San Diego Zoo Info & Tips

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San Diego Zoo is one of the most popular zoos in the country, and for good reason. This post offers a review of the zoo, photos from the animal exhibits, and various tips & tricks for making the most of your visit to the San Diego Zoo.

The San Diego Zoo had been on my radar for a long time; as a Disney fan, people from Southern California almost invariably compare the San Diego Zoo to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, claiming the San Diego Zoo is on par with Animal Kingdom.

Perhaps these comments set unreasonable expectations for me, because while I found the zoo to be the best I’ve visited, I didn’t feel it even remotely compared to Animal Kingdom’s animal exhibits in terms of quality.

Still, for a zoo, it’s pretty awesome. Let’s take a look at what makes it impressive…

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When visiting the San Diego Zoo, the first thing to consider is whether you want to do the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Safari Park, both, or neither. In our San Diego Safari Park Review & Tips post, we spend a good amount of time comparing the zoo and safari park, so check that out if you want to determine which is best for you.

Next, you need tickets. If you’re visiting Southern California, there are a variety of ticket packages that include other destinations so you can avoid buying the pricey 1-day tickets to the zoo. The caveat here is that you actually have to want to visit those other locations. Typically, if you buy a package like the SoCal CityPASS and don’t visit even one destination included with the pass, you’re paying more money. That’s how they get ya!

Here’s a list of the different ticket package options at the San Diego Zoo. The SoCal CityPASS with San Diego Zoo option is available here.

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The next thing you’ll need to figure out is when you want to visit. If you’re a tourist from out of town, your options are probably fairly limited. One thing to note is that, just like a theme park, the San Diego Zoo has times that are more crowded and with that comes lines for exhibits.

Not as bad of lines as you’ll find in the theme parks, but lines nonetheless. Weekdays during the school season are going to be the best days to visit.

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The Giant Panda exhibit is by far the most popular exhibit at the zoo, and during peak season, there is a line to get in that can supposedly take an hour or more. We visited the zoo the day after the peak holiday season had ended, and the lengthy queue was still set up, but there was no wait at all any time of the day (at least when we tried).

It seemed like the Giant Pandas were most active in early morning and late afternoon, and were sleeping in the middle of the day. This is pretty consistent with animal behavior we’ve seen elsewhere, so we’d recommend going first thing or last thing to this exhibit. That’s probably when waits are shortest during busier times of year, anyway.

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The food at the San Diego Zoo is almost universally “meh.” If you read the reviews on Yelp, it pretty much all sounds like crimes against humanity, but we found the food to generally be passable, but nothing to write home about. Sort of like bad theme park food, it gets the job done, but is nothing special. It’s also not particularly offensive.

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One thing to know going in is that the San Diego Zoo is huge and sprawling. It’s 100 acres in size and has more than 800 species from all over the world.

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At first, the San Diego Zoo can be overwhelming because it’s so large. For this reason, we highly recommend picking up a map on your way in (or looking at one online before visiting) and mapping out your path through the zoo before starting to wander through the exhibits. This will ultimately save you time and make for a more efficient visit.

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Coming soon to Netflix: the endearing story of the rhino who fell in love with a stump of wood.

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Jokes aside, one thing I really liked about both the rhino and giraffe exhibits were how close you were to the animals; it seemed in both cases these offered a more up close and personal glimpse at them than other exhibits.

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The koalas, by contrast, seemed distant and aloof, and it took my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and some cropping just to get a decent photo of one.

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The Bactrian Camels at the San Diego Zoo don’t look like the “sexy” ones in the movies. Get your hair cut and take a bath, camel! 😉

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One thing that’s possible at the San Diego Zoo that I haven’t really experienced elsewhere is “animal fatigue.” Most zoos can be knocked out in 2-3 hours, and you leave wanting more, if anything. A visit to the San Diego Zoo can be an all-day affair, and most people are still unlikely to see it all in a single day. I

found that by about hour 4 at the zoo, I was feeling a bit tired of the experience. Don’t get me wrong, the exhibits are varied and each are interesting, but it’s still a lot of animals. Perhaps you won’t experience this type of fatigue, but it’s something to consider.

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When we observed them, the elephants seemed fairly playful, but their large habitat means that you might not have the best view of them depending upon where they’ve wandered.

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The jaguar exhibit is another “up close and personal” one, and while we were they, this jaguar repeatedly lunged at the glass separately it from visitors.

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At the same time, this was the exhibit that had the most distinct feeling of being a “zoo” and brought to mind the ethical quandaries thereof. This jaguar paced back and forth in his small area, and it begged the question whether the animal had an adequate amount of space.

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As a general matter, it seemed like animal welfare is important to the San Diego Zoo, and I know it has been lauded for its treatment of animals and conservation efforts.

The Jaguar exhibit was literally the only one where I felt sorry for the animal, whereas at most zoos, I leave with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth because so many animals seem confined. The San Diego Zoo largely seems like an exemplary zoo when it comes to animal habitats.

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Many of the exhibits feel like organic environments that seamlessly blend into their surroundings, rather than confined areas. This is a plus, and I assume part of the reason the zoo draws comparisons to Animal Kingdom.

I think Animal Kingdom takes this same approach but on steroids. Still, not too shabby for a zoo.

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Most of the walkways that wind past the animal exhibits offer up-close looks at the animals, but this does vary from exhibit to exhibit, and also depends upon the activity of the various animals.

For example, you’ll always have a great view of the flamingos, but you may not even see a polar bear at their exhibit, depending upon where they’ve decided to fall asleep.

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There are a number of upcharge and guided tours in the San Diego Zoo, and these might be worth it if you have the money and aren’t keen on walking the entirety of the zoo.

Although it’s a large zoo, we managed to cover the entire thing on foot with ease. Personally, I wouldn’t waste my money on the other guided tours–I’d rather walk and enjoy the zoo at my own pace.

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The double-decker bus tour is one tour that is included with standard 1-day admission, and it can be a nice way to learn more about the animals, while getting off your feet for a while. Skyfari is another cool way to get a different look at the zoo.

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Not only is the San Diego Zoo large, but the terrain is also quite varied, and the elevation changes dramatically throughout the zoo. Fortunately, there are moving walkways to get you from the lower elevations to the higher ones.

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The front of the park contains gift shops and other cool information exhibits. I’d recommend stopping at all of these on the way out, rather than the way in.

san-diego-zoo-california-620Overall, the San Diego Zoo is a really impressive, well-designed complex that will captivate and entertain guests of all ages. It’s by far the best zoo I’ve ever visited. However, at the end of the day, it is still a zoo…and an expensive one, at that. Whether it’s “worth it” for you to visit the San Diego Zoo is largely a question of time, location, and priorities. If you’re a tourist visiting Southern California and are going to be staying in Los Angeles or Anaheim, the San Diego Zoo is a 2-hour (each way) drive from you. It’s going to be a day trip all by itself.

Unless you’re really serious about zoos, your time is probably better spent enjoying the multitude of entertainment offered in Los Angeles and Orange County. If you’re specially visiting San Diego, the zoo is a good option, so long as the price doesn’t dissuade you. If you’re a SoCal local who loves animals, a visit to the San Diego Zoo at some point is a no-brainer. For tourists, I think it’s definitely an option to consider, just not at the expense of many other offerings in Southern California.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. If you enjoyed this post, please use the sharing buttons above to help spread the word via social media. I greatly appreciate it! 

Your Thoughts

Have you ever visited the San Diego Zoo? Which animal exhibit was your favorite? Was it worth the time and money just to see the pandas? If you’ve visited both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, which did you prefer? Would you recommend the San Diego Zoo to SoCal visitors? Any other tips or recommendations? If you haven’t done the Safari Park, is it something that interests you? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

8 replies
  1. Cindy May
    Cindy May says:

    This was one of the best zoos I’ve been to. I took my partner there and we had a great time, and we also made a business deal while at the Zoo! lol. Definitely one of the most intricate ones I’ve seen and with really enjoyable weather.

    Reply
  2. Meg
    Meg says:

    Thanks for the write up! I love zoo and planning a trip to San Diego just for the zoo! I plan on bringing my mothers nice camera on this trip. What is the best way to photograph animals so the wire cages do not show up so much? Also, what’s the best way to take pictures within a glass exhibit without getting a glare, but still need the flash.

    Reply
    • Kevin
      Kevin says:

      I’m not Tom, and he might have better suggestions than I, but here is my take. The best way to not see the cage is to get very close to it and use a very shallow depth-of-field (low f-stop), focused on the animal. The cage wires will be so out of focus that they will tend to disappear.

      In a glass exhibit with flash – you will have glare. Try a larger f-stop or tripod/railing/trash can if you can so you don’t need flash.

      Reply
  3. Isabel
    Isabel says:

    The zoo is one of the things I miss most from when I lived in SD. Before my WDW trip, a fellow Disney-obsessed friend said she didn’t like Animal Kingdom as much because she’d been spoiled by the zoo. I saw her point, but AK ended up being my 3rd favorite park even with all the construction.

    Did you visit the Safari Park too? Sorry if I’m jumping the gun and you were planning on talking about it later, but I thought I’d throw it out there since sometimes tourists got confused about the SD zoo in Balboa Park and the Safari Park in North County, or didn’t know which one to visit if they had to chose only one. The Safari Park is enormous (1,800 acres) and one of my personal must-sees. If there’s a Disney fan who loved the Kilimanjaro Safari at AK, then they’d have to do the tram tour at the Safari Park!

    Reply
  4. KCmike
    KCmike says:

    It has been on my radar as well for several years. We are staying in San Diego and have one open day. I was thinking the same thing as you said that a zoo is a zoo at the end of the day no matter how famous or great it might be. It is quite a bit of money so we are debating the cost.

    The Jag pictures are real keepers.

    Thanks for the review. I’m really enjoying these California reviews.

    Mike

    Reply
  5. Vik
    Vik says:

    I agree with almost everything you said about the San Diego Zoo. We loved the exhibits and spent 6 hours there with kids. Probably could have spent more but we had somewhere else to be. We “rope dropped” the pandas, which was a good choice as the line was long when we returned in the early afternoon. Just like a Disney park! Then we did the double-decker bus, to see the overview and decide what we wanted to go back to.

    I will say that no matter how good the habitat, the big cats tend to pace near mealtime in every zoo I’ve been in. At least they are up and moving then, as opposed to their usual “sleep in the shady corner” tricks.

    I’m not certain if they still do it, but kids were free in October when we went.

    Reply
  6. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    Very timely post for me; we just got back from a long weekend in San Diego with a multi generational unit (me, husband, boys 6 and 2 and my parents in their early 70s). We did Legoland and the Zoo. The Zoo was far and away the best experience of the weekend. Everyone loved the up close interaction with animals, we packed a picnic from Trader Joes, and it wasn’t blistering hot or too crowded.

    We splurged for a tour, and love love loved it. It was 79/person and our group had a private tour with a wonderful guide. We went behind the scenes at one exhibit, learned about the hippos from our guide, went up and fed the Okapi (which was so so cool, they are so gentle the 2 year old fed them no problem). We cut the line at the Pandas and talked to a keeper for about 15 minutes about the pandas. We also stopped to look at the elephants, went to the children’s zoo to look at some animals close up, and probably stopped at a few more exhibits that I can’t remember. The best part was the guide — she was knowledgable, conversational, great with all ages, and made it such a personal experience. Our group with small legs and some mobility challenges, would have had some difficulty tackling the entire zoo on foot. With the tour, it was so great and totally satisfied us.

    I wouldn’t necessarily “recommend” the private tour, because they are expensive. But I would absolutely say that it was well worth it, and brought a level of experience to the zoo that we wouldn’t have had on our own.

    Reply
  7. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Nice pictures – I’m a fan of the big cats so I particularly like the photos of the jaguar.

    We had a slightly different perspective, perhaps because we live ~10 minutes from the pretty highly rated Columbus zoo. The Columbus zoo is 234 acres, I believe, so the San Diego zoo felt much more compact in comparison. The varied topography is a very nice change form what we have in Ohio, however.

    One thing we found very nice in regards to your “animal fatigue” comment were the long summer hours of the zoo and the proximity to Balboa park. We visited the zoo at rope drop, took a few hours in the afternoon to visit a couple of the other museums in the park, then returned for dinner and the evening.

    I would agree in general about the food quality, but we found Alberts (the sit-down restaurant) to be quite good. And the setting is very nice – you don’t get to eat next to a waterfall every day. It was worth paying a bit of a premium for the location vs. the time to drive somewhere else in San Diego.

    Reply

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