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: Some of the following aquariums may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. New policies may be in place, including requirements for proof of vaccination, capacity restrictions, reservation requirements or mask mandates. Check the aquarium’s website before your visit.)
Georgia Aquarium: Atlanta
(Courtesy of Georgia Aquarium)
Unsurprisingly, exploring the massive Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is one of the top things to do in Georgia. Visitors can get up close and personal with sea life such as rays, dolphins, sea lions, beluga whales, penguins, harbor seals and even sharks. With one of the aquarium’s animal encounter experiences, guests can touch, swim with or dive with some of these fascinating creatures. The program focuses on conservation education and fostering positive connections between humans and animals. For a gentle interaction, get a behind-the-scenes look at the facility and training of the adorable harbor seals – or, for the ultimate thrill, book a shark cage dive. 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. It is recommended 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 is also committed to protecting California’s ocean and inspiring the next generation of conservation leaders. A visit to this Monterey aquarium includes viewing aquatic plants and animals and even some creatures that live on land: You can see African penguins, jellyfish, sea otters, starfish, squid, brain coral, brown pelicans, bull kelp, tufted puffins and much more. While there, 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 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; go scuba diving in the “Atlantic Coral Reef” exhibit; 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 who recently visited this Maryland aquarium – one of the top U.S. tourist attractions – raved about the dolphin show.
Shedd Aquarium: Chicago
(Courtesy of Shedd Aquarium)
With a mission of promoting compassion for animals and conservation efforts, the 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. Those unable to visit in person can check out Shedd’s virtual encounters online.
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 gigantic arapaima fish, the Tennessee Aquarium is unsurprisingly one of the top-rated aquariums in the U.S. Patrons say this Chattanooga aquarium, which is divided into two separate buildings for freshwater and ocean exhibits, impresses on every visit, making it one of the state’s top offerings. The “River Journey” exhibit features a turtles 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, book an overnight experience 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, is a top aquarium thanks to its diversity of marine life. 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 features research discoveries 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 the “Expedition at Sea” exhibit, which offers insight into 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 in the San Diego area is not as large as others, families compliment it for being great for children and adults alike. Birch Aquarium requires advance reservations to visit.
Seattle Aquarium: Seattle
(Courtesy of Seattle Aquarium)
Learn about the Puget Sound and the ocean at large through the Seattle Aquarium’s exhibits, events, conservation and education programs, research activities and more. Guests at this Seattle attraction can see a variety of birds, mammals, fish, cephalopods, plankton and other invertebrates through its six main exhibits. Witness life in the 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 sea otters are a particular favorite among visitors. 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
OdySea Aquarium, located on the boundary of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, is a multilevel, state-of-the-art facility with more than 6,000 animals, 370 species and several dozen exhibits. The aquarium features 12 galleries and a number of unique experiences: Try out a guided underwater dive or a behind-the-scenes tour of “Shark Waters.” OdySea is also home to a unique Russian sturgeon touch exhibit. On 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. Families praise the aquarium’s touch pools where kids can touch stingrays, anemones and more. 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 aquarium’s 3D watershed model. 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)
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg features upper and lower levels with 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 this aquarium – especially the penguin parade live show. For even more penguin fun, attend the Penguin 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 six-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.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium: Clearwater, Florida
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is home to rescued dolphins that are cared for in the new 1.5-million-gallon habitat, the Ruth & J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex, with five pools and floor-to-ceiling windows. The major motion pictures “Dolphin Tale” and “Dolphin Tale 2” tell the stories of two beloved Clearwater dolphins, the late Winter and her sister Hope. Venture around Winter’s Rescue Walk to see the resident dolphins and plenty of interactive exhibits. In addition to its Atlantic bottlenose and rough-toothed dolphins, this working marine life hospital and aquarium is home to otters, pelicans, turtles, a nurse shark and more. Go beyond the building with a guided boat or kayak tour around Florida’s Clearwater Bay. Recent visitors to this Clearwater Beach aquarium appreciated the focus on rehabilitation, though some were not impressed with the experience based on the high cost of admission.