Living near Washington DC, one of the best frugal fun activities is visiting the National Zoo. Like all Smithsonian Institution sites, admission is completely FREE. The grounds are open 6:00am-8:00pm daily (great for arriving early!) while the buildings open at 10:00am. We like to go super early on a weekend (like 7:30am), then spend the cool part of the morning there and head home before noon, when it gets very crowded and hot (that's the same plan we use for visiting the DC Memorials and Monuments). One of the benefits of going early is that the Great Cats are out and playing.
Parking is $22, and if you plan to park you need to arrive early, well before 10:00am. With a FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo) membership, you get FREE Parking for one year, plus other discounts and invitations to special events. There are Metro stops just north and south of the zoo, but we've never tried that: 1) because I didn't want to try it with a double stroller and loose kid and 2) because now that they're older, it costs less for all of us to park than to ride the Metro.
On our last visit, we got lucky and saw both the Papa panda Tian Tain, sitting around eating bamboo, and the baby Bao Bao (up in the tree). Besides waiting in line to view from the front of the panda enclosure, be sure and go up to the Panda Café on the ridge above. Sometimes you can get a great view from there. You can also check the Panda Cams from home or on your phone to see when they're out and about. Even if you don't get to see the pandas, there's a lot to enjoy on the Asia Trail, including otters, sloths, clouded leopards, and a giant salamander.
If you're bringing small children or a stroller, I recommend that you park in the lot at the bottom of the hill. You'll enter the zoo in the Kids Farm area, which includes the Pizza Playground, then head up the hill while everyone's energy is high. Then, when it's time to go, it's a downhill walk to the car. We generally hit half the zoo in any one trip, no matter how old the kids (or adults) are that we're with. If you're planning to do the upper hill areas (elephants, Asia Trail/pandas, and cheetahs), park in one of the upper lots if you can find room. The paths around the zoo are quite steep.
Every part of the zoo is a hit with my family, especially Amazonia, an enclosed rainforest. We also love the Small Mammal House (there's some weird creatures in there!). Last, we usually spend over an hour in the Great Ape House, with the gorillas and orangutans. My kids love to sit and watch them interact, especially when there's a baby running around making trouble for the older ones.
If you’re going to be in the DC area, you may also like:
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