As a San Diego native I’ve been going to the World Famous San Diego Zoo since I was a baby. Plenty has evolved at the zoo over the years including a move away from isolated cages towards lush, natural exhibits that mimic that animal’s habitat. At a vast 100 acres, the San Diego Zoo is a sprawling paradise in the middle of the city.
The zoo is a pleasurable outdoor experience that takes all day to properly explore. It is home to more than 3700 rare and endangered animals and a botanical collection with 700,000+ plants. The zoo sits within Balboa Park, a 1200 acre cultural park (the nation’s largest).
There are several ways to explore the San Diego Zoo (see MAP here). Guests can take a 35-minute Guided Bus Tour on double-decker buses that give a good overview of the zoo. There is also the option of the “Kangaroo” Express Bus that stops at several locations for guests to access different areas. The Guided Bus Tour & Express Bus is included in the 1-Day Pass admission price (Zoo pass members pay extra).
And of course guests can walk along the many pathways which reach aviaries and enclosures that the zoo does not cover on the bus. I highly recommend that guests take one of the bus tours first and from there plan their own walking tour to more deeply explore other areas. Please note that many of the trails are quite steep so be sure to take advantage of the Skyfari Aeriel Tram. This will transport you quickly across the zoo to the higher regions and you can work your way back downhill. I love this amazing view of the city and Balboa Park museums over the lush treetops of the zoo!
The zoo offers a few shows and animal presentations. The shows are a nice place to get off your feet for a bit though you will be in the sun. Check out the animal encounter section to see what Keeper Talks are planned during your visit. We usually catch them on Front Street coming in and out of the park.
Even if you don’t have kids with you, please make it a point to stop in at the Children’s Zoo area. There are animals here that you won’t find in other areas including the amusing Naked Mole-Rats. My little one’s favorite area is the Petting Paddock where he can pet the goats and sheep. Just inside the entrance to this area there is also a playground so we usually spend about 30 minutes letting our stroller-bound toddler run around. There are several other play areas around the park where kids can explore.
Accessed only by the walking paths, making your way through the cool confines of one of the aviaries is one of the most fascinating parts of a San Diego Zoo visit. If you walk too fast you’ll miss a lot so make sure to find a bench to bird-watch. Many of these birds are camouflaged in the lush trees and bushes and you won’t see them until you pause to look. Keepers set up trays of fruit and the birds stop over to nibble.
Panda Canyon has three giant pandas on exhibit and they are so fun and playful to watch as they climb trees and strip bamboo. The hippos have a cool upper and lower exhibit so you can watch them swim (so graceful under water!) Elephant Odyssey is awesome; Last time we were there the elephants were loping around to grab branches from each other and it was so cool to watch! Take a stroll through Monkey Trails – Orangutans are one of my favorites, they can be so silly! Many of the animals have live cameras on their enclosure so you can also watch them from home.
Dining at the Zoo is mostly walk-up with outdoor patio dining. Offerings are wide and include sandwiches, grilled burgers & chicken, salads, wraps and Chinese. The full-service dining restaurant, Alberts offers a more elegant selection. You can also bring in any of your own food from home (which we frequently do) and have a picnic lunch in the Treetops Cafe seating area. Please note that straws are not permitted as they are a choking hazard to the animals.
The San Diego Zoo offers special experiences at an additional fee, including an early-morning tour to visit the pandas, overnight sleepovers in the park or Breakfast with Koalas, a buffet that overlooks the koala exhibit. Educational classes and camps can also be booked.
Parking in the lot is free! You can purchase zoo tickets in advance online or at the booths. And as the old advertising jingle went, “You Belong in the Zoo…The San Diego Zoo!”