Since I’ve been to a lot of zoos on my travels, I thought I should write a round up of what I think are the best zoos to visit in Europe so you don’t have to search out my individual blog posts. (These are all linked at the end of this post though incase you’re curious!)
You’re probably wondering WHY I’ve gone to so many zoos. I mean, doesn’t a tiger at a zoo in New York look exactly like the tiger at the zoo in Budapest? Yes, but also no. Also, yes, in case you missed it, I am a vegetarian.
I started going to zoos more regularly because of my love for animals (all of them, even spiders and cockroaches) and because I passed up my opportunity to go to the Warsaw Zoo when I visited Poland in 2016. It was only after I saw the Holocaust movie The Zookeeper’s Wife that I realized this and my way of remedying it was to go to zoos from here on out. (The movie, by the way, was great, but brutal and hard to watch if you’re an animal lover.)
This was my attempt to make up for this missed opportunity, I guess.
Shockingly though, even though I’ve been to London three times for extended periods of time, I’ve never been able to make it to the London Zoo, which I hear is fantastic. Put it on the list.
I know zoos are controversial – especially to vegans and animal activists – because animals are often kept in far from ideal conditions.
To be clear: I don’t visit those zoos. I visit the zoos with wildlife conservation programs whose premises span entire parks, allowing for these exquisite and sometimes endangered animals to live out their best lives in huge spaces.
I know that nothing will ever be exactly the same as living in the wild. But since humans are incorrigible and will hunt these endangered species, I’m OK with trying to preserve the species within the confines of a vast zoo rather than lose these magnificent creatures all together. I’d be interested in talking to someone who didn’t agree with that sentiment.
A Quick History of the Warsaw Zoo
If I ever make it back to Warsaw, I will make the trip across the Vistula River to visit the 65,000 square foot park where the zoo has been in operation since 1928 (except for between 1939 and 1945 during the war). The zoo can trace its roots all the way back to the 17th century when King John III Sobieski kept a menagerie in a part of the city called Wilanow (the south). The zoo re-opened in 1949 after the war.
Today all kinds of animals live there: lions, bears, panthers, various rare birds, hippos, elephants, and bison. According to the zoo’s website, since the turn of the 20th century, the zoo has been working on conservation of endangered species and with the Foundation for the Reconstitution of the Auroch, they began a gene bank for endangered species.
The International Zoos That I’ve Visited
The Budapest Zoo
The Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden is one of the oldest continuously operating zoos in the world. The Zoo first opened its gates in 1866 and was the first zoo in Hungary after a considerable period of turmoil as Hungary fought for its independence.
The Zoo started with several Hungarian species of animals (I couldn’t find anywhere online exactly what these species were) as well as monkeys, lemurs, parrots, camels, kangaroos. In 1868, Queen Elizabeth with Franz Josef donated a giraffe and the first Lion House opened in 1876 with lions and tigers, and later elephants, a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros joined the Zoo, too.
I spent the entirety of my second morning in Budapest getting lost in their zoo. It’s super easy to find – just walk up the main shopping street – Andrassy ut – and when you get to Heroes Square, hang a left, and then a right and it’s right next to the Széchenyi Thermal Bath. Admission for an adult is 3300 Forint (about $10.50), which is a bargain if you ask me, considering the Bronx Zoo is $25 for an adult ticket.
I digress. I walked up Andrassy ut early on a cloudy morning, watching as all the shops readied for a day of shoppers, and marveled at the beautiful entrance to the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Gardens once I arrived at its doorstep. The art nouveau main entrance to Budapest Zoo was designed by Hungarian architect Kornel Neuschloss and it’s a grand entryway for an equally grand zoo.
The architecture at every inch of the Budapest Zoo is gorgeous. The buildings were built in a Romantic style that will take you immediately back to the early 20th century. The Elephant House looks like a building straight out of a fairy tale, too.
The first house I walked into housed the ring-tailed lemur monkeys and they were swinging around right above my head – no cages or anything. There happened to be a family of about 6 of them, including babies! They were so, so cute. The Mongooses (mongeses?) were also quite adorable.
Since I was there early in the morning, I was there early enough to see the lions and tigers receive breakfast. Of course, this meant that they weren’t doing much else besides eating but I was happy to watch them tear apart an entire chicken.
I saw a vulture later in my stroll around the Zoo picking apart a raw carcass. I don’t think that would be allowed in America because some stupid American would probably attempt to take the carcass away and be mauled by a vulture.
I saw an exquisite leopard pacing back and forth in his enclosure after breakfast, too.
Looking back at my photos, I’m a little bit sad though. The Budapest Zoo uses enclosures, or “houses,” for many of its animals and some are just too small. Such as the giraffe enclosure and the tiny kangaroo enclosure.
The Budapest Zoo doesn’t always use cages, but it uses them often enough that it made my photos look a little jail-like. I think they have to use enclosures and ‘houses’ for many of their animals because of the weather in Budapest. It can get quite cold, so I think it’s for the animals’ well-being. But it’s still just a little sad to look back at.
But at the time, I did enjoy my visit and if you can get past the occasional cages, you probably will, too.
The Budapest Zoo is located at 1146 Budapest, Állatkerti krt. 6-12. You can visit their website for more information here.
The Tiergarten Schönbrunn (Vienna)
The Tiergarten Schönbrunn, aka the Schönbrunn Zoo, is located in the same park at the Schönbrunn Palace in the southern part of the city of Vienna. I decided to visit both on my last day in Vienna and I’m glad I did. The weather had been frigid and now, after taking a day trip to Salzburg, the weather was finally clearing up and the sun was out. The perfect day for a trip to two historic places.
The Tiergarten Schönbrunn isn’t just the zoo of the capital of Austria, it’s the oldest continuously operating zoo in the WORLD.
It was founded and originally opened as the imperial menagerie in 1752, which makes sense considering that it’s on the same grounds. Much like the arena from the movie Catching Fire, the zoo is centered around a pavilion (once meant for royal breakfasts) with thirteen different paths leading out from the pavilion to different enclosures. Today the zoo reaches even further out into the park than these original 13 enclosures.
I visited on a sunny afternoon in March and I was delighted by the beautiful imperial gate that welcomed visitors at its entrance.
I spent many hours getting lost here. I think this was due to the language barrier and my inability to read the signs, plus my general ineptitude with maps. I ended up walking in many, many circles thanks to my lack of German.
I saw the most beautiful cheetah pacing back and forth in his enclosure. The leopards seemed to be having a lazy day inside what was (in my opinion) too small of an enclosure for them (but hopefully they have another space in which to roam). The meerkats bobbed around in the most adorable way (as they always do), entertaining visitors. Ring-tailed monkeys swung from branches above my head in the monkey enclosure, and white wolves roamed in a vast wooded area in the hilly part of the park. A bobcat sat up stoically in an enclosure near the wolves, refusing to turn around so I could get a good photo.
In the “grosskatzen” enclosure, the humans were the ones in an enclosure while a couple of gorgeous tigers paced in front of us (trying to figure out how to best eat us, I presume) outside.
The Tiergarten Schönbrunn is known for being one of the only zoos in the world to have a giant panda exhibit and those adorable pandas didn’t disappoint. It was clearly the most popular of the exhibits given the crowd around the trees where the panda family happily ate bamboo, “hung around” (literally), and sunbathed.
There’s also an imperial green house, which is absolutely breathtaking, but I didn’t visit it as I had to make my way back to my hostel to get back to Budapest.
While I think the elephant and giraffe enclosures as far too small, I think Tiergarten Schönbrunn has done a wonderful job showcasing these rare animals in ways that don’t include, for the most part, cages and I think it’s definitely worth your time (and money) to get lost here for an afternoon, too.
The Tiergarten Schönbrunnis is located at Maxingstraße 13b, 1130 Wien, Austria. Tickets can be purchased on their website here.
The Dublin Zoo
While I was first planning my visit to Dublin back in 2017 (this was a very last minute trip that I’d booked only a couple of months ahead of time with a boyfriend who would become my ex-boyfriend shortly before I flew to Europe), I bought the most recent Dublin Lonely Planet from my local independent bookstore.
One of the first things I remember that caught my attention was the fun fact that they included about the Dublin Zoo: Not only was this zoo was known for its lion breeding program, but the lion that roars at the beginning of MGM movies (you know what I’m talking about) was born at the Dublin Zoo. WOW!
The Dublin Zoo went right onto my list of things to do in Dublin after that.
The Dublin Zoo first opened on September 1st, 1831 in Phoenix Park. The 46 mammals and 72 birds that lived at the zoo initially were all donations from the London Zoo. The Dublin Zoo received its first giraffes in 1844 and in 1855 they bought their first pair of lions.
Today the Zoo’s stated mission is to “work in partnership with zoos worldwide to make a significant contribution to the conservation of the endangered species on Earth“.
Spanning 69 acres, the Dublin Zoo is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Dublin today.
I visited the Dublin Zoo on my second morning in Dublin and I was pleasantly surprised to see most animal enclosures doing their jobs without using cages. The lions and lionesses were happily sunbathing behind natural barriers around their expansive grounds and monkeys were swinging from trees and not roaming from their trees.
It was hot that day so the snow leopard was tucked away under a rock for shade and wasn’t coming out for anyone no matter how nicely we pleaded with him.
The giraffes had an expansive area on which to roam outside, looking as happy as can be, eating branches off trees and interacting with the zebras. There was also a baby zebra!
I saw African Painted Dogs (also known as African Spotted Dogs) for the first time, too. They were adorable (and lethal and you probably shouldn’t try to pet one if you ever see one in the wild). I loved the Okapis too, with their striped behinds, and I was surprised to learn that they were related to giraffes, not zebras.
The Dublin Zoo doesn’t feel as massive as the zoo in Vienna does but they do a great job with the space that they do have.
The Dublin Zoo is located at Saint James’ (part of Phoenix Park), Dublin 8, Ireland. More information can be found on their website.
My Thoughts on Zoos Now
After writing this and revisiting my memories, and photos, of these zoos, I think I’m done with visiting zoos abroad while I travel.
Why? While I support the conservation efforts of these magnificent institutions, I’ve come to realize that I don’t think a lot of the zoos actually provide spaces that are large enough, at least not often enough for me. Giraffes and elephants shouldn’t be living indoors. A leopard shouldn’t have to be enclosed in an indoor environment behind glass.
What the zoos in the United States have done better, and this may be a product of having more space in general (there is so much blank space in this country, it’s almost unimaginable), is creating zoos that have natural barriers more often than not.
Would I tell you not to visit these zoos? Absolutely not. If you want to support their conservation efforts, I whole-heartedly support that. So, if you want to visit the best zoos that Europe has to offer, I think these three are worthy options.