Insider's Guide to San Diego Zoo

September 25, 2021

Whether you are a budding conservationist or just an avid animal lover, nothing beats a day at the zoo! Plan for adventure, excitement, and education when visiting the famed San Diego Zoo in Balboa, California. 

Over a hundred years old, this institution is a sprawling wildlife paradise that homes over 3,700 rare and endangered animals. So get ready to experience the thrill of wildlife encounters, live performances, 4-D theater shows, and even an aerial Skyfari tram as you traverse the Zoo’s one hundred acres.

Follow along with our Insider’s Guide, and you’ll learn everything you need to know to have the best San Diego Zoo trip ever.

San Diego 

San Diego, California, might be synonymous with beaches. Still, there is so much more to do in this city by the sea, including the amazing Old Town Trolley, SeaWorld, Legoland, and the historical USS Midway museum

If your San Diego Zoo Vacation is only part of a more extended trip, why not consider bundling your activities and saving? Additionally, if you are staying overnight, explore the best San Diego hotels, ranging from charming seaside lodgings to trendy downtown accommodations.

Buying Tickets

Before we kick off your exotic animal-filled day of fun, you’ll need to buy tickets. The San Diego Zoo suggests spending at least four hours in each park, so while it’s technically possible to complete both the Zoo and Safari Park on the same day, we would highly advise against this. 

Instead, we recommend purchasing your San Diego Zoo tickets ahead of time and committing to either a one-day or two-day/two park pass.

About the Zoo

Although the San Diego Zoo has tons of experiences and activities geared towards children, this world-famous Zoo is a treat for ALL ages thanks to its unique exhibits, wildlife care specialist talks, and can’t miss attractions like the heartwarming ‘Koalafornica Adventures.’ 

We love beginning our visit with the thirty-five-minute guided bus tour, included in your San Diego Zoo ticket price. This tour will give you an idea of the rough layout of the park, and your informative guide will be sure to point out active animals and interesting park facts.  

Another great way to get your bearings and keep abreast of the latest fun zoo events, like the daily wildlife care specialist talks, is by downloading the San Diego Zoo app. 

family of three holding food for giraffe standing outside and smiling at San Diego Zoo Safari Park in San Diego, California, USA

Can’t Miss Attractions

The San Diego Zoo is chocked full of so many species of plants and animals you could easily spend DAYS trying to absorb it all. Instead, depending on your travel group, you may want to hop on the miniature Balboa Train or step into a zookeeper’s shoes with an ‘Inside Look Tour.’ 

In addition, there are some standout exhibitions and attractions that you simply can’t miss when you plan your San Diego Zoo visit:

  • Koalafornica Adventure - Discover the wonders of Downunder and observe the largest koala colony and breeding program outside of Australia
  • Africa Rocks - Observe some of Africa’s most extraordinary species (including penguins) as you wander through six distinct habitats
  • 4-D Theater Shows - Cool off and watch a nature-themed 3-D show complete with special effects
  • Skyfari Tram - Delight in an amazing gondola style ride that provides stunning aerial views of the park
  • Elephant Odyssey - Remark at the detailed care and training of these majestic creatures
  • Hippos - Check out the brand new female calf Amahle born last February!
  • Insider Look Tours (extra cost) - Unleash your inner zookeeper with this exclusive behind-the-scenes guided tour of some of the zoo’s most popular animals 

red double decker trolly at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California, USA

Food and Beverages

A day at the San Diego Zoo means a lot of walking, so chances are you will work up quite an appetite. Fortunately, the zoo allows you to bring in outside food and non-alcoholic beverages into the park. 

However, if you are interested in checking out the zoo’s restaurant facilities, they have several options ranging from casual quick bites to fine dining. For some tasty Asian eats, we love grabbing a quick bite at Hua Mei Cafe, located in the Asian Passage, and for more elevated dining, you can’t go wrong with the classic Albert’s Restaurant, located in Lost Forest.

Pro Tip: The more formal restaurants such as Albert’s book up FAST, so make your reservations ahead of time.

san diego zoo sign

Essential Items

In order to make the most of your San Diego Zoo visit, we strongly suggest bringing along a fully stocked daypack. Having important essentials in arms reach, like a mobile phone charger and copious amounts of sunscreen, can truly save the day. Our favorite essential items include:

  • Portable phone charger
  • Water bottle & snacks
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Poncho or raincoat (weather dependent)

A pioneer in both international conservation and the modern zoo experience, the San Diego Zoo is an iconic Southern California attraction that just can’t be missed. Travelers young and old will appreciate the unique beauty of the botanic gardens, the mystery of the fossa, and the power of the polar bears. 

Now that you have the inside scoop on the San Diego Zoo, start planning your very own San Diego Zoo Vacation today! Be sure to check out our Ultimate Guide to the San Diego Zoo: Coupons, Discounts, and Deals to make sure you are saving the most money for your trip!

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