Tian Tian lives at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park

Giant panda Tian Tian is one of the more popular residents at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jessie Cohen, Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Let's say this first: The Baltimore Zoo is one of the finest in the country. But every zoo is different, and sometimes it's fun to check out the animals and exhibits lurking in other cities.

Summertime, the season of vacationing and visiting, is an ideal time to look in on some of these treasures.

The big-city zoos within a five-hour drive of Baltimore offer more than lions, tigers and bears, although those creatures can be found in abundance. There are also plenty of funky monkeys, slippery swimmers and fantastic fliers. You can see tiny marmosets at the Virginia Zoo and giant pandas at the National Zoo in Washington.

Most of these zoos seem to be enjoying a baby boom, so check out the baby elephants at the Pittsburgh Zoo or the new twin tamarin monkeys at the Brandywine Zoo in Wilmington, Del.

Without further ado, here is a brief tour of nearby zoos. It goes without saying that we're always happy to come home to the wonderful zoo in the heart of Baltimore.

The National Zoo

By far, the most popular animals at the National Zoo are the giant pandas, spokeswoman Dorothy Black said. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived from China in December 2000, continuing a tradition of giant pandas at the zoo that dates to 1972, when then-President Richard Nixon received Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing as a gift from the People's Republic of China.

Ling-Ling died in 1992, and Hsing-Hsing died in 1999.

The zoo has more than 5,800 animals and new ones are being added all the time. Animals born in 2001 include a giraffe, tiger cub, gorilla and Asian elephant. Of course, one of the big pluses of the National Zoo is that there is no admission charge. The 163-acre zoo, founded in 1889, is a Smithsonian museum.

Fun facts: The diet of a wild giant panda is 99 percent bamboo, with the remaining 1 percent including other grasses and the occasional rodent. In zoos, the giant panda diet is supplemented with such treats as carrots, apples, sugar cane and rice gruel.

Hours: From May 1 to Sept. 15, the grounds are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and the buildings are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; from Sept. 16 to April 30, the grounds are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the buildings are open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The zoo is open every day except Dec. 25.

Address and directions: The National Zoo is at 3001 Connecticut Ave. in northwest Washington. Pedestrians and vehicles can enter on the east side of the zoo. Parking is $5 for three hours, plus $2 for each additional hour, for a maximum of $11 per day. For more information, call 202-673-4800 or visit the Web site at natzoo.si.edu.

The Brandywine Zoo

Wilmington's Brandywine Zoo, the only zoo in Delaware, has about 150 animals, said Barbara Woodford, public relations marketing manager.

The 12-acre zoo opened in 1905. In 1998, it added an Andean Condor exhibit with a 110,000-cubic-foot flight cage.

Among the more popular animals are the zoo's two Siberian tigers and the North American river otters. Both the tigers and the otters love to splash around in their respective pools, Woodford said.

The zoo also has baby tamarin monkeys, which were born in April. The babies are twins, which is very common with this kind of monkey.

Fun fact: Tamarin monkeys grow to be about the size of gray squirrels. They live in family groups of two to 11 individuals and learn about caring for the young by helping to raise their siblings.

Hours and admission: The Brandywine Zoo is open year-round from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $4 per adult, and $2 for senior citizens and children 3 to 11.