No trip to the City of Brotherly Love is complete without exploring the Philadelphia Zoo. Opened in 1874, the nation’s oldest zoo recently joined the ranks of the world’s best. During the last two decades, the zoo has expanded, with new and exciting exotic animals, upgraded exhibits and cutting-edge attractions. Today, the zoo has 1,300 animals, 300 animal species and a botanical collection of more than 500 plant species centered around historic architecture, including the country of home of William Penn’s grandson. You could easily spend a whole day here, so plan your visit beforehand to squeeze in as much fun as possible.
3400 W. Girard Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19104
The Philadelphia Zoo was chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1859 but didn’t open its gates until 1874 after being delayed by the Civil War. The long history of this animal wonderland includes the first chimp and orangutan births in a U.S. zoo (1928), the first Children’s Zoo in the world (1957) and the very first exhibit of white lions presented in the U.S. (1993). Set in a beautiful 42-acre Victorian garden in West Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia Zoo is one of the most picturesque and well laid-out zoos in the country. Visitors wind through tree-lined paths to view historic structures, formal shrubbery, animal sculptures, ornate cast iron animal cages and exhilarating exhibits of exotic, rare and endangered animals.
Located along the west bank of the Schuylkill River in the Centennial District of the city, the zoo is northwest of Center City Philadelphia. Philadelphia International Airport is roughly 10 miles away, and SEPTA rail service to the zoo is still in the works. Roughly 80 percent of zoo visitors arrive by school bus or car, making parking an expensive and somewhat difficult task. A new four-story parking garage with 638 spaces was recently opened, but that hardly puts a dent in the busiest traffic days. You can take the Route 15 trolley or SEPTA Route 38 bus, but the easiest option to travel from Center City to the zoo is by Phlash, a seasonal shuttle service managed by the Independence Visitor Center.
Price and Hours
Annual visitation to the zoo is almost one million visitors a year, making it one of Philadelphia’s top five tourist attractions. At its opening in 1874, visitors could view 1,000 animals for an admission price of just 25 cents, and admission in the last century and a half is still reasonably priced at $20 for adults and $18 for children ages two to 11. Zoo members and children under age two get in for free, but special features including the PZ Express Train, Amazon Rainforest Carousel and Zooballoon are extra. The zoo is open all year except for major holidays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in season and until 4 p.m. during off season. If you time your visit between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., you can catch the meat-eaters feeding in Carnivore Kingdom.
Stroller, wheelchair and electric scooter rentals are available, plenty of restrooms are on site and the Rare Animal Conservation Center near the main entrance houses a mother’s nursing station. Visitors are permitted to pack a lunch and have a picnic on zoo grounds, or you may enjoy a snack or meal at one of the wide selection of eateries. If you really want to chow down like a local, grab a hoagie at Philly Cheesesteak or a fresh pretzel at Philly Pretzel Factory, then head over to one of the gift shops for a wildlife souvenir.
A wide range of animal zones and habitats can be found at the Philadelphia Zoo. The primates at Monkey Junction delight kids of all ages, and visitors always get a kick out of watching the tree frogs and tortoises get drenched in tropical thunderstorms at the Reptile and Amphibian House. Everyone flocks to the McNeil Avian Center to check out more than 100 rare birds, and don’t miss Bear Country, Bird Valley and the Small Mammal House. A featured attraction is First Niagara Big Cat Falls, which featuring leopards, pumas, lions, tigers, jaguars, pools, waterfalls and simulated activities for future zoologists. Newest on the zoo scene is KidZooU, an indoor/outdoor area featuring interactive stations, an educational center, a barnyard where children can care for farm animals and a wildlife academy filled with all sorts of fish, birds and insects.
The best way to get an overview of the zoo is by taking a breathtaking 10-minute ride on the Zooballoon. Open from April through October, weather permitting, visitors go on a soaring safari up to 400 feet in elevation – high enough for a 360-degree view of the Philadelphia skyline, Fairmount Park and, of course, all the zoo attractions. Families can paddle around Bird Lake on the Victorian swan boats, take a pony ride in the Children’s Zoo or climb aboard the PZ Express Train. For the more adventurous, hitch a ride on a camel’s back through the African Plains or venture out on a 2,000-pound draft horse. Little ones will love hanging out and feeding the lorikeets, and a spin on the hand-carved Amazon Rainforest Carousel is a must-do.
Susan DeFeo has been a professional writer since 1997. She served as a community events columnist for New Jersey’s “Cape May County Herald” for more than a decade. A writer for numerous online publications, Susan has covered health, fitness, beauty and travel, all subjects that are near and dear to her as a married mother of seven children. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.