At a vast 100 acres, the San Diego Zoo is a sprawling paradise in the middle of the city. This California zoo is a pleasurable outdoor experience that takes all day to properly explore. It is home to more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals and a botanical collection with 700,000+ exotic plants. Certainly in a zoo this extensive, you could spend many days seeing the sights. But what if you only have one day? Our native San Diego TravelingMom gives you her tested guide on how to cover the San Diego Zoo in a single day.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.
The San Diego Zoo sits within Balboa Park, a 1,200 acre cultural park (the nation’s largest, where there are tons of free things to do with kids). The San Diego Zoo dates back to 1914 and is a gem in San Diego’s history. For additional animal adventures, consider a visit to the sprawling San Diego Zoo Safari Park, about 45 minutes from downtown. Even if you’ve been to zoos in other areas, the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are Southern California must-do activities.
TravelingMom Tip: While the San Diego Zoo is an outdoor attraction, opening days, hours and activity availability are subject to change without warning. Always call ahead or check the website before heading out for the day. Purchase discounted tickets to the Zoo here.
Navigating the San Diego Zoo
There are several ways to explore the San Diego Zoo (see the zoo map here or download the zoo app). I highly recommend that you start with the 35-minute guided bus tour. Climb on board one of the double-decker buses to get a good overview of the zoo. There is also the option of the “Kangaroo” Express Bus that stops at several locations throughout the zoo. The Guided Bus Tour & Express Bus are included in the 1-Day Pass admission price. Zoo pass members pay extra.
After the bus tour, walk along the many pathways to reach aviaries and enclosures that aren’t covered on the guided tour.
Start at the Back and Work Your Way Downhill
Many of the trails are quite steep so I recommend taking advantage of the Skyfari Aerial Tram. The tram will transport you quickly across the zoo to the higher regions and you can work your way back downhill. Plus, the view of San Diego and Balboa Park museums over the lush treetops of the zoo is not to be missed!
Have your stroller with you? Not a problem. The park employees working the tram will send your stroller with you so you’ll have it to use on the walk back. Some of those hills are quite steep, so always make sure you set the brakes on your stroller or the stroller (and your baby!) may roll away from you quickly.
Stay on Your Feet
The zoo offers a few shows and animal presentations. The shows are a nice place to get off your feet for a bit, though you will be in the sun. I don’t recommend watching any of the current shows if you only have one day in the park. Your time would be better spent walking and seeing the animals up-close.
Plenty has evolved at the zoo over the years, including a move away from isolated cages towards lush, natural exhibits that mimic that animal’s habitat. Many of the animals have live cameras on their enclosure so you can also watch them from home. These are the must-see animal exhibits at the zoo:
- Panda Canyon has three giant pandas on exhibit and they are so fun and playful to watch as they climb trees and strip bamboo. You’ll want to arrive here first as the wait times to enter can be very long later in the day.
- The hippos have a cool upper and lower exhibit so you can watch them swim. These giant animals are surprisingly graceful under water!
- Elephant Odyssey is another must. Last time we were there the elephants were loping around to grab branches from each other.
- Africa Rocks is the newest animal exhibit at the San Diego Zoo, with African penguins and meerkat.
Children’s Zoo is a Must See
The Children’s Zoo area is a can’t miss section. There are animals here that you won’t find in other areas including the amusing Naked Mole-Rats. My preschooler’s favorite area is the Petting Paddock, a petting zoo where families can pet the goats and sheep.
Just inside the entrance to this area is a playground. We usually spend about 30 minutes letting our stroller-bound son run around. It’s a good place to regroup or have a snack while the kids play for a bit. There are several other play areas around the zoo where kids can explore.
During the Heat of the Day, Seek the Aviaries
If you’re visiting during the warm weather months (July through October), you’ll need hot day preparation. Bring refillable water bottles and sunscreen. (These are our favorite sunscreens for kids and babies.) Seek shaded areas during the hottest parts of the day. Those include the Reptile House, Monkey Trails and the Lost Forest area.
Accessed only by the walking paths, make your way through the cool confines of one of the aviaries. These bird sanctuaries are some of the most fascinating parts of a San Diego Zoo visit. If you walk too fast you’ll miss a lot, so find a bench to bird watch. Many of these birds are camouflaged in the lush trees and bushes and you won’t see them until you pause to look. Keepers set up trays of fruit and the birds stop over to nibble.
Bring Your Own Food
Dining at the Zoo is mostly walk-up with outdoor patio dining. Offerings are wide and include sandwiches, grilled burgers & chicken, salads, and wraps. Kid-friendly Chinese food options are available at Hua Mei Cafe. Albert’s offers a more elegant selection and full-service dining if you need to take an extended break. You can also bring in your own food (which we frequently do) and have a picnic lunch in the Treetops Cafe seating area.
Please note: Straws are not permitted. They are a choking hazard to the animals.
Buy Tickets Before You Go
Purchase San Diego Zoo tickets online at a discount here so you can maximize your time inside the zoo. Hours are extended during the summer months and over the holidays. I highly recommend getting to the zoo early and staying late, especially if you want to see the animals when they are most active.
Make sure to take time and explore all that downtown San Diego has to offer in addition to the World Famous San Diego Zoo including the The New Children’s Museum, the beautiful Balboa Park and Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. Check out this list of fun and free San Diego attractions.