There’s lots to do in the Volunteer State, and some of Tennessee’s best family adventures will take you to see animals — both underwater and on land.
Tennessee is home to some great zoos and aquariums, allowing you and your family to get up close with animals hailing from the southeast and across the globe. Whether you’re looking to discover more about marine life, or you want to visit the animals who call land home, there are plenty of great zoos and aquariums in TN.
Ready to take a walk on the wild side? Here are some of the best zoos and aquariums in Tennessee that we know you and your family will adore!
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AQUARIUMS IN TENNESSEE
Tennessee is home to two top-ranking aquariums: The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which is in Gatlinburg. Both are worth visiting and feature an array of marine life and special exhibits.
Check them both out and get ready to dive into a good time, right here in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Aquarium is located in downtown Chattanooga, right along the riverfront and steps away from great restaurants and shopping. But the marine life in this massive building goes beyond Tennessee’s water.
Sure, much of the aquarium in Chattanooga is dedicated to the freshwater of the Southeast. It’s a celebration of the area’s biodiversity, and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute is committed to preservation through their education at the aquarium and their work in the field.
But your experience here will expand into the ocean and to the far corners of Earth. So you can see how the North American River Otter is connected to the Macaroni Penguin, and how the Alligator Snapping Turtle relies upon Monarch Butterfly.
This all happens within the aquarium’s two areas: the Ocean Journey and the River Journey. Though they’re seemingly separate worlds, it’s all interconnected. Other species here include the Tiger Shark, Southern Stingray, Electric Eel, Green Sea Turtle, and Red-ruffed Lemur.
You can find all this in one of America’s most outdoorsy cities. So you can continue your wildlife adventure into the mountains, along the Tennessee River, or into the many natural sights that Chattanooga holds.
Aquariums typically land on my “rainy day activity” list, but I like visiting the Chattanooga Aquarium on pretty days. The riverfront area surrounding it is one of my favorite places in the state. So see the fish, walk around town, and dine outside at one of the city’s top restaurants.
The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is home to more than 9,000 creatures and also houses an Imax Theater. In addition to general admission, the aquarium also offers behind-the-scenes tours before opening to the public.
RIPLEY’S AQUARIUM OF THE SMOKIES
Ripley’s has a strong foothold in Gatlinburg, and this extends to their impressive aquarium located right in town.
Never one to be outdone, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies features over 10,000 animals in a mountainous, riverfront setting in the Smoky Mountains.
You’ll have to visit both Chattanooga’s and Gatlinburg’s aquariums to decide which one you like better. But you may enjoy each one so much that you’ll forget to compare them. Both are rated among the best in the United States, and for good reason.
At Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, you’ll see 12-foot sharks, a giant sea turtle, penguins, and stingrays. They also offer a lot of upgraded options as well: take a glass-bottom boat ride over the shark tank, feed a sea turtle, paint with a penguin, or spend the night sleeping with the fishes (in a good way!).
But even without the upgrades, a visit to the Gatlinburg Aquarium is worth its price. There are regular shows with scuba divers and marine life, plus an interactive kids’ area.
You may be tempted to skip out on the aquarium since there’s so much to see and do near Gatlinburg, but you’ll really be missing out. Head indoors for a relaxed adventure full of exotic and familiar marine life at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
MEMPHIS ZOO AQUARIUM
The Memphis Zoo is one of West Tennessee’s top attractions, and we’ll talk more about its land animal exhibits soon. But first, I wanted to talk about the aquarium here.
Located within the zoo and included with general admission, the Memphis Aquarium features eels, piranhas, and other fish from both rivers and seas. Little ones will love seeing a real clown fish, while biology nerds can see two species of cichlid that are extinct in the wild and learn how the aquarium breeds them.
The aquarium alone doesn’t warrant a visit to the zoo – it’s small and needs an update. But it’s definitely worth going into when seeing the other exhibits on the property.
THE AQUARIUM RESTAURANT
When going to aquariums, we typically have to decide if we want to grab forgettable park food at an onsite cafe, or wait until we’re done fish-watching to dine. The Aquarium Restaurant in Nashville offers a different approach: eat as you view the marine life. A restaurant that is an aquarium.
This is a great place to check out in Opry Mills shopping center. The 200,000-gallon tank surrounds you as you enjoy food and drink from their extensive menu.
The price point here is what most families reserve for special occasions. Though you’ll find better food for the cost at other places, part of what you’re paying for is the experience: dining with the fish, watching them swim by as you enjoy your feast. And there are options for seafood, meat, vegetarian, and kids, so meals here can be a crowd-pleaser.
In addition to its restaurant services, The Aquarium in Nashville also offers behind-the-scenes tours and special events.
Over 100 fish call this aquarium home. You can see colorful species from Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific. Scuba divers also make an appearance twice a day, and a few times a month you may even see a mermaid swimming around.
It’s a kid-friendly place that can get really busy, but many couples enjoy this Nashville restaurant as a date night as well. Be sure to make reservations and plan to check out the many shops that share this Opry Mills home.
Nashville doesn’t have a traditional aquarium attraction, but the restaurant is a great way to have a marine life experience in Music City.
ZOOS & ANIMAL FUN IN TN
Aquariums in Tennessee are perfect all-weather fun, but sometimes a perfect day calls you to get outdoors. That’s when it’s time to visit the state’s zoos and animal parks.
Luckily, Tennessee is home to great zoos that will delight families, couples, and visitors. Walk through bamboo forests, hear the roar of tigers, and see monkeys swing overhead. Read on to learn about these fun places and the animals you’ll see there.
The Memphis Zoo has been a city icon for over a century, and it’s continually expanding and offering new adventures.
The main draw of the Memphis Zoo is its Giant Pandas, Ya Ya and Le Le. It’s one of the four zoos in America where you can see these incredible creatures.
Along with its world class Panda exhibit, the Memphis Zoo is home to over 500 different species and 4500 total animals, including lions, elephants, bears, and a Komodo Dragon.
The Nashville Zoo at Grassmere is the best place to be on a pretty Middle Tennessee day. With acres of pathways representing far corners of the globe, each step will bring you to a new adventure. Walk alongside kangaroos, stick your neck out at a giraffe, and go underground with meerkats.
You’ll see more than 3,000 animals (325 different species) at the Nashville Zoo, which also features a historic home and farm.
Adults love the special nighttime events at the zoo, which allow you to sip a cocktail while strolling the grounds. Kids could spend hours at the gigantic play area. And everyone will appreciate the many exhibits that make the Nashville Zoo so special.
East Tennessee has its own incredible zoo that families should definitely check out. Highlights of Zoo Knoxville include its African Elephants, Malayan Tiger, Western Lowland Gorillas, and adorable Red Pandas.
Zoo Knoxville calls itself the Red Panda Capital of the World due to its extensive breeding program onsite.
You can see about 1,200 animals at this 53-acre zoo in Knoxville. Specialty programs include ZooCrew for local teens, Zoo Camp for kids, and behind-the-scenes tours for guests of all ages.
The Chattanooga Zoo is one of the state’s smaller municipal zoos, but it’s still worth a visit while you’re in town.
The zoo sets itself apart by offering up-close encounters. Giraffe feedings are a low-cost upgrade, while interacting with a red panda is a rare opportunity that might be worth the splurge.
The 500 animals at the Chattanooga Zoo represent 200 species, so even with general admission you’re sure to see some incredible animal exhibits.
Southland Safari is a privately owned animal park that’s northeast of Jackson. Here you can go on a guided tour to see sloths, giraffes, alpacas, and rhinos.
In addition to its tours, Southland Safari also offers cabin rentals, so you can immerse yourself by staying near where these animals roam.
TENNESSEE SAFARI PARK
If you head northwest of Jackson, you’ll find Tennessee Safari Park, a drive-through zoo that allows you to feed zebras, gazelles, ostriches, and other animals. This privately owned zoo is located on Hillcrest, an estate and farm that dates back to the 19th century.
The self-guided safari tours here are one of the most unique experiences in Tennessee.
LITTLE PONDEROSA ZOO
Little Ponderosa Zoo is an East Tennessee attraction that also serves as a local nonprofit. They’re a forever home to rescued animals, like tigers, monkeys, and kangaroos. But they also provide rescue, rehabilitation, and release for native wildlife.
Check out their animals up close and support their cause by visiting Little Ponderosa Zoo, which is located northwest of Knoxville.
Young and young-at-heart will love seeing the many animals at Brights Zoo. This family-owned park in East Tennessee features monkeys, kangaroos, giraffes, sloths, penguins, and more. It closes in the winter but is perfect for a warm-weather adventure.
Brights Zoo is in Limestone, Tennessee near Johnson City.
LUCKY LADD FARMS
Lucky Ladd Farms offers the rural experience that many Nashville-area families search for.
The property is home to Tennessee’s largest petting zoo and also features seasonal experiences: An autumn pumpkin patch and corn maze, a springtime tulip festival, strawberry picking, and a sunflower meadow – all just 45 minutes south of Nashville.
THE ELEPHANT SANCTUARY IN TENNESSEE
There are only two Elephant Sanctuaries in America that are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, one of which is located right here in Tennessee.
Though Tennessee’s Elephant Sanctuary doesn’t offer any type of animal interaction, it still deserves a spot on our list. Elephants come here to retire peacefully in a herd environment. They roam freely on the 3,060-acre property, away from the public and the pressures of entertainment.
The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald does welcome visitors who want to learn more about these incredible animals through their Discovery Center, which offers a wealth of information away from the elephant’s roaming area.
ZOOS AND AQUARIUMS IN TN FAQ
How many aquariums are there in Tennessee?
There are five aquariums in Tennessee, with the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga being the most popular.
Does Nashville have an aquarium?
Yes, Nashville is home to an aquarium. The aquarium inside the Aquarium Restaurant can be found in Nashville, Tennessee.
How much does it cost to visit the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga?
As of 2023, the Tennessee Aquarium tickets cost $34.95 for adults and $21.95 for kids ages 3-12.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO TENNESSEE
- YOUR TENNESSEE VACATION
- WATERFALLS: 13 Amazing Waterfalls In Tennessee You Should Chase
- WATER PARKS: 7+ Water Parks In Tennessee Your Family Needs To Visit Now
- TREEHOUSE: 22 Sensational Treehouse Rentals Tennessee Offers Vacationers
- RESORTS: 24 Best Hotels & Resorts In Tennessee You’ll Love
WHERE TO STAY IN TENNESSEE
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