Best Aquarium Decorations

Updated September 2021
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

33 Models Considered
8 Hours Researched
2 Experts Interviewed
60 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for Best aquarium decorations

Watching pet fish drift through the watery world of their tank is not only enjoyable, it’s actually good for your health. Numerous studies have shown that gazing at a fish-filled aquarium can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and even help you sleep better. But before you can enjoy your pet fish, you need to set up their tank. Once you have the basics of filter, heater, thermometer, and food, it’s time for the real fun to begin: choosing your favorite aquarium decorations.

It’s easy to see why freshwater fish are the number one pet in the United States, with approximately 139 million of them occupying aquariums across the country. (By comparison, there are around 94 million pet cats and 90 million pet dogs in the United States.) Fish don’t shed, they have no need for walks or litter boxes, they’re relatively inexpensive and easy to care for, and they won’t chew up your slippers. Why not give your fish a beautiful place to live?

When it comes to aquarium decorations, the choices are nearly endless. We’ve compiled this buying guide, complete with recommendations, to tell you what you need to know about decorating your fish tank.

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Along with adding beauty to your home, looking at a fish tank can help you relax and unwind.

Key considerations

Luckily, while your fish appreciate tank décor that accommodates their natural instinct to hide when stressed, they aren’t much concerned with the actual appearance of that décor. That means you’re free to decorate the aquarium in whatever style most pleases you. As you’ll quickly discover when browsing the choices at your favorite pet-supply retailer, there are tank decorations to suit just about everyone.

The basic categories of aquarium decorations include substrate, background, plants (either faux or real), natural objects, and fanciful decorations, which are often of particular appeal to children, although many adults like them as well.

Substrate

The aquarium’s substrate is the substance that covers the bottom of the tank. As a general rule of thumb, the substrate should be around 2 inches deep. Substrate is important for several reasons: 

  • It holds onto fish waste and other grunge so it doesn’t swirl around the tank.
  • It provides a large surface area for the beneficial bacteria that maintain water balance.
  • It resembles the natural environment of the fish and so reduces stress.
  • It’s a feeding spot for bottom-feeder species, including catfish and loaches. 

Gravel: The most popular type of aquarium substrate is fish tank gravel, which comes in a huge array of colors from natural to neon. Fish tank gravel is coarser than sand but much finer than pebbles. This is an excellent choice for any aquarium.

Sand: Sand is another popular choice, especially in saltwater aquariums. It comes in many colors, including natural. Sand is the best choice if you plan on keeping eels or knifefish, both of which like to burrow, but it is well suited to most other species of fish as well.  

Pebbles: Larger than gravel, pebbles are sometimes used as a substrate in big fish tanks. Pebbles are not suitable for most beginner tanks, however, because algae growth and debris buildup tend to be more of a problem with this substrate.

Glass: Glass marbles or pebbles are sometimes used as substrate, but these are not as desirable as gravel or sand. Glass breaks down over time, and can develop rough edges that might injure your fish. However, it’s perfectly fine to scatter a few marbles across a gravel or sand substrate as a finishing touch.

Aquarium soil: If you want to grow live plants in your fish tank, you’ll need a “soil” substrate designed to anchor and nourish their roots. There are several types of aquarium soil available, most of which contain clay or volcanic ash.

Background

The aquarium background covers the back wall of the tank. This hides unsightly cords from the heater and filter, gives fish a feeling of security, and adds to the attractiveness of the tank. Most are plastic or vinyl sheets that tape or cling to the outside of the glass. While some backgrounds are solid colors, more often they are patterned to resemble various natural underwater scenes, such as the ocean bottom, sea plants, rocky cliffs, or coral reefs. The choice is up to you, but be sure to buy a background that is sized to fit your aquarium. Most come in a range of sizes to fit standard tanks.

Plants

Every fish tank needs several plants of varying heights to provide hiding spots for fish, conceal thermometers and filter intake valves, and add beauty. 

Most aquarium owners prefer faux plants because they require no care beyond occasional cleaning and come in a huge range of types, heights, and colors. Live plants add oxygen to the water, and many fish like to nibble on them. They do require care in the form of proper lighting, water pH, nutrients, and substrate, so if you want an easy-care tank, it’s best to stick with faux plants. 

Whichever you choose, it’s nice to have a few taller plants toward the back of the tank and in the corners and one or two smaller plants in the front and center of the tank. Most fish enjoy hiding out among the plants on occasion, particularly when feeling stressed, but many species of fish also like to graze on the algae that inevitably grow on aquarium plants. 

Most common freshwater fish feel comfortable with up to 50% of the aquarium filled with décor that provides hiding spots.

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Natural objects

Many fish enthusiasts like the natural look of wood or rock décor in their aquariums, but beware. It’s a bad idea to simply gather up some branches and stones from your yard and drop them into the tank. Many types of rock can alter the pH of the water, and untreated wood can rot, introduce bacteria to the tank, and discolor the water. 

The safest bet is to use rocks and driftwood purchased from a pet store or aquarium supply shop. These materials have been pretreated for safe use in fish tanks. Many fish love to hide underneath or behind large rocks or pieces of submerged driftwood, and these natural objects add a lot of beauty to the tank. Position a rock or two, a fallen log, or a piece of driftwood toward the center of your tank.

Fanciful decorations

Sponge Bob’s pineapple under the sea. A sunken ship. A pirate’s treasure chest complete with a bobbing skeleton. A Japanese temple or the lost city of Atlantis. All of these — and many, many more themes — are yours for the asking when it comes to fanciful aquarium decorations. 

Typically, these are made of non-toxic, aquarium-safe resin that won’t fade, rot, discolor the water, or harm your fish. Choose whatever you like best, but don’t go overboard with these types of decorations. As with everything inside an aquarium, they will gather algae and require periodic cleaning, and your fish need enough open space for natural swimming and feeding behaviors. For most tanks, one or two fanciful decorations are enough.

A subset of fanciful decorations includes small bubblers. You’ll need to attach one of these to an aquarium pump with a length of plastic aquarium tubing, but once in place, these decorations not only add a touch of fun with their steady stream of bubbles, but they also help oxygenate the water by keeping it in a gentle motion, thus encouraging oxygen exchange at the surface of the water. Many bubblers are quite whimsical, such as bobbing skeletons, opening and closing pirate chests, or deep-sea divers, but others are more natural in design.

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DID YOU KNOW?
Regular maintenance will keep your fish healthy and your aquarium looking its best.
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Aquarium decoration prices

Because there are so many types of aquarium decorations, the price range is a wide one, but in general, most tank décor is relatively inexpensive. 

Substrates and backgrounds: You’ll typically pay less than $5 for a 5-pound bag of substrate, and between $10 and $20 for a tank background, depending on size. 

Plants: When it comes to faux plants, most cost just a couple of dollars, but expect to pay up to $20 for a live plant, depending on size and species. 

Décor: The biggest range of prices is for other types of tank décor, including natural and fanciful elements. You might pay as little as $4 for a small resin rock or piece of driftwood or as much as $50 for a large, elaborate sunken city, but the vast majority of these items are priced between $5 and $15.

Tank decorations, especially plants, provide hiding spots that help your fish feel secure.

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Tips

You’ve set up your tank, decorated it, given it time to establish colonies of healthy bacteria that maintain water balance, and added your fish. Here’s how to keep your aquarium in peak condition.

  • Put your aquarium in the right spot. Keep your fish tank out of direct, intense sunlight to avoid an overgrowth of algae and stressed fish. You’ll also want to position it to avoid drafts, vibrations, or sources of high heat, such as fireplaces or stoves.
  • Feed and check on your fish once a day. Provide just enough food so your fish consume it within a few minutes. Check for signs of illness, such as spots or growths on their bodies or fins, odd swimming patterns, or torn fins. Aquarium supply shops sell a variety of treatments for fish health problems. Also, check the water temperature daily, and adjust the heater if necessary.
  • Don’t leave the aquarium light on all of the time. For the best fish health, the light should be on for no more than 12 hours of the day.
  • Maintain the tank twice a week. Every two weeks, vacuum the substrate to remove waste and uneaten food, and then change up to 25% of the tank’s water, replacing it with fresh water that’s been treated to remove chlorine and other chemicals that are harmful to fish.
  • Clean the tank monthly. Use a scraper or sponge to remove algae from the tank walls, replace the filter cartridge, and clean the tank decorations.
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You can decorate your fish tank in whatever style you like best, from natural to whimsical to exotic to otherworldly.

FAQ

Q. Do I really need to put decorations in my tank? I prefer a simpler look.

A. While you might think the only reason to decorate your fish tank is for appearance, that’s actually of secondary importance when it comes to your pets’ well-being. Fish need tank décor because the various structures and plants provide hiding places that give fish a feeling of security. In their natural environments, which for most common aquarium fish are ponds, rivers, and streams, fish dart into plants, under rocks, or behind sunken logs to avoid predators. And while there might not be any predators lurking in your fish tank, your finned pets still can become stressed and even ill if they feel too exposed. But it’s perfectly fine to limit your tank décor to just a few plants, a rock or two, substrate, and a background.

Q. Can I use household items as aquarium decorations?

A. Possibly, but be careful. Many substances break down in water, emitting chemicals that can harm your fish. Never put metal, painted items, untreated wood, or soft rocks such as limestone into your aquarium. And when it comes to ceramics, while dinnerware is likely safe, ceramic figurines and knickknacks are unlikely to survive underwater and may leach harmful chemicals into the water. Of course, you’ll want to avoid anything sharp as well.

Q. Do I need to clean the aquarium decorations?

A. Yes! Algae will eventually grow on your decorations, and the brown or green growth is both unsightly and potentially harmful to your fish because excessive algae growth can reduce oxygen levels in the water. Once a month, remove all tank decorations and scrub away patches of algae with a clean sponge or brush. Don’t use soap or other chemicals. Rinse the decorations well before returning them to the tank.

 

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