preloadA father and son share a memorable bonding experience as they marvel at the fascinating aquatic life while standing within the immersive tunnel of an aquarium.

The opportunity to see magnificent underwater creatures up close and observe their behaviors never fails to captivate. Walking through tunnels surrounded by water, watching sharks swim overhead, or experiencing a simulated coral reef transports you to a whole new world. Here are the 5 best aquariums in the US for your next vacation.

5 of the best aquariums in the US

This selection of the top 5 aquariums in the US is diverse and scattered across the country. They all contain a variety of different exhibits and there are different reasons why I have enjoyed each one of them so much.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, California

Silhouette of people gazing at a massive aquarium with a smack of swimming jellyfish.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, located in Monterey, California, is a renowned aquarium and marine science center that attracts visitors from all over the world – and for good reason. The aquarium’s mission is to inspire the conservation of the ocean, and it emphasizes education, research, and the promotion of sustainable practices to protect marine environments. Here you’ll find a wide range of exhibits and habitats, showcasing marine life from the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Some of the exhibits I enjoyed the most during my visit included Kelp Forest, Open Sea, Sea Otters, Penguin Habitat, and the Tentacles special exhibition. The Kelp Forest exhibit really is a highlight, simulating the underwater environment of a giant kelp forest, where visitors can observe a diverse array of marine life, including fish and invertebrates. The Open Sea exhibit, meanwhile, is a massive tank with a 90-foot underwater tunnel, providing a unique perspective on species like sharks, rays, and tuna.

If you’re visiting with kids, they may enjoy the sea otter exhibit, where you can watch the playful antics of these charismatic marine mammals. My kids also loved the penguin habitat, which showcases African and Magellanic penguins, allowing visitors to observe their behaviors on land and underwater.

The aquarium also hosts special events, lectures, and programs throughout the year, so make sure to check the schedule before you go. I’d recommend looking for hotels in the downtown area, within walking distance of the aquarium.

Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta

Silhouettes of people of various ages watching the sea animals swimming in the big lit aquarium.
Woman photographing a stingray among the shoal of fishes inside an aquarium.

The Georgia Aquarium is a prominent aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia, and is recognized as one of the largest in the world. Thanks to its impressive size, it houses millions of gallons of water and hosts a range of marine life. The Georgia Aquarium features several exhibits and galleries that showcase marine life from different regions and habitats. Some exhibits I enjoyed the most include the Ocean Voyager, Coral Lagoon, Amazon Rainforest, and the Georgia Explorer.

One of the highlights that makes this one of the best aquariums in the US is the Ocean Voyager exhibit, which features a massive acrylic tunnel through a large tank, providing visitors with a 360-degree view of marine life, including rays, sharks, and various fish species. The Coral Lagoon exhibit focuses on coral reefs and the diverse marine life that inhabit these vibrant ecosystems, making it educational and fun. The Amazon Rainforest exhibit, meanwhile, showcases the diverse, brightly colored flora and fauna found in the Amazon River and its surrounding rainforest. 

The Georgia Aquarium also features a live presentation called “Dolphin Celebration,” where guests can learn about and observe the aquarium’s resident dolphins showcasing their natural behaviors. It’s hard not to fall in love with these adorable creatures. When you visit, look for hotels in downtown Atlanta to be close to the action.

Keep in mind that Stingray feedings only happen until 2 pm, so try to get there in the morning if you want to get up close and personal with these animals.

Shedd Aquarium, Chicago

An amazed young boy marvels at an exotic fish swimming gracefully in the vibrant underwater world of an aquarium.

The Shedd Aquarium, located in Chicago, Illinois, is one of the oldest and best-known public aquariums in the United States. Situated on the Museum Campus in Chicago, near Lake Michigan and other cultural institutions such as the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium. I would recommend looking for hotels in downtown Chicago when visiting. 

The aquarium opened in 1930 and has since become a major cultural institution in Chicago. The building is a sight to behold thanks to its grand neoclassical architectural style, featuring grand columns and intricate details – it’s even listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The aquarium houses a variety of exhibits and galleries showcasing marine life from different ecosystems. Notable exhibits include the Oceanarium, Wild Reef, Amazon Rising, and the Caribbean Reef.

The Oceanarium is a popular exhibit with a large aquatic presentation area with dolphins, sea lions, and penguins, where visitors can enjoy live shows and interactive performances. The Wild Reef exhibit focuses on the diverse marine life found in coral reefs and includes a walk-through tunnel that provides a unique underwater perspective. The aquarium also offers educational programs for visitors of all ages, including school groups, workshops, and interactive exhibits that highlight marine science and conservation. 

One of my favorite things about this aquarium is the unique opportunities it offers for visitors to take part in animal encounters, such as getting up close with penguins or interacting with beluga whales. This isn’t always part of the experience, even at the best aquariums in the US, so it’s definitely a major highlight. Visitors here can also take behind-the-scenes tours to learn more about the aquarium’s operations, animal care, and conservation efforts.

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Tennessee

Various species of sharks swim in a massive aquarium.
Three exotic-looking fish inside of an aquarium.

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is located in Gatlinburg, a popular tourist destination at the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The aquarium features a variety of exhibits showcasing marine life from different parts of the world – notable exhibits that I enjoyed include the Shark Lagoon, Penguin Playhouse, Coral Reef, and the Ocean Realm.

The Shark Lagoon is a real highlight, featuring a walk-through tunnel surrounded by a tank filled with sharks, rays, and other marine species. It truly feels out of this world. The Penguin Playhouse, meanwhile, offers an interactive experience with a colony of playful penguins, where visitors can observe the penguins both above and below the water. The Ocean Realm exhibit provides a panoramic view of a large tank filled with a variety of marine species, including sea turtles, rays, and large fish, that can be difficult to spot in the wild.

Kids will love the aquariums interactive touch tanks, where visitors can have hands-on experiences with marine animals like stingrays and horseshoe crabs. Throughout the year, the aquarium hosts special events, themed exhibits, and seasonal programs to engage visitors, so make sure to take a look at the calendar before you visit to see if there is something special going on. 

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is also involved in conservation initiatives, educational programs, and research aimed at promoting marine conservation and environmental awareness, so you can feel confident that your money is going to a good cause here. Beyond visiting the aquarium, you’ll find there’s plenty to do in the city. To be as well placed as possible, look for hotels in Gatlinburg that are close to the city center.

Florida Aquarium, Tampa

A large aquarium with different types of fish and water mammals.

The Florida Aquarium is a popular marine science center and aquarium located in Tampa, Florida. It has numerous great exhibits to explore, which is why it’s in my list of the best aquariums in the US. Also, one of the things that I like about it is that it particularly focuses on local wildlife from Florida. The aquarium features a variety of exhibits and galleries that showcase marine life from the local area as well as spots around the world, including the Wetlands Trail, Bays and Beaches, Coral Reefs, and the Journey to Madagascar.

The Wetlands Trail exhibit highlights Florida’s diverse wetland ecosystems, featuring a boardwalk through mangrove forests and showcasing local wildlife. The Bays and Beaches exhibit explores Florida’s coastal environments, including seagrass beds, estuaries, and sandy beaches, where visitors can learn about the importance of these habitats.

The Coral Reefs exhibit focuses on the beauty and significance of coral reef ecosystems and includes vibrant coral formations and a variety of reef-dwelling marine species which are amazing to look at. The Journey to Madagascar exhibit provides a glimpse into the unique biodiversity of Madagascar, featuring lemurs, chameleons, and other species from the island.

The Florida Aquarium also offers a unique experience called “Dive with the Sharks,” allowing certified divers to swim with sharks in the main tank. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my diving license at the time, but it’s definitely something I plan on having before my next visit. Thanks to the fact that the aquarium is located in the Channel District of downtown Tampa, near the waterfront, I’d recommend staying in hotels near the center of Tampa.

If you’re visiting with kids, make sure to bring their swimsuits, as the Florida Aquarium has a great outside splash pad and they definitely will want to play there

How does KAYAK know what to put in this guide?

This guide is a combination of my own personal traveling experiences and lots of research! I’ve been traveling throughout the US for decades and visiting aquariums has become a fun activity for me to do in each new state or town. I’ve mixed my list of personal favorites with advice from the KAYAK team to create a guide that I hope is helpful and informative.


No matter what age you are or what type of trip your taking, from vacations with friends to family fun, visiting one of the best aquariums in the US will always be an amazing experience.

Aquariums provide an opportunity to see a diverse range of marine life up close, from colorful fish and graceful sea turtles to mesmerizing jellyfish and mighty sharks. The visually stunning displays and unique marine life can also provide excellent opportunities for photography – some of my favorite photos from trips have actually been taken at aquariums.

Finally, the serene and tranquil environment created by aquariums, with gently flowing water and the rhythmic movement of marine life, offers a break from the hustle of everyday life. Make sure to add this list of the 5 best aquariums in the US to your future travels.

About the author

Brooke DemchukOriginally born in California, Brooke now spends her life traveling between the US and France, discovering new towns each month. Being a travel writer works perfectly with her nomadic lifestyle. Brooke’s goal is to share tips with readers so they can explore some of her favorite places that she’s been in the world.

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