The San Diego Zoo is one of the most popular attractions in San Diego. Visiting the San Diego Zoo is something every SoCal visitor should add to their list of things to do. But before you head out to see the different animals and learn a bit about nature, there are a few things you should know. Unlike most zoos, the San Diego Zoo is in a league all it’s own.
If you are traveling to the San Diego Zoo you will want to take the essentials. I need a good pair of walking shoes, my camera, sunscreen, plenty of water, and a great bag for toting everything around for the day. I usually pack some snacks for the kids too so that we’re able to get the most out of our fun day at the zoo!
Don’t let your first trip to the San Diego Zoo pass you by without knowing a few insider tips that will make you seem like a pro.
My family and I (four of us) recently vacationed in California and arranged our calendar to allow a trip to the world famous San Diego Zoo. If you’re planning a trip to the San Diego area, and haven’t been to the zoo, this article will help set you up for an enriching, fun experience for you and your family.
We’re from the Midwest. Our large local zoo is in the suburbs, away from traffic and larger cities. We were surprised to learn the San Diego Zoo is located in the heart of San Diego. Directions are well signed, with ample time to make lane changes and merges, so no issues there at all. Though we’d planned for a full day, some family logistics fails put us at the zoo about 2:30 p.m. We were initially disappointed, but honestly it worked out really well.
We used the 1-Day Pass option during our visit. Along with zoo admission, the 1-Day Pass includes the Guided Bus Tour, Kangaroo Express Bus, Skyfari aerial tram, and all regularly scheduled shows. Passing through the admission gates we headed right for the maps to plot our route.
GETTING AROUND THE ZOO
First things first, we needed beverages. Just inside the zoo are a number of shops and eateries. We chose Safari Kitchen and went all in on the collector bottle with free refills all day. I’d recommend this option, whether your drink of choice is soda or water. We each went through 3-5 fills, available from any food station in the zoo.
Zoo maps list approximate walk times, which is nice. Times will vary, of course, but know that you will put the miles in. My GPS device measured just over 5 miles, and we didn’t do much backtracking. The zoo is well signed, with several numbered markers to orient you against the map. These markers were really helpful as we got deeper into the zoo.
Each exhibit features short descriptions of the animals inside and several spots include photo op props for your family. Plants and trees line the zoo walkways, providing both shade and aesthetics, and the zoo overall was kept incredibly clean by an always visible staff. I appreciate that level of pride and care for both the facility and those visiting.
Exhibits were well maintained, and viewing areas provided great views of all the environments and animals. It always makes us smile to see the joy on the faces of the small children, so enamored with these animals.
Maximizing Your Time
The sun and temperatures of San Diego, unfortunately, impact the willingness of the larger animals to be seen during the day. They prefer the shade and coolness of their off-stage habitats. Remember when I mentioned our later arrival at the zoo worked well? By about 5 pm the heat had started to wane and the animals started coming out to play and display. Arriving later and taking advantage of the evening worked perfectly!
Regardless of how long your stay at the zoo is, if you’re arriving mid-morning to early afternoon, I encourage you to visit the exhibits less impacted by the heat. We started with the Monkey Trail and Scripps Aviary, offering shade and lower temps to both the animals and us. Later in the afternoon, the zoo gained a second life, and all the animals were out by 6 or so.
The Panda Canyon exhibit is fun, and as of our visit is in a temporary location while construction is underway elsewhere in the zoo. Cute as ever, basking in the cooling mist and munching on bamboo. Heading down Center Street you actually go down a hill. Bonus escalators await you at the bottom if, after several hours of walking, you want to use them. We used them.
Our trusty collectible cups kept us hydrated, but we didn’t eat a ton of food during our walk. After completing our circle we headed back to Safari Kitchen for dinner. We ate several of the main dishes, including burgers, chicken strips, and hot dogs. Service was quick, food was hot and tasty.
The 1 Day Pass includes a full bus tour of the zoo. As our meals settled we embarked on a wonderful half hour guided tour around the zoo. After listening to the guide, and viewing from the top of the double-decker bus, I would consider going on the bus at both the beginning and end of your day. The first run to get an overview of the zoo and some key points of the animals. The second run to put a bow on your day and see the zoo with a fresh appreciation of what San Diego has put together.
My son and I took the tram across the zoo as well. It’s a much shorter 5-minute ride across. You do need to disembark and get back in line for a return trip. Honestly, the tram was a bit underwhelming. That may change once construction is done and the new Panda Canyon habitat is up and running. What the tram does do, however, is treat you to a spectacular view of the city, just outside the zoo perimeter. You truly never know just how close you are to the city.
SHOPPING AND DESSERT
The end of our day found us wandering several of the stores near the exit, where we purchased several items to remind us of our day. Nice selections, reasonable prices, and friendly staff in both locations. We also enjoyed a delicious, large ice cream cone from Front Street Cafe and Cantina. Nearly too much ice cream after a day of walking. Nearly.
Of the exhibits and animals at the San Diego Zoo, we agreed on three as our favorites: the polar bears, the hippos, and the elephants.
The polar bears were fun to see up close, and we learned on the bus tour these polar bears have been West Coasted – the zoo tried to cool down their pool water to more closely resemble their natural habitat. The bears wanted nothing to do with the cooler water. They like the warm water. The hippos. Well, they are hippos. They hung out in the water and just didn’t care. That’s hilarious. The elephants. The story surrounding the elephants and their matriarchal leadership was fascinating.
Our time at the San Diego Zoo was amazing. Though we thought just over 6 hours would not be enough time, we found it perfect for our family. Could you spend more time? Absolutely.
My family was provided 4 1-Day Passes to visit the San Diego Zoo. This article and all thoughts and comments are my own and those of my family.