Pull an Ariel and live life under the sea at these aquariums.

By Maya Kachroo-Levine
July 19, 2021
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There is another world under the sea, and you don't need to embark on a snorkeling vacation or diving adventure to experience the wonders of the ocean floor. The U.S. is home to some of the best aquariums in the world, which means to see marine animals and habitats up close, all you have to do is plan a day trip.

The following aquariums put you in some of the most picturesque corners of the country, from Northern California's coastline in Monterey to the Boston waterfront to Elliott Bay in Seattle. And their exhibits give visitors the opportunity to hang with sharks, dolphins, and beluga whales, all while learning about the importance of conservation and wildlife protection.

For an unforgettable under-the-sea experience, these are the best aquariums in the U.S. to add to your travel bucket list. 

Monterey Bay Aquarium, California

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Kelp Forest exhibit
Credit: © Monterey Bay Aquarium

In the idyllic seaside city of Monterey, right on historic Cannery Row, lies Monterey Bay Aquarium. Largely regarded as one of the best aquariums in the U.S., Monterey Bay Aquarium is celebrated for its living kelp forest, home to wildlife like wolf eels and leopard sharks. This aquarium also houses a giant Pacific octopus, sea otters, penguins, and a deep sea reef that visitors can not only experience, but also help conserve.

New England Aquarium, Massachusetts

A lionfish at New England Aquarium
Credit: S. Cheng/Courtesy of New England Aquarium

Welcoming more than one million visitors per year, the New England Aquarium sits right along Boston Harbor. The waterfront aquarium is home to the biggest shark and ray tank on the East Coast, as well as a Marine Mammal Center, which is committed to caring for northern fur seals. While at the aquarium, visitors can spend time with African penguins, take a closer look at the sea turtles, and experience the majesty of the 200,000-gallon Giant Ocean Tank.

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Louisiana

A round window view of the fish tank at Audubon Aquarium of the Americas
Credit: Rusty Costanza/Digital Roux Photography/Courtesy of Audubon Aquarium of the Americas

You'll find the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Not far from the French Quarter, it's home to 250 animal species, from white alligators to jellyfish to sharks. Start your day at the NOLA aquarium by hanging out with the southern sea otters and seahorses, then expand your horizons at the immersive Gulf of Mexico tank, which is 17 feet deep and filled with 400,000 gallons of man-made salt water.

Shedd Aquarium, Illinois

Toddler looking up at beluga whale at She'd Aquarium in Chicago
Credit: Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Chicago's famed Shedd Aquarium welcomes budding marine biologists who are eager to see beluga whales, stingrays, saltwater fish, dolphins, and sea lions. The wildlife here can pique anyone's interest, as Shedd's exhibits even include crustaceans, amphibians, and reptiles. One mammal you're unlikely to encounter elsewhere is the white-sided dolphin — there are only 20 within the North American aquariums, some of whom were born at Shedd.

Georgia Aquarium, Georgia

People viewing the larger than life wall tank aquarium with a whale shark in Georgia
Credit: Courtesy of Georgia Aquarium

From the sea lion experience to the 4D movies, the wildlife encounters at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta are sure to captivate every wide-eyed visitor. The luckiest guests might see beluga whales, whale sharks, bottlenose dolphins, and American alligators. But there's so much more than aquatic exhibits here — guests can join events like Yoga by the Water, Sips Under the Sea (for the over 21 crowd), and Camp H2O for the kids. 

Seattle Aquarium, Washington

Exterior of Seattle Aquarium
Credit: Ceri Breeze/Getty Images

On Elliott Bay in the Emerald City, the Seattle Aquarium lets you spend your day with sea and river otters, seals, moon jellyfish, lionfish, and sea anemones. This experience is all about interactive education, with the aquarium offering summer camp, family programming, and beach naturalist sessions outside the venue. The Seattle Aquarium is also working to open their Ocean Pavilion to accommodate increased visitor numbers and "provide the public with a global ocean experience."

New York Aquarium, New York

Two sea otters looking at the camera at the New York Aquarium
Credit: Julie Larsen Maher/Courtesy of New York Aquarium

In Brooklyn, the New York Aquarium has a 4D theater, feedings visitors can attend, and of course, numerous wildlife exhibits. Attend a sea lion show at the aquarium's al fresco Aquatheater, or visit Conservation Hall to see brightly colored fish swimming through Glover's Reef. You can also encounter up to five types of sharks in the Ocean Wonders exhibit, from zebra sharks to sandbar sharks.

National Aquarium, Maryland

National Aquarium and Power Plant at Inner Harbor of Baltimore
Credit: Getty Images

You'll find 800 species — and 20,000 animals — at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The exhibits here take you on a mini tour of the world, replicating habitats like the Amazon rainforest, the Atlantic coral reef, and even an Australian river gorge. Visitors can spend time with jellyfish and dolphins, or attend a half-price Friday night for an exciting kick off to the weekend. 

Alaska SeaLife Center, Alaska

For ocean enthusiasts, does it get any better than experiencing marine wildlife in Alaska? We think not. At the Alaska SeaLife Center, you'll find seals and sea lions, salmon and rocketfish, and invertebrates like king crab and sea urchins. Kids with scientific minds will love the Discovery Zone, and if your family can't make it to the Alaska SeaLife Center this year, you can consider adopting an animal at the aquarium instead. 

Oregon Coast Aquarium, Oregon

Couple holding hands and looking at sting ray in tunnel at Oregon Coast Aquarium
Credit: Courtesy of Oregon Coast Aquarium

On the wild Oregon coast in Newport, you'll find a Pacific Northwest aquarium worth planning a trip around. In addition to its newest exhibit, Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline, which offers a look at prehistoric Oregon, visitors can see the Indo-Pacific coral reef, witness a giant Pacific octopus, and compare the marine life found on the rocky versus sandy shores of Oregon. If you're local, check out the Oregon Coast Aquarium's education programs, like Sleep in the Deep, where kids can spend the night among the fishes.