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Don’t skip the National Aquarium when visiting Baltimore. It’s one of the best in the United States. But it’s also expensive…and crowded. You’ll need a plan. Here, a regular visitor, shares her top tips to get your money’s worth out of a 2-hour visit with kids
As a long-time member of the Baltimore Aquarium, I’m shocked at how most visitors get the place exactly wrong. With that in mind, I put together this two-hour tour that I started using with my own kids when they were toddlers. It still works now that they are teens.
Know Before You Go
Buy Your Tickets in Advance
Know you’re coming more than once in a year? The family membership is a total no-brainer as it’s cheaper than 2 visits for a family of 3 or more. It costs $195 for the entire year and provides two adult and four kid tickets (ages 3-21) per visit. Even better, you get to enter from the special member’s entrance that has no lines. You can buy the membership right before you go at the aquarium website and just check-in at the membership desk to show your email receipt and ID.
Bring a Water Bottle
The aquarium has filtered water stations all over the place and drinks are expensive.
Pack a Lunch (or at Least a Snack)
If you visit on the weekends, there’s a small cafe on the 4th floor that also has great views (and no lines). Even better, it’s a great place to enjoy a snack or sack lunch you bring during the week as they usually keep the room unlocked.
Leave Your Stroller at Home!
You can’t use it at the Aquarium.
Want the VIP Aquarium Experience?
The National Aquarium offers two experiences for families looking to splurge and totally beat the crowds. On Fridays and Saturdays, you can take the Family Sunrise Tour. Priced at $55 per person (Members pay $44), the tour begins at 8:15 am from the Staff Entrance at Pier 3. During the hour, you’ll feed various animals breakfast and get to touch at the touch pools without the crowds.
The Early Access Tour is offered every day, but kids have to be 8 or older for this 2-hour tour that begins in the same location at 8:30. Current price for this tour is $60 (Members pay $45). In addition to the activities on the Family Sunrise Tour, you’ll watch an archerfish feeding in the Australia exhibit and visit behind the scenes locations in the aquarium.
6-Point Baltimore Aquarium Touring Plan
1. Get There 5 Minutes before Opening
THIS IS IMPORTANT. If you do this, it won’t matter whether you visit on a weekday or a weekend. In some ways, weekends are better because you won’t be competing with gaggles of school trips, but you MUST come at open. Trust me: You don’t want to be in the aquarium at peak times- especially if you have (now stroller-less) toddlers! It’s dark and crowded: prime getting lost conditions.
2. Start on the 4th Floor
The Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit amazes kids. It’s four stories of ramps surrounded by tanks in every direction. If you followed tip #1 and arrived when the aquarium opened, you’re guaranteed at least 20 minutes to yourself while the throngs elbow one another to get a good look at the blacktip reef on Level One.
Bonus: If you’re really lucky, you’ll meet up with one of the biologists feeding the fish and she’ll let your kids follow her around asking questions (Why is the green sea turtle brown?) and pointing out her favorites.
3. Head to Shark Alley
Located at the bottom of the Atlantic Coral Reef is Shark Alley. Spend a few minutes in there. You’re probably about 30-40 minutes past open now.
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4. Next Up: Australia
When you get done with the sharks, head up the escalator to Australia: Wild Extremes. Spend another 15 minutes or so here.
5. Jellyfish Time!
By now it should be about 55 past open. Walk across the bridge to Jellies: Invasion as soon as it opens. In an hour it will be so packed that you won’t be able to see a thing. And your kids won’t want to miss these beautiful creatures.
6. Learn about Dolphins
Spend a few minutes in the play area or viewing the bottlenose dolphins in the marine mammal pavilion from below. Then head over to see the first dolphin presentation, at an hour and a half past open. While there is no longer a formal “show,” the interactive sessions are still worth seeing. Sit in the front row so you get good and wet…it will make your kids’ day!
Had Enough Yet?
You should finish up with the dolphins about two hours past open. There are some days (since we’re members) that I cut the day here because it’s starting to fill up. We dodge the crowds and head out to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor where we take the footbridge over to Pier 4 and take in the view of the aquarium.
You can wander around The Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Waterfront Park, It’s a 90,000-square-foot urban park that doubles as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Educational programs explore Maryland’s diverse ecosystems—from the ocean, coastal plains, and Chesapeake Bay, through the Piedmont region, and west to the Allegheny mountains.
But there are a few more “to dos” if you’re a one time visitor. Order here is not as important since the crowds are equal:
4 More First Time Must-Dos
Visit the Living Seashore on Level 3 (Pier 3 Pavilion).
This is the touch tank area. Sure, other aquariums have stingrays and horseshoe crabs, but have you ever pet a jellyfish (on purpose)? The Baltimore Aquarium has a huge tank of moon jellyfish you can safely touch!
Visit the Puffins and “Nemo”
They’re hanging out in the North Atlantic to the Pacific exhibit on the 4th floor.
The Rainforest is worth a visit
You’ll find it on the 5th floor. It should be less crowded. Be sure to look up for the golden tamarinds (tree-dwelling monkeys) and the tarantulas. NOTE: The Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit is closed for renovations through Fall 2022.
Watch (and Feel) a 4D Movie
If your kids are a little older, they might think it’s fun to watch a “4D” film. The aquarium’s 4D Immersion Theater shows short films in 3D (complete with 3D glasses) and adds the 4th dimension — special effects, such as mist, wind, snow, bubbles, leg ticklers, scents, enhanced lighting and seat vibrations. It can be kind of scary for little ones.
On Your Way Out
The main gift shop has a “sale” section hidden in the back left corner. I usually find cheap T-shirts for the kids, and you get a 10% discount on food and merch with membership.
If you’re getting hungry for a real lunch, be sure to get your hand stamped so you can come back and re-visit your faves. Then, turn AWAY from the Inner Harbor and there’s a McCormicks & Schmicks hidden behind the Pier 5 hotel. We find it to be both uncrowded and surprisingly kid-friendly…and you’re probably craving a nice seafood meal!
About the Baltimore Aquarium
The mission of the National Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. It sits on a gorgeous spot on Pier 3 in the city’s Inner Harbor. The address is 501 East Pratt Street, Baltimore, Maryland. It’s well worth a day trip from Washington DC.
Planning a Baltimore weekend? Check out these 20 free things to do in Baltimore.