Dive into family fun with a visit to one of our favorite aquariums in the U.S. From coast to coast, there are lots of amazing institutions that offer up-close animal encounters and conservation education. A few of our favorites are the Georgia Aquarium, the Shedd Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, but you’ll have to keep reading to find out which other spots should be on your must-visit list.
Texas State Aquarium – Corpus Christi, TX
This Texas hot spot is well worth a visit, focusing mainly on plants and animals that live in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. It’s home to more than 13,000 animals, from macaws to stingrays to bats.
Star Attraction: Check out the Caribbean Journey, where you can walk through an underwater tunnel and watch sharks swim overhead, see schools of fish in a coral reef and watch 4D movies in a state-of-the-art theater.
2710 N. Shoreline Blvd.
Corpus Christi, TX
Birch Aquarium at Scripps – La Jolla, CA
Located in scenic La Jolla, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps is a must-visit the next time you’re in Southern California. It’s filled with hands-on and interactive experiences and encounters, like shark feedings and starfish petting. Step into the Infinity Cube, where you’ll see cool bioluminescent creatures that shine in the dark. Click here to see our insider’s guide to making the most of your visit.
Star Attraction: Be sure to catch the Kelp Forest Dive show, during which you’ll get to watch divers feed the animals and answer kids’ questions. Head to the show early to snag a good spot.
2300 Expedition Way
La Jolla, CA
Aquarium of the Pacific – Long Beach, CA
Home to over 11,000 animals, there’s no shortage of things to do at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Ooh and ahh at the two-story tank right at the aquarium’s entrance, head over to the smaller touch pools to get hands-on with aquatic life and participate in parent-and-me classes that teach littles all about a certain animal.
Star Attraction: You can purchase access to Animal Encounters experiences ($109 per person), where you’ll get a behind-the-scenes tour of the aquarium and some of its most in-demand inhabitants, including the penguins, sea lions and even sharks for a feeding.
100 Aquarium Way
Long Beach, CA
Oregon Coast Aquarium – Newport, OR
With seabirds, marine mammals, fish and other animals native to the Oregon coast, this gem overlooking Yaquina Bay is the perfect spot for an educational day trip. Interact with critters like sea stars, anemones and crabs in tide pools, ooh and ahh at moon jellies and check out a submerged shipwreck where lots of different species hang out.
Star Attraction: Take a stroll through the shark tunnel, which will make you feel like you’re walking beneath the sea as you get 360-degree views of the creatures.
2820 SE Ferry Slip Rd.
North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores – Pine Knoll Shores, NC
Over a day at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, you can follow the journey of loggerhead sea turtles, watch divers swim with the fishes and sharks and say hello to friendly sea otters, and that’s just scratching the surface. Be sure to check out their special events too, from summer camps to scavenger hunts.
Star Attraction: If you need a break from the exhibits, head outside to the nature play area, where kiddos can explore two slides, a climbing net, a treehouse platform and a swinging bridge.
1 Roosevelt Blvd.
Pine Knoll Shores, NC
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium – Sarasota, FL
Located in Sarasota, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium is home to world-class marine scientists committed researching and educating the public on conservation and sustainable use of our oceans. Say hello to manatees, sea turtles, river otters and other critters, and learn how the scientists take care of them.
Star Attraction: Mote is home to the only Center for Shark Research recognized by the U.S. Congress, where, believe it or not, they’re doing cancer research. Check out their 135,000-gallon Shark Habitat and learn all about the ocean’s top predators.
1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy
Alaska Sealife Center – Seward, AL
While primarily dedicated to marine research and education, the Alaska Sealife Center is also the only permanent marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facility in the state. During your visit, you’ll have the chance to get up close and personal with puffins, octopus, harbor seals, sea lions and other marine life.
Star Attraction: Cozy up to the touch tanks to learn about sea anemones, shrimp, urchins and sea stars. Be sure to chat with staff members to find out more about each of the creatures you’re feeling.
301 Railway Ave.
Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters – Marathon, FL
It’s easy to fill up a day at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters—go on a guided tour with a marine biologist, watch sharks, grouper and eels in the coral reef tank and touch various shallow water marine species in a tide pool.
Star Attraction: For an extra fee, you can participate in a cool animal encounter, where you’ll get to pet stingrays, snorkel with fish or feed and interact with sharks.
11710 Overseas Hwy
Newport Aquarium – Newport, KY
Hop over to the Newport Aquarium for a day of nonstop fun. Kids will get to touch sea stars and other creatures in the Touch Pool, see frogs as they climb through tunnels and tubes in the Frog Bog jungle gym and even get up close and personal with stingrays.
Star Attraction: Don’t miss the new exhibit Ring of Fire: World of the Octopus, where you’ll get to see and learn about the giant Pacific octopus, moon jellyfish and Japanese spider crab.
1 Dave Cowens Dr.
Waikiki Aquarium – Honolulu, HI
This small but mighty aquarium is totally worth a visit the next time you’re on Oahu. Geared toward the unique aquatic life of Hawaii and the tropical Pacific, you’ll have the chance to see everything from jellyfish to giant clams.
Star Attraction: Check out the vibrant Coral Farm, home to lots of colorful fish. The water here is ideal for coral growth, so scientists grow colonies here that are then carefully transferred and shipped to other aquariums and researchers around the world.
2777 Kalakaua Ave.
New England Aquarium – Boston, MA
The New England Aquarium is home to thousands of animals, from northern fur seals to giant Pacific octopus to African penguins. Learn how sharks have evolved over the years, check out the birds and crabs that live in the Gulf of Maine and get up close and personal with sharks and rays in a touch tank.
Star Attraction: The four-story Giant Ocean Tank is the centerpiece of the aquarium, and you’ll see lots of creatures inside, like Myrtle the green sea turtle, moray eels and hundreds of colorful reef fishes.
1 Central Wharf
South Carolina Aquarium – Charleston, SC
At the South Carolina Aquarium, you’ll get to venture through the state’s different regions and see each one’s animal inhabitants: bald eagles and river otters in the mountain forest, alligators and rattlesnakes in the coastal plain and sea turtles and fish off the coast.
Star Attraction: Be sure to visit the Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery, which is both a hospital and a guest experience. You’ll get to watch, as sick and injured turtles are nursed back to health and eventually released.
100 Aquarium Wharf
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas – New Orleans, LA
Located along the banks of the Mississippi River in the historic French Quarter, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is home to 10,000 animals of 400 species, including rare and endangered species. Walk through a 30-foot tunnel surrounded by lionfish, yellowtail snapper and moray eels, and see rescued southern sea otters in a specially designed exhibit.
Star Attraction: Check out the aquarium’s behind-the-scenes encounters, giving you a chance to pet penguins, snorkel with fish and more.
1 Canal St.
New Orleans, LA
Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium – Bloomington, MN
You might not expect to find an aquarium right in the Mall of America, but you’d be surprised! At Sea Life, you’ll see stingrays, sea turtles, sharks, jellyfish and lots more sea creatures—not a bad way to take a break from shopping.
Star Attraction: Pay a visit to the Ray Lagoon. For a fee, you can feed the rays yourself and watch as they gobble up their treats.
East Side, Level 1
120 E. Broadway
Monterey Bay Aquarium – Monterey, CA
Home to both delighted marine animals and a waterfront view, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a tranquil space for water lovers to stroll through 200 exhibits—from the stingray petting tank to the plexiglass splash cove—and learn about ocean conservation. This aquarium does amazing work for local water-loving creatures by helping out sea otters, bluefin tunas, albatrosses and more with their rescue and release program. Click here to see our insider's guide to making the most of your visit.
Star Attraction: Who can resist feeding times? Younger visitors will love watching penguins gobble down their meal and exploring the kelp forest as divers hand-feed sharks, fishes and other animals. Take a peek into the aquarium now by watching the live webcams here.
886 Cannery Row
Georgia Aquarium – Atlanta, GA
A frontrunner for "Largest Aquarium in the World," the Georgia Aquarium is a stunning facility that boasts a huge deep water tank, an award-winning dolphin exhibit and a 4-D theater for a truly unique underwater experience. And when it comes to ocean life, this aquarium is all about rescue, research, rehabilitation and responsibility. Their conservation program extends around the world to help marine mammals all the way in Mexico, Africa, the Amazon and more. Get all our insider tips and tricks by clicking here.
Star Attraction: Their absolutely mind-boggling 6.3 million gallon Ocean Voyager tank is home to four (yes, four) Whale Sharks. And since the Georgia Aquarium is the only place outside of Asia that has successfully been able to house Whale Sharks, it’s definitely a must-see exhibit.
225 Baker St. NW
Tennessee Aquarium – Chattanooga, TN
As Chattanooga’s top attraction, the Tennessee Aquarium is a gem. Their River Journey highlights freshwater species around the country, and the more recent Ocean Journey exhibit includes a large variety of hands-on encounters with rays, macaws, and even has its own butterfly garden. There are even 3D IMAX movies with features like “Flight of the Butterflies” or “Great White Shark” for jaw-dropping entertainment.
Star Attraction: The River Journey exhibit, which earned the title of "largest freshwater aquarium in the world," and showcases their collection of river otters, turtles, alligators and giant catfish.
1 Broad St.
Mystic Aquarium – Mystic, CN
Mystic Aquarium is way more than a huge fish tank. It's also an oceanography institute that studies the Earth's waters beyond its living things. There's even a theatre where audience members can talk to crew members under the sea directly! And of course, there are plenty of marine animals, from Beluga whales to penguins, for little eyes to enjoy.
Star Attraction: As the Mystic Aquarium has an animal rescue program, it's best to visit one of their rescued friends! Ziggy Star is the Northern fur seal who was found starving and barely alive. After her rehabilitation period in California, she then became a permanent resident of the Mystic Aquarium.
55 Coogan Blvd.
Shedd Aquarium – Chicago, IL
A popular destination for native Chicagoans and tourists alike, Shedd Aquarium homes over 1500 species of fish, marine mammals, birds, snakes, amphibians and insects. Pint-sized patrons can get their hands wet at the touch pool filled with starfish or, through their informative exhibits, become a know-it-all in aquatic ecosystems and the Great Lakes. Click here to see our guide to making the most of your day at the aquarium.
Star Attraction: Meet the belugas, the only all-white whales in the world. Their tank has viewing options both above and below the water for different vantage points. And if you’re willing to part with $250/person to meet them, then Shedd Aquarium is the place to do it.
1200 S. Lake Shore Dr.
National Aquarium – Baltimore, MD
With over 2,200,000 gallons of water, 17,000 specimens and over five floors of themed displays, the National Aquarium is one great way to experience the sea. Each exhibit teaches viewers about different aquatic animals, their survival tactics and environment. The National Aquarium also regularly rescues, rehabilitates and releases marine mammals so the flipper friend you saw last time may not be there the next! Get all our insider's tips and tricks by clicking here.
Star Attraction: Calypso, a 500-pound sea green turtle, is a rescued friend from Long Island when her front left flipper had to be amputated to save her life. She now lives in the Blacktip Reef exhibit.
501 E. Pratt St.
—Susie Foresman, Christal Yuen & Scott Wardell
Feature photo: courtesy The Seattle Aquarium