Wild Side: Our list of the top 10 best zoos in the UK
Do your brood know their lemur from their loris? A napu from a nyala? Well now’s their chance as we’re exploring the most magnificent menageries across the UK and you’re all invited. Kids will love seeing which creatures they can spot while earning their stripes with talks, feeding sessions and Keeper for a Day experiences - it’s the best kind of education there is!
Find out where the wild things are with our list of the top 10 best zoos in the UK, with a lucky number 11 thrown in for good measure.
ZSL London Zoo, Greater LondonLet’s kick things off with a classic. ZSL London Zoo is the world’s oldest scientific zoo and the first in England, dating way back to 1828. That’s not the only record they’re setting; it also lays claim to the UK’s only walkthrough spider enclosure (!) which may be a treat or simply terrifying depending on your point of view. If the latter is true, take a detour towards the star of the show: Land of the Lions. This is a roarsome state of the art facility for rare Asiatic lions where you can learn about their breeding programme and see those enormous paws up close.
PS. If you love it here, swing by their sister establishment, ZSL Whipsnade Zoo in Dunstable. Fun fact: it’s the biggest zoo in the UK.
Best for: It’s got to be those lovely lions who are sadly getting ever closer to extinction with only 400 left in the wild. Go and show your support for the kings of the jungle.
Yorkshire Wildlife Park, South YorkshireYou don’t have to travel all the way to the Arctic to see polar bears - Doncaster will do, with the UK’s favourite polar bears calling Yorkshire Wildlife Park home. But how rude of us, introductions are in order! Meet Nobby, Nissan, Pixel and Victor - four huge fellas who spend their days in a researched-focused environment swimming, snoozing and waiting for their next meal. Your little wildlings could look on with awe for an hour - or three - before escaping the Arctic chill with a visit to the Monkey Playhouse for all-out bananas antics.
Best for: Making some polar pals. Seeing these iconic animals in person could also be a great way to get your kids interested in conservation and environmental issues.
Crocodiles of the World, OxfordshirePrepare to get snap-happy at Crocodiles of the World! It’s the only crocodile zoo in the UK with a wide range of modern-day dinosaurs, like saltwater crocs and the delightfully named, Spectacled caiman. There are daily feeds where you can watch as these prehistoric pals chomp on something meaty, while the bravest amongst you can even handle a baby alligator. The important thing to remember though is that they’re not monsters, rather misunderstood, so make sure your gang learn as much as possible.
Best for: There are plenty of keeper experiences out there but none have quite as much bite as their Junior Croc Keeper days. Lizard lovers of every age will be lining up for a go.
Chester Zoo, CheshireChester Zoo is your first class ticket to tour the world, with 125 acres of weird and wild habitats. Between the painted dogs of Sub-Saharan Africa and those Visayan warty pigs, you might need a little help seeing every one of the 15,000 residents in one day; do so in style by hitching a monorail ride or hopping aboard one of the lazy river boat trips. Both make the experience feel like a real adventure as you delve into unknown territory, especially with the opportunity to join the dream team at junior rangers training camp.
Best for: Exploring the world for a day. The morning could see you trekking across the Asian Plains while a few hours later you could be climbing high in the Indonesian treetops, and still make it home for dinner!
Dudley Zoo and Castle, West MidlandsAside from Disney’s Robin Hood, it’s not often castles and creatures come together. Bring the dream to life at Dudley Zoo and Castle where nearly 1,300 animals live alongside an 11th-century castle. And while they might not be dressed up in medieval gear, the animals here are a friendly bunch from Jorong the Bornean orangutan to feeding Australian lorikeets with tiny pots of nectar. Just keep an eye out for Pingu who’s the oldest bird in the park and a stalwart of their 60-strong colony of Humboldt penguins.
Best for: Teaming two days out in one. Introduce yourselves to every animal in the place before drawing swords and battling on the castle keep.
Bristol Zoo Gardens, Somerset and BristolBristol Zoo Gardens have all sorts to keep little legs busy like cheeky meerkats, the seal and penguin coast, a water play area plus 12-acres of award-winning gardens. What makes it a winner though is Twilight World: an indoor exhibit where day is night and midnight creatures roam... Travel through the desert at sunset, enter a nocturnal forest and end up in an underground world where a blind naked mole rat might be the only face you can make out! And after adventuring through the night, you can pop out the other side for an ice cream.
Best for: Their Twilight World experience is truly a must-not-miss. With the use of light, humidity, sound and even smell, the natural world is recreated in amazing detail.
Colchester Zoo, EssexExplorers might assume they’ll see topped-up tans and loafers without socks in the Essex wilds; instead, there’s more multi-coloured feathers, fluffy tails and shiny scales at Colchester Zoo than you could shake a stiletto at! Set in 60 acres of parkland there are over 260 species to discover, like the winged wonders of Butterfly Glade or Billy Joe and her gang of ape acquaintances at the Chimpanzee Lookout. Learn all about their natural habitats and see if you can’t make a few of the feeding sessions that run throughout the day.
Best for: Playa Patagonia which is a 24m underwater tunnel where 5 female Patagonian sea lions can be found swooping and looping around you. It’s the largest of its kind in Europe and quite a spectacle.
Wild Futures Monkey Sanctuary, CornwallMonkey business is a must at Wild Futures Monkey Sanctuary. It’s a little different to the other British zoos on this list in that there are only 37 creatures living here, but that’s all the better for getting to know their individual stories and personalities. As the saying goes, monkey see, monkey do, so the team are always keen to get visitors involved with daily talks, feeding sessions and activity workshops. They’re also more than happy to answer any questions and let you in on all those simian secrets...
Best for: Monkeys! That means monkeys of all sizes, shapes and screeches - from lovely, little Capuchins to Woolly monkeys who more than live up to their title.
Banham Zoo, NorfolkBanham Zoo is all about extremes: pay a visit to Santos the two-toed sloth down in the ‘Eureka’ subtropical house or fly to dizzy heights with one of the Birds of Prey displays. Join snow leopards, tigers and cheetahs as they prowl through the undergrowth and then leap to the tippy tops of the trees on the Zarafa Heights SkyTrek (or Zarafa Heights Junior SkyTrek). Thrillseekers can navigate wobbly crossings, fly down zip wires and test their nerve with every step as they spy on the world below. It’s also a great way to avoid the crowds with a bird’s eye view.
Best for: Getting some perspective on the Zarafa Heights SkyTrek. Seeing the Giraffe House from on high is quite a feat, especially if you come nose to nose with one of the long-necked residents.
Belfast Zoo, County AntrimJust a hop, flap and a pounce away from the city castle, Belfast Zoo is a hub for over 2,000 animals who are facing increasing danger out in their natural habitats. As such conservation is at the heart of everything this UK zoo does and, luckily for us, that means meeting mighty gorillas, monochrome zebras and enormous Malayan sun bears who are all in their care. Make the most of your memories with a trip to the photography base camp; strike a pose and attempt to upstage the other grinning apes in frame.
Best for: Local conservation. The team are dedicated to protecting the wildlife right on their doorstep with bat and bird boxes, as well as educating visitors on hungry honey bees and loads more.
And our bonus round...
Edinburgh Zoo, Edinburgh and LothianLet’s end with that lucky number 11 and a pair of celebrities. Of course, we’re talking about Edinburgh Zoo’s pair of pandas, Tian Tian (meaning Sweetie) and Yang Guan (Sunshine). They live in two special enclosures full of climbing frames, treehouses and caves where they can play or more likely in panda town, snooze the weeks away, while visitors are welcome to pay them a visit and learn all about their incredible journeys. Oh and as well as black and white bears, there’s a fantastic - and free - Hilltop Safari Ride and the UK’s only koalas.
Best for: No surprises here in that we’re going for those roly-poly pandas. Given that they’ve previously been endangered and these are the only two in the UK, it would be well worth a trip to see them in the fur.
If this walk on the wild side has got you in the mood for visiting a few more of the best zoos in the UK, check out our round-up of the best safari parks in the UK or search for animal attractions in your local area using the filters. They’ll guide you to the craziest and cutest creatures all over the nation.