California is home to many different biomes thanks to its impressive length from north to south. The generally inviting weather, plus its Pacific Ocean 840 miles of coastline, has made the state a prime location for outstanding zoos and aquariums that are fun for the whole family. 

The best zoos and aquariums in California each have a unique vibe and exciting exhibits that will make you want to visit them all. Visit sea creatures on one outing and take a safari on the next, or stroll through a display of exotic plants and foliage native only to California.

I’ve divided my list of the 12 best zoos and aquariums in California into two sections, Northern California and Southern California, to make planning for your next outing to one of these beloved institutions easier for you and your family.

Please note that you may still encounter some modified offerings, so be sure to plan accordingly and contact the organization to determine if the exhibits you want to see are open.

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Zoos and Aquariums in Northern California

Whether you’re headed to the San Francisco bay, Sonoma’s wine country, or south past Santa Cruz to Monterey’s rugged coastline, Northern California offers some of the most exciting zoo and aquarium exhibits in the state.

San Francisco Zoo

A bengal tiger rests at San Francisco Zoo.
bengal tiger at the zoo

Nestled on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco Zoo is an oasis in more ways than one. This accredited zoo is home to over 2,000 exotic, endangered, and rescued animals from over 250 species. Lush foliage and foreign plants also provide a respite from the urban island. It’s a historic site too, as it was once home to the world’s largest public swimming pool.

Try one of the zoo’s guided experiences or wander on your own through the exhibits as you have a choice of available attractions with your tickets. Be sure to waddle over to Penguin Island, visit rare Mexican grey wolves, or have breakfast with grizzly bear sisters Kachina and Kiona. You won’t want to miss Lipman Lemur Forest, the largest outdoor lemur habitat in the country.

Aquarium of the Bay

The tunnel at Aquarium of the Bay San Francisco.

Are you fascinated by sharks? If so, you won’t want to miss the Aquarium of the Bay, where you will find more than 50 sharks of different species among the more than 20,000 that live here. Located on San Francisco’s Pier 39, the aquarium sits amidst a bevy of activities that are fun for the entire family. This aquarium focuses on creatures that live in the San Francisco Bay, giving you a glimpse of this local ecosystem, which is only 10 to 15 feet deep. One of the main tanks features 300 feet of underwater tunnels that make visitors feel like they are living underwater as various creatures swim overhead.

 Aquarium of the Bay is a wonderful place for kids as it has several hands-on exhibits that allow children to experience sea creatures up close. A great feature of this facility is its flow. When you enter, you’ll visit creatures that live in shallow waters and proceed to deeper and deeper depths for a unique underwater journey.

Oakland Zoo

Elephant taking a drink of water at the Oakland Zoo.
An elephant at the Oakland Zoo.

Home to 660 animals, Oakland Zoo has a renowned elephant program along with themed exhibit areas covering the African savannah, the veldt, wild Australia, the rain forest.

Each area not only features animals of that region but native plants too. Take your kids to the children’s zoo area, where they can learn about their favorite animals.

Check the zoo’s website for information on the next Glofari and Illumination Lantern Festival, where visitors can wander through a family-friendly experience featuring larger-than-life animal lanterns that include a 15-foot tall penguin corridor, lantern elephants, giraffes, and lions, as well as enormous butterflies floating against the night sky.

Be sure to visit Oakland Zoo’s interactive exhibits that allow you to get up close and personal. Explore three different worlds, including the habitats of sea turtles, jellyfish, and more, or experience the world’s diverse ecosystems. You can even go back to the time of the dinosaurs by visiting the brand-new Glowfari exhibit, featuring dozens of interactive, glowing animals and creatures (including those that are prehistoric). The exhibit features three distinct worlds: the seas and aquatic creatures, land animals, and prehistoric dinosaurs!

Safari West

A group rides in a safari Jeep at Safari West.
Photo courtesy of Safari West.

This facility isn’t one of your typical zoos in northern California in a traditional sense but more of an adventure. Set in the heart of wine country in Sonoma County, Safari West is a great place to take the kids after visiting the vineyards with mom and dad. If you have always wanting to try glamping, this is your chance.

One of the main attractions of this conservation-minded facility is the opportunity to spend a night with the animals in a luxurious Safari West tent, complete with a private viewing deck, en-suite bathroom, and polished hardwood floors. When combined with one of the facility’s safari tours, you’ll begin to believe that you’re actually in the Serengeti.

Safari West has more than 900 animals from 80 species spread over 400 acres. The facility gives you plenty of opportunities to experience the feel of the African savannah through private excursions through the 400-acre park as you view wildebeest, rhinos, zebras, and giraffes.

You can even have a chance to be Keeper of the Day in one of their special programs. Note that guests at Safari West must be at least four years old.

Monterey Zoo

Exotic animals, many of which have retired from television and film roles or have been reduced from dangerous situations, are residents of this unique institution. This zoo allows you to get closer to animals than you can at many other zoos.

The best way to experience the Monterey Zoo is to stay at its Vision Quest Safari Bed and Breakfast, where an elephant will help deliver your breakfast. You can also take one of the zoo’s specialized tours, which are suited to your interests and cover several different types of animal exhibits, including the zoo’s famous elephants.

Participate in an elephant meet and greet at the zoo’s elephant play yard, where you’ll also have an opportunity to feed them. You can also order a full-contact experience on the zoo’s website with many of its animal residents. 

Monterey Zoo offers several different tour experiences, including customized ones for small groups, to meet your needs. Enjoy the many educational programs this facility runs or try one of their Rydables, available through a 30-minute zoo tour or for private rental. These motorized vehicles with animal faces can make your entire experience at the facility more enjoyable.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Scenic shot of the Great Tide Pool and exterior back deck of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Photo courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium

When you and your kids have had their fill of land animals, turn your attention to aquariums in northern California by visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Give your family a full day to immerse yourselves in the wonders of the deep in this special place.

During your visit, pick up one of the aquarium’s Seafood Watch cards, which helps you avoid consuming seafood with endangered numbers. This aquarium also has several excellent behind-the-scenes exhibits that will give you and your family a sense of how these creatures are cared for and how they live in the wild.

Visiting the aquarium’s sea otters is a must as these furry, playful creatures always are good for a laugh. If you’re lucky, you may even see a female giving birth. Gaze in wonder at the magnificent kelp forest that is over three stories high.

Monterey Aquarium is a pioneer in the research and maintenance of jellyfish, so lose yourself in the jellies gallery where you’ll experience the amazing world of these colorful and ethereal creatures. Near the Kelp Forest, you’ll find two exhibits with giant octopi with tentacles over six feet long!

Zoos and Aquariums in Southern California

The attractions here are more spread out, but you won’t want to miss these outstanding zoos and aquariums, each with unique flavor and character. San Diego Zoo, which many consider to be the best zoo in California, if not the world, is located in Southern California, along with the world-famous San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Santa Barbara Zoo

A boy feeds a giraffe at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Located on 30 acres near the ocean on what was once the Child Estate, Santa Barabara Zoo is considered by many to be one of the best small zoos in the United States. In this 30-acre park, you’ll find over 146 specials living in open, natural habitats overlooking the San Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Some of the zoo’s most famous residents are anteaters and its flock of native California condors. The zoo will provide a relaxing break for the little ones after you’ve visited the many different Santa Barbara attractions. Food Network calls this spot “the Audrey Hepburn of Zoos” because of its natural beauty. While the kids may not know who Audrey Hepburn is, they’ll certainly find the experiences here memorable.

Feeding the animals with specially formulated food is a popular activity here, so you won’t want to miss Ridley-Tree Animal Kitchen, where you can see the zoo’s food preparation process for its animals. Relax in a ride around the park on the Zoo Train, climb the 26-foot rock wall or find treasures in Tiny’s Mining Camp.

After a long day, relax in one of the luxurious local hotels (we like Four Seasons Santa Barbara) or pursue one of the many other popular Santa Barbara activities.

Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens

A tiger stands on a fallen tree at Los Angeles Zoo.
A tiger at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Los Angeles is a great place to visit for families with young children as there is so much to see and do. One of the best zoos in Southern California is this gem with its lush vegetation that features 7,500 plants from every habitat on earth, making it a horticulturalist’s dream.

For many visitors, the zoo’s plants are just as much of an attraction as its animals. You’ll see examples of unusual and distinct species such as bald cypress and cycads and the Chilean wine palm, all in natural settings.

The exhibits replicate the animals’ natural habitats, too, in 15 different collections. Among the more than 1,100 animals who live there, you’ll find 29 endangered species, including the kid-friendly California Condor Rescue Zone, where you’ll learn how the zoo has helped bring back this majestic bird from the brink of extinction.

The zoo is part of the Los Angeles Pass, which can help save on admission to various attractions. Take a look at these family-friendly hotels to relax in after a fun-filled day.

The Living Desert Zoo and Garden

A boy feeds a giraffe at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.

Located in Palm Desert near Palm Springs, this unique facility is also the biggest zoo in California, encompassing 2,819 square miles of land in the Coachella Valley. This facility focuses exclusively on desert species from around the world, emphasizing plants and animals from California’s Sonoran and Mojave Deserts.

It’s the perfect facility to see desert animals up close and personal, including roadrunners and coyotes, which don’t look anything like their cartoon counterparts in real life. The best times to visit are in the morning, when many animals are active before the day begins to heat, and in the evening when nocturnal creatures like owls and bats start stirring.

The Living Desert also makes a great day trip from San Diego. Admission to this institution includes access to its nature preserve and three hiking trails, where you can view a variety of desert cacti and plants, including palo verde, smoke trees, desert willow, desert scrub, creosote bush, and white bursage. When the kids tire of walking, head to Gecko Gulch, an interactive play area featuring slides and climbing features.

Aquarium of the Pacific

Father and daughter enjoy the big tank at the Shark Lagoon at Aquarium of the Pacific.
Photo courtesy of Visit California.

Located along the Long Beach waterfront, the Aquarium of the Pacific is the biggest aquarium in California and the fourth most visited in the United States, with 1.7 million people passing through its premises each year.

Featuring 12,000 animals and 100 world-class exhibits, this institution focuses on its name: the Pacific Ocean. Enormous floor-to-ceiling windows let you peer into oceanic ecosystems, including coral reefs and lagoons and the frigid waters of the North Pacific.

Interactive exhibits abound and include touch pools with tidal creatures from the Southern California coast and the Ray Touch Pool. The Shark Lagoon is another family favorite, as are the Penguin Habitat and Seals and Sea Lions Habitat.

 Aquarium of the Pacific is involved in many conservation efforts and has numerous awards for its sustainable practices and environmental efficiency. Its Premier Watershed Classroom was the first Long Beach Building to earn LEED Platinum certification.

Orange County Zoo

Whether you’re just visiting Orange County, you live nearby, or you’re headed to Anaheim to visit Disneyland, the surrounding metro area offers a treasure trove of fun activities for families all year long. The Orange County Zoo, lovingly referred to as the “OC Zoo,” is a little gem worthy of your attention.

Nestled inside the Irvine Regional Park, you’ll get two attractions for incredibly low prices. The cost to enter the park is generally only $3 or $5 per vehicle, depending on whether you go on a weekday or weekend. The zoo is a bargain, too, with admission fees of only $2 per person for visitors ages three and older.

Once inside this 477-acre park, you’ll see animals and plants primarily native to the Southwestern United States, including coyotes, turkey vultures, black bears, mountain lions, and many more. Enjoy a domestic barnyard with goats, Jacob sheep, doves and pheasants that your family can feed for a fee.

The OC Zoo also offers a unique program where you can take an audio tour on your cell phone at your pace. This facility also has various ongoing educational programs that detail interesting facts like what treats and food the animals receive, names of the resident coyotes, age of the zoo’s bald eagles, and so much more.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Guests feed a giraffe from a truck during the Caravan Safari.
You can feed giraffes and possibly rhinos during Caravan Safari.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido is the sister park to San Diego Zoo. Here, guests enjoy more opportunities for up-close animal encounters through safari tour upgrades and exhibits without barriers between you and lorikeets, wallabies, and lemurs. It’s also home to the only platypuses outside of Australia and a petting corral that younger kids enjoy.

Thanks to the larger animals in residence, it’s a big attraction, but guests can take the free 25-minute Africa Tram tour to get the lay of the land and then decide which exhibits to spend more time in. The Caravan Safari that takes you into see the rhinos and giraffes in African Plains is the most popular tour, but you can also see animals from above via zip line or helium balloon.

Tiger Trail habitat is popular for viewing the Sumatran tigers, learning about conservation, and catching some shade on sunny days. You’ll also not want to miss the popular Cheetah Run, usually scheduled daily, where a cheetah demonstrates its speed to viewers — while being accompanied by a companion dog. For more details about how to plan your day, read my San Diego Zoo Safari Park guide. I also have advice for buying San Diego Zoo Safari Park tickets for less, but for most people, that’s with my exclusive discount.

 Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Girls look into the giant kelp aquarium tank at Birch Aquarium.
The Giant Kelp forest at Birch Aquarium.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps has so many entertaining and educational exhibits that it may very well be the best aquarium in California. The aquarium, home to more than 3,000 animals from 380 species, is not your average aquarium. It’s the public outreach center that showcases the work of the world-famous Scripps Institution of Oceanography and every exhibit is conservation-minded.

It’s a must-see for families in San Diego with kids who are interested in oceanography; visitors of all ages, from babies and toddlers to adults, will find something fascinating here. You’ll need at least two hours to properly visit the aquarium, longer if you want to partake in some of the programs.

As you stroll through Birch Aquarium, you’ll marvel at how much this aquarium has to offer. Some of the can’t-miss exhibits include the Preuss Tide Pool Plaza, where you can safely touch a variety of sea creatures, the Oddities Exhibit that covers what is cool and weird in the ocean, and Growing Up Seahorse, where you can learn about the institution’s seahorse breeding program.

Birch Aquarium is part of the Go San Diego sightseeing pass.

Seaworld San Diego

SeaWorld San Diego tips and tricks from a long-time guest for how to save money, maximize time, and visit sanely with kids for an easy day.

SeaWorld San Diego is thought of mostly as a theme park because of its rides and live shows featuring seals, sea lions, dolphins, and more. It is actually also an accredited zoo. The San Diego park is a sister facility to the one in Orlando, but the two have some rides and exhibits unique to each.

As one of the area’s best theme parks, people come to San Diego specifically to visit SeaWorld San Diego and spend more than one day here. However, if a half-day is all you have, that will do as well.

Make sure to visit SeaWorld’s Penguin Encounter, which has the only breeding colony of Emperor penguins in the Western Hemisphere. Another popular exhibit is WildArctic, which features beluga whales, northern sea otters, and Pacific walruses. The institution’s Animal Encounters are another way to get personal with dolphins and even sloths.

You’ll have your choice of tickets, which can include upgrades like all-day dining and do not have to be bought at gate pricing thanks to frequent promotions.

San Diego Zoo

A keeper tells guests about meerkats.
A keeper tells guests about meerkat upkeep during a Keeper Talk.

The best zoo in California, San Diego Zoo, is last but not least. People love it for its ease of access in downtown San Diego and 100 acres of exhibits, many with a cageless model designed to mimic natural habitats. The zoo is also an accredited botanical garden with over 4500 species of plants, many rare or endangered species that provide a scenic ambiance and shade in some parts of the zoo.

Must-see exhibits include the koalas in the Australian Outback, Polar Bear Plunge, the hippos, and the state-of-the-art elephant enclosure and care facility. Keep an eye out on the schedule for free Keeper Talks to learn more about the animals cared for at the Zoo.

One of the best views in San Diego is from the Skyfari Tram, which takes guests from the bottom of the zoo near the entrance up to the Northern Frontier near the polar bears. Bring your camera to see over Balboa Park and planes landing at the airport. The Guided Bus Tour is also a great way to get familiar with the zoo before exploring it on your own.

Plus, every dollar spent at San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park goes toward their conservation efforts worldwide (of which there are many) and operating costs. You can save money on San Diego Zoo tickets through my exclusive discount.

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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