The world-famous San Diego Zoo is a must-see when traveling to Southern California. The large, 100 acre park is home to over 4,000 rare and endangered animals from around the world, including pandas, koalas, tigers,polar bears, and more. The park also boasts a botanical collection of more than 700,000 exotic plants.
The zoo is rated the #1 zoo in the World by TripAdvisor and is consistently Travelers Choice Award winner – which included a list of the top zoos in the world based on millions of traveler reviews.
Check out our helpful guide before you visit, which includes ways to save on admission, San Diego Zoo tips, must-see exhibits, other nearby attractions, and much more.
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San Diego Zoo Tips for Visiting
- If you visit using a Go San Diego Card, you can skip the ticket booth and go straight to the turnstiles for park entry. Your San Diego Zoo 1-Day Pass ticket includes unlimited use of the Guided Bus Tour, Kangaroo Express Bus, Skyfari aerial tram, and all regularly scheduled shows.
- Wear comfortable footwear. The San Diego Zoo consists of 100 acres of hilly terrain.
- Take advantage of the guided double decker bus tour and go in the morning to scope out your must-see exhibits. Follow the bus route along with your map to get a lay of the land.
- Take advantage of the hop-on hop-off Kangaroo Bus. The bus makes 4 stops throughout the park and arrives at each stop every 15 minutes.
- The zoo allows outside food so pack snacks and a picnic lunch if you want to avoid paying for food in the zoo.
- Hydrate. Bring a water bottle or purchase a souvenir fountain drink cup with a straw and lid for discounted re-fills all day.
- Download the Zoo Mobile App with features news, photos, videos, visitor information, and more. You can read about the animals in the zoo and browse exhibits by animal classification.
- Spend some time in the shadier terrain in the Lost Forest exhibit when temperatures are at their peak. This area of the park features the most shade so it tends to be cooler and gives you a break from the sun.
- Bring a camera or back-up batteries for your phone, you’ll be taking lots of photos.
- Parking is free.
What is the Best Time to Go to the San Diego Zoo
Plan to spend a full day at the zoo. Go early to avoid the busiest times and to increase your chances of seeing the animals when they’re most active during the day before the temperature rises.
What to Bring
- Water: You’ll be walking around and out in the sun all day so bring a water bottle to fill up at various fountains throughout the park.
- Sunscreen: Bring sunscreen, most of the exhibits are outdoors.
- Camera: There will be lots of photo opportunities and animals you’ll want to take pictures of so bring a camera or a back-up battery for your cellphone.
- Picnic: The park allows outside food to be brought in.
What to Do at the Zoo
There is so much to see and do here that you could easily spend almost the whole day exploring the zoo.
Below we listed a few of our suggested exhibits to check out during your visit.
NEW in Summer 2017 – Africa Rocks
The San Diego Zoo’s Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks spotlights the amazing biodiversity found on the African continent.
With six new habitats that span 8 acres dedicated to African plants and animal species, including including African penguins, baboons, lemurs, and more.
- CAPE FYNBOS
- MADAGASCAR FOREST
- ETHIOPIAN HIGHLANDS
- WEST AFRICAN FOREST
- ACACIA WOODLAND
San Diego is one of the few zoos in the world that’s home to the rare giant panda. There is always a zoo keeper at the exhibit talking about the pandas and available to answer questions.
We suggest checking this exhibit out early on in the day to avoid long lines (plus, the pandas tend to be more active in the mornings after feeding).
Guided Bus Tour
Enjoy a ride on the double-decker bus for a narrated tour of the zoo. You’ll see lots of the zoo’s highlights and popular exhibits along the way.
Go on the tour early in the day and follow along on your map to get a feel for the zoo’s layout as you go.
Home of the zoo’s polar bears, this exhibit is a must-see at the zoo.
Watch a snow white fox, caribou, and get a unique view of polar bears swimming or playing in the underwater viewing area.
Stay for a Keeper Talk (daily, 1:00 pm) and learn about the unique maned wolf species and see the animals do enrichment exercises.
See lots of elephants and check out the Elephant Care Center facility other California-native animals of the past and present, including large birds, cheetahs, lions, meerkats, and more.
Stay for a Keeper Talk (daily, 2:30 pm) to watch lions or jaguars enjoy enrichment programs.
Take a stroll through Lost Forest to see tigers, hippos, monkeys, gorillas, and more. Be sure to walk through Scripps Aviary and Owens Aviary to see the rare and exotic bird species.
Head to the Urban Jungle exhibit to see giraffes, kangaroos, flamingos, rhinos, sleepy koalas, and more.
This exhibit features lots of reptiles, insects, birds, and more. Kids can run around in the playground and get up-close to the animals in the petting zoo where visitors can pet the wooly coat of a sheep or comb a gentle pygmy goat’s hair.
Stay for the Keeper Talk (daily, 1:30 pm) and meet Baba the pangolin and learn about this rare animal.
Skyfari® Aerial Tram
Take an airborne shortcut over the treetops to the other end of the zoo and enjoy spectacular views of the zoo, the animal and plant collection, and surrounding Balboa Park. (Included with your ticket!)
Best Time to Visit the Zoo
The best time to visit the San Diego Zoo is when it opens, you’ll be able to enjoy exhibits with less crowds as the zoo tends to get busier as the day goes on and weekdays are less crowded than weekends.
Most of the park is outdoors so it’s best to save the zoo for a fair weather day.
Special Seasonal Events at the Zoo
The zoo offers numerous seasonal events taking place throughout the year. Below are some to keep your eye on for when you visit.
Yaycation – Spring
Enjoy fun festivities for the whole family and celebrate spring with a Yaycation at the San Diego Zoo.
Includes special animal experiences,family activities, live music, and more. Shake off the winter blues and join the party at the Zoo!
Nighttime Zoo – Summer
There’s so much to see, do, and hear at Nighttime Zoo.
Evenings at the Zoo will be filled with plenty of toe-tapping, body-moving music.
Kids Free in October
Children ages 3 – 11 can enjoy free admission with a paying adult.
Throughout the month, Saturdays and Sundays at the Zoo will feature special interactive activities and experiences help kids connect with wildlife and nature.
Jungle Bells – Winter Holidays
During Jungle Bells the San Diego Zoo is transformed into a wild wonderland of twinkling lights, merry-making performances, and festive foods.
Special displays and scheduled events fill the Zoo—and guests—with holiday cheer.
Things to Do Nearby – Attractions & Activities
The San Diego Zoo is right in the middle of beautiful and historic Balboa Park, which has a bunch of great museums, a beautiful urban park where lots of fun San Diego attractions are located. Make the most of your day and walk down Park Boulevard to check out some of the attractions right in Balboa Park.
San Diego Natural History Museum – Explore the diversity of plant and animal life at the San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT). (Go San Diego Card All-Inclusive Pass holders can enjoy a featured film on the giant-screen theater in addition to general admission.)
San Diego History Center – Learn all about San Diego’s unique history and browse through the museum’s fascinating exhibits and artifacts, including an 1866 Stagecoach, a 1921 Model T Ford, and a 30′ x 30′ floor map of San Diego County.
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center plus IMAX – Play scientist for the day by building skyscrapers, interpreting images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and comparing medical tissue samples. See what’s playing in the world’s largest IMAX dome for even more science-themed fun.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum - Check out the world’s largest model railroad display and learn all about the prominent role railroads played in the westward expansion in the United States.
San Diego Museum of Art - Take a stroll through the region’s most visited art institute nationally renowned forits collections of Spanish and Italian Old Masters, South Asian paintings, and 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculptures.
Mingei International Museum - See the collections of timeless, historical and contemporary art and learn about the cultural nuances that make each piece unique. With over 140 countries represented and over 18,000 pieces to examine, you could spend all day here.
San Diego Museum of Man - Visit a comprehensive anthropological examination of beauty, history, art, and artifacts from ancient and contemporary cultures. You’ll be able to see one of the most significant collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts, including authentic mummies, masks, bowls, and even one of the world’s few surviving examples of Nefertiti’s cartouche.
Japanese Friendship Garden, San-Kei-En - Take a stroll through three tiers of beauty and serenity in the Japanese Friendship Garden, created as a gesture of friendship between the U.S. and Japan when San Diego and Yokohama, Japan became sister cities in 1950.
San Diego Automotive Museum - This is a must-see for any automotive buffs or car enthusiasts. Cars on display are restored and preserved by a dedicated team of volunteer technicians who work hard to make this museum special.
Air and Space Museum - Designed to celebrate aviation and space flight and inspire students to excel in technology, mathematics, and the sciences, the Air and Space Museum is a fascinating exploration of all things air and space.
Places to Eat Near Balboa Park
The Prado - Conveniently located right in Balboa Park, this indoor/outdoor Californian restaurant features an upscale Mediterranean inspired menu (and we highly recommend sampling their calamari, it’s light, seasoned to perfection, and perfect for sharing). Save $10 savings on purchase of $40 or more with a Go San Diego Card All-Inclusive Pass.
Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar - Dine on New American style food and enjoy live jazz or old Jim Croce classics after a day at the zoo.
Evolution Fast Food – This vegetarian and vegan burger joint serve up tasty options that even meat-lovers will enjoy.
Azuki Sushi - Sample fresh, SoCal sushi at this modern establishment located right outside Balboa Park.
Save on Tickets with a Go San Diego Card
Remember, the Go San Diego® Card is the best choice for maximum savings and flexibility, which includes San Diego Zoo tickets, plus admission to your choice of other top attractions.
Save up to 55% on top museums, tours, and activities vs. paying at the gate. Visit multiple San Diego attractions for one low price.