Aquariums provide a soothing experience for many visitors: The dark rooms, lit by soft light emanating from the tanks, display a plethora of fish in all shapes and colors swimming past the glass, with kelp seemingly dancing in the surges of water. People come to these aquatic attractions to be enthralled by all kinds of strange and interesting creatures from various bodies of water and habitats. With this list of top U.S. aquariums, guests can become fully immersed in underwater worlds and enjoy a myriad of unique offerings.
(Note: The following aquariums are all accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The AZA ensures that the aquarium meets minimum standards for animal welfare, care and management.)
Georgia Aquarium: Atlanta
(Courtesy of Georgia Aquarium)
At the massive Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, visitors can get up close and personal with sea life ranging from rays and dolphins to sea lions and penguins. With one of the aquarium’s animal encounter experiences such as a shark cage dive or a behind-the-scenes dolphin training session, guests can get face-to-face with some of these fascinating creatures. The program focuses on conservation education and fostering positive connections between humans and animals.
A favorite of recent aquarium visitors is the Ocean Voyager exhibit with its 100-foot-long underwater walk-through tunnel and more than 50 species. Travelers recommend that you arrive early in the day on weekends and at other busy times.
Monterey Bay Aquarium: Monterey, California
(Courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium)
The Monterey Bay Aquarium not only showcases flora and fauna found in waters near and far, but the institution is also committed to protecting California’s ocean and inspiring the next generation of conservation leaders. A visit includes viewing aquatic plants and animals and even some creatures that live on land: You can see African penguins, jellyfish, sea otters, starfish, tufted puffins and much more.
While at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, attend a sea otter or penguin feeding, take a behind-the-scenes tour, or stay for lunch at the cafe. Visitors can also explore the myriad exhibits, such as the 28-foot-tall Kelp Forest – one of the tallest aquarium exhibits in the world – or Into the Deep with its transparent glowing jellyfish. Many guests point to the jellyfish exhibit as what they enjoyed most, but some warn that the aquarium can get quite crowded. If you can’t make it in person, you can always visit the website to watch animals on the aquarium’s live webcams.
National Aquarium: Baltimore
(Chris Mattle/Courtesy of National Aquarium)
View award-winning exhibits at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which represent aquatic habitats spanning an Amazon River forest to an Atlantic coral reef. Marvel at everything from a blue poison dart frog or blue blubber jelly to a Kimberley snake-necked turtle or longhorn cowfish. For more interactive experiences, visitors can sign up to watch a dolphin training session; attend an aquarium sleepover; or see sharks, octopuses and dolphins in 4D. The National Aquarium’s conservation work is geared toward combating climate change, protecting wildlife and their habitats, and ending plastic pollution. Travelers visiting recently raved about the dolphin show.
Shedd Aquarium: Chicago
(Courtesy of Shedd Aquarium)
With a mission of promoting compassion for animals and conservation efforts, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago offers memorable experiences that include touch tanks; multisensory 4D; interactions with beluga whales, sea otters, penguins and stingrays; and many more offerings. You can even help feed sharks.
At the Abbott Oceanarium, guests can watch Pacific white-sided dolphins leap 20 feet into the air and speed across the water at up to 25 mph. The kid-friendly Polar Play Zone allows children to learn about life on the North and South poles by donning a penguin suit, riding in a kid-sized submarine and admiring the underwater viewing area. Shedd Aquarium also offers summertime kayaking outings on the Chicago River for those interested in a conservation ecotour. Back at the aquarium, other activities include a virtual reality swim with humpback whales in Tonga.
Tennessee Aquarium: Chattanooga, Tennessee
(Courtesy of Tennessee Aquarium)
With thousands of animals, such as the macaroni penguin, sand tiger shark, alligator snapping turtle, hellbender and giant Japanese spider crab, the Tennessee Aquarium is unsurprisingly one of the top-rated aquariums in the U.S. Patrons say this aquarium, which is divided into two separate buildings for freshwater and ocean exhibits, impresses on every visit.
The River Journey exhibit features a turtle gallery, an Appalachian cove forest habitat, River Giants and more. In the Ocean Journey exhibit, you’ll find a butterfly garden, a tropical cove habitat and Boneless Beauties, among other highlights. For maximum aquatic entertainment, head to the IMAX 3D Theater for an immersive movie, attend an event or get involved at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, which focuses on research, restoration and education.
Adventure Aquarium: Camden, New Jersey
(Jeff Fusco/Courtesy of Adventure Aquarium)
The Adventure Aquarium, located on New Jersey’s Camden Waterfront just across the river from Philadelphia, ranks among the nation’s top aquariums. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2022, the aquarium is home to more than 15,000 animals throughout 2 million gallons of water and has the largest collection of sharks in the Northeast. The Shark Realm exhibit offers unique ways to see the sharks: From above, you can cross the Shark Bridge (the longest of its kind at 81 feet), or walk through the 40-foot-long Shark Tunnel to see them from below.
Children will especially enjoy the KidZone touch pools, where young guests can get hands-on with a variety of invertebrates, as well as the Penguin Park outdoor playground. The Adventure Aquarium also boasts a multisensory Piranha Falls exhibit, a 3D theater and a unique Hippo Haven exhibit for observing these 3,000-pound mammals from above and below. As aquarium capacity is limited, you’re advised to make a reservation online before your visit.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography: La Jolla, California
(Courtesy of Birch Aquarium)
As part of the University of California, San Diego, the Birch Aquarium is a museum that highlights research by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It is home to more than 60 habitats of marine life through galleries that highlight the world’s smallest penguins, seahorses, a kelp forest, sharks and more.
Get an up-close look into the research being conducted through an experimental coral reef exhibit, complete with underwater robotics and prototype digital cameras, or “Expedition at Sea: R/V Sally Ride Gallery,” which offers a look at life aboard a research vessel. The touch tanks in Tide Pool Plaza imitate tide pools along San Diego’s coastline and are teeming with life such as sea stars, sea anemones, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers and lobsters. Even though this aquarium is not as large as others, families compliment it as great for children and adults alike. Birch Aquarium requires advance reservations to visit.
Seattle Aquarium: Seattle
(Courtesy of Seattle Aquarium)
Learn about Puget Sound and the ocean at large through Seattle Aquarium’s exhibits, events, conservation and education programs, research activities, and more. Guests can see a variety of birds, mammals, fish, cephalopods, plankton and other invertebrates through its exhibits.
Witness life in Puget Sound through the one-of-a-kind, 360-degree Underwater Dome, which displays local fish in a 400,000-gallon habitat, or watch marine mammals at play. The jellyfish are a particular favorite among guests. At the Family Activity Center, guests of all ages can participate in hands-on activities to learn about the majestic Pacific Northwest orcas (also called killer whales) and what you can do to help protect this endangered species. The aquarium’s species recovery program works to save animals from extinction through research, field conservation and more.
OdySea Aquarium: Scottsdale, Arizona
(Courtesy of OdySea Aquarium)
OdySea Aquarium, located on the boundary of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, is a multilevel, state-of-the-art facility with 65 exhibits and 370 species. The aquarium features a dozen galleries and a number of unique experiences, such as penguin and sloth encounters. OdySea is also home to a unique Russian sturgeon touch exhibit.
Past visitors raved about the Voyager, billed as the world’s only revolving aquarium experience: Guests sit in stadium-style seats that rotate past four 46-foot windows showing sharks, sea turtles, groupers, stingrays and sea lions during a narrated tour. Some visitors did say they felt the general admission was too expensive. Be sure to check out the bathrooms at OdySea – the mirrors above the sinks have been replaced with windows into the aquarium’s shark exhibit.
Aquarium of the Pacific: Long Beach, California
(Andrew Reitsma/Courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific)
Explore galleries that feature habitats from the tropical Pacific Ocean, northern Pacific and Southern California/Baja at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. As Southern California’s largest aquarium, it has more than 12,000 animals and 100 exhibits highlighting aquatic life in the Pacific Ocean.
The new and impressive Pacific Visions building offers guests an interactive experience through film, art and technology. In the Lorikeet Forest aviary, colorful birds will perch on your shoulder (or maybe even your head) to get a hand-fed treat. See what it’s like to be an aquatic vet at the Molina Animal Care Facility, then learn where our water comes from and how to preserve it at the Our Water Future exhibit. Past visitors mention that they especially enjoyed the various touch tanks.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
(Courtesy of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies)
This Gatlinburg aquarium features exhibits ranging from a tropical rainforest and Touch a Ray Bay to a coral reef and the Gallery of the Seas. Look up when you walk through Shark Lagoon to see fearsome predators of all types silently gliding through the waters above or venture into the heart of this exhibit on the Glass Bottom Boat Adventure. Enjoy playful penguins swimming from the tunnels or pop up on their beach to get nose-to-beak in the indoor-outdoor Penguin Playhouse exhibit.
Recent travelers love Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies – especially the penguin parade live show. For even more penguin fun, attend a painting experience to create a one-of-a-kind work of art with the help of a penguin. After hours, sign up for a slumber party at Ripley’s Aquarium’s nightly Sleep With the Sharks event, complete with a late-night scavenger hunt.
New England Aquarium: Boston
(Courtesy of New England Aquarium)
The New England Aquarium in Boston strives to engage and educate the public through its displays of awe-inspiring animals. The aquarium is committed to ocean exploration and conservation through nearly a dozen initiatives that range from saving the sea turtles to reducing single-use plastic.
Visitors to this attraction can wander through exhibits such as an Indo-Pacific coral reef habitat and one spotlighting Atlantic harbor seals. The New England Aquarium also houses an open-air exhibit space for seal and sea lion training, the four-story Giant Ocean Tank, and the Simons Theatre with its five-story-tall movie screen. Patrons can get out on the water through the New England Aquarium’s Boston Harbor tours to see whales and dolphins in their natural habitat.
Oregon Coast Aquarium: Newport, Oregon
(Courtesy of Oregon Coast Aquarium)
Oregon’s majestic coastal creatures await you at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. There are three underwater walkways that provide spectacular views of sea life living among reefs, flats and in the open ocean. The Shark Tunnel, for example, showcases four species of sharks, schools of fish and big bat rays.
To get friendly with the animals, attend an animal encounter with a sea jelly or octopus, or get a behind-the-scenes tour to learn more about animal care. In addition to seeing marine mammals and other sea creatures, you can explore the aviary to get to know seabirds such as puffins. The property also includes a nature-themed playground for children. For those who want to learn more about the environment and our effect on it, the aquarium hosts citizen science projects in partnership with other organizations that the general public can participate in.
Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay: Las Vegas
(Courtesy of MGM Resorts)
When you think of Las Vegas, an aquarium is probably not the first thing that pops into your mind, but the Shark Reef Aquarium at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino is well worth a visit. There are more than 2,000 animals at this aquarium, including jellyfish, sharks, sea turtles, piranhas and even crocodiles.
Advanced purchase of a timed ticket is required for entry. For an additional fee, guests can touch and feed stingrays or feed a zebra shark. For an immersive digital experience, try out the Undersea Explore VR Theater. Its 360-degree, 3D virtual reality headsets and motion seats let guests feel what it’s like to swim alongside humpback whales or dive with tiger sharks.
Mystic Aquarium: Mystic, Connecticut
(Courtesy of Mystic Aquarium)
With this aquarium housing more than 300 species, visitors can marvel at African penguins, beluga whales, giant Pacific octopuses, spotted seals, a live coral reef ecosystem and much more. In the indoor exhibit gallery, watch eels, tangs and a variety of other fish swim around a 35,000-gallon tank. Head to the Ocean Solutions gallery to learn about innovative ways the ocean can help with the climate crisis, then go on a virtual underwater interactive journey to the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Recent visitors say Mystic Aquarium is a fun and educational place to visit, and that the size makes it easy to explore in a few hours.
Advance tickets are strongly recommended. For a one-of-a-kind painting experience, guests can book a time to paint with one of the aquarium’s resident seals or sea lions (for an additional fee). There’s also penguin, reptile and jellyfish encounters, as well as programs where you experience what it’s like to be a trainer or marine biologist. Dinosaur fans will want to add the new “DinoSeas: An Immersive Journey” experience for the two 4D movies, animatronic undersea dinosaurs and sea creatures, and more.
Why Trust U.S. News Travel
Sharael Kolberg is a U.S. News & World Report contributor with a wealth of knowledge about U.S. aquariums. As a mom, when her daughter was younger, she would take her to aquariums nearby or when visiting a place that had one. Her favorite aquariums include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Birch Aquarium at Scripps (the little blue penguins are a must-see) and Aquarium of the Pacific. Kolberg used her personal experience and research skills to curate this list of top U.S. aquariums.