From sleeping with polar bears, penguins and Siberian tigers to safaris following rare species such as black rhinos, the best zoos in Europe offer unexpected surprises and a trove of fun and educational experiences for visitors of all ages.
Zoos have existed for thousand of years. From as early as 2500 BC, according to National Geographic, wall carvings show expeditions to distant places to bring back exotic animals such as giraffes, elephants, bears, dolphins and birds for the rulers and aristocrats of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
And records document that “ancient zoo owners hired animal handlers to make sure their animals thrived and reproduce.”
Today’s best zoos feature enormous spaces that serve as home to thousands of amazing animals from all corners of the globe and are saving many species from extinction while breeding and relocating endangered animals, extending their lives and ensuring their well-being.
Captive breeding of endangered species makes zoos valuable places for their survival. Animals such as the black soft-shelled turtle, native to India and Bangladesh, are extinct in the wild. But they survive in several zoos around the world.
Europe offers some of the most impressive zoos of the world and are major tourist attractions. Here are eight of the best:
Schonbrunner Zoo, Vienna
Tiergarten Schönbrunn has been selected as the #1 zoo in Europe for the sixth time from a total of 126 scientifically-managed zoos in 29 European countries.
The zoos were evaluated for the biennial rankings of the Best Zoos in Europe by zoo expert Anthony Sherida. Among the criteria for selection are animal husbandry, species protection, animal stocks, biodiversity, zoo education, research, visitor numbers, animal keepers, marketing and gastronomy.
Also known as the Vienna Zoo, it’s the oldest zoo in the world that has been continuously operating since 1752. Through its long history, the zoo has become a world center for conservation and education.
Located on the grounds of one of Vienna’s most popular attraction, the Schönbrunn Palace, the zoo is considered not only one of the best in the world but is also the first to foster the successful birth of an elephant in captivity and the first to have a natural-insemination panda birth in Europe.
Among the attractions are giant pandas, penguins, monkeys, elephants, oriental small-clawed otters, arctic wolves and Siberian tigers. The zoo offers daily animal talks, feeding displays and nighttime tours.
Pairi Daiza Zoo, Southern Belgium
Another prizewinning zoo and botanical gardens, Pairi Daiza, (Persian for paradise), has been voted Europe’s Best Zoological Park for the past three years by the Diamond Theme Park awards, known as the Oscars of the zoological world.
Located at the heart of the Cambron-Casteau Abbey in the municipality of Brugelette, an hour’s drive from Brussels, the Pairi Daiza Zoo, formerly called Zoo Paradisio, houses over 5,000 specimens spread across 160 acres and is home to 7,000 animals, and also boasts the largest Chinese and Indonesian gardens in Europe, as well as its largest aviary.
Founded in 1993 as a bird sanctuary around the remnants of a 12th-century Cistercian abbey, the zoo also has been named best zoo in Belgium and the Netherlands, the Most Beautiful Animal Habitat for its Temple of Flowers, home to one of its two families of Sumatran orangutans, and the Most Beautiful Park in Belgium.
Given the size of the park and the number of animals to see, the zoo decided to create an immersive experience offering lodgings with views of the bears, wolves and deer and also sub-aquatic rooms in its Land of the Cold-themed section, with glass walls to see penguins, walruses, polar bears and other water-dwelling animals swimming around.
Pairi Daiza features many other thematic environments including tropical greenhouses, an educational farm for kids, 20 acres dedicated to the savannah animals and a large aquarium.
The zoo’s officials say its purpose is to save species from extinction and introduce them into the wild if possible, while seeking to educate visitors about the origin of the animals and the need to protect them.
Zoologischer Garten, Berlin, Germany
The Zoologischer Garten of Berlin, or Berlin Zoo, is an historical site that opened in 1844, which makes it Germany’s oldest zoo.
With a fascinating and war-torn history, it has one of the most comprehensive collections of species in the world – more than 1,500 species and 20,000 animals, living on 86 acres.
Located in Berlin’s Tiergarten, in the city’s center, it’s Europe’s most-visited zoo and one of the most popular worldwide.
Orangutans and many other apes, big cats and less-known species of rare deer and pigs, polar bears, a reptiles house, an aquarium, giant pandas, lemurs and many African and Asian mammals are among its inhabitants.
The Berlin Zoo is renowned as a leader in successful breeding programs of endangered species and their reintroduction into the wild.
Berlin is also home to another of Europe’s largest zoos which has been designated to complement the Berlin Zoological Garden (see next entry).
The Tierpark Berlin, Germany
The Tierpark Berlin was founded in 1955 and is located on the former grounds of of the historic Friedrichsfelde Palac in what was previously East Berlin.
One of Europe’s largest animal parks, it’s set in 400 acres and houses 10,000 animals from more than 1,000 worldwide species, including the only giant pandas in Germany, numerous beautiful and exotic plants and 8,500 trees, several of them protected.
It has a petting zoo and a free train to explore every section of the park.
“Visit the long-tailed inhabitants of the Lemur Woods; embark on a species conservation adventure in the Rainforest House; or enjoy a relaxed picnic overlooking a herd of giraffes,” the zoo invites.
The Tierpark participates in some 120 breeding programmes, the reintroduction of species to areas where they have become endangered or extinct and supports projects for the protection of natural habitats.
Chester Zoo, England
Located in Upton-by-Chester, Cheshire, England, the Chester Zoo is the sixth-largest zoo in the world and internationally known for its its environmental protection mission, special events such as the ‘breakfast with the big five of the savannah’ —elephants, lions, leopards, buffalos and rhinoceros — and its training and education courses for children and adults.
The most popular wildlife attraction in Great Britain, it covers 128 acres, making it one of the largest in the country. Opened in 1931, the zoo is managed by the non-profit North of England Zoological Society.
Chester Zoo houses some 20,000 animals tucked away into the English countryside, including exotic creatures such as Komodo dragons, Capybaras, Babirusas, and Andean bears.
The zoo specializes in endangered animals, notably some of the world’s near-extinct black rhinos, and has played a significant role in repopulating the species.
Another zoo in England appears among the largest and most beautiful in Europe (see next entry).
Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, England
The Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in the town of Hyte, Kent, England, is also a wild-animal reserve and hotel.
Over its extensive 600 acres built during World War I and including the historic Port Lympne Mansion and landscaped gardens, the park houses a relatively small number of animals — 700 belonging to 90 species — because it offers the chance to go on safari following organized routes to see the animals in freedom and in their habitat.
Visitors transported in specially-modified vehicles can view and photograph rhinoceros, giraffe, zebra, deer and wildebeest, among others.
Port Lympne houses a number of rare and endangered species such as Siberian tigers and has Britain’s largest breeding herd of black rhinoceros.
Among other inhabitants are tigers, lions, leopards, gorillas, bears, monkeys, Malayan tapirs and hunting dogs.
The zoo, which is also renowned for its breeding of rare and endangered species programs offers a ‘Dinosaur Forest’ — alas, with realistic models rather than the real thing.
Prague Zoo, Czech Republic
The impressive Prague Zoo (Prague Zoological Garden) in the north of the capital of the Czech Republic not far from Troja Castle, opened in 1931. then, it has been committed to preserving endangered species through zoological research, the protection of nature and public education.
Considered among the world’s best zoos, it occupies 140 acres and is home to more than 5,000 animals from 676 species, with some 500 of them listed as endangered, including Galápagos Tortoises, Western Lowland Gorillas and polar bears.
Among other attractions are the Giant Salamander House, home to the massive Chinese Giant Salamander also known as the “freshwater panda,” the Indonesian jungle, one of the largest tropical forests in Europe, the monkeys island, the lemurs island and a children’s petting zoo.
Basel Zoo, Switzerland
Basel Zoo is the country’s most-visited attraction, ranked by Forbes as one of the 15 best zoos in the world.
The Zoologischer Garten Basel (Basel Zoological Garden), locally known as “Zolli,” is particularly focused on breeding endangered species such as okapi, cheetahs, pigmy hippopotamus and Indian rhinos, among others, which are, together with flamingos and apes, their most popular animals.
Founded in 1874, Basel Zoo is Switzerland’s oldest and largest, housing 6,900 animals on 32 acres in the heart of the city.
Literally every Somali wild ass — a type of donkey — in zoos worldwide is related to the population in Basel, where this species’ zoological breeding program was started.
In May, the zoo welcomed a new baby Indian rhinoceros and 54 baby storks.