Taken the kids on an animal adventure lately? Those living in London and the south-east are lucky enough to be within driving distance of some of the country’s best zoos.
Most have now reopened following the coronavirus lockdown. You’ll need to do things a little differently, however. All venues now need you to prebook a time slot before turning up. You’ll want to bring face masks (for anyone over 11 who is not exempt), and you may have your temperature checked upon entry.
Otherwise, there’s still heaps of educational fun to be had at these nine London and Home Counties zoos.
Note: the list includes only zoos with large animals. You’ll find many wonderful smaller animal centres, such as Battersea Park Zoo and Hanwell Zoo, dotted throughout London and the counties. A trip to one of the many children’s farms around London is another excellent way to introduce the kids to different animals.
Chessington World Of Adventures (London)
Chessington is an unusual combination of zoo and theme park. Scream your way around the roller coasters, then hear the roar of lions. The zoo section contains over 1,000 animals, including gorillas, big cats, rhinos and sharks. (And very cute capybaras if the carnivores get a bit too much.)
Where Is It? Extreme south-west of London, near Epsom.
Colchester Zoo (Essex)
Spread over 60 acres, with over 220 species, Colchester Zoo is an excellent day out. According to Trip Advisor rankings, it’s the 11th best zoo in the whole world, which is quite an achievement, considering the more famous names on this list. Most of the larger land mammals can be seen here, including elephants, plus you can walk through a spectacular underwater aquarium.
Where Is It? South-west of Colchester, near the A12.
Howlett’s Wild Animal Park (Kent)
Spread over 100 acres, Howlett’s Wild Animal Park is one of the larger zoos on the list. It’s home to most of the large mammals, including the only African elephants in Kent. The zoo prides itself on its conservation efforts for rare and endangered animals. It has successfully bred western lowland gorillas, black rhino, clouded leopards and elephants, often releasing them back into the wild.
Where Is It? A little east of Canterbury.
London Zoo (London)
The world-famous and historic zoo needs little introduction. First opened to the public in 1847, it has a long, celebrated history of animal care. Because of its location in central London, the grounds are not as spacious as many of the other zoos on this list, and some of the larger species, such as elephants, are no longer kept here (see Whipsnade). It remains, though, a fantastic family day out, and very easy to get to.
Where Is It? At the northern end of Regent’s Park. Camden Town tube station is a short walk away.
Paradise Wildlife Park (Hertfordshire)
Paradise is an exceptional venue for a family day out. It has a wide range of animals, like other zoos, but also has excellent playgrounds, an animatronic dinosaur trail, a miniature railway and other facilities. The zoo is particularly good for big cat encounters. You can get within touching distance of the cheetahs and jaguars (albeit separated by glass).
Where Is It? North of Cheshunt, a short drive from the M25.
Ventura Wildlife Park (Hertfordshire)
A smaller attraction, but a great family day out nonetheless, Ventura is home to zebras, wallabies, lemurs, llamas, reindeer and many more. Fans of the Madagascar films can get a close encounter with the fearsome fossa (that island’s largest carnivore). Ventura is also home to the UK’s only Cuban hutia (a type of rodent).
Where Is It? South of Ware, beside the A10.
Whipsnade Zoo (Bedfordshire)
This sprawling animal park is the sister attraction to London Zoo (both operated by the Zoological Society of London). It’s home to a wider range of animals (including ZSL’s elephants), and occupies a vast 600 acres -- you might want to take your kids’ scooters. Whipsnade’s on a mighty hill, so you also get to enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.
Where Is It? Near Dunstable, a short drive from the M1.
Wingham Wildlife Park (Kent)
Kent’s largest animal attraction (in terms of number of species) has plenty to offer, with lions, tigers, bears, giraffes and much more besides. The park also has its own (model) dinosaur enclosure, like a Kentish Jurassic Park. Its recently opened sister site at Sandwich is only a short drive away, too.
Where Is It? Wingham, just east of Canterbury.
Woburn Safari Park (Bedfordshire)
Bedfordshire’s second great animal park is just a short drive from Whipsnade (see our comparison article). The main feature of the attraction is a safari-style adventure, where you can watch the park’s larger animals from the comfort of your car. Your visit then continues in a more traditional zoo environment to be explored on foot.
Where Is It? East of Milton Keynes beside the M1.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.