The Smithsonian Zoo is a really cool part of DC to check out. If you’ve got time to make it up to Adam’s Morgan, you’ll really enjoy what this place has to offer. That being said, there are a few things you'll want to know before going so you can make your experience as painless as possible!
When to go
You'll want to check to see how long it is going to take you to get from your place to the zoo. There are two entrances to the zoo so one might be closer to the other. The first entrance is on Connecticut Drive, this is the major entrance that most people enter through (it can be very crowded in the summer). The next entrance (or exit) is near Beach Drive. You should check google maps and decide which entries will be easier for you. To give you an idea, it takes about 1 hour to get from Alexandria, Virginia to the Zoo entrance on Connecticut Drive if you're taking the metro.
You should make sure to leave in the morning, earlier the better. We went around 1pm, and most of the animals were nowhere to be found. A lot of them will go to sleep in the mid-afternoon, so early morning, right after their breakfast is the best time to see them moving around (or so we've been told).
In terms of the time of year when you should visit the zoo… summer is always great because the walk around the park is much more enjoyable and more of the animals are out, but in the winter the panda's come out to play in the snow so... that's pretty adorable!
How to get there
I would recommend the metro, but I always recommend taking the metro! It’s just so much easier to hop on, hop off and not have to worry about driving amongst some pretty aggressive drivers. Plus, if you survive the drive, you then have to find parking in DC... and if you know anything about DC, good luck and $$$$$.
There is one metro stop that will get you close to the zoo — Woodley Park, it's off of the red line and will get you close to both entrances. Head up Connecticut Avenue to go to the main entrance or head south along Connecticut, take a left down Calvert, then take another left on Beach. Keep taking Beach all the way to National Zoo Drive. This is a bit longer of a route, but you avoid the crowds at the front entrance. I love avoiding crowds — who doesn’t?!
What to do before you get there
When you come out of the metro at Woodley, you'll see a Starbucks and a few restaurants... I would recommend getting something to eat outside the park ... lines are less crazy and it's cheaper to buy food and drinks. But, if you like food trucks, there are some great food trucks at the park!
Let's say you decided to drive. It is probably easier to park outside of the park and walk in, rather than try to find parking at the Smithsonian. But there are parking lots at the Smithsonian if needed. If you're looking for parking outside of the park, type "parking" into google maps around that area and it should show you a bunch of options around the Woodley metro stop and just north of the zoo.
What to see
Going on their site will show you a bunch of options, and it really depends on what animals you're interested in. The Asia exhibit is really cool... cause Pandas! Unfortunately, when we were there this summer, we didn't get to see any of the different Panda species, but that's why I said to go in the morning when it's a bit cooler.
The elephant exhibit is pretty awesome too. When they're inside or at the watering holes, you can see them up close! Otherwise, they wander around their section and you can see them eating, sunbathing or trying to get a sneak peek at you!
The Ape exhibit was at the top of my list! Again, a lot of the primates weren't visible when I went, but I did get to see an Orangutang, which was amazing!!
The reptile section was very crowded, but if lizards are your thing, you'd love the selection of species they have. They also have a pretty cool Amazonian exhibit. I didn't fully check it out, but next time I try to go see the panda's I'm going to discover how many exotic fish I can find!
My favorite section was the "Big Cats." They had 2 Tigers and 2 lions, and they were absolutely beautiful! A lot of the times these creatures are sleeping or basking in the sun, but I've never been so excited for a cat to get up and walk around than I was when the tiger rolled over, stood up and majestically found a shaded patch of grass.
What to do afterward?
Once you're done walking around the zoo, I would recommend checking out Adams Morgan. Leave the park via the South entrance (the one I mentioned was a little quieter). You'll be walking towards it once you pass by the "Big Cats", the “farm", and the "Amazonian exhibit." Wander your way through the neighborhood and walk down the bustling 18th street to find some great restaurants! Check out my the blog post “Places to Eat in Adam’s Morgan” to find some great restaurants!
To be honest, I prefer to see animals in the wild, but the Smithsonian takes very good care of their animals... animals which normally wouldn't be able to survive in the wild on their own anyway. But if you really want to see Lions and Elephants... ethical safaris in Africa seem like a better, more natural, option.