Something I love to do on vacation that always surprises people is visit a local aquarium. There are some of the best aquariums in the United States and I always check to see if a destination has one when planning a trip. I love getting a view of life in the deep blue sea and learning about marine research.
My love for aquariums stemmed from a passion for sea turtles and once I saw my first sea turtle that was taken in by an aquarium after being injured in the wild, I was hooked.
This post details a few of the best aquariums in the United States (there are many) and what makes them special. All aquariums on this list are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
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Best Aquariums in the United States:
South Carolina Aquarium (Charleston, South Carolina)
100 Aquarium Wharf, Charleston, SC 29401
The South Carolina Aquarium, located in downtown Charleston, grabbed my attention in 2018 when I learned they have a Sea Turtle Care Center. This hospital, specifically for sea turtles, is part of the aquarium, allowing guests to have an insider view of the intricacies of sea turtle care. They even have a tiny CAT scan machine.
In addition to caring for the injured sea turtles, aquarium guests can engage with stingrays, star fish, and more in the touch tank, learn about the fish along the coast in the Carolina Seas tank, and hang with the birds of the area in the Saltmarsh Aviary.
Tickets for a timed entry can be purchased online in advance. The aquarium does not have a dedicated parking lot, but there is a convenient parking garage operated by the City of Charleston nearby, along with metered street parking.
Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta, Georgia)
225 Baker St NW, Atlanta, GA 30313
The Georgia Aquarium is one of the largest aquariums in the world, with tanks holding over 11 million gallons of water. The aquarium is home to sharks galore, penguins, snakes, and more fish than I knew existed.
Located near Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, the Georgia Aquarium is very popular among both locals and tourists. Since the aquarium can get very busy, time-entry is required and you will select your entry time when you purchase your ticket online. Consider purchasing the Atlanta CityPASS to visit other popular attractions like the World of Coca-Cola and Zoo Atlanta.
While your admission to the aquarium allows you to view all of the tanks, add-ons can be purchased including animal encounters (sharks, penguins, etc.) and a ‘Behind the Seas’ tour.
General parking is available on-site for a prepaid price of $20 (can be purchased when buying tickets and reserving your entry time). If you prefer not to pay for parking, consider taking the MARTA by train or bus for $2.50 per fare.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies (Gatlinburg, Tennessee)
88 River Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, nestled in downtown Gatlinburg, provides an underwater oasis that’s open 365 days a year.
This popular Smokey Mountain attraction houses a Jellyfish touch tank for the adventurous travelers and a tropical rainforest exhibit where you’ll encounter vibrant Poison Dart Frogs.
However, my favorite feature of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is the underwater tunnel where you are provided 360-degree views into the aquatic world. As you stand on a conveyor belt and move through the tunnel, fish, turtles, and even sharks will swim beside you and over you.
With a combo ticket, you can also explore other Ripley’s attractions in the area, making it a full-day of immersive fun. For parking, there’s a city-owned parking garage conveniently located behind the aquarium, capping at a maximum cost of $10 per day. I first visited the aquarium when I was in fifth-grade and it was the highlight of the trip for me, and the first time I saw a sea turtle!
New England Aquarium (Boston, Massachusetts)
1 Central Wharf, Boston, MA 02110
Penguin lovers will be overjoyed by the New England Aquarium which is home to both African Penguins and Southern Rockhopper penguins. The aquarium opened in 1969 and aims to protect and preserve the ocean through education at the aquarium and research at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.
Although one of the smaller aquariums I’ve visited, I love its mission and the four-story ocean tank allows the aquarium to showcase all of the marine life it strives to better understand and protect.
Buy your tickets to the New England Aquarium in advance since entry often sells out. The aquarium does not have dedicated parking, but there are five garages less than .3 miles from the entrance and parking validation is available at participating garages. Public transportation is great in Boston and I highlight recommend taking the subway, if possible. The Aquarium stop on the MBTA’s Blue Line will drop you 100 yards from the entrance.
Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium (Springfield, Missouri)
500 W Sunshine St, Springfield, MO 65807
A huge aquarium and museum in the Midwest is Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri. Founded by the owner of the Bass Pro Shops, this is one of the largest museums and aquariums you’ll ever set foot in.
Plan on spending at least 3 hours here, likely even more if you’re visiting with kids. It’s a fantastic way to spend a really hot day, or a perfect retreat during a downpour.
The museum and aquarium showcases over 15 captivating aquarium exhibits that take you deep into the underwater world. You also get to explore 10 wildlife galleries. Adults will probably be more engaged by the wildlife galleries than kids, but each exhibit was so impressive.
Two exhibits that I absolutely love are the ‘Swamp at Night’ and the ‘Amazon Rainforest’. They show you the beauty of wildlife under the cover of darkness and the bustling life in the world’s largest rainforest.
The last entry to the aquarium is 15-minutes before closing, although I wouldn’t recommend arriving this late. There’s also ample space available on-site, making for a great experience.
1200 S DuSable Lk Shr Dr, Chicago, IL 60605
Another best aquarium in the United States year after year is the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. A favorite amongst locals and tourists alike, the Shedd offers an awesome way to learn about hundreds of animals, view fun and educational exhibits, and see how injured animals are cared for in an aquarium setting.
Staying true to its Midwest roots, the Shedd showcases a diverse array of Great Lakes aquatic life. Visitors can also make their way to the Wild Reef where sharks and vibrant corals are showcased.
The 5,600-square foot A. Watson Armour III Center for Aquatic Animal Health and Welfare is a testament to the Shedd’s commitment to animal welfare, featuring an anesthesia machine custom-designed for fish. During the warm months, the aquarium opens its two terraces that provide stunning views of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan. It’s the perfect spot to sit back, relax, and soak in the beauty.
One thing to note is parking in Chicago is incredibly expensive. There are several city lots with prices ranging from $12 – $35 and higher, but I recommend using SpotHero to book a space, or taking public transportation. Metra and CTA will get you within steps of the aquarium entrance for a very affordable price.
If you’re spending the weekend in Chicago, consider purchasing the Chicago CityPASS which includes admission to the aquarium.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina)
1110 Celebrity Cir, Myrtle Beach, SC 29577
Experience an underwater adventure Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach. Home to many different oceanic exhibits, you’ll learn about fish and mammals all over the world.
The Dangerous Reef exhibit is filled with various species of sharks, tarpons, and enigmatic eels. Head to Sloth Valley and meet the charming duo, Rico and Cleo. If you’re feeling brave, you can visit Friendship Flats to gently touch the stingrays. The aquarium also houses a lively colony of penguins for all of my fellow penguin lovers.
There’s free parking available directly in front of the aquarium and all along Broadway at the Beach where the aquarium is located. Broadway at the Beach is a popular tourist destination in Myrtle Beach, providing plenty of additional things to do before or after your aquarium visit. Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach is a great spot to visit whether you’re looking to escape the rain or take a break from the sun.
Texas State Aquarium (Corpus Christi, Texas)
2710 N Shoreline Blvd, Corpus Christi, TX 78402
Featuring exhibits like the Blue Hole, Coral Reef, Jungle, and Tortuga Cay, the Texas State Aquarium located in Corpus Christi is a great place to visit when in South Texas. While most of the aquarium is indoors, there are a few exhibits outdoors and I greatly enjoyed getting some fresh air and taking in the beautiful coastal views.
There are tons of exhibits to explore at the Texas State Aquarium and as a huge bonus, access to the H-E-B Splash Pad is included with admission. The new 15,000 square foot splash pad is open during spring break and the summer months (weather-dependent).
Make sure to visit the Wildlife Rescue Center on Saturdays and Sundays from 12pm until 4pm to see the treatment and rehabilitation of the many animals that are seen at the center. This new center is the largest coastal wildlife rescue center in Texas and has a CAT scan machine specifically for wildlife.
OdySea Aquarium (Scottsdale, Arizona)
9500 East Vía de Ventura Suite A-100, Scottsdale, AZ 85256
OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale provides an underwater escape from the hot sun. The aquarium is open Monday through Thursday from 9am until 7pm, and from 9am until 6pm, Friday through Sunday. You’ll start your visit in the Aqua Lobby before heading to fun exhibits, such as Rivers of the World, Otter Banks, and Penguin Point.
If you’re interested in more area activities, you can snag a combo ticket to multiple attractions at a discounted price! Other attractions include the Butterfly Wonderland, Pangaea: Land of Dinosaurs, UFO Experience, Laser and MIrror Maze, and Ripley’s Belive It or Not.
OdySea has a paved lot and it’s free to park while you visit the aquarium. The Arizona Boardwalk featuring shops and restaurants is also in the same area providing things to do before and after your aquarium visit.
And if you’re planning a visit over the winter holidays, here’s a fun memory – a couple of years ago, I visited during the festive season and they had a fake snow pile for the kids to play in. Visiting from Wisconsin, I got a kick out of how the kids loved the snow!
I found OdySea Aquarium to be more geared towards kids and families than adults and couples, but it was a fun experience nonetheless, and a great activity to escape the mid-day heat of Phoenix.
Maui Ocean Center (Wailuku, Hawaii)
192 Maalaea Rd, Wailuku, HI 96793
The Maui Ocean Center, which opened in 1998, is a great place to explore on a rainy day or to escape the hottest part of the day. Thankfully the aquarium was spared by the Lahaina fires in 2023 and is open for visitors. This Maui gem offers a unique “Humpbacks of Hawaii” 3D experience that’s incredible to see and exhibits that allow you to get up-close and personal with ocean life.
A visit to the Turtle Lagoon is a must, and the Open Ocean exhibit is where you’ll witness sharks and rays indigenous to Hawaiian waters. Plan to spend at least 2-2.5 hours exploring the aquatic exhibits before heading back to the Hawaiian beaches.
The aquarium is open daily from 9am to 5pm and you’ll find convenient parking at the center for $2 per hour, making your visit hassle-free. Plan your Maui vacation and buy your Maui Ocean Center tickets.