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 always a hit for the whole family. Thousands of people come each year 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 also enjoy festive holiday activities, a laser light show, musical performances, train rides, tubing, and holiday shopping.

Generally, the indoor animal exhibits are closed to visitors during ZooLights, so if you want to see the animals, make sure you get to the National Zoo during normal daytime hours.

ZooLights Express 2020

The National Zoo is closed to visitors as of November 23, 2020, until further notice. Instead of canceling ZooLights, the National Zoo is bringing this annual tradition to the community. Every Friday and Saturday night from November 27 through December 19, 2020, the ZooLights Express truck is visiting a different ward of Washington, D.C. The truck has a set route and doesn't stop, but instead drives through neighborhoods with animal lights and playing seasonal music, spreading holiday cheer across the capital.

Cost of ZooLights

When taking place at the zoo, ZooLights is free and no tickets are required. All proceeds from ZooLights concessions and parking sales 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

Even though ZooLights isn't happening at the National Zoo in 2020, ZooLights Express is taking place every Friday and Saturday evening between November 27 and December 19, 2020. The ZooLights truck drives around a different ward each night from 6–8 p.m.


The Smithsonian adds new attractions each year to their impressive ZooLights lineup, and visitors flock back year after year to see the latest additions. When ZooLights takes place at the zoo, some of the most beloved attractions include the following.

  • Animal Lanterns: 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.
  • ZooTubes: Set up near the lion and tiger exhibits, these tubes are a fun way to get your adrenaline pumping.
  • GRUMP Holiday Market: A European-style Christmas market that includes several local vendors and artisans selling unique gifts for friends and family.

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.

Getting There

The National Zoo is located at 3001 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, D.C., and 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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