ZooLights at the Smithsonian National Zoo

Jim Jenkins / Smithsonian’s National Zoo

ZooLights at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. is a winter holiday event that is sure to be fun for the whole family. Thousands of people are expected to come to see more than 500,000 sparkling lights featuring sculptures of the zoo’s most popular animals: giant pandas, Asian elephants, gibbons, a sea lion, an octopus, a Komodo dragon, and more. Visitors at ZooLights will enjoy winter-themed activities, a laser light show, musical performances, train rides, tubing, and holiday shopping.

This year, all indoor animal exhibits will be closed to visitors during ZooLights; if you want to see the animals, make sure you get to the National Zoo before 4 p.m. However, the Zoo's Visitor Center, Panda Plaza Gift Shop, Mane Grill, and Great Cats Gift Shop will be open every night.

Cost of ZooLights

ZooLights is free and no tickets are required. All proceeds from ZooLights concessions and parking sales will benefit a variety of zoo wildlife conservation programs and initiatives, from educational opportunities to new and improved animal exhibits, to conservation science research projects. However, some of the rides that are open during ZooLights require a paid ticket to enjoy.

Dates and Times

The dates for ZooLights this year are November 29, 2019, through January 1, 2020. ZooLights is open every evening from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Eve, when the park is closed. It is open rain or shine, but some of the attractions may be closed down when it is 35 degrees Fahrenheit or below.


The Smithsonian adds new attractions each year to their impressive ZooLights lineup, and visitors flock back year after year to see the latest additions. New for the 2019 holiday season are the Animal Lanterns and the Entre Les Rangs exhibit.

  • Animal Lanterns: New to Washington, D.C. these handcrafted lanterns from China highlight the park's most popular animals, including pandas, monkeys, and elephants. You can find them throughout the zoo.
  • Entre Les Rangs, A Luminous Field of Lights: This interactive art exhibit features thousands of lights that shimmer and reflect in the most picture-perfect way.
  • Laser Light Shows: This nightly animal-themed light show takes place on the Elephant Community Center's exterior wall.
  • Live Music: Every single night of ZooLights, you can enjoy live music from a different artist, band, or choir group.
  • Zoo Rides: The Smithsonian's National Zoo Choo-Choo train will take you to see some of the best views of the zoo's holiday light displays. One ride ticket costs $3.50, or you can buy a pack of 10 for $25.
  • ZooTubes: Set up near the lion and tiger exhibits, these tubes are a fun way to get your adrenaline pumping.

Food and Drink

There is plenty to eat at the National Zoo. You'll find fair food classics like soft pretzels, kettle corn, and funnel cake, plus seasonal goodies such as gingerbread, Christmas cookies, and holiday gelato. To quench your thirst, there is hot chocolate, hot spiced cider, mulled wine, or winter lager available for purchase.

Special Events

If you want to get some holiday shopping done while you enjoy the light displays, visit from December 6–8, 2019, while the GRUMP holiday market is set up. This European-style Christmas market includes several local vendors and artisans selling unique gifts for friends and family.

Use virtual reality technology to get right up next to the National Zoo's beloved pandas at Pandamonium. Go ahead and put on a headset, and you'll get to attend Bei Bei the baby panda's first birthday party as well as learn how panda keepers take care of their lovely charges. Shows take place every hour from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on select nights. Tickets cost $9, and you can get them at the Zoo's Visitor Center.

Getting There

The National Zoo is located at 3001 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, D.C.; the main entrance to the zoo is along Connecticut Avenue. There are also two entrances on the east side of the zoo, near Rock Creek Park: One is off Rock Creek Parkway, the other is at the intersection of Harvard Street and Adams Mill Road.
The parking lots may fill up, so the best way to get to the zoo is to take the Red Line on the metro. The closest stations are Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan and Cleveland Park. Every Saturday night, complimentary shuttle rides are provided by Big Bus Tours from the Woodley Park Metro station to the zoo.

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