Visiting our nation’s aquariums offers the chance to be swept away to a magnificent world under the sea without getting wet. It just so happens that many of the top aquariums in the U.S. are also located in great destinations with plenty of family-friendly attractions for the perfect weekend getaway.
On California’s Central Coast, the Monterey Bay Aquarium may not be the biggest, but it’s certainly one of the best. The aquarium receives a constant supply of fresh ocean water from the bay, which makes for fantastic exhibits like the 33-foot-high tank that holds a living kelp forest. Artificial waves crash over a walk-through tunnel offering life-giving water to the unique creatures of the tide pools. Watch playful sea otters from below or above the water or gaze at the mysterious “jellies” in a multitude of colors and shapes, floating ethereally through the water. Outdoor decks offer beautiful vistas of the bay where you might catch a glimpse of leaping dolphins or the occasional passing whale.
The Monterey Bay area is home to a number of beautiful beaches perfect for building sandcastles, beach combing, or even sailing and surfing. Just 40 miles north in Santa Cruz is the famed Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with everything from thrill rides to more gentle adventures for the little ones and lots of free entertainment.
Farther north along the west coast, in Newport, Oregon, the Oregon Coast Aquarium focuses on this wild and spectacular area featuring sea otters, seals, sea lions, turtles and all types of jellyfish, as well as an exhibit housing the legendary Giant Pacific Octopus. Visitors can even take a behind-the-scenes tour for a slimy handshake with this fascinating creature. If that doesn’t sound too enticing, sign up for a fishy kiss from a sea lion!
Newport and Oregon’s central coast offers lots of other attractions and activities, including the chance to explore tide pools filled with starfish, sea anemones and hermit crabs, or even to embark on a whale-watching tour. This area is also known for its picturesque lighthouses, such as the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse perched above the Pacific.
The John G. Shedd Aquarium is one of the most popular attractions in the city of Chicago, housing more than 30,000 animals with 1,500 different species of fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians. It’s one of the oldest in the country, having opened back in 1929. The aquarium re-creates water environments from across the globe, including the Great Lakes, the Amazon River, the Caribbean, Africa, Australia, Philippine reefs and the waters of the Pacific Northwest. It’s also one of the best places to view the Chicago skyline. If you’d like a more intimate visit with a marine mammal, the new Beluga encounter allows visitors to get face-to-face with this whale that always seems to be smiling.
While you’re here, take in the wide array of shopping and dining experiences along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, or watch the Cubs play a game at Wrigley Field.
Take a trip to the charming South Carolina coastal city of Charleston to visit the South Carolina Aquarium. It offers panoramic vistas of the Charleston Harbor and Cooper River as well as exhibits like the Saltmarsh Aviary, which houses a 6,000-gallon stingray tank. Feed the rays while also viewing herons, diamondback terrapins and puffer fish.
With such a colorful history and streets lined with beautiful Spanish moss-draped live oaks, just taking a stroll through Charleston is a fun experience, but you’ll find plenty of other water and land activities here, including boating and fishing, golfing or just walking across the soft sands of pristine beaches.
The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher — aptly located near Cape Fear in Kure Beach, North Carolina, includes a number of real-life “fear factor” moments, such as an up-close encounter with an alligator and the opportunity to touch a live shark. The aquarium also houses a sea turtle hospital that can be toured and a variety of marine life, including moray eels, stingrays, snakes and plenty of tropical fish.
In this beautiful small town there are plenty of other things to do, too, including strolling along the boardwalk, dining on fresh seafood or kayaking the coastline.
The Florida Aquarium in Tampa focuses on Florida species, with the Coral Reef Gallery exhibit arguably the most stunning. It features panoramic windows and a walk-through tunnel. This habitat, which can normally only be experienced by diving, simulates a 60-foot dive starting in shallow-water reefs and descending to deeper waters, with each window presenting its own micro habitat. Visitors also have the opportunity to swim with sharks or take a two-hour boat eco-tour of Tampa Bay.
This Florida region is filled with lots of other family-friendly attractions, including the Lowery Park Zoo, the Safari Wilderness Ranch and a fun water park, Adventure Island.
If you want to see something you may never get a chance to see in your entire lifetime, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is the only institution outside of Asia that houses whale sharks. It contains more than 100,000 fish and other sea creatures and is the world’s largest aquarium by size with more than 9 million gallons of water – and more animals than any other aquarium on the planet. Some of the unique creatures here in addition to the whale shark include beluga whales, manta rays and giant hammerhead sharks.
There’s practically an endless number of other attractions in Atlanta, including the LEGOLAND Discovery Center, with a test track where you can even try out the LEGO car you built on site. During baseball season, between April and October, you can also catch an Atlanta Braves game at Turner Field.
Visit the beautiful Smoky Mountains, home to Chattanooga’s Tennessee Aquarium, which allows visitors to get up close to sand tiger sharks. Although they may look quite threatening, they aren’t known to harm humans. This aquarium is actually two in one, starting out as a freshwater aquarium that houses river otters, giant catfish and alligators, with a saltwater aquarium added in 2005. In addition to its colorful fish, it includes a variety of birds, penguins, reptiles, amphibians and even a butterfly garden.
Chattanooga is known for its spectacular mountain scenery with the opportunity for scenic hikes and ziplining adventures. Other popular attractions include river cruises, river rafting and exploring historical sites.
Of course, there are a ton of things to do in the Big Apple, including visiting the New York Aquarium on Coney Island. This is the oldest continually operating aquarium in the U.S., home to adorable black-footed penguins, sea lions and walruses, otters, moray eels and much more. At Aquatheater, guests are entertained by trainers and sea lions that dive, dance and give kisses.
While in New York City, explore Central Park Zoo or visit renowned sights like the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland’s Inner Harbor, you’ll find 16,500 animals from 660 species, including bottlenose dolphins, puffins, reptiles, amphibians and, of course, lots of fish! It also includes standout exhibits like a multiple-story coral reef and a tropical rain forest. The most popular attraction here is Dolphin Discovery, where visitors can watch dolphin training, feeding and playing.
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has been a major seaport hub since the 1700s and is filled with numerous dining and shopping opportunities. Taking a water taxi is a fun and affordable way to see the sites. From May-September, it stops throughout the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Fort McHenry and Canton about every 15 to 20 minutes.
If you and your family want the chance to learn more about the creatures that make their home in and around the water, there’s nothing better than to plan a visit to an aquarium! Check out these top 10 destinations for an exciting and memorable family getaway.