In operation for more than a century, the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium remains a wildly popular oasis just minutes from the heart of the city. I say “wildly popular” because we were told by a city resident that on summer weekends, the line just to enter the zoo extends down the block and it can be difficult to maneuver amongst all the strollers. This was not the case on the overcast March morning that we visited, and we appreciated the opportunity to enjoy the zoo’s animals in relative peace and quiet.
Unlike some northern zoos, the Pittsburgh Zoo remains open year round, although with abbreviated hours in the winter season. During peak times, the zoo operates from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily.
Admission is currently $10.00 for adults and $9.00 for children ages 3-12, which seems steep. Fortunately, we saved 50% on adult admission due to our membership at another AZA zoo and Baby_Chelledun is still in the “free” zone. Happily, parking is free at the Pittsburgh Zoo, a rarity for this type of attraction.
Pittsburgh Zoo offers an intuitive layout, with paths that help guests travel effortlessly between exhibits, of which there are six or seven main ones. We rarely had to pull out our map, and by just following the natural flow of traffic we easily saw all of the zoo’s offerings. There are some uphill stretches along the route but I’m one that likes to get my exercise during a day of touring so I see this as a bonus! This zoo is small enough to be seen in half a day or less.
My favorite stop on our tour was the PPG Aquarium, which despite getting separate billing in the attraction title is included in the price of admission. The facility is manageable in size and the tanks are very clean which is good for both the fish and guest visibility. Baby_chelledun particularly liked the ray exhibit, which unlike others of its type has a tank that is see through from all sides, even from below via a tunnel.
In terms of theming, the Water’s Edge exhibit takes top honors. It is designed to look like a coastal village that would fit right in at Universal Studios. The polar bear display is quite nice and there are otters, which are always a hit with children. I do have a few beefs with the sand tiger shark environment which are discussed below.
We assumed that an exhibit labeled Kid’s Kingdom would be a great stop for our family. Unfortunately, this area feels more dated than any other part of the zoo. The slides and climbing nets dedicated too older children are a bit old school but not too bad, but the dedicated toddler area is a blast from the past, and not in a good way. Think sparse bark chips and faded wooden ride-on toys. There were also very few of the advertised animals on display in this area during our visit, although this was likely owing to the time of year.
The Pittsburgh Zoo shows its age again in several of the animal environments, most notably the elephant house at African Savannah. The exterior portions of this exhibit features a lovely grassland populated by zebras and giraffes as well as a respectable black rhino habitat. However, the inside viewing area for the elephants is dark, dreary, cramped, and completely devoid of natural influence. I felt like I was at a circus or animal menagerie instead of a zoo known for its conservation efforts. This space definitely needs some TLC.
I had similar objections to the walk-through tunnel that contains the tiger sharks in the Water’s Edge. While this exhibit seems to be otherwise modern, the sharks are inexplicably swimming around against a concrete backdrop. There is not a shred of coral, seaweed, or any other object of interest in the tank. Aside from the fact that this takes away from the viewing experience for guests, it also seems boring for the sharks.
The Pittsburgh Zoo offers traditional concessions at various locations around the property. Expect hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken tenders and the like. We peeked in at a couple of the restaurants and found them to be pretty basic. Ultimately, I was dissuaded from eating at the zoo because I noticed the sandwich baskets were being prepared ahead of time and held under a heat lamp.
There are several gift shops at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Actually, there are five that operate during the busy season, which seems like a disproportionately high number for a zoo this size. Currents in the PPG Aquarium is the nicest, while Village Outfitters offers the largest selection of traditional zoo souvenirs.
Overall . . .
It’s tough to have a bad day at the zoo, and we did enjoy ourselves at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium. However, this zoo simply does not rank near the top of my list of urban zoos, and I believe it is a bit overpriced for the experience that is provided. Visit if you are in the area and looking for a kid-friendly outdoor activity, but don’t feel like you need to put this one on your zoo bucket list.
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