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If you are visiting San Diego, you can’t miss the world-famous San Diego Zoo. The San Diego Zoo first opened in 1916 with animals from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. It now houses 3,500 animals with over 650 different species.
Because there is so much to see at the zoo, figuring out how to do it all in one day (and with the smoothest experience possible) can be a little intimidating. So here are our best San Diego Zoo tips for getting the most out of your visit to the and everything you need to know before you go!
Pro Tip: If you plan on doing a lot of paid activities in San Diego, consider getting the San Diego Go City Pass! The San Diego Zoo is included, and it can save you money on your vacation!
Where is the San Diego Zoo?
The San Diego Zoo is located near downtown San Diego in Balboa Park. Yes, Balboa Park is huge — there’s tons to do there, including gardens and museums. The San Diego Zoo takes up just one corner of it!
It’s location means that if you are visiting San Diego and staying near downtown, getting an Uber/Lyft/taxi or driving your own car will be relatively easy.
San Diego Zoo Parking + Tickets
There is a parking lot right outside the zoo, and unlike the parking at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, it is free. One tip — get there early for good parking! The parking lot can fill up quickly, especially on the weekend! So get there before or as soon as the zoo opens if you can.
As far as tickets go, we always recommend purchasing your tickets in advance! You can buy tickets online here for the San Diego Zoo, or if you are planning to visit both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, you can buy a 2-visit pass that allows you to visit each park on different days during your trip.
But if you are visiting San Diego and plan on seeing a lot of other attractions while you are there, you might want to look into the Go San Diego Pass, which should save you money across multiple experiences. Also note that the San Diego Zoo is included in Kids Free October, meaning if you visit in October, kids 11 and under get in free with an adult! (Up to five children per adult.)
Wondering if you should visit the San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park? We break down all the differences between these two zoos here!
What to See and Do at the San Diego Zoo
Obviously the most important thing to do at the San Diego Zoo is see the animals! From tigers to koalas to elephants, there are SO many animals to see at the San Diego Zoo. In fact, just go ahead and make peace with the fact that even if you have a super efficient day touring the San Diego Zoo, you probably aren’t going to see all the animals.
There’s no need to have FOMO though. Just prioritize the animals you want to see the most, and know that around every corner you will find new and amazing animals to discover!
Ride the Buses
There are two different buses you can ride at the San Diego Zoo for free!
The first is a bus tour that will take you around the whole zoo. The second is called the Kangaroo Bus. This is a hop-on-hop-off bus that can help you get around the zoo a little more easily (which is important because there are A LOT of hills and a lot of walking at the San Diego Zoo).
Ride the Skyfari
One unique experience at the San Diego Zoo is the Skyfari, a sky tram that can take you from the front to the back of the zoo and vice versa. Not only can this save you some walking time, but it’s a fun thing to do with beautiful views of Balboa Park and San Diego. Plus, it’s free!
Hear From Wildlife Specialists
Hearing from zoo keepers while at the zoo is a unique experience that can give you a behind-the-scenes look into what it is like for them to work with animals. Check the schedule daily to see what keeper talks may be available on the day of your visit.
Book a Special Experience
The San Diego Zoo offers all kinds of special experiences you can add to your zoo visit for an additional cost. From VIP tours to tours that focus on specific animals like big cats, there are lots of options.
Main Areas of the San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is divided up into several sections, and knowing what areas to prioritize may help you plan your day better.
Discovery Outpost is near the front of the San Diego Zoo and is home to reptiles. This is also where the children’s area — Wildlife Explorers Basecamp — is located. (Wildlife Explorers Basecamp opens March 11, 2022.)
This is the largest area of the zoo and is home to all kinds of jungle animals: tigers, monkeys, gorillas, birds, and more! The Lost Forest is really a beautiful area of the San Diego Zoo, and because the trees keep it nice and cool we recommend visiting this area during the hottest part of the day.
At the very back of the zoo is the Northern Frontier, where you’ll find the polar bears and other Arctic animals. This is also where the back station for the Skyfari is located.
The Asian Passage runs through the center of the zoo, and you’ll find a few animals like red pandas and leopards. The big attraction here used to be the giant pandas, but they had to be returned to China and are no longer on display at the San Diego Zoo.
This small loop toward the front of the park has animals like giraffes, flamingoes, and rhinos.
This area next to the Urban Jungle is where you want to head to see the koalas!
Africa Rocks is a newer area of the San Diego Zoo (it opened in 2017) and it’s really so pretty! It’s a long, gently sloped path that starts near the Outback and goes all the way down to the Asian Passage. There are all kinds of animals to see like baboons, leopards, lemurs, penguins, and more.
This is where you want to go if you want to see elephants at the San Diego Zoo! You can also find lions, camels, and several other African animals here.
San Diego Zoo Tips
Visit on a Weekday if Possible
The San Diego Zoo is popular for tourists and locals alike, so, if possible, try to visit on the weekday for less crowds.
Arriving early is important for two reasons! First, you’ll have a much better parking situation. Secondly, you’ll be able to see so many more animals! Arriving early gives you more time in the zoo, and the morning time is when a lot of animals tend to be more active, giving you better views.
Wear Comfortable Shoes + Be Prepared to Walk
One of our best San Diego Zoo tips is to BE PREPARED TO WALK. There is lots of walking at the zoo and this zoo is unique in that there are TONS of hills. Luckily there are a few tips to make this a little easier (see our note about elevators and buses below.)
Bring Water + Snacks + Food
The San Diego Zoo does allow for you to bring outside food in, so definitely make sure you pack water and a snack. If you are looking to save money, you can also pack your own lunch.
Be Prepared for Sun
Since you are in Southern California, be prepared for the sun! Make sure you have sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses. And if you are visiting during an especially hot day you may also considering bringing small portable fans or cooling towels.
Use Elevators and Buses
Because the San Diego Zoo is built into a canyon, it has tons of hills. Luckily, there are some ways to get around this. The first is to use elevators where you can. There are three elevators through the zoo that can help you get from one level to another without climbing stairs. You can find two in the Lost Forest and one in Asian Passage.
You can also use the hop-on-hop-off Kangaroo buses to get around the right side of the park (the non-Lost Forest side). These are free to use and can save your feet!
And don’t forget about the Skyfari! If you need to get from one side of the park to the other (back to front) this is a great way to do it!
Take the Bus Tour First
Another one of our favorite San Diego Zoo tips is to take the bus tour first. This will help you get the lay of the land and see a lot of animals in a short period of time. If you take it first thing in the morning, you should see a lot of animals when they otherwise might not be active.
Taking the bus tour will also help you to know what you want to go back and see and what you can skip. On our trip, we saw a lot of of the elephants and other animals in Elephant Odyssey really well during our bus tour, so we skipped a lot of that part later in the day while we were walking.
One important San Diego Zoo bus tour tip: Sit on the right side of the bus! This is the side where most of the animals will be!
Visit the Lost Forest During the Hottest Part of the Day
The Lost Forest has tons of trees and shade and is much cooler than the rest of the zoo. And I’m not just making this up! On our bus tour, our tour guide pointed it out to us, and as we drove into this area you really could feel the air cool off a few degrees. Save this part of the zoo for the afternoon.
Take Advantage of Play Areas
There are some small play areas for kids spread throughout the zoo, and especially fun are the statues that kids can climb on and take pictures with. So let your kiddos play! I seriously did not think we were going to be able to pull our child out of the koala tree statue!
Recommended One Day San Diego Zoo Itinerary
There is a lot to see and do at the San Diego Zoo, but if you plan right, you can see most of it within a single day. Here are our best tips for how to spend one day at the San Diego Zoo.
Take the Bus Tour
Start out your morning with the free guided bus tour. This will help you get you get the lay of the land, plus you’ll be able to see a lot of animals at once. This is especially great when it is early in the morning and the animals are active.
Sit on the right side of the bus to see the most animals. And it doesn’t particularly matter if you sit on the top or at the bottom; you’ll have good views either way!
Go Down Center Street
When get off the bus tour, walk just a little ways down Center Street. This is the oldest area of the zoo, which is a great way to start off your walking tour of the zoo!
See The Urban Jungle and The Outback
One of the main areas that the bus tour doesn’t take you is the Urban Jungle and the Outback, so be sure to hit these next.
Walk Through Africa Rocks
While you will see some African animals on the bus tour, it also doesn’t take you through Africa Rocks, which is a pedestrian only walkway. This is a really beautiful part of the zoo, and you don’t want to miss it! The entrance to it is just next to the Outback, and by going this way you’ll be walking downhill.
See the Northern Frontier
At the bottom of Africa Rocks, you can keep walking through the Asian Passage and go to the Northern Frontier.
Go Through the Elephant Odyssey
At this point, your legs could maybe use a rest, so considering hoping on a Kangaroo Bus and riding back up toward the front of Elephant Odyssey. Then you can walk back through it, stopping to see the animals, and ending back in the Northern Frontier where you can take the Skyfari back to the front of the park.
Explore Discovery Outpost
Back up at the front of the park, take a bit of time to see the reptiles at Discovery Outpost. Remember that this is where the new children’s area is too, so if you have young kiddos you will want to prioritize this!
Explore the Lost Forest in the Afternoon
By now you are probably well into the afternoon, so spend this hotter part of the day exploring the Lost Forest. There are so many different paths you can take here, so prioritize the animals you most want to see (for us it was tigers and gorillas.) There are also lots of aviaries in this area that are definitely worth going through!
When you get to the back of the Lost Forest, you can head back to the Northern Frontier and take the Skyfari back to the front of the park.
Dining at the San Diego Zoo
At some point during your day of course, you’ll need to eat. Here is a break down of your dining options at the zoo.
Sit Down Dining
If you want a nice sit-down lunch or dinner at the zoo, you’ll want to make a reservation at Albert’s Restaurant. This restaurant is beloved and known to have fantastic food.
Quick Service Dining
There are lots of dining options spread throughout the park! Most of them serve some combination of sandwiches, burgers, and salads, plus other specialty items. For instance, if you want tacos, you’ll want to head to Sabertooth Mexican Grill, and if you want Asian food you’ll want to go to Hua Mei Cafe.
Here are all your options:
- Busy Bee Cafe (located near Discovery Outpost)
- San Diego Zoo Sandwich Co. (located near entrance)
- Lagoon Terrace (located near entrance)
- Front Street Sweet Shack (located near Discovery Outpost)
- Safari Kitchen (located in the front of the park)
- Sydney’s Grill (located in the Outback)
- Hua Mei Cafe (located in Asian Passage)
- Sabertooth Mexican Grill (located in Elephant Odyssey)
- Treetops Cafe (located in the Lost Forest)
Snacks at the San Diego Zoo
There are tons of snack booths and carts located through the San Diego Zoo. You’ll be able to find things like coffee, ice cream, hot dogs, pretzels, beer, wine, and more.
Bringing Your Own Food to the San Diego Zoo
Also don’t forget that you are allowed to bring your own food into the zoo. So back snacks and water, and lunch if you want to!
The most important thing tip to remember when visiting the San Diego Zoo (besides from being prepared for hills and lots of walking) is to make your trip your own. There are so many animals to see there, but only YOU know what is most important to you! Make sure to prioritize what your family wants to do, adapt your itinerary accordingly, and you’ll have a great time!
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