T.J. Kirkpatrick, Getty Images
July 24, 2012
Distance from Baltimore: 42 miles, about a one-hour drive
Why it's worth the gas: No disrespect to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, which is absolutely wonderful and which you should visit regularly. (Haven't been there recently? Go ahead and check it out; we'll wait.) But the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological park offers a nearly unparalleled experience: some 2,000 animals, about 400 species, spread out over 163 acres in Rock Creek Park. Elephants, tortoises, octopi, lemurs, lions, gorillas, owls, eagles, sea stars, sea cucumbers, komodo dragons, gila monsters. There are always some critters being added, too: just this summer, a pair of young cheetahs, above, made their debut. Oh, and did we mention...
Don't miss: Yep, they're the stars of the National Zoo alright, a pair of giant pandas named Mei Ziang and Tian Tian. Incorrigible hams, they've been known to put on quite the show for visitors. Don't miss these black-and-white superstars, even if the crowds do make it difficult to get a good look sometimes. And yes, you can tell them apart: Tian Tian, the male, sports black eye patches shaped like kidney beans, while his girlfriend, Mei Ziang, has oval eye patches.
Information: 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20008; 202-633-488 or nationalzoo.si.edu.