Zoos can be a controversial destination — some people believe that animals should never be locked up, while others think that zoos play an important role in conservation efforts and that they give people an opportunity to experience wonders of nature that they might not get to otherwise. If you fall into the second camp, then you’re going to love this: We’ve collected ten of the most amazing zoos around the world that are free…ish.
Some of these zoos offer completely free admission year-round, while others offer free admission at certain times or to certain people. We’ve collected all that information here, so you only have to worry about finding the next one you’re going to visit.
10 Dublin Zoo - Dublin, Ireland
The Dublin Zoo is well-known as one of the best zoos in Europe. Since it opened in 1835, it’s also one of the oldest in the world. The zoo is home to elephants, giraffes, wolves, and others—and is known for its great breeding program for these endangered animals. Animals are kept in their natural social groups, as well as in enclosures with landscaped features that mimic their natural home. The zoo is actually a registered charity and puts a lot of money toward researching these animals’ diets, genetics, and health.
The zoo is not free… usually. Caretakers of people with special needs do get in free (and people with special needs get discounted tickets). However, Dublin Zoo also occasionally celebrates various milestones by giving complimentary tickets to certain groups. Most recently, anyone born the same year as their famous orangutan Sibu were given complimentary admission to celebrate Sibu’s 40th birthday. Keep an eye out for other such celebrations!
9 Henry Vilas Zoo - Madison, Wisconsin, USA
The Henry Vilas Zoo in Wisconsin is one of the few US admission-free zoos that is an accredited member of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The zoo has been free since the first animals were housed there in 1911, as decreed by the donors of the land, Colonel William and Anna Vilas. They named it in honor of their son Henry, who tragically died at the age of only 11. Creating a free zoo for the world to enjoy was their way of honoring his memory—and what a moving dedication.
The zoo is not only home to 650 animals from around the world, but it includes unique attractions like the Glacier Grille where visitors can dine while overlooking the polar bear enclosure. It also hosts big cat exhibits, a tropical rainforest aviary, a herpetarium, and an animal health center, where tomorrow’s veterinarians can watch animals be cared for!
8 Tiergarten Schönbrunn - Vienna, Austria
This zoo is the oldest zoo in the world that has been open for over 260 years! In that time, it has not only become a central point for species conservation, it also has been home to many firsts in the zoological field—the first elephant born in captivity, the first natural insemination panda birth in Europe. The scenic grounds are also full of amazing architecture, and visitors will seen pandas, penguins, elephants, and polar bears as they stroll through.
The zoo holds feeding displays and nighttime tours, when many of the animals are the most active. There is a lot to see and do, and so the zoo is not only the oldest in the world, but it's also hands-down one of the best in the world. Unfortunately, Tiergarten Schönbrunn is only free for children 6 and under. Groups of more than 10 can also get discounts.
7 Amstelpark - Amsterdam, Netherlands
When in Amsterdam, Amstelpark and Vondelpark are must visits. They’re both public urban parks in the center of the city, close to attractions like the Rijksmuseum. Both parks are free and full of various activities, from pick up games of soccer to mini-golf and a petting zoo. The petting zoo is free, and is something that kids can’t help but flock to. Especially because it’s actually right by the big playground.
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Inside the petting zoo, kids of all ages can visit chickens, goats, rabbits, and donkeys. It’s open every day from 10 am to 4 pm. It’s been highly rated by visitors for ages, and is a great addition to any trip.
6 Lincoln Park Zoo - Chicago, Illinois, USA
This zoo is opened in 1868 inside Lincoln Park, right on the edge of the Lake Michigan. It has a children’s area and an interactive farm exhibit. It’s a bit on the small side—just 35 acres—but that doesn’t take away from how great the zoo is. They host tons of events, including a winter market, a spooky zoo, adults’ night out, and Zoolights, a winter holiday light show. And, of course, the zoo is full of beautiful animals, including snowy owls, red wolves, Jamaican iguanas, bactrian camels, and chimpanzees.
Best of all, the zoo is an accredited member of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, meaning that you can rest assured that the animals are treated ethically. The zoo is open 365 days a year and is always free.
5 Riverview Park and Zoo - Ontario, Canada
In downtown Peterborough, Riverview Park and Zoo covers over 50 acres of land and manages to be a tranquil stroll even in the middle of the city. 48 species are represented are at the zoo, including some rare ones like Yaks, Emus, River Otters, Sichuan Takins, and Two-Toed Sloths, and more. They feature educations programs and focus on conservation. The park also has places for kids and adults to play—a miniature train ride, a splash pad, frisbee golf, and beautiful gardens to wander through.
Riverview Park and Zoo is a member of the Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums - Aquarium et Zoos Accrédités du Canada (CAZA-AZAC), which is an organization act promotes the welfare of animals and seeks to improve zoos, aquariums, and other animal exhibits. Riverview is also the only member of CAZA-AZAC that is free!
4 Lee Richardson Zoo - Garden City, Kansas, USA
The Lee Richardson Zoo is another US zoo that is accredited by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The animals in the 50 acres of land are treated well, and live in healthy habitats that resemble their natural worlds. In fact, it’s home to hundreds of local and exotic animals.
Different areas of the zoo are named after the different regions the animals come from, including the South American Pampas section (named for the fertile lowland in South America), and the African Plains hosts African Horned Cranes, Addaxs, African Lions, Giraffes, and Rhinos. People visiting the zoo on foot can enter for free. Cars do have to pay an admission price, but visitors can just take public transport to avoid that fee.
3 Singapore Zoo - Republic of Singapore
The Singapore Zoo is set in a lush rainforest and is one of the few in the world that has a 100% cage-free experience for the animals. They were even endorsed by none other than Steve Irwin for their set up and ongoing conservation and breeding work. There are over 2400 animals representing 300 species, about a third of which are threatened or endangered species.
Unfortunately, the Singapore Zoo is only free sometimes for certain people — beneficiaries of groups that are members of the National Council of Social Service receive complimentary admission as part of the zoo’s commitment to making it more accessible. Further, any Singapore Taxi Driver that drives for one of the zoo’s approved vendors and holds a valid Vocational License can get into the zoo for free. And anyone can get in for free on their birthday… if someone else buys a full-priced ticket. So with some good planning people can get in for free, but it’s tricky!
2 San Diego Zoo - San Diego, CA, USA
The San Diego Zoo is known as one of the best in the United States. The zoo is actually a non-profit conservation group, so all the money donated and purchases made in the shop go toward their wildlife conservation. To date, 180 rhinos have been born at the San Diego Zoo, and the zoo has returned more than 40 species back into the wild. The zoo is home to over 3,500 animals representing more than 650 species and subspecies. One special family is particular is their family of 50 koalas, which is the largest colony of them outside of Australia. And of course, if you can’t make it in you can watch their famous animal cams online.
Unfortunately, the zoo can be a little expensive. However, it’s free for all active duty US military members, and their immediate families receive discounted tickets. Students and seniors also receive discounted tickets. The best option for kids under 18, however, is to take them during the month of October. In celebration of the Zoo’s founding, the entire month of October is free to kids under 18 with the admission of an adult 18+.
1 Smithsonian’s National Zoo - Washington, District of Columbia, USA
As its name suggests, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. is the official United States zoo. It’s part of the Smithsonian group of museums, which means it’s funded by the national government. Entrance is completely free 364 days a year. (The zoo closes every year on December 25 for Christmas.)
The zoo is one of D.C.’s most popular destinations with approximately 2 million visitors per year. It sits on 163 acres in the heart of Rock Creek Park. It’s the home of one of the largest collections of animals in the world: 2,700 animals represent 390 species from around the world. The zoo has a commitment to the conservation of both endangered animals and at-risk habitats around the world. It is part of China’s Wildlife Conservation Association breeding agreement, so there’s always at least a few giant pandas for visitors to coo over.