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 their 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’ll spend at the zoo.
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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 daughter was born. We can confidently tell you that arriving prepared makes a huge difference.
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 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.
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.
Download the San Diego Zoo app which also has a GPS enabled map. This enables 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. The Children’s Zoo is currently closed for renovation but there is plenty to see otherwise.
A variety of 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 at $15 per piece. All are available at Front Street Rentals.
San Diego Zoo parking is free. The lot is large so take a photo of the animal section your car is in to avoid forgetting in the excitement of being there.
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.
During school vacation weeks and holiday breaks, the zoo often plans special family activities and performances.
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 theme parks) so get there when it opens and take the 35-minute bus tour first to avoid the lines that will start to form later in the day.
A few upgraded experiences like the Sunrise Surprise Stroll start 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.
The animals are at their most active in the morning, too. You’ll also be more likely to see the animals at their most active if you get to the zoo when it opens. 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.
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.
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 San Diego pass (if you’re going to visit multiple San Diego attractions) 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.
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.
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.
6. Make Time for the Skyfari Tram
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. Annual members may need a separate bus ride ticket.
More importantly, Skyfari is a useful shortcut between the front entrance and the back of the zoo. That means you can take the tram to the back of the zoo to avoid having the scale the zoo’s high hills and then ride it back to the gate at the end of your visit.
7. Take the Kangaroo Express Bus
When your feet (or your kids) start complaining after a few hours of exploring the zoo, the Kangaroo Express bus can be a real lifesaver.
It lets you hop on and hop off at four stops in different areas of the zoo so you can get from one habitat to another without using up all of your energy reserves. Stops are marked with a yellow kangaroo and buses swing by these stops roughly every 15 minutes.
8. Make a Lunch Reservation
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 up among the trees in the Lost Forest. You can choose between indoor and outdoor seating, though I prefer sitting outdoors where we can watch the waterfall.
I would suggest making a reservation, especially during weekends and summer.
9. Make Time for the Keeper Talks
There are some amazing VIP encounters with animals at the San Diego Zoo at an added expense. If 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 keeper talks and feedings will be and plan your day around them. 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.
Tip: If you don’t have time to check the schedule in advance, look at the animal encounter section on your daily map to see what Keeper Talks are planned.
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 a touch too much sun you can head over to the aviaries over in Lost Forest.
These enclosures are not only fascinating; they’re also 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’ll be able to 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
The Children’s Zoo is closed for a truly exciting renovation. This is where the San Diego petting zoo used to be.
Every single animal at the zoo has a story. Both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are currently featured on a new 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 actually integrate some of what you should eat and drink in San Diego during 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 multiple spots like Zoo Brew and San Diego Craft Beer and Margaritas.
Park Way near where the zebras are, Elephant Odyssey and Africa Rocks get 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?