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A Complete Guide To Visiting the San Diego Zoo

September 19, 2023
San Diego Zoo

Spread over 100 acres, the San Diego Zoo is home to a whopping 12,000 rare and endangered animals. In just one day you can meet the animals of Africa and Asia, come face-to-face with polar bears and gorillas, and spend time with the largest collection of birds in North America. 

Located in Balboa Park, the zoo is among San Diego’s top destinations and worthy of at least one full day on any itinerary. Due to its sheer size, it will definitely help to have a plan before visiting to make the most of your visit. 

Getting to the San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is located in the heart of the city. If you’re arriving at San Diego International Airport, the zoo is just five miles to the east. And no matter where your accommodations are, it’s likely your drive to the zoo will be under 30 minutes. Free parking is available directly in front of the zoo, but be sure to make note of where you park since the lot is quite large.

Public transportation is also an option. The San Diego Metro Transit System is available throughout the city and has a stop near the zoo.

When to visit the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo Lion

Summer is by far the busiest time of year for the zoo, so if this is when you’ve planned your vacation, it will be busy. Spring break season — typically March and April — is also a busy time. 

Plan to arrive at opening and you’ll likely have a few quiet hours and increase your chances of seeing the animals active. Zoo hours change throughout the year, so be sure to visit their website for updated information.

For four months each year (late May to early September), the zoo extends its opening hours into the night, giving you the opportunity to see animal behavior after dark. To make it even better, a variety of music, shows, and educational opportunities are offered. This is a great way to enjoy the zoo in the cooler hours of the evening.

Travel tip: If your vacation schedule is flexible, try visiting outside of school breaks and on a weekday. 

Must-see exhibits at the San Diego Zoo

It won’t be possible to see all the animals in one, or even two, days, so you’ll want to consider which ones are most interesting to your family. Looking for ideas on where to start? Here are some of the most popular animal exhibits.

Koalas in the Outback

San Diego Zoo Koala

The San Diego Zoo has the largest koala colony as well as the most successful koala breeding program outside of Australia, so this is a must do for all visitors. Located in the Outback part of the zoo, this exhibit features elevated walkways that give guests the opportunity to see the koalas up close.

Elephant Odyssey

Did you know elephants spend up to 16 hours a day eating and can eat up to 330 pounds of food in just one day? So the odds are good this is what you’ll see them doing in this 2.5 acres habitat called Elephant Odyssey that features both African and Asian elephants.

Polar Bears at the Northern Frontier

San Diego Zoo Polar Bear

No matter what the weather you’ll see polar bears in sunny San Diego, so head to the Northern Frontier and enjoy watching these giant creatures both in and out of the water. 

From the underwater viewing room guests have an opportunity to watch as the bears dive deep in the cold waters. Occasionally they’ll swim right up to the glass to check out the human spectators.

Africa Rocks

San Diego Zoo

Allow plenty of time to explore the eight acres and six habitats of the zoo’s Africa Rocks exhibit. It has some of the best zoo residents, including:

  • baboons
  • lemurs
  • crocodiles
  • leopards
  • African penguins

Yes, believe it or not, penguins are not only found in Antarctica. 

And don’t skip the African Aviary, home to 30 species of colorful birds.

Wildlife Explorers Basecamps

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Explorers Basecamp

The newest addition to the zoo is a 3.2-acre educational playground called Wildlife Explorers Basecamp. 

Here kids (or kids at heart) can jump, climb, and run through the basecamp all while exploring natural habitats from around the world. Climb desert rocks, splash through a waterfall, and climb an ancient oak tree, all in one day. 

What to see in the botanical gardens

The San Diego Zoo is also home to an impressive botanical garden that can be enjoyed in between the animal exhibits. Surprisingly, there are 700,000 individual plants throughout the zoo representing 3,100 species, and some of the flowers and plants attract beautiful butterflies as well.

Thirteen self-guided botanical garden tours are offered, including the ever popular guide to the carnivorous plants of the zoo. Just visit the botanical gardens webpage and download the free guides.

Each year the zoo celebrates its botanical collection with Plant Days and Orchid Odyssey — here’s the schedule. Take a bus tour with a horticultural staff member to learn all about the amazing plants grown here. 

Souvenir idea: If you have a green thumb, you can purchase a few plants to take home.

Special experiences at the zoo

Enter the zoo early, go behind the scenes, take a private tour, or meet one of the wild cats up close. These are just a few of the special experiences offered at the San Diego Zoo.

Each experience requires an additional fee, and some are a bit of a splurge (but worth it if you’re a real animal lover). Be sure to make reservations a few weeks in advance if these events are on your bucket list.

Tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo Africa Rocks
Credit: San Diego Zoo

Most people will visit the zoo in one day, but if you want to make the most of it, it’s big enough to allow for two days with plenty of time to enjoy some of the special events and take breaks to rest in between exhibits.

Here are some more tips for a better San Diego Zoo visit.

Buying tickets

Tickets can be purchased at the front gate, but purchasing them online in advance is a great timesaver and offers a small discount. If you do plan to return for a second day, the discount offered for two-day passes is significant.

The zoo map and app

Before arriving at the zoo take a look at the online map so you’ll have an understanding of the layout and the attractions that most interest your family. Then be sure to download the app

In the app, you can find walking directions to all attractions based on your location. In addition, you’ll find a list of dining options, guest services, and a calendar of special events and animal demonstrations.

Food and beverages

The zoo is expansive and so is their food offering. There’s a whopping 24 restaurants, cafes, and snack stands throughout the park. You’ll find a range of cuisines and something for pretty much any budget.

Tip: If you have any dietary restrictions, check the app to find a restaurant that can accommodate your needs.

If you want to save some money — or just prefer your own food — the zoo allows guests to bring their own. Just keep in mind that large coolers, glass containers, and alcohol are prohibited. Bringing your own refillable water bottle is highly recommended for everyone.

Getting around the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoom Aerial Tram
Credit: San Diego Zoo

You can get everywhere in the zoo on foot, but keep in mind that the terrain of the zoo is rather hilly. If you want to avoid being exhausted by the end of the day, definitely take advantage of the free transportation offered. 

Consider starting your day with a 35-minute narrated bus tour. This double decker, open-air bus is the ideal way to get a lay of land while also learning a bit about the zoo. The tour begins and ends near the entrance.

The Kangaroo Bus is a nice option to move between sections of the zoo and avoid some long walks. There are four stops, each clearly marked with a yellow sign in the shape of a kangaroo.

If you are in need of a stroller, wheelchair, or an electric conveyance vehicle, these can all be rented near the entrance. 

To get across the zoo quickly take advantage of the Skyfari Aerial Tram. Not only does it save steps, but the views are spectacular.

Near the San Diego Zoo

Balboa Park surrounds San Diego Zoo, and is definitely worth a visit, but combining both on the same day probably isn’t a good idea. Instead, allow at least half a day to explore the expansive Balboa Park with its 19 gardens, 17 museums, and lovely Spanish Renaissance architecture. What should you see there? Check out our guide to everything to do in Balboa Park.