An Insider's Guide to the San Diego Zoo

If you're planning a trip to San Diego, or even if you're a Southern California resident, the San Diego Zoo is a must-see. Lauded as one of the top zoos in the country, the San Diego Zoo boasts an incredible expanse of animals from all continents (including, of course, pandas), and is the largest zoological membership association in the world. The Zoo spans 100 acres and is home to over 3,700 rare and endangered animals representing more than 650 species and subspecies, and a prominent botanical collection with more than 700,000 exotic plants (

That being said... it's a lot. Those 100 acres are very hilly, and there are hundreds of exhibits to see. Without proper attire, company, planning, and of course, sunscreen, your well-intention-ed day adventure could go south quickly. In addition, unless you're a member, admission costs range from $38-$53, so you want to get the most bang for your buck.

So in the interest of potential zoo visitors everywhere, I'm here to help. With approximately four visits under my belt, I'm no expert, but I've compiled some "pro-tips" for your next trip to the San Diego Zoo.

Wear sneakers
Just do it. Don't question me on this one. Dress for comfort (specifically walking, and lots of it!)

Consider going on a rainy day
Well maybe not "rainy," but a day with less-than-ideal weather could end up being your best bet for a zoo day. Of course going on a day when it's beautiful out is great (and easy to do, considering the fairly consistent nature of San Diego's weather), but the thing is-- that's what everyone will think. Tourist attractions are notoriously crowded, and the San Diego Zoo is no exception. By selecting an overcast, or even moderately rainy day for your zoo excursion, you'll cut out significant time waiting in lines and wading through crowded exhibits. Plus this type of weather is often more ideal for an all-day-outside trip-- take it from me, it's very easy to get sunburned in San Diego!

Rain or shine, make sure you're properly attired.

Have a plan
Your zoo map (located to your immediate right upon entering the park), will be your best friend. Figure out your must-sees and hit them early. You can always come back! In fact, if you have the time, take more than one lap around your favorite exhibits. Case in point: when Mike and I went to the zoo last weekend, we made a beeline for the pandas (his favorites). But of course, both pandas on exhibit were sleeping (pandas sleep for about 10-14 hours a day, we learned). This seemed to be the case with several of the larger animals we checked out on our first lap (most of the big cats, bears, and koalas-- but koalas sleep even more often than pandas do). However, we took another lap to hit our favorites in the early evening ,probably around 4:30 pm, and to our delight, most of these animals were up! The pandas were eating, the big cats were pacing, and the koalas... were still sleeping. (Just kidding-- a few were awake and moving around!) Mike postulated that similar to being in the wild, most of the predatory animals probably sleep during the day and wake-up at dusk to do their hunting-- or in this case, wake up for feeding time. Do your research, people!

This Nittany Lion, er... Mountain Lion, was incredibly active on our second loop around!

Leverage the tram
Especially if you have young children, leverage the Skyfari aerial tram at least once during your visit. Not only does it give you an incredible view of the park, but it will help cut down on some pavement-pounding. My recommendation: use the tram once to travel from the front of the zoo to the farthest point, and work your way back with exhibits. Your feet will thank you. The only caveat: acrophobia-sufferers, this option may not be for you.

Bring snacks
You're allowed to bring water and snacks into the zoo, which is fortunate since all that walking will work up your appetite in no time. Of course, there is no shortage of dining options once you're inside, they're all just fairly prices. And some are better than others. My recommendations? If you want to sit down for lunch or dinner, check out Safari Kitchen on Front Street, and Hua Mei Cafe next to Panda Canyon. They're my favorites. The San Diego Zoo Sandwich Company on Front Street is a good option for lighter fare as well.

Feeling thirsty?
To make your trip to the zoo even more awesome, why not cruise the exhibits with a cold one in hand? Several of the zoo dining options, such as Lagoon Terrace on Front Street and Zoo Brew in the Lost Forest serve up a variety of craft beers for your sipping pleasure. Just don't have one too many and badger the elephant trainer about whether or not "elephants really never forget".... like some unnamed, over-served zoo visitor we observed.

When planning out your day, ideally you want to hit all the exhibits, but in case you have time-restraints, there are some you should absolutely work into your schedule. Panda Canyon, where you can stand mere feet from two giant pandas in two separate exhibits, is a must-see. Plus, they're so cute (even when they're sleeping).

So dramatic.

Koalafornia, the cleverly-named koala exhibit at the San Diego Zoo, is my personal favorite. Despite koalas sleeping for almost twenty hours a day, with nearly as many koalas in this exhibit, odds are high that you'll catch at least one of them awake and eating. So worth it to make at least a couple trips here.

Um? Who even knew koalas could do this?

You really can't go wrong with your choice of exhibits, but if I had to pick some to gloss over, it would be the Reptile House (ick) and the monkeys... unless of course you happen upon a can't-miss photo opportunity like this.

Guess whose idea this photo was? 

All in all, the San Diego Zoo is truly a unique and wonderful San Diego experience, and one that shouldn't be missed. If you're looking for more information to plan your next visit, check out the following resources:

About the San Diego Zoo
Visitor Info
San Diego Zoo Animal Finder
San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Happy visiting! Go wild :)

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