean tank, and even a collection of unusual animals that you’re likely to not have seen before. Adventure Aquarium is also one of a select few in the country that allows its visitors to touch moon jellies, northern lobsters, or pink shrimp, and it is the only aquarium in the country that allows guests to touch all three! General admission is $24.95 for adults and $18.95 for children.
25. Waikiki Aquarium, Honolulu, HI
The second oldest aquarium in the United States happens to be the Waikiki Aquarium, which was founded in 1904. See over 3,500 species, many of which are distinctive to the Hawaiian island chain, including the Hawaiian monk seal, one of the world’s most endangered species (there are only about 1,000 left). Also see a number of reefs, including the oldest living collection of corals in the US. Be sure to check out the peppermint angelfish, a French Polynesian native that’s currently on loan from the Smithsonian and valued at more than $30,000. Consider taking the Behind the Scenes Tour to see where their coral is propagated, learn how the aquarium runs and see how it’s exhibits are created. General admission is $12 for adults and $5 for children and seniors.
Also consider checking out my critically acclaimed podcast on America’s Best Zoos!
What’s your favorite aquarium? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.