The best aquariums in the world allow us to enjoy the treasures of the undersea universe without ever needing to go underwater.
From the world-famous kelp forests and sea otters at California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium to the walk-through shark tunnels at Sydney’s lively Sea Life Aquarium, here’s a list of the top aquariums around the world you should plan on visiting during your next vacation.
Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California
California’s 840-mile-long coastline has everything from surfer beaches to kelp forests and rocky coves inhabited by sea lions and otters. There’s no better place to show the Pacific Coast’s variety of flora and fauna than the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row in Monterey, California.
One of the most famous aquariums in the country, the multi-level research center is especially well-known for being the home of a large jellyfish exhibit, African penguins, and dozens of sharks, including the odd-looking Pacific angel shark, which few aquariums have in captivity. One of the best things to do in Monterey is to spend a full day here, especially if you’re visiting with kids.
Curaçao Sea Aquarium Park, Curaçao
The Curaçao Sea Aquarium Park isn’t your average aquarium. A portion of it is located inside of the water, where several man-made lagoons fed by seawater house species like dolphins, sharks, and sea lions.
Aside from the animals found in the lagoon, every other species at this park in Curaçao lives in ocean water that is pumped into each tank to mirror their natural environment, making it one of the best aquariums in the world if you’re concerned about fish welfare.
The park is quite large and offers snorkeling and scuba diving excursions, ocean encounters with dolphins and sea lions, and an underwater window where you can get a fish-eye view of the ocean without ever getting wet. There’s a lot to do at the aquarium, so be sure to reserve your activities in advance to make sure you don’t run out of time.
Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium, Nagasaki, Japan
The Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium is home to more than 180 penguins. The facility features a wealth of species, including Patagonian Magellanic penguins, yellow-eyebrowed rockhopper penguins, and giant king penguins of Antarctica.
Even though it’s not a large aquarium, plan on spending at least an hour or so while you’re in Nagasaki. You’ll be easily charmed by the penguins who are naturally comical and often show off for visitors.
The penguins live indoors and outdoors, thanks to a net system in Nagasaki Bay that allows them to swim freely in the open ocean. Try to catch the adorable penguin parade as they make their way from the indoor exhibits to the outdoor swimming area, which usually happens around 1:30 p.m.
S.E.A. Aquarium, Singapore
There are many amazing sights to see in urban and stylish Singapore, but the S.E.A. Aquarium is one of its top can’t-miss attractions. When it opened in 2012, the S.E.A. Aquarium was the world’s largest and its sheer size alone makes it one of the best aquariums in the world with 1,000 different species and more than 100,000 individual animals.
Their exhibits focus on a variety of different animals, including Pacific octopus, green brittle stars, hammerhead sharks, dolphins, and stingrays. Aside from underwater species, the S.E.A. Aquarium also features tree frogs, a rainforest habitat, a touch tank, and a recreated two-story shipwreck.
If you want to try scuba diving, you can do it here in one of the aquarium exhibits. Plus, the Ocean Restaurant is the only underwater dining experience in Southeast Asia.
Atlantic Sea-Park, Alesund, Norway
Get a glimpse of what life is like under the sea in Norway at the Atlantic Sea-Park in Alesund. Built as an extension of the coastline, the Atlantic Sea-Park features both indoor and outdoor ocean water habitats for penguins and sea lions. Animals are hand-fed every day and if you’re lucky, you can even interact with penguin researchers, as the aquarium has an active on-site breeding program.
The outdoor area at the Atlantic Sea Park is larger than the indoor exhibits, so be sure to bring a rain jacket or umbrella. If you decide to stay inside, you’ll still be able to see many of the large floor-to-ceiling tanks and handle some of the smaller ocean creatures with staff always on hand to make sure the animals are safe.
Waikiki Aquarium, Honolulu, Hawaii
Whether on a snorkeling excursion, glass-bottom boat tour, or catamaran ride, there’s no shortage of ways to explore Hawaii’s thriving marine world. But if you don’t feel like getting wet or packing your boat shoes, head to the Waikiki Aquarium, one of the best aquariums in the world to see unique creatures native to the Hawaiian Islands.
There’s an entire exhibit dedicated to animals with the ability to propel themselves underwater, like the nautilus and octopus, who provide fascinating displays of their swimming prowess.
There’s a roomy area for a small population of Hawaii’s native monk seals, too, and a green sea turtle habitat for rescued and born-in-captivity animals. While it’s a relatively small aquarium, its focus on all-things-Hawaii makes it unique in the world.
Sydney Sea Life Aquarium, Sydney, Australia
It’s no surprise that Australia, the home of the Great Barrier Reef, would have one of the top aquariums in the world. The Sydney Sea Life Aquarium is a research center that has more than 700 animal species and is centrally located in Darling Harbour.
It’s also one of the very few places in the world where you can see a dugong, a rare mammal related to manatees with a forked, dolphin-like tail. The aquarium’s chubby dugong named Pig is undeniably cute. Watch as he gently munches on cabbage and kale and plays with toys to stimulate natural behaviors.
While Pig is the main attraction, the sprawling aquarium has much more to keep you busy for a full day. Walk through manta ray and shark tunnels and get an up-close view of the ocean predator’s rows and rows of highly evolved teeth.
The aquarium also features rare wobbegong sharks, a section dedicated to adorable little penguins, and a massive Great Barrier Reef exhibit, which is the largest Great Barrier Reef exhibit in the world. Thanks to special lighting that mimics nighttime conditions, you’ll also have the chance to see the barrier reef’s unique night critters.
L’Oceanografic, Valencia, Spain
Valencia’s L’Oceanografic captures all of the Earth’s varied ocean habitats in one building. As the largest aquarium in Europe, it has different areas dedicated to arctic oceans, tropical oceans, the red sea, a mangrove ocean, a dolphin habitat, an antarctic exhibit, and several shark habitats.
Its size allows it to make room for species you won’t find at most aquariums, such as flamingos, giant tortoises, and even beluga whales. It’s one of the top aquariums in the world if you love arctic animals.
There are several large areas connected by walkways over an artificial lagoon and dozens of shows and educational lectures offered daily, so plan to spend at least a few hours here while you’re in Valencia.
As you may expect from an aquarium of this size, it’s a world leader in marine conservation and animal welfare. L’Oceanografic actively practices animal stress management techniques to ensure their species are thriving and works with animals outside of the aquarium to evaluate how well species are doing in the wild.
Visitors can take behind-the-scenes tours to learn more about how the non-profit and aquarium operate or catch a show in its 4-D marine theater.
Kelly Tarlton’s Sealife Aquarium, Auckland, New Zealand
Marine archaeologist and diver Kelly Tarlton realized that few people appreciated the importance of preserving the oceans, which is why he decided to open an aquarium in Auckland to help people feel better connected to the marine world.
Though it started small, Kelly Tarlton’s Sealife Aquarium is now a bustling space and is home to the largest sub-Antarctic penguin colony in the world. The aquarium has both King and Gentoo penguins and guests can go out on the ice with them for an hour of play.
If that’s not adventurous enough, one of the best things to do in Auckland is to snorkel in a cage in the aquarium’s shark exhibit. Or if you prefer to see sharks with more of a safety barrier in place, walk through one of the aquarium’s underwater tunnels. Kelly Tarlton was the first to create a curved, walk-through ocean tunnel, though many of the best aquariums in the world have since followed suit.
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New England Aquarium, Boston, MA
If you like the ocean’s more mysterious creatures, head to the New England Aquarium in Boston. While this vast aquarium has sharks, penguins, and a massive 200,000-gallon recreation of a Caribbean coral reef, it also has exhibits on animals that usually get a bit less attention.
Spot sea dragons that have some of the world’s best camouflage and are nearly impossible to admire while snorkeling. Visit the Amazon rainforest exhibit where you’ll see piranhas and electric eels, as well as a giant pacific octopus and a 50-year-old green sea turtle named Myrtle.
The four-story aquarium also allows you to get close to wild animals during one of its popular whale-watching tours. But if you’d rather stay on land, there are plenty of activities indoors as well, including a meet and greet with Myrtle, walking with a researcher behind the scenes, or learning how to care for seals with a marine biologist.
Vancouver Aquarium, Vancouver, Canada
Vancouver’s aquarium is Canada’s only marine mammal rescue facility. It rescues around 150 animals a year including sea lion pups and newly hatched sea turtles stuck in fishing nets that wouldn’t survive on their own in the wild.
The site allows visitors to interact with friendly harbor seals and a large steller sea lion. The rescue efforts are inspiring and will teach kids and adults how to be better friends to the ocean’s ecosystems.
However, wild animal rehabilitation is only a tiny portion of the aquarium. It also features exhibits on ecosystems from around the planet with a large two-story tank focused on the coastal species of Vancouver.
If you’re keen on spotting penguins, tropical sharks, and glow-in-the-dark jellyfish, you’ll find them there, too. The aquarium runs dozens of educational programs and shows every day, allowing you to easily be entertained for hours.
Read: Best Things to Do in Vancouver With Kids
Browse through our cruise itineraries that travel to over 300 destinations around the world, including all of the cities in this list that are home to the best aquariums in the world. View the shore excursions at each port and start planning your next ocean-focused adventure today.