11 Don’t-Miss Aquariums in the U.S.

Prepare to be impressed with these underwater wonderlands.
people standing in front of a dimly lit aquarium full of shining schools of fish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium (Photo: SeeMonterey.com)

With a rainbow assortment of undersea creatures, the best aquariums in the U.S. combine dazzling sea life with a subtle educational message. Many aquariums offer immersive encounters with underwater creatures, allowing visitors to touch stingrays or swim with sharks. And America’s top aquariums are committed to highlighting the fragile balance of our waterways, driving home the message that the health of our planet is interconnected to the health of the sea.

Best Aquariums in the U.S.

These 11 amazing aquariums around the country offer plenty of fun while also fostering a deeper appreciation of marine organisms and aquatic environments. Don’t miss these standout U.S. aquariums.

1. Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California

Scuba divers in the kelp forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
(Photo: Christine Sarkis)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium wins over visitors with plenty of interactive opportunities that range from trying on marine animal costumes to more complex activities such as creating tidepools. At this visitor favorite, a dedication to research is coupled with a sincere conservation mission.

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The Kelp Forest—the largest living kelp forest outside of the wild—is a majestic three-story beauty that transports you to the chilly waters of Monterey Bay. The Open Sea exhibit innovatively blends environmental art installations with live hammerhead sharks, schools of Pacific sardines, and the elusive ocean sunfish. The aquariam’s newest exhibit, Into the Deep, takes a dive to the bottom of the seafloor, where transparent jellies dance, brittle stars live atop sponges, and Japanese spider crabs crawl.

2. Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, Springfield, Missouri

Picture of tank and people at the Johnny Morris Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium
(Photo: Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium)

The Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium takes guests on an engrossing sensory journey, with sounds, scents, and temperatures throughout its different aquatic environments.

Detailed exhibits showcase fish and amphibians living in both freshwater and saltwater habitats. For an accurate snapshot of the Ozark ecosystem, fan fave Swamp at Night demonstrates how crucial the under-appreciated swamp actually is. Acting as a sponge, swamps prevent flooding, purify water and serve as critical breeding grounds for many species. And its rustic treehouse with a bridge swinging high above is a kid-favorite.

3. Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Clearwater, Florida

child watching Hope the dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium
(Photo: Clearwater Marine Aquarium)

Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not your typical aquarium. It’s a working marine hospital that rehabilitates rescued animals—nursing them through sickness and injury—with the definitive goal of releasing them back into their natural habitat. Animals who cannot be viably released remain, so these are the dolphins, sea turtles, and pelicans you’ll encounter. The aquarium gained fame thanks to Winter, the illustrious resident dolphin without a tail who starred in the popular Dolphin Tale movie series. Winter passed away in 2021 but her legacy continues.

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There’s a lot to do and see here. Take part in an interactive animal care experience and learn how the team nurtures sea creatures back to health, and get the chance to feed and care for the animals.

4. Newport Aquarium, Newport, Kentucky

People watching sealife at the Coral Reef tunnel at the Newport Aquarium
(Photo: Newport Aquarium)

The Newport Aquarium is just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati. Thousands of aquatic creatures reside here, including rare white alligators and a parade of playful African penguins. Brave visitors sashay across Shark Bridge, a rope bridge dramatically dangling just inches above a shark-filled tank. The Shipwreck: Realm of the Eels is a sunken ship that has transformed into an accidental reef that supports a thriving community of sea life. Walk through the all-new Coral Reef Tunnel and you’ll be surrounded by schools of fish enjoying the reef’s ideal living conditions.  

5. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Illinois

Coral and sea life in the Caribbean Reef exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium
(Photo: Shedd Aquarium)

Venerable Shedd Aquarium is situated in a landmark Beaux-Arts building in the heart of Chicago. The crowd-pleasing At Home on the Great Lakes exhibit showcases the importance of protecting local natural resources.

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Curious kids will enjoy array of hands-on activities at this highly rated aquarium. They can feel the rough skin of a sea star, the leathery feel of bottom-dwelling lake sturgeons, or the sensation of a friendly stingray flapping against their fingers at Stingray Touch, a seasonal exhibit. There’s even something for the preschool set, who can dress-up like penguins and explore Arctic waters in a kid-size submarine at Polar Play Zone.

6. New England Aquarium, Boston, Massachusetts

Penguins in the penguin habitat at the New England Aquarium
(Photo: W. Chappell)

Located in Boston, the New England Aquarium’s crown jewel is the Giant Ocean Tank, a four-story tank containing 200,000 gallons of water pumped in from Boston Harbor. The star of this tank is Myrtle, a green sea turtle who has lived here since 1970 and shares the habitat with moray eels, barracuda, and hundreds of colorful fish. Dozens of windows and scores of viewing bays at different heights make it easy for even small-fry visitors to get a great view. And the new Indo-Pacific Coral Reef is a stunner that illuminates the vital role reefs play in ocean health.

7. Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, Georgia

Scuba diver and sea life in the Journey with Gentle Giants habitat at the Georgia Aquarium
(Photo: Georgia Aquarium)

With tens of thousands of resident animal species thriving in over 10 million gallons of water, the Georgia Aquarium is the largest in the Western hemisphere, and a great place to see whale sharks, beluga whales and manta rays frolic.

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For a look at regional fauna, head to Southern Company River Scout, a freshwater gallery where an architecturally innovative overhead river allows you to view fish, snapping turtles, and otters—from the bottom up. And the 4-D theater gives viewers a glimpse of what it’s like to live underwater.

8. Mystic Aquarium, Mystic, Connecticut

parent and child watching penguins swim at the Mystic Aquarium
(Photo: Connecticut Office of Tourism)

Up-close animal encounters with penguins and harbor seals make it easy to see why animal-loving families are hooked on the Mystic Aquarium. Mystic’s respected rescue program has been rehabilitating sick and injured animals for nearly 50 years, and a look inside the clinic gives you an idea of each stage of the healing process.

If you love beluga whales, check out The Arctic Coast exhibit, which allows visitors a close-up view of these beloved creatures as they swim with steady grace. For an unforgettable hands-on experience, don’t miss Sharks Touch Habitat, where you can touch non-threatening species of sharks as they glide past.

9. National Aquarium, Baltimore

shark and other sea life in the Blacktip Reef exhibit
National Aquarium (Photo: Mark Moody, National Aquarium)

The National Aquarium is a must-see for families craving fun and a broader understanding of the ocean’s delicate balance. At the mesmerizing Jellies Invasion, you can watch nine species of these brainless invertebrates engage in movements that look like a choreographed ballet.

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With touch pools galore, the Living Seashore is the place to get acquainted with mid-Atlantic sea life. Touch a skate’s sleek fin and feel the rigid shell of a horseshoe crab. Educational interpreters and multi-media discovery walls are perks.

10. Mississippi Aquarium, Gulfport, Mississippi

Child watching fish in large tank at the Mississippi Marine Aquarium
(Photo: Coastal Mississippi)

Opened in August 2020, the Mississippi Aquarium sits on 5.8 acres with both indoor and outdoor exhibits connected by landscaped walkways framed by plantings representing all seven physiographic regions of Mississippi. Species that live here cover water, land, and air, and include alligators, river otters, birds, dolphins, and stingrays.

A robust schedule of daily programs includes narrated dolphin training sessions, biologist-led otter chats, and croc talks that lean into crocodile conservation. There’s also the chance to stretch and strengthen surrounded by sea life during the periodic Fin & Zen yoga classes.

11. Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, California

sharks swimming in a large habitat at the Aquarium of the Pacific
(Photo: Aquarium of the Pacific)

California-focused exhibits take center stage at Aquarium of the Pacific. For a local look at Pacific life, check out the aquarium’s Honda Blue Cavern featuring ocean inhabitants found off Catalina Island. Watch sharks and sea dragons at play in large tanks before heading to a worthy nonaquatic experience: Lorikeet Forest, a walk-in aviary that allows you to feed nectar to lorikeets as they land on you like you’re a human bird perch.

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And for an inside look at the organizational skills it takes to successfully care for the thousands of creatures that call this aquarium home, join an informative behind-the-scenes tour.

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Allison Tibaldi
Allison Tibaldi is a travel and food writer based in New York City. She has lived in Rome, Tuscany, Melbourne, Australia, Toronto and Los Angeles. She writes for numerous publications including CNN, Business Insider, Travel Channel, HGTV, am New York, Emirates Open Skies Magazine, USA TODAY 10 Best, USA Today Go Escape, Shermans Travel, Family Traveller, Travel Squire and Travel Weekly. She is also a contributing editor at Family Travel Forum. She focuses on family, culinary and eco-friendly travel. A former early childhood educator, she studied child development in graduate school and believes that travel is the best education.

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