As a current member, I can tell you that the world-famous San Diego Zoo is an absolute treat for all ages and should definitely be on your itinerary if you’re visiting the city for the first time. Local parents love revisiting this spot with kids, too, and couples or other adults will find it a refreshing excursion to get closer to nature.

Its reputation for being one of the best zoos in the world is well-deserved. More than 3,500 animals representing 650 different species call the Zoo home, and visitors can also see 700,000 plant species on the Zoo’s 100-acre property. The San Diego Zoo is a leader in conservation research and species preservation, and its beautiful open-air, cageless exhibits are the perfect way to appreciate wild creatures up close.

I recommend that you spend a whole day exploring the Zoo, but it is possible to enjoy a half-day here. The tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo that I share below will make your visit a great one no matter how much time you spend there or when you visit.

San Diego Zoo Preparation Tips

We have been visiting the San Diego Zoo for decades. My husband and I held annual passes even before our teenage daughter was born. We can confidently tell you that arriving prepared makes a huge difference.

San Diego Zoo Hours

Open San Diego Zoo hours are daily, including holidays, rain or shine. Check hours on the date of your visit, but it usually opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m., though the winter Jungle Bells event and summer Night Zoo extend closing hours until after sunset.

The best times to go are when it opens in the morning and after lunch in the afternoon during weekdays. The busiest times are roughly between about 11 a.m.–1 p.m.

Kids Free October every year means that attendance can be higher than in other months. Still, early mornings and evenings are the best times on October weekends (weekdays are usually okay). This is when kids ages 11 and under, who normally require a ticket, go free to the San Diego Zoo and other museums or theme parks in San Diego.

San Diego Zoo Parking

San Diego Zoo parking is free. You’ll see tall poles with animal plaques on them that are meant for you to remember the section you’re in. The lot is large, so take a photo of the animal section your car is in to avoid forgetting where you parked. Trust me, in the excitement of being there, this happens!

Prepare for Sun and Walking

The upshot of the Zoo also being a botanical garden is that some areas are shaded, but not all are. That being said, no matter the weather or season, arrive wearing sunscreen. Bring a hat, sunglasses, and extra sunscreen. You can get sunburned in December fog here in San Diego.

The terrain across the Zoo in some areas can be a little hilly but yet still stroller-friendly (this is why many people actually get their morning exercise at the Zoo via walks and jogs). The Kangaroo Bus and Skyfari Tram help avoid some of these hills, but you’ll still definitely want to wear comfortable walking shoes.

View the San Diego Zoo Map on the App

Download the San Diego Zoo app (see why we like it), which also has a GPS-enabled map. The app allows you to go paperless, which is in line with the Zoo’s mission to reduce waste, by avoiding the paper map that most guests usually take from a bookshelf near the entrance.

Rentals for Lockers, Strollers, and More

Various rentals are on offer, including strollers (single and double), quarter-operated lockers, wheelchairs, and motorized wheelchairs. You can also store luggage that won’t fit into lockers. All are available at Front Street Rentals near the entrance.

1. Look at the Schedule Before You Go

There’s an ever-changing roster of neat and interesting happenings at the San Diego Zoo, so be sure to check the schedule of events and the animal feedings for the day of your visit. You can find it in the app.

There are annual galas and sleepovers, as well as daily interactive activities, upgraded animal experiences, and Inside Look Tours.

During school vacation weeks and holiday breaks, the Zoo often plans special family activities and performances. You can find this information on the San Diego Zoo app as well.

Feeding a giraffe at the San Diego Zoo
Go behind the scenes during some upgraded experiences at the San Diego Zoo.

2. Arrive Early to See and Do More

Arriving early is especially important if you’re pressed for time and it is one of my top tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo during peak season.

The Zoo can get busy (though nothing like the crowds you’ll encounter at major theme parks), so get there when it opens and take the 35-minute Guided Bus Tour first (when available) to avoid the lines that will start to form later in the day for the bus.

A few upgraded experiences start an hour before the Zoo even opens to the public. San Diego Zoo hours are fairly consistent (check on the day of your visit) and typically opens at 9 a.m. I really like getting in at 8 a.m. because sometimes you can get deep into the Zoo for unobstructed animal viewing before the public arrives.

The animals are at their most active in the morning, too. The keepers feed some of them around this time as well.

If you can only visit on an unusually hot San Diego day, you’ll definitely want to come in the morning as the animals will hide away in the shade as the day progresses.


3. Plan Your Visit on a Weekday

As is the case with many San Diego attractions, weekdays at the San Diego Zoo are less crowded than weekends. Keep in mind that crowds on weekdays may be largely made up of young school children on field trips. This is especially true if visiting during Kids Free October, where weekends are subject to wait times due to current reduced capacity and increased health and safety measures.

Monday mornings are one of the best times to go because it’s relatively quiet. It could be because a handful of the smaller Balboa Park museums next door are closed on Mondays, and Tuesdays might be busier because some Balboa Park museums have free resident entry (and many residents also have annual zoo passes). However, Mondays still can get busy when summer is in full swing.

Flamingos at the San Diego Zoo

4. Don’t Pay Full Price for Admission

There’s no reason to pay full price for admission when there are numerous ways to buy discounted tickets to the San Diego Zoo. One of my favorite tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo is to invest in the Go City San Diego pass (if you’re going to visit multiple San Diego attractions), CityPASS San Diego or to buy straight-to-the-gate discounted tickets and upgraded experiences through San Diego based aRes Travel.

In both cases, you’ll save money, be able to skip the ticket line and head straight to the gate when you arrive.

GET MY EXCLUSIVE SAN DIEGO ZOO PROMO CODE!

I have the best final price on San Diego Zoo tickets available to the general public, with no membership required. For this reason, we can’t publish the promo code online, but can send it by text or email. The discounted price is $66/adult and $56/child (ages 3–11) — all taxes and fees included! This is up to 11% off of gate prices!

*By texting the word SDZOO to 1-833-490-0799 you agree to receive automated promotional messages with how to secure my deeper ticket discount and this agreement isn’t a condition of any purchase. Msg and data rates may apply. 2 msg/mo. Reply STOP to cancel. Read my full privacy policy.


5. Take the Guided Bus Tour First

The 35-minute guided bus tour that takes you around the perimeter of the Zoo is included in the price of regular admission.

It’s a nice way to start a San Diego Zoo visit if it’s your first visit because you’ll get a feel for the layout of the Zoo and learn some interesting animal facts along the way. 

bus icon

TIP: The top deck of the bus definitely has better views, but on hot afternoons, you may want to sit down below for the shade.

If the kids are tired, a bus tour is also a nice way to rest and catch some shade (if riding on the lower deck) in the afternoon. The bus drivers keep a lookout for active animals and do talk over a PA system, but I’ve seen many kids sleep on parent shoulders right through it.


6. Make Time for the Skyfari Tram

The Skyfari Aerial Tram at San Diego Zoo in the sky on a sunny day.

This gondola-style ride will give you an amazing aerial view of the Zoo and Balboa Park. Rides on the Skyfari Tram are also included in the price of regular admission.

More importantly, Skyfari is a useful shortcut between the front entrance and the back of the Zoo (or Wildlife Explorers Basecamp to the polar bears in the Northern Frontier). That means you can take the tram to the back of the Zoo to avoid scaling the Zoo’s high hills and then ride it back to the gate at the end of your visit.

Skyfari Aerial Tram starts running at 10 a.m., however. So you can’t really rush over to it and head straight to the polar bears. Instead, if you arrive at 9 a.m., you could slowly meander your way over there by seeing some monkeys, the Galapagos turtles, Reptile House (I am always a bit taken aback by how long young kids can spend here), hummingbirds, and the komodo dragons along the way.

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TIP: Be sure to have your camera ready as the views from the tram across San Diego are nothing short of spectacular.


7. Take the Kangaroo Express Bus

A Kangaroo Bus Stop at San Diego Zoo

When your feet (or your kids) start tiring after a few hours of exploring the Zoo, the Kangaroo Express Bus can be a real lifesaver.

It lets you hop on and off at four stops in different areas of the Zoo so you can get from one habitat to another without using up all your energy reserves. Stops are marked with a yellow kangaroo, and buses swing by these stops roughly every 15 minutes. It isn’t narrated but rather just a nice, easy ride.


8. Make a Lunch Reservation

A fish taco at Albert's, one of the best San Diego Zoo restaurants

While the San Diego Zoo, like all zoos, has its share of quick service and kid food, it also has something many other zoos don’t: a quality sit-down restaurant with a nice wine and craft beer selection.

Albert’s Restaurant is a wonderful oasis among the trees in the Lost Forest. You can choose between indoor and outdoor seating, though I prefer sitting outdoors to watch the waterfall near the patio, especially on a hot day.

I would suggest making a reservation, especially during weekends and summer, as it’s one of the more popular San Diego Zoo restaurants.

You can bring your Own Food

You are also allowed to bring in personal food items (translation, enough food for the people with you). In fact, this is recommended for guests with dietary restrictions as the San Diego Zoo is a nonprofit and unable to customize food items to meet all dietary restrictions.

Glass bottles, straws, and large coolers are prohibited.

If you’re not using WP Recipe Maker for your Recipes, then you’ll want to remove the shortcode above.


9. Make Time for the Wildlife Presentations

There are some amazing VIP encounters with animals at the San Diego Zoo at an added expense. However, you want an up-close look at some of the Zoo’s animals without spending more than the price of admission, use one of my favorite tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo.

Find out when the Wildlife Presentations (which seem like they are replacing scheduled Keeper Talks) and feedings will be and plan your day around them. There are usually several per day.

The animals are most active during feeding time (the keepers usually have food), and you’ll learn a lot during the keeper presentations. Check the schedule.


10. Visit the Lost Forest Aviaries During the Hottest Part of the Day

San Diego weather is usually pretty wonderful, and there is plenty of shade at the San Diego Zoo, but if you feel like you’re getting too much sun, you can head over to the aviaries in Lost Forest.

These enclosures are fascinating and relatively cool throughout the day, making them a great place to chill out on hot afternoons. Gorilla Tropics is in this area, too, and you can sit on a bench to watch them and other nearby primates swing around.

Birds and gorillas together? Yes, without the predators, the lush, untrimmed greenery in this area supports the gorillas’ need to snack in addition to the birds’ nesting and courting habits.

The bears along Center Street tend to be visible in the late afternoon. It’s also shady here then, too.


Other San Diego Zoo Tips

Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is the childrens zoo and now one the many things to do at San Diego Zoo for kids that families enjoy most (this post has helpful tips like what to take to the Zoo with a toddler). Don’t forget that there are many at home ways for kids to enjoy the Zoo at home, from live animal cams to San Diego Zoo games.

Every single animal at the Zoo has a story. The San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are currently featured on an Animal Planet television series called The Zoo: San Diego. Whether you have kids or not, you will get more out of your San Diego Zoo visit by watching as you can look out for the animals in the show (many enclosures have plaques with the animal’s names on them) and arrive armed with a little knowledge of their history.

You can integrate some of what you should eat and drink in San Diego into a San Diego Zoo visit. For instance, Albert’s serves pretty good fish tacos, and you can order burritos and tacos at Front Street Cafe. Popular local craft beers can be picked up (and sipped as you walk) at spots like Zoo Brew, San Diego Craft Beer, and Margaritas. There are also excellent restaurants near San Diego Zoo in the South Park, North Park, and Banker’s Hill neighborhoods.

Park Way near the zebras, Elephant Odyssey, and Africa Rocks gets the most sunlight in the late afternoon. During hot summer days, it’s not a bad idea to take Skyfari uphill and start at Polar Bear plunge first thing in the morning (a must-see exhibit and they’re most active early). Then, walk down this perimeter of the park before it gets too sunny.

What are your top tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo?

See also: 40 Things to Do in Balboa Park and Top Hotels Near San Diego Zoo

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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