It is no secret to readers of our blog that we are big fans of aquariums. In every city, we visit one of the first ports of call is the local Aquarium. The States are home to a huge number of aquaria, with a huge variety of animals on display, no one facility is the same and just about every type of habitat is represented somewhere. We take a look at the Best Aquariums In The USA and not only tell you what is in them but explain the differences and why you should visit each one.
Most of America’s Aquariums are not really worth the hassle of traveling to just for the Aquarium itself, but more a place to visit when in the City or Area, but some of the best aquariums on our list really are so incredible they are worth the trip to Just for the facility itself. A Couple we even think are worth the trip from the UK, attractions to base a whole trip around! And we have done. Either way, if you are just looking for some amazing ocean exhibits or seeking out the absolute best in marine aquascapes our list will show you all the 10 best Aquariums in the USA.
10 – Sea World – Orlando
- Orlando, Florida
- $89.99 Adult – $89.99 Child
- Water Volume – 15,000,000 Gallons +
We Start with a contentious one. We are not even sure SeaWorld counts as an Aquarium as it is a theme park and aquatic entertainment center all one. However, there are definitely good Aquarium elements in the park. We are judging the Park based on those elements only, and these only just get it a place on the list, especially with the $85.99 entry fee, which is not too bad for the actual waterpark but for an aquarium, it’s pretty steep!
But you should not look at it that way you are paying for the theme park and getting the aquarium elements free. These are often undersold as the headline rides and Big Marine Mammals take center stage but there are a large number of aquaria present as well. Large Shark Tanks, Manta Rays, Antarctic Penguins, Giant Sea Turtles, Dolphin Nursery, Stingray touch tank, and many smaller displays that are easily lost amongst all the glitz and glamour. If you took all of the extras away, you really would still have a world-class aquarium on your hands.
Of Course on top of these are the Marine Mammals, Dolphins, Sea Lions, Beluga Whales, Walrus, and Seals. And of course, there are the spectacular Orca on display. We are still not sure where we stand on the remaining Orca in Captivity (Read More Here) But it’s hard to argue they are incredible to see.
We could make a case for all three USA SeaWorlds to be on this list, as aquariums, they are equally matched and very similar. Orlando certainly is the better theme park with San Diego being noted for its history and legacy, with San Antonio being a great day out as well. But we naturally didn’t want to fill the list just with SeaWorld Parks…So although this entry is for Orlando, count it as all three!
Another mention should go to Discovery Cove by Sea World in Orlando. Not an Aquarium as such but a marine park where guests can snorkel and swim with the marine life in the enclosures. It’s sort of like a swimming pool filled with fish or a manmade beach with a reef. Often rated as the best attraction in Orlando!
9 – Newport Aquarium
- Newport, Kentucky
- $39.99 Adult – $31.99 Child
- Water Volume – 1,000,000 Gallons
From now on we focus on proper aquariums and judge solely on exhibits, not rides and shows. First up is the Newport Aquarium in Newport Kentucky. This family-friendly aquarium features a large number of sharks from smaller Cat Sharks to the fearsome Sand Tiger shark and Blacktip Reef Shark. There is even a rope bridge that inches over the tank that lets you test your bravery as you traverse the open-top shark-infested tank.
The Aquarium is very proud of its Shark Rays and they are the only Aquarium in the country to feature these odd creatures and are heavily involved in the breeding and conservation of the sharks.
There are plenty of small and very interesting exhibits featuring Giant Pacific Octopus, Japanese Spider Crabs, Sea Dragons, Arapimne, Stingrays, and Guitar Fish. Alligator Alley features a host of crocodilian residents such as Alligators (including Albino), Caiman, and Crocodiles, however, the crowd favorite Mighty Mike a 14ft monster Gator returned home to Florida after being loaned to the Aquarium.
The Dangerous Creatures Exhibit was one of our favorites and feature all sorts of nasty beasts such as Snakes, Electric Eels, Gil Monsters, Phirana Stonefish, and more.
There is a lot going on in quite a small and compact aquarium and it is well worthy of a place on our list.
8 – The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- $29.95 Adult – $24.95 Child
- Water Volume – 1,000,000 Gallons +
Down on the Bank of the Mighty Mississippi is the Audubon Aquarium of The Americas. We love this New Orleans icon as the exhibits and displays are significantly different from most aquariums and it’s a refreshing experience.
The Huge Gulf of Mexico tank is an open ocean exhibit based around a deepwater oil rig. The tank has a variety of fish we don’t often see such as large alligator gar and Tarpon along with the more usual Sharks and Rays.
The Caribbean Reef is a large and spectacular display featuring a tunnel walkthrough. The Amazon Exhibit has Macaws, Anacondas, Phirana, and Freshwater Stingrays. There are also penguins and Sea Otters on Display.
The Mississippi river exhibit features the creatures found in this mighty waterway and while we assumed it would just be tanks filled with polluted muddy water, the variety of life that has survived the human colonization of the river is quite surprising! Cat Fish, Paddlefish, Sturgeon, and even an Albino Alligator are all on display.
7 – New England Aquarium
- Boston, Massachusetts
- $39.00 Adult – $30.00 Child
- Water Volume – 500,000 Gallons +
The New England Aquarium in Boston is a fairly compact facility mostly centered around its 200,000-gallon Giant Ocean Tank. The Aquarium has been a feature of Boston’s restored waterfront for many decades and is much loved by the passionate Bostonites. The Iconic architecture of the aquarium leads to a multi-story exhibition space centered around the monster tank. Open at the top and with a spiral walkway linking the 4 levels
The Giant Ocean Tank features a replica Caribbean Coral reef, populated with Green Sea Turtles, Moray Eels, Baracuda, Bonnetheah Sharks, Sand Tiger Sharks Stingrays, and a plethora of reef-dwelling fish. The Unique cylindrical design is very appealing and helps provide a real focus to the aquarium.
Other displays feature, Sea lions, Goliath Grouper, Sea Dragons, Sharks, and rays. There is an Amazon Exhibit with Phirana, Arapaima, and Electric eels and the giant Indo-Pacific Coral Reef tanks filled with stunning coral and small but vibrant reef fish including Nemo’s and Dories.
Finally, during the months of April – October you can take a cruise out to the Stellwagon bank to see the area’s abundant Whale population, such as Humpbacks, Finback Minke and Pilot Whales.
It is worth mentioning a little confusion with the New England Aquarium. Even a Google image search will bring up images of a huge open ocean tank and massive display windows, none of which can be found at the Boston site. Most of this confusion comes from the Movie Ted where Mark Wahburg takes the animated bear to break some bad news, we believe these scenes were shot here however they definitely used some Hollywood magic to make the exhibits seem much larger and more impressive than they are. We love the New England Aquarium but you will not find the sort of experience depicted in this Aquarium. For that, you need our number one Choice!
Available on the Boston CityPASS
6 – National Aquarium
- $39.95 Adult – $29.95 Child
- Water Volume – 2,200,000 Gallons +
The National Aquarium sounds very grand and official, signifying the figurehead of aquariums in the USA, however, the actual facility is far less grand than you would imagine. It is still a very good aquarium however and its locations down on the waterfront, amongst the museum ships and Submarines, make this one of the top attractions in all of Maryland.
Taking over piers 3 and 4 of the old harbor the building is modern and grand and the exhibits are well put together featuring some wonderful creatures. The Main Building on pier 3, is set on many levels and has a more diverse set of attractions than most. The upper levels are taken over by tropical rainforests, tamarins, and sloths climb through the branches while birds sing and Poison arrow frogs croak. They even have pink Bin-Chickens!
Blacktip Reef features several sharks including Black-tips and Zebra Sharks along with Calypso a huge 500lb Rescued Sea Turtle. It’s a beautiful exhibit. The Mountains to Maryland features Local wildlife such as Crabs Frogs and turtles, along with grouper and flounders from the bay. Bonnet Sharks, Moray Eels, and Pufferfish join the thousands of fish that populate the Atlantic Reff exhibit.
A Second Sark Tank houses the Aquariums Big Guys. Feel what it is like to be circled by sharks as Nurse Sharks And Tiger Sharks, Sandbar Sharks, Rays, and Sawfish swim around the ring-shaped tank.
Most of the Aquariums 2.2 Million Gallons are taken up by the Oceanaroium over on Pier 4, connected by a Walkway. Here you will find the Aquarium’s 6 Dolphins. However, interestingly their days at the aquarium are numbered. As the Aquariums Dolphins are all captive-bred and a return to the wild would be a death sentence, so The National Aquarium is setting up a Marine Sanctuary for them, an ocean pen 100 times the size of their current enclosure. This exciting development is a first for the USA and could lead to a solution as to what to do with the country’s remaining marine mammals that are still in captivity but can never be released into the wild.
What the aquarium will do with this huge aquarium real estate has been unannounced! We also visited Iceland recently to see how they are tackling the Marine Mammal Situation.
5 – Maui Ocean Center
- Maui, Hawaii
- $44.95 Adult – $28.95 Child (Big Discounts for Hawaii Residents)
- Water Volume – 750,000 Gallons +
When visiting Hawaii you are constantly reminded of the stunning beauty and diversity of the Pacific Ocean’s Wonders. Water surrounds everything in Hawaii and is a constant invitation to explore what is under the waves. While there are many ways of exploring Hawaii’s Diverse and wonderful marine world, Snorkelling, Diving, submarine, or even just waiting for it to haul out on land, It is sometimes nice to witness it in a more relaxed setting. The Maui Ocean Centre provides just that.
The Ocean Centre puts a lot of effort into showcasing its new Humpback Whale exhibit, to the point it sounds as if they actually house Humpbacks at the facility…They don’t, thankfully, although during Whale Season you can see them from the Aquariums outdoor deck, looking out over Maalaea bay. The Humpback exhibit is a multi-sensory learning center giving you huge amounts of information and understanding about Hawaii’s largest tourists. There is even a 4K 3-D Theatre that allows you to “swim” with the Whales.
The living exhibits are also pretty special. The Open Ocean Shark tank is filled with several species of shark and rays along with many Hawaiian reef fish. The Turtle Lagoon lets to get up close and personal with some of Hawaii’s most prized natives the Honu. The Living Reef is a stunning recreation of a Hawaiian reef and features Coral grown by the institute to help restore the reefs that have been so badly damaged by Tourism and Climate change.
The Institute does a lot of research and conservation in the Hawaiian waters and for this reason alone it is worthwhile to support them but be assured of a wonderful time at the institute in return for your support.
If you are on Oahu also check out the Waikiki Aquarium or the Sealife Park, while not quite as stunning as the Maui Ocean Center they are both fun and exciting locations to see Hawaii’s marine life up close.
4 – Aquarium of the Pacific
- Long Beach, California
- $36.95 Adult – $26.95 Child
- Water Volume – 1,000,000 Gallons +
The Aquarium of the Pacific gets the award for the most underrated Aquarium in the States. Hidden away in Long Beach the Facility gets far less spotlight than some of the other aquariums in both California and across the States but it actually shocked us how good and complete an experience it was. Focussing mainly on the Pacific Ocean, the exhibits feel very relevant to the location, as you look out over the Long Beach harbor and out to the vast Pacific Ocean.
There are no Stand-out exhibits, but while what was there was fairly standard is all really healthy with full-grown, happy, and healthy inhabitants. The Tropical Pacific reef display is their showpiece tank. Featuring Sharks, Rays, Turtles, and a host of vibrant tropical reef fish and living coral. It is a beautiful display and rivals anything we have seen in other aquariums.
The Main Shark tank is surprisingly outside and while the tank is small and fairly unassuming there are some big sharks in here not least the jumbo Sand Tiger Shark that cruises around with its multitude of intimidating teeth poking out of its mouth.
The Northern Pacific focus’s on the Coldwater inhabitants of this region, the Giant Pacific Octopus, Spider Crabs, Jellyfish, and a display of arctic birds such as Puffins and auks. The colorful Baja and Southern California Exhibit showcases the regional marine life such as Kelp Forest ecosystems found up and down the coast.
Overall we were mightily impressed with the aquarium, we did not expect too much from our visit and were really bowled over by the quality we found on display. Well worth the trip to include this as part of your Los Angeles Adventures.
Included on Go Los Angeles Pass, save money on your Los Angeles Attractions
3 – The Shedd Aquarium
- $39.95 Adult – $29.95 Child
- Water Volume – 6,000,000 Gallons +
Housed in the Historical Landmark building in Chicago’s Museum campus down by the Lake Michigan Shoreline the Shedd Museum is anything but an attraction in a Shedd! One of America’s most visited aquariums and one of the largest in terms of water volume this incredible facility houses some unique and wonderful exhibits.
The vast majority of display space is given over to the Oceanarium, over 3 million Gallons house the Facility’s biggest creatures. Here Beluga Whales, Dolphins and Sea Lions, Penguins, and Sea Otters can play and put on shows. The Wild Reef is the Aquariums Shark tank, featuring Sandbar and blacktips amongst others. The tank also houses a huge array of reef fish and other species such as Sawfish, Turtles, and rays.
The Waters of the World is the oldest exhibit and features many varied creatures from all types of water, including Lake Michigan. The Newly added Amazon Rising showcases life from the tropical watershed of the Amazon. And the Caribbean Reef holds another living reef complete with sharks rays and Turtles and a bucket load of reef fish.
It is a stunning facility and being right in the heart of a major city is quite unexpected. From the outside, despite the stunning classical architecture it’s hard to believe the building houses such a vast array of stunning marine and aquatic life!
Included on Go Chicago Pass, save money on your Chicago Attractions
2 – Monterey Bay Aquarium
- Monterey, California
- $49.95 Adult – $29.95 Child
- Water Volume – 2,200,000 Gallons +
Really, we wish this could have been number 1. There is a very special place in our hearts for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and we adore the location, the exhibits, and all the fantastic work the aquarium does for the conservation in the surrounding area, one of our favorite coastal regions in the world.
However being objective it does not quite live up to the Number 1 Spot as you will see, it is Streets ahead of any other aquarium on the list though. The Stars of the show are the super cute Sea Otters. These are all rescue animals and have been part of the Aquarium’s successful campaign to reintroduce the furry critter back to the coasts of California. This incredible success is one of the reasons we adore the Non-Profit Aquarium.
On top of the Otters and the unbelievably beautiful setting, The Aquarium is packed with amazing Exhibits. The vast open ocean tank is over a million gallons and filled with schooling baitfish, just like the sardines that school in the bay and bring in the Giant Whales. The Sardines are accompanied by a host of pelagic open ocean creatures, Turtles, Giant Bluefin and Yellowfin Tuna, Hammerhead Sharks, Sandbar Sharks, and Mahi Mahi, Stingrays, and more. It is a wonderful display.
The Kelp Forest tank shows what life is like under the surface of the bays Kelp-forests and having dived the forests the day before I can say it is most accurate. The Living reef allows you to actually find Dory after all the Aquarium is the spiritual home of the Ocean Institute featured in the Disney Sequel, Finding Dory!
The Deep Exhibit is one of our favorites, the dark underground bunker hosting a myriad of rare and elusive creatures such as Pacific Octopus, Humbolt Squid, and the Prehistoric Nautilus, We never dreamed of seeing these living fossils alive until we arrived here.
The Aquarium is a place of wonder and amazement. We adore it, along with the beautiful town where it resides. If you are heading down the PCH…which you should, do not miss out on Monterey Bay, its stunning wildlife, and its incredible Aquarium!
We love this aquarium so much that we have a full review here.
1 – Georgia Aquarium
- Atlanta, Georgia
- Water Volume – 11,000,000 Gallons +
As we said we love the Monterey aquarium and actually wanted to “not like” the Georgia Aquarium, It is however utterly jaw-dropping. The 6 Million gallons (that’s nearly 10 Olympic Swimming pools!) Ocean Explorer Tank is like no other in the states and is nearly on par with Sea Worlds Orca Enclosures. One of the largest display tanks in the entire world this stunning ocean enclosure houses the majestic Whale Sharks, The only aquarium in the USA, in fact anywhere outside of Asia, to display these awesome creatures.
The Behemoth Tank also houses another of our favorites, Manta Rays along with Sharks, Turtles, Stingrays, Schools of Trevally, Sawfish, Wobbegongs, and a whole host of varied tropical and reef fish. Multiple viewing windows allow different perspectives but the Giant tunnel and enormous theatre window, one of the world’s, largest really take your breath away.
On top of this, there are another 4 Million Gallons of exhibits, nearly as much as its nearest rival, The Shedd, in Chicago, has in total! The Coldwater Quest has Beluga Whales, Sea Otters, Spider Crabs, Penguins, and a whole host of coldwater Species. The Tropical Diver Exhibit is a living coral reef exhibit. There is a dolphin display tank, The River scout, featuring American Species, Alligators, Pirahna, and otters. and many more.
All in all, it is a breathtaking facility and without the “main” attraction as good as any other Aquarium in the States. But with the Ocean Explorer tank, it really is next-level…and then some! It is the ONLY aquarium we would recommend going to just for the aquarium. All the others, are worth seeing if you are in the area, and Monterey Bay is just SO beautiful you must visit the town and the aquarium is part of that, but the Georgia Aquarium is worth the trip JUST for the Aquarium, sure there is plenty to see in Atlanta, but once you have seen the Georgia Aquarium, all other aquariums just do not compare.
Available as part of the Atlanta CityPASS
Have Your Say
Have you visited any of the Aquariums on our list? Maybe your favorite didn’t make it or maybe you had a poor experience at one of the above locations? Let us know in the comments below and if you had a great time then we would love to hear from you as well. Basically anything you have to say just fire away in the comments.