Best US Aquariums by Region

Wild waters are full of mysterious creatures, from the small and dangerous peacock mantis shrimp — whose claw can clamp down on your finger with the force of a .22-caliber bullet — to massive whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. You can get up close and personal with these marine animals and others at the top aquariums across the US. Here are our favorites, separated by region. 

East Coast 

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Richard Cummins/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images

The National Aquarium in Baltimore attracts 1.5 million visitors every year with its nearly 20,000 animals and 115,000 square feet of exhibit space that takes you to waters near and far. Designed like a river gorge, the Australia: Wild Extremes experience showcases Down Under land and sea creatures such as the nonvenomous black-headed python and the freshwater mouth almighty fish. You can also meet the state’s backyard animals — American bullfrogs and blue crabs — at the Maryland: Mountains to the Sea exhibit.

At the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ, visitors have to walk through the shark tunnel — the only place to see great hammerhead sharks on display in the US. They can get even closer by signing up for the swim-with-sharks program. For those wanting a less daunting hands-on experience, the aquarium also offers encounters with penguins and sea turtles. 

West Coast 

The nonprofit Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA, is not only home to peacock mantis shrimp (whose mighty claw has been known to break tank walls) and large mysterious mola mola — also known as ocean sunfish, they grow to 2,200 pounds — it’s also one of the world’s leading ocean conservation organizations. The Sea Otter Research and Conservation program, for example, works to rehabilitate and breed the animals, which are native to the Pacific Coast and whose population dropped to about 50 in 1911. Today, there are nearly 3,000. Learn more at the aquarium’s sea otter exhibit, always a favorite among visitors. 

Located in Long Beach, CA, the Aquarium of the Pacific has more than 11,000 marine creatures representing 500 species, including threatened animals such as the sand tiger shark, the giant sea bass and the olive ridley sea turtle. While the Shark Lagoon and June Keyes Penguin Habitat are some of the most popular exhibits, don’t miss smaller galleries where lesser-known ocean inhabitants — flamboyant cuttlefish, for example, which continuously change color — thrive. 

Midwest 

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Charles Cook/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images

As many as 2 million people visit Shedd Aquarium, which is housed in a 1930 Beaux Arts building in Chicago, every year. Many of them were sure to stop by the tank housing Granddad, an Australian lungfish that's the oldest living fish in any aquarium in the world. Sea otters, dolphins and beluga whales also vie for your attention. 

Get over your fear of sharks at the Newport Aquarium, located just outside of Cincinnati in Newport, KY. It houses more than 50 of the often-misunderstood marine predators. Visitors can walk through an acrylic tube where 6 shark types, some up to 10 feet in length, swim around you. Take it to the next level at Shark Central, where you can touch more than a dozen of these fierce fish in a 5,000-gallon tank. 

South 

little girl stands in front of a huge glass aquarium with shark inside

Dejan Patic / The Image Bank / Getty Images

You might associate the world’s great coral reefs with regions such as Australia and Central America, but the Florida Aquarium in Tampa models its popular coral gallery after the Dry Tortugas formations off the Florida Keys. There are more than 2,000 reef residents in this 500,000-gallon tank, including many species that are native to the Sunshine State. The institution also helps propagate reefs throughout the region, along with supporting other efforts, such as rescuing sea turtles, river otters and manatees. 

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is the only center outside Asia with whale sharks; the globe’s largest fish are housed in a 6.3 million-gallon tank (along with 9-foot manta rays), the biggest aquatic exhibit in the world. You can also see American albino alligators and Australian pig-nosed turtles in the River Scout gallery. 

Southwest 

You’ll see more than ocean dwellers at the Dallas World Aquarium. Since opening in 1992, the Texas center has expanded to include the Orinoco Secrets of the River exhibit, a rain-forest experience, as well as the Mundo Maya exhibit, which focuses on plants and animals that were historically important to ancient Mayan culture. The latter includes the world’s largest collection of toucans, cotingas and manakins, all brightly colored tropical birds. 

Alaska and Hawaii 

exterior of the wakiki aquarium in honolulu

Ann Cecil / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

The Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu distinguishes itself by hosting a number of species that are distinctive to — you guessed it — the Hawaiian island chain. These include the Hawaiian monk seal, one of the world’s most endangered species (there are only 1,100 of the 400-plus-pound mammals left), as well as a number of reefs (the aquarium has the oldest living collection of corals in the US). 

The Alaska SeaLife Center, which opened in 1998, dedicates itself to the research, rehabilitation and education of native Alaskan marine species. Unlike at a typical aquarium, guests buy tickets to shadow researchers working with area harbor seals, for example, or to tour the center’s aviary with a birdkeeper. The center's rehabilitation department also nurses stranded or injured animals — spectacled eider birds and sea otters, among others — and releases them, when possible, back into the wild, cold waters.

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (New Orleans)

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (New Orleans)

A young visitor looks at a 400,000-gallon water tank filled with stingrays, sea turtles -- and 17-foot-long sharks! They’re all part of the Gulf of Mexico exhibit at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. The aquarium showcases aquatic life throughout North and South America. 960 1280

Stephen Saks/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images  

Texas State Aquarium (Corpus Christi, TX)

Texas State Aquarium (Corpus Christi, TX)

There he goes! This little guy is one of 2 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins -- Shadow and Kai -- at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, TX. Visitors can see the dolphins above water … and below, courtesy of an underwater viewing room that features a 70-foot-long window.  960 1280

Philip Lange/ iStock/ Thinktsock  

Ripley’s Aquarium (Gatlinburg, TN)

Ripley’s Aquarium (Gatlinburg, TN)

In the heart of the Smoky Mountains you’ll find Ripley’s Aquarium. The facility in Gatlinburg, TN, is home to 10,000 sea creatures, representing more than 350 individual species, such as giant stingrays, snappers and some very large sharks -- as long as 13 feet! 960 1280

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies  

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher (Kure Beach, NC)

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher (Kure Beach, NC)

It’s only fitting that the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher should be located near … Cape Fear! You and the kids will encounter plenty of fear-factor moments: Touch a live shark, discover North Carolina’s fiercest predator and come face-to-face with an alligator — if you dare. 960 1280

NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher  

National Aquarium (Baltimore)

National Aquarium (Baltimore)

You’ll find all kinds of fish at the Baltimore National Aquarium. Since it opened in 1981, the aquarium has garnered an astonishing collection of sea life: nearly 20,000 specimens representing 660 species. 960 1280

Richard Cummins/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images  

Oregon Coast Aquarium (Newport, OR)

Oregon Coast Aquarium (Newport, OR)

Wow, are we underwater, Dad? It’ll feel like it as you and the kids journey through this underwater tunnel at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Cool views like this help explain why the facility in Newport, OR, has been ranked one of the top 10 aquariums in North America by Coastal Living magazine. 960 1280

Oregon Coast Aquarium  

Aquarium of the Pacific (Long Beach, CA)

Aquarium of the Pacific (Long Beach, CA)

This 5-acre site in Long Beach, CA, is home to the Aquarium of the Pacific. The little ones will enjoy plenty of interactive fun: Kids can pet sharks and stingrays, and feed nectar to parrots known as lorikeets. 960 1280

Pete Starman/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images  

Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, CA)

Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, CA)

Did you know that corals are animals, not plants? Your kids will learn these and other facts at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Coral Reef Kingdom. See them ooh and aww at the colorful ocean homes where these tiny animals live in colonies. Also check out the aquarium's other attractions, including stingrays, jellyfish and sea otters. 960 1280

Doug Steakley/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images  

New England Aquarium (Boston)

New England Aquarium (Boston)

These brave kids stick their hands in the “touch tank,” as stingrays glide through the clear shallow water. Kids (and adults) can touch various species of sharks and rays at Boston's New England Aquarium, including cownose rays, southern stingrays and coral catsharks. 960 1280

Brian D Cruickshank/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images  

The Florida Aquarium (Tampa, FL)

The Florida Aquarium (Tampa, FL)

Reach out and touch someone. Kids get a thrill as an underwater diver presses his hands against the glass tank at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, FL. The large, 250-square-foot facility is home to more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals from around the world. 960 1280

Richard Cummins/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images  

John G. Shedd Aquarium (Chicago)

John G. Shedd Aquarium (Chicago)

You’re looking at one of the largest indoor aquariums in the world. The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago houses more than 5,000,000 gallons of water in which 25,000 fish (and counting!) make their home. 960 1280

Charles Cook/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images  

Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta)

Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta)

How’s this for big: The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta contains between 100,000 and 120,000 fish and other sea creatures. One of the biggest reasons to visit is to see the aquarium’s whale sharks -- it’s the only institution outside of Asia to house this particular shark species. 960 1280

Barry Williams/ Getty Images  

Tennessee Aquarium (Chattanooga, TN)

Tennessee Aquarium (Chattanooga, TN)

Come face to face with sharks at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, TN. The sand tiger shark (pictured here) may look menacing but it’s not usually a threat to humans. Unless, of course, you engage in some spearfishing -- fortunately, not an option at this aquarium! 960 1280

Stephen Saks/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images  

Mystic Aquarium (Mystic, CT)

Mystic Aquarium (Mystic, CT)

Let’s shake on it! You’re looking at one of New England’s only beluga whales. Learn all about this amazing marine mammal -- which hails from the Arctic and is known for its eye-catching all-white color -- courtesy of the Mystic Aquarium’s Encounter program in Mystic, CT. Don waterproof gear and wade waist-deep into the Arctic Coast exhibit with the whales and trainers. 960 1280

MyLoupe/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images  

Waikiki Aquarium (Honolulu)

Waikiki Aquarium (Honolulu)

Just what makes a fish a fish? Find out at the Waikiki Aquarium, the third oldest aquarium in the US. At the aquarium’s very official Fish School, kids as young as 5 can learn all about the many critters of the sea and their amazing adaptations to their environment. Don’t worry, though, it’s not all learn and no play -- the class includes a scavenger hunt among the exhibits.
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Waikiki Aquarium  

Newport Aquarium (Newport, KY)

Newport Aquarium (Newport, KY)

Sharks, sharks and more sharks! Sand tiger, sandbar, whitetip, blacktip reef and zebra -- see these intriguing shark species glide above your head in Newport Aquarium’s underwater tunnel. Also explore the aquariums additional attractions, such as the Jellyfish Gallery, Frog Bog (home to 20 species of exotic frogs) and Gator Alley, where visitors can stare into the eyes of Tut, their Nile crocodile.
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Kentucky Tourism  

New York Aquarium (Brooklyn, NY)

New York Aquarium (Brooklyn, NY)

See these cute black-footed penguins at the New York Aquarium, located on Coney Island. As the oldest continually operating aquarium in the US, the aquarium holds no shortage of marine mammals and aquatic life, from sea lions, otters and walruses, to cownose rays and moray eels.    960 1280

Julie Larsen Maher/WCS  

Downtown Aquarium Denver

Downtown Aquarium Denver

Yes, even mermaids live at the aquarium … or at least put on a good show. At Downtown Aquarium Denver, see live mermaid performances in the Under the Sea exhibit. Also check out the aquarium’s exhibits spanning barrier reefs, rainforest, wharf and desert habitats. 960 1280

Downtown Aquarium, Denver  

Downtown Aquarium Houston

Downtown Aquarium Houston

Houston’s 6-acre Downtown Aquarium is home to a veritable who’s who of aquatic animals: Electric eels, nurse sharks and stingrays are among the 200 diverse species of underwater life found here. In between exploring exhibits like the Louisiana Swamp (yes, alligators live here) and the Rainforest, unwind at the aquarium’s Dive Lounge. 960 1280

Downtown Aquarium Houston  

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