Explore SC: A Mom’s Look At the Riverbanks Zoo


Looking for a fun day for you and the kids? How about one that’s a little educational as well? In less than two hours, you can drive to Columbia, SC, and visit the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. Located in downtown Columbia, over 170 acres is preserved for South Carolina’s leading tourist attraction, which opened in April of 1974. Riverbanks houses over 2,000 animals, both big and small, and the zoo is also home to a botanical garden with over 4,000 species of plants that are sure to please eyes of all ages.

*This post is not sponsored, just some helpful tips I’m sharing for anyone planning a trip to the zoo!

Things to Know Before You Go

Make sure to pack the sunscreen and allow yourself a few hours to meander through the zoo and see all there is to see! As soon as you enter the front gate, be sure to get your picture taken in front of the green screen (there are photographers waiting there to snap your photo). As you exit the park at the end of your day, you can check out at the photo desk near the gift shop, see your personal family photo, and even purchase the photo if you so choose (different photo packages are available). Upon entering the front gate, if you need a wheelchair or stroller, or even an electric mobility scooter, these items are available for rental from inside the Gift Shop (located near the gate). There is even a private room available to nursing mothers inside Guest Relations.

There are numerous animal exhibits, including an indoor and outdoor area to view the seals and sea lions that are just inside the front gate. While many may stare in wonder at the lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), there are also smaller animal exhibits in the outdoors of the zoo, including the river otter and meerkat exhibits. At the giraffe exhibit, you can purchase food for the giraffes and actually feed them yourself! There is also the Riverbanks’ Farmyard which houses animals that you and your children can even pet, such as the Nubian goat and alpaca. While you are over at the farm, don’t forget to purchase your tickets for the train ride! There are numerous booths within the zoo where tickets can be purchased for additional activities, such as the train ride and the carousel, both big hits with kids of all ages!

Many of the animal exhibits are also indoors, including one entire building devoted to birds. The Birdhouse at Riverbanks even houses three different species of penguins! There are so many types of birds to see inside, but be warned, with so many feathered fowl sheltered in one place, there is a pungent odor throughout! However, it is well worth a few minutes of insult to your nostrils to see such beautiful animals!

There is also the indoor Aquarium and Reptile Complex that contains exhibits of four different habitats (South Carolina, the Desert, the Tropics, and the Ocean) and houses animals native to each of these habitats. The aquarium itself showcases a Pacific reef habitat in a massive 55,000-gallon tank!

Other Attractions to See

Other attractions inside the zoo include the Kangaroo Walkabout where you can actually enter and walk through the kangaroo exhibit among the kangaroos. Personnel just asks that you stay on the dirt path as you walk inside with the ‘roos. There is also an enclosed habitat of lorikeets, right beside the indoor koala exhibit, and nectar to feed the lorikeets is available for purchase so that you can enjoy walking through and feeding these birds yourself!

As with most public places, there are some changes in effect due to Covid so take extra precautions. Timed tickets must be purchased prior to your visit. This can be done online. Plan accordingly, some of the dates and times do sell out, so purchase your tickets in advance! Also, some of the attractions inside the zoo are currently closed and unavailable to guests: the splash areas, the rock wall, the Sky High Safari, and the zipline tours. The tram to the botanical gardens is also unavailable to visitors at this time; however, you can walk or drive your car up to the gardens and they will allow you re-entry into the gate with your ticket from the zoo for that day.

Food and drinks are available for purchase inside the gates at various locations throughout the zoo. (The zoo asks that no outside food or drink be brought in the gates.) There is even ice cream (including my kids’ favorite, Dippin Dots) available at some kiosks!  Riverbanks also allows booking of private events, see their website for more details.  There are also some seasonal events that take place throughout the year, including “Boo At The Zoo” and a Christmas lights exhibit (Covid may affect these events).

A visit to the Riverbanks Zoo is a must if you live in South Carolina, and it’s definitely worth the drive. There are so many different animals to see! Your kids will definitely enjoy their trip to the zoo! Some of our favorites were the Komodo dragons (my son was obsessed!) and the very popular giraffes! We also thoroughly enjoyed the brightly colored flamingos and the diving seals and sea lions that seemed to really enjoy showing off for their visitors! And each exhibit has a plaque with some educational tidbits about each animal. These plaques were easy enough for my elementary-aged children to read. We had such a fun day together visiting Riverbanks, and we all highly recommend that your family visit too!

Have you ever been to the Riverbanks Zoo? Any tips we are missing? Let us know in the comments below!