While everyone has different aims and priorities when it comes to fish keeping, most people are looking for attractive fish that are a pleasure to watch and aren’t too hard to keep happy and healthy.
Luckily, we’re here to steer you in the right direction and help you find some suitable inhabitants with our guide to the 14 best freshwater aquarium fish.
Remember, not all freshwater fish can live together in a community aquarium. Some require different water parameters from one another, or different temperatures, and others simply don’t coexist peacefully.
So, always check your chosen species can share the same water parameters and make good tankmates before you house them together.
You might expect to find goldfish and betta fish on this list as obvious choices? Both species are great for beginners nd are perhaps the most popular fish in the world.
However, we decided not to place them on this list as we have covered them in great detail in these sections of our site which you can peruse at your leisure by following the links:
So, enough small talk, let’s get to the meat of the matter. Here are our choices for the 14 best freshwater aquarium fish, listed in no particular order, but all are beginner friendly.
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Small, colorful, hardy and easy to care for, guppies make an ideal addition to a freshwater tank for beginners, though that’s not to say more experienced aquarists won’t enjoy keeping them, too.
In the wild, you’ll find guppies all over the globe — they’re so adaptable that they’ve been successfully introduced to various non-native areas and usually thrive in almost any tropical freshwater surroundings. This bodes well for inexperienced fish keepers, as it means they can survive in less-than-perfect conditions.
Guppies tend to be very peaceful and do exceptionally well in community tanks. However, due to their small size and tempting flowing tails, they shouldn’t be housed with large, aggressive fish who might nip their fins or even eat them.
At dinner time, the good news is that guppies can thrive on a wide range of foods, from flakes to brine shrimp, wafers to vegetables, though it’s advisable to feed them a relatively varied diet to keep them in tip-top condition.
2. Cory Catfish (Corydoras)
Not only are cory catfish sweet-looking, peaceful fish, they’re also great at keeping your aquarium clean.
Since these little guys love to forage on algae and other vegetative matter that can build up on the bottom of your tank, they’re basically nature’s janitors. They will need feeding in addition to this. A mixture of flakes or pellets, insect larvae, and bloodworms are good choices.
Cory catfish are communal and so should be kept in groups of at least three or four of their species. They can also be kept with most other peaceful tropical freshwater fish as part of a community tank.
Be sure you’re ready to commit to keeping corys, as they have a lifespan of up to 20 years when properly cared for.
3. Harlequin Rasboras
If you’re looking for an easy freshwater fish to keep, who will fit well into a community aquarium, look no further than the harlequin rasbora.
These hardy, docile fish are remarkably striking, with their black and orange coloring. Since they’re small, at roughly two inches a piece, they don’t take up much room in a community tank, though they do need plenty of room at the top of the water column to swim around it.
They need to be kept in a school, however, so never keep just a handful — a group of eight to 10 is the minimum.
Beginner fish keepers will be pleased to know harlequin rasboras are very simple to care for. They’re tolerant of a wide range of conditions, though they don’t like fast-moving water and prefer a planted tank.
4. Discus (Symphysodon)
Colorful, charismatic, and attractive, discus are a fish that many aquarists aspire to keep in their freshwater tanks.
While they can be extremely rewarding to care for, they’re not for a beginner fish keeper. Not only do they require a lot of space, but their water requirements also differ slightly from many other tropical freshwater fish.
You must be careful who you house them with. Cory catfish and tetras make good tank mates, though it may be safest to keep a discus-only aquarium.
Since they’re shoaling fish, keep discus in groups of at least eight — larger groups are good, too, but you will need to make sure you have a large enough tank.
As a rule, you’ll need a tank of about 30 gallons for the first discus, and another 10 gallons for each additional one, so you’re looking at a 100-gallon tank for a shoal of eight discus.
If you can get past their care requirements, discus are one of the most eye-catching and best freshwater aquarium fish species you can find.
5. Otocinclus (Dwarf Suckers)
Fish keepers who want an algae-eating suckermouth for their freshwater tank often go for a Plecostomus, but unless you have a lot of room, an Otocinclus is a superior option.
Unlike Plecos, which can grow up to two feet long, Otos only reach around two inches at maturity, meaning they’re a much better choice for a small or medium-sized aquarium, and one of the best freshwater aquarium fish for beginners.
These non-aggressive fish do well with almost any peaceful tank mates, but common choices include cory catfish, neon tetras, and guppies.
As well as eating the algae off the bottom and sides of your tank, Otos require supplementation with algae wafers and even fresh vegetables to keep them well fed.
Otos like to live in a school, so you shouldn’t keep fewer than six of these in a tank.
6. Zebra Danios
Zebra danios are known to be hardy fish, tolerant to a reasonably wide range of water conditions, which makes them ideal for anyone new to the hobby.
Of all the danios out there, zebra danio are perhaps the most popular, and certainly a fish we’d recommend. Their name comes from their black and white stripes, and while they’re not as colorful as some other tropical freshwater species, their high activity levels make them a pleasure to watch.
Measuring around 2 inches long, these are only small fish, but they should be kept in groups of six or more. Those kept in small groups can sometimes exhibit undesirable behaviors, such as fin-nipping.
They can eat flakes, live food, frozen food, or freeze-dried food, but you should keep their diets relatively varied for optimum nutrition.
7. Bleeding Heart Tetras
Though not quite as showy as their tiny neon cousins, bleeding heart tetras have subtly beautiful markings that are incredibly striking in their own way.
The reddish heart-shaped marking on either side of their body is where these fish got their name. Their bodies can range from orangey-beige to silver-grey in color, so a school of bleeding heart tetras will add a range of pearlescent coloring to your tank.
Reasonably large as far as tetras go, reaching almost 3 inches long, these fish must be kept in groups of at least six, so make sure you have ample room for them, especially in a community tank with a range of other species.
Though they’re quite peaceful, some individuals will nip fins. This behavior is uncommon when they’re kept in a large enough school of their own kind, but it may be best to avoid keeping them with any species with temptingly long, flowing tails, anyway.
8. Dwarf Loaches
Loaches can be an excellent addition to a community tank, but many loach species can grow quite large and need a lot of space.
Dwarf loaches rarely exceed 2.5 inches in length, making them perfect for smaller tanks or for sizable community tanks in which you want a range of species.
These peaceful fish are best kept in groups of at least six to eight of their own species. They’re ideal for keeping with other peaceful species and don’t tend to nip fins like many other loaches do. However, they can outperform slow-swimmers, so either avoid keeping them with slow moving fish or monitor them carefully.
Since they need pristine water and are fairly susceptible to disease, they’re not the best species to start out with.
One thing to consider when buying dwarf loaches is that they’re critically endangered in their native Thailand, so only purchase specimens bred in captivity (we’d generally advise against buying wild-caught fish, anyway).
9. Rosy Barbs
Thanks to their striking rosy pink metallic hue and their active nature, rosy barbs are a joy to watch and a solid freshwater favorite.
While they’re excellent beginner fish, due to their hardiness and simple care requirements, even experienced fish keepers can’t resist their charms.
These active swimmers grow up to around 4 inches long in captivity, so rosy barbs need a tank that’s at least 30 gallons in capacity and 30 inches long.
Keep them in groups of at least four to six of their own kind. While they’re relatively peaceful, they occasionally nip fins, so avoid keeping them with any very docile species or those with long, flowing tails that would be an easy target to take a nibble from.
Since they require slightly cooler water than many tropical varieties, make sure that any tankmates you choose for them will thrive in the same temperature range.
10. Common or Marbled Hatchetfish
Notable for their unusual hatchet-shaped bodies, hatchetfish make peaceful additions to freshwater aquariums, especially if you want something a bit different from what most people are keeping.
Native to the Amazon basin, these shy little fish spend most of their time near the surface of the water in areas with thick surface vegetation. As such, you should provide them with some live plants that sit on or near the water’s surface.
Keep some parts of the surface clear, however, to give them spots in which to feed. While they can eat flakes, they need a varied diet to survive, so they must be supplemented with protein-based foods, like bloodworms and mosquito larvae.
Since they’re nervous, you must keep marbled hatchetfish in groups of at least six, but more is better. They only measure 2 inches long, so even large groups of them won’t take up too much space.
Only house them with other non-aggressive species — cory catfish, tetras, and dwarf cichlids are all excellent options.
11. Dwarf Gouramis
With their beautiful blue and red or orange stripes, dwarf gouramis make striking additions to any freshwater aquarium. It’s worth noting, though, that their colors tend to show best with a dark substrate.
Growing no more than three inches long, you don’t need a huge tank to keep them in, though we’d always recommend going as large as you have room for.
While they can be kept in community tanks with other small, peaceful fish, it’s not recommended to keep them in groups with others of their species, unless you intend on breeding them. Two male dwarf gouramis will fight, and males can bully females when kept in pairs.
Due to their shy nature, you should provide plenty of spots in which your dwarf gourami can hide away. Ideally, they prefer a well-planted tank, though artificial plants are a reasonable alternative if you don’t want to keep live plants.
12. Black Mollies
Despite being extremely common freshwater aquarium fish, nothing is boring about black mollies. In fact, they’re so popular for good reason.
Their black coloring is relatively unusual in the fish world and makes them stand out from the crowd in a community aquarium. Unlike other types of mollies, black mollies are a product of captive breeding — their color comes from a condition called melanism, which is essentially the opposite of albinism.
Though they should be kept in groups, you should be mindful of the male to female ratio. Too many males held together are likely to fight, and if males outnumber the females, they tend to bully them. The ideal ratio is three female black mollies to every male.
To help keep the peace, it’s best to keep them in a large aquarium – a minimum of 45 gallons is ideal. Since they’re peaceful with other docile fish species, they make excellent additions to community tanks. Popular tank mates include other mollies, tetras, danios, guppies, and swordtails.
As omnivores, black mollies need some vegetables in their diet, in addition to flake foods and protein. Shelled peas and zucchini are good choices, but they’ll eat almost any green vegetable.
13. Striped Headstander
Long, slender, and attractive, striped headstanders are enjoyable freshwater fish to keep, as long as you have some experience and a large enough tank.
Although they’re relatively hardy, as long as you keep the water clean, they’re generally most recommended for beginners – some fish keeping experience is preferable to understand best and meet their needs.
These bottom feeders spend much of their time foraging for food in the substrate, with their head pointed down and their tail pointed up, hence the name “headstander.”
Despite being relatively peaceful with similar-sized community fish of other species, they can fight among themselves if kept in a small group. As such, you must either keep them alone or in groups of at least seven or eight.
Striped headstanders can reach almost 8 inches long (though closer to 6 inches is more common) and are fairly active, so they need large aquariums. A single individual kept alone will need a minimum 50-gallon tank and a group will need one at least twice that size.
They require a varied diet consisting of a high-quality flake food, algae wafers, proteins (such as bloodworms and brine shrimp), and vegetable matter (such as watercress, spinach, and lettuce).
14. Neon Dwarf Rainbowfish
Dwarf neon rainbowfish are undeniably stunning, with iridescent blue scales and brightly colored fins. What’s more, they’re very hardy and easy to care for — perfect for a newbie fish keeper.
As schooling fish, they should be kept in groups of at least eight, but more is better. Either keep a single-sex school or make sure there are a greater number of females than males. They can also be kept with other peaceful species of a similar size.
Thanks to their small size — around 2.5 inches — dwarf neon rainbowfish are a more suitable choice than other rainbow fish for aquarists who don’t have room for a very large tank. A minimum 20-gallon aquarium will suffice for a small shoal of dwarf neon rainbows, though you’ll need a larger tank if you want to keep other species, too.
Though not picky eaters, they are omnivorous and should, therefore, be fed a varied diet.
That Wraps up our Guide to the Best Freshwater Aquarium Fish
We’ve shown you 14 popular species that, as a beginner, you should be able to keep in a community freshwater aquarium – Well, except of course for the somewhat more expert level Discus, but we felt we had to include it.
There should be something for everyone in this list, and yes we know it’s not exhaustive (no cloud mountain minnows, cherry barb or platy fish? Or a multitude of others!) but we have to keep it to a manageable size or nobody will read it!
So, are there any species missing from our list you simply cannot believe aren’t there and feel should have been included? If so, please let everyone know in the comment section below, we’d love to hear from you.
Happy fish keeping!