Eric is an aquarium enthusiast with over two decades of experience caring for a wide array of tropical fish.
Vibrant Tropical Fish
The aquarium hobby is all about creating an attractive, healthy tank stocked with beautiful fish. While many tank owners don’t mind the mundane maintenance required to keep an aquarium running, what they really love is the time spent kicking back and enjoying their creation. It’s very relaxing, and there is a certain sense of pride in a job well done.
Of course, color plays a big role in the appearance of your tank. Some novice fishkeepers choose bright decorations and gravel to make their aquarium look good. However, I’ve always felt it was better to make the backdrop as realistic as possible and allow the fish to be the stars of the show. That means choosing colorful, vibrant freshwater fish that really stand out.
It might seem like a reef tank is the way to go if you want the most colorful fish. There are certainly many beautiful and unique fish in the saltwater world. However, marine setups can be difficult for many fishkeepers. They are expensive to set up, a little harder to maintain, and the fish themselves are pricey.
Marine tanks are gorgeous, but they aren’t for everyone. If you don’t feel like enduring the steep learning curve necessary to successfully keep saltwater fish, you can still create a beautiful freshwater tank with equally vibrant inhabitants.
In this article, you’ll learn about several categories of the most colorful fish for your freshwater aquarium. I’ll give you some suggestions for community fish, as well as larger fish you may wish to keep in single-specimen tanks.
Keep in mind that I am making these suggestions based on the appearance of the fish. As I say in all of my articles, it is up to you to do the research on each species and decide if they are best in combination with other fish you intend to keep. Failure to do so is one of the top reasons aquarium fish die too soon.
Before I get to my list of freshwater fish I want to suggest considering an African cichlid tank. Like saltwater fish, they aren’t for everyone, but they are about as close as you can get to the color of a reef tank in the freshwater world.
They come from huge freshwater lakes in Africa known as the Rift Lakes or African Great Lakes. Cichlids are commonly found in Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria.
African cichlids aren’t generally compatible with other tropical fish, even other cichlids from different parts of the world. If you choose to set up an African cichlid tank you need to take some time to research everything that is required to keep them successfully. They are typically aggressive and territorial fish, and certain precautions must be taken to ensure they get along.
They are many kinds of African cichlids, and they vary in their size, temperament, and stocking requirements. For this reason, it is very important to do research on the needs of each individual fish species before choosing.
Top 10 Colorful Community Fish
Here is my list of the most colorful community fish:
- Fancy Guppy
- Neon Tetra
- Boeseman’s Rainbowfish
- German Blue Ram
- Dwarf Gourami
- Cherry Barb
- Harlequin Rasbora
- Endler's Livebearer
- Betta Fish
Many people who own an aquarium are simply interested in maintaining a pretty tank filled with compatible community fish. The fish listed here will typically get along in a community setting, and many are excellent fish for beginners due to their hardiness and ease of care.
You can read more about each fish below. Remember to make sure you research the compatibility and tank requirements of every fish you intend to stock.
Guppies are pretty little fish and very active at the top of the water column. Due to their small size, they are a great choice for a 10-gallon tank. Fancy guppies come in all kinds of bright color variations, and they really stand out in an aquarium.
They’re livebearers, so try to keep a ratio of two females for every male when stocking. Guppies will get along with any peaceful community fish, but keep in mind they are very small, so don't house them with bigger fish who may eat them!
Neons are another colorful fish for a 10-gallon tank, and probably one of the most popular fish in the industry among novices. They’re small shoaling fish that should be kept in groups of at least six, but the more the merrier. Other similar fish you might consider include cardinal tetras, rummy-nose tetras, and black neon tetras.
Like guppies, you have to be careful not to stock neons with fish who may eat them. I've also found that larger schools of neons tend to do better than small schools, possibly due to reduced stress with larger numbers.
Boeseman’s rainbowfish, also known as bicolor rainbowfish are peaceful, hardy fish. Because they grow to around four inches in length and are best kept in small groups of six or more they may not be the right choice for newbie fishkeepers.
If you intend to keep them consider a 55-gallon, well-planted aquarium for their home. They are a good choice if you are looking for an attractive shoal to go with larger, non-aggressive fish.
German Blue Ram
Blue rams are peaceful South American cichlids. While generally a good community fish, they can be territorial at times. They grow to around three inches in length, and so can be appropriate for smaller tanks. Consider at least a 20-gallon tank for a pair.
A well-planted aquarium with plenty of hiding spots will make them feel more comfortable. Because of their peaceful nature, you'll want to avoid housing these guys with aggressive fish or fin nippers.
The name killifish encompasses a wide range of species, most brightly colored. Their specific requirements are highly dependent on which species you choose, and so, like African cichlids, it is wise to do plenty of research before purchase.
Killies are hardy fish, but because they are somewhat tough to find they are often kept only by experienced hobbyists. They are mostly peaceful, and many fishkeepers choose to house them in a species-only tank. However, they also make good community fish when kept with other tropical fish species.
Dwarf gouramis are often listed as peaceful community fish, but take care when choosing them. Two males in the same tank may result in conflict, or bullying behavior. Otherwise, they aren’t likely to bother other fish, with the possible exception of other anabantids.
They come in some amazing colors, and if you can avoid the pitfalls listed above they are a wonderful addition to an aquarium. They can live in smaller tanks if you are careful not to overstock, but I'd probably go with a 30-gallon or larger if I wanted other fish.
Male cherry barbs have gorgeous bright-red coloring. They should be kept in shoals of six or more. They will disperse around the tank, but school tightly when threatened.
Aim for a larger tank with these guys, as they need plenty of swimming room and may grow to a couple of inches. You may find them listed as semi-aggressive with some sources, because they may nip fins. However, in my time keeping them I've never had an issue.
These are very pretty fish, with vibrant red-orange coloring and striking black markings on their tails. They’re small enough for a 10-gallon tank, but as you need to keep them in a school of six or more you might consider a 20-gallon aquarium or larger.
The Harlequin Rasbora is a fairly hardy little fish and a good choice for beginners. In my opinion, like many colorful, shoaling fish, they look best in large numbers.
The Endler’s livebearer is very similar to the guppy, and so many of the same rules apply. The two may interbreed, resulting in hybrids. Endlers are small colorful fish, and as livebearers, you’ll strive for two females for every one male. Because females may be hard to find, some aquarists keep only male endlers or mix them with female guppies.
Like guppies, endlers are a good fish to populate the top of the water column when stocking a 55-gallon tank or larger. Just beware of adding larger fish who may eat them!
Zebras are a small member of the minnow family. They are shoaling fish that should be kept in groups of six or more. Because they are so hardy they are an excellent choice for beginners, and for small tanks. With their sharp black-and-white stripes and spunky personalities, they really liven up an aquarium.
Zebra danios are one of the fish that have been genetically altered to become the popular GloFish. They come in bright, fluorescent colors, and you can get special lights for your aquarium to show them off.
Consider the betta fish an honorable mention. I was tempted to include the betta in my list of colorful community fish, but I did not want to mislead anyone. While bettas can be community fish in certain situations, most often they are better off alone in a 5-gallon single-specimen tank.
Male bettas are bred with some incredibly vibrant colors, and if you want a single colorful fish in a small aquarium this is the one to consider.
Top 10 Large Colorful Fish
Here is my list of big, colorful fish for your tank:
- Discus Fish
- Blood Red Parrot Cichlid
- Flowerhorn Cichlid
- Blue Gourami
- Leopard Bush Fish
- Green Spotted Puffer
- Clown Loach
Some of the fish listed above are too big to keep with the smaller species I mentioned in the community section above. Many are considered semi-aggressive fish. Big fish eat little fish, and many an aquarium owner has awoken to a guilty-looking angelfish and mysteriously missing neon tetras.
Others on this list are quite aggressive, some to the point where they should be housed alone in single-specimen tanks.
Read on for more information on each fish.
The discus is a new-world cichlid that is certainly at the top of the heap when it comes to beautiful, colorful aquarium fish. They get their name from their round disc-like shape. They grow to around six inches across and have some special care requirements.
Because discus fish are somewhat expensive and fragile they are not a great choice for new aquarists, but some veteran fishkeepers love them. They may or may not eat smaller fish, so you might wish to keep them with peaceful tankmates that are too big to fit into their mouths.
Blood Parrot Cichlid
Blood parrots cichlids are hybrid fish with a bright orange or red coloring. As they were bred into existence by humans, they are somewhat controversial. Their beak-shaped mouth is a deformity caused by this hybridization.
They are large but peaceful fish that can reach an adult length of close to ten inches long and should be kept with large, equally peaceful tankmates. The minimum tank size for these guys is thirty gallons when kept alone, with another ten gallons per additional fish.
The flowerhorn is a colorful, exotic fish, and another man-made hybrid. They grow even larger than blood parrots, reaching an adult length of over a foot. They require very large tanks and can be very aggressive toward tankmates and even their owners. They are best kept in large, specimen-only tanks.
It is so important to research fish before purchase so you know what you are getting yourself into. I know I've said this several times but I think it is especially important with fish like the flowerhorn.
Oscars are large, aggressive, carnivorous new-world cichlids that are most often kept in single-specimen tanks. That might make them sound undesirable, but they are known to interact with their owners and are beloved by many aquarium enthusiasts.
Oscars come in a wonderful array of colors, but they grow to a foot or more in length and have some unique care requirements. They can live for over a decade, so if be ready for the commitment if you decide to choose an oscar fish.
Blue (three-spot) gouramis are an acceptable choice for smaller community aquariums, but their bigger cousin requires a larger tank and a little more attention. While still a relatively docile fish, altercations between individuals of the same species, or other anabantids, may occur. You can alleviate the issue by including plenty of vegetarian and hiding areas.
These fish reach an adult length of up to six inches, so you'll want to choose at least a 30-gallon tank, but bigger is better.
Leopard Bush Fish
The leopard bush fish, also known as the spotted leaf fish, spotted climbing perch and leopard gourami, among other names, is one of my favorite fish I have ever kept. It is a peaceful fish that prefers a well-planted tank and poses little threat to anything that doesn’t fit in its mouth.
It is also an ambush predator that can fit many things in its mouth, so choose tankmates wisely! You may choose to add some feeder fish for its diet, but don't stock any small fish unless you want to see them become lunch.
Angelfish are one of the most common fish in the aquarium industry, and possibly one of the most misunderstood. They come in some beautiful variants, including striped zebra angelfish, gold angels, and koi angels.
As adults, angelfish can grow to a foot tall. While they may do okay in smaller tanks, I prefer to see them in 55 gallons and up. Keep them away from little fish as they get bigger, and consider a large, planted tank for their home.
Green Spotted Puffer
The green spotted puffer can be kept in freshwater as a juvenile but must switch over to brackish water as an adult. Some puffer keepers even maintain their fish in full marine setups. They are thick-bodied fish that grow to an adult length of about six inches.
This is a fish best housed in a single-specimen tank, as it may attack and kill any other fish in the aquarium. However, they are beautiful fish, if you have the patience and desire to learn to care for them correctly.
The clown loach is a vibrant orange color with sharp black stripes. They can help you manage pest snails in your tank, but there are also a few important things to know about them. For one, they grow much larger than people realize, with adults topping ten inches in many cases.
They are also best kept in groups of six or more, meaning none but the largest of tanks are appropriate for this fish. For this reason, they aren't a good choice for most home aquariums.
The common pleco can grow to huge sizes and isn’t appropriate for any tank under 100 gallons. However, if you have space and the inclination, you may want to investigate the different species and relatives.
Some come in truly beautiful colors and patterns. They are all algae eaters, so make sure to supplement their diet with algae wafers. Also be aware that they will wreak havoc on plants, especially as they get larger.
How to Bring Out the Color in Your Fish
Now that you have a whole bunch of colorful aquarium fish to think about, you may want to consider some of the things you can do to make your fish look even better.
Here are a few ways to bring out the color in your tropical fish.
- Just like us humans, fish are what they eat. Feeding a nutritious, varied diet can help your fish reach its full potential.
- Try to avoid stress in your tank. Stressed fish tend to look dull. Of course, stress also increases the chances of illness in your tank. Some ways you can avoid stress include choosing compatible fish, not overstocking your tank, and making sure fish are kept in the appropriate numbers.
- Keep up with tank maintenance, and maintain clean water. A healthy tank goes a long way toward healthy fish.
- Finally, be aware that some fish only display their most vibrant colors in certain situations.
Good luck stocking your tank with beautiful, colorful fish. There are many more out there not mentioned in this article, so do some research and discover them all!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Joan King on September 21, 2018:
Colorful fish are so attractive in the aquarium. I once had many of the ones you mentioned. Thanks for sharing.