San Diego Zoo - Rex's Roar - Wikipedia - by Jim1138It is always a fun adventure for the whole family when we visit the Zoo. But San Diego Zoo provides the ultimate experience in open-air animal exhibits and interactions.

The world-famous Zoo takes up around 100 acres of land at Balboa Park with 18 distinct areas an extensive collection of habitats. You will need to come back often to experience it all.

The park is spread out over several hills and valleys, so expect to walk a lot and climb steep hills.

Balboa Park is a sprawling complex of parks, museums, and sports venues. Read about Balboa Park here.

Covid-19: During the pandemic, the Zoo is implementing additional health screenings at the entrance. Expect some delays.

With so many areas and exhibits, how do you plan your visit? My recommendation, use the park website and decide ahead of time which areas are important to you – and straight to it.

I am sure you will have a lot of fun distractions along the way, but as long as you have a goal in mind, you will do fine.

Here are some of my favorite places to visit and things to do at the Zoo.

Guided Bus Tour

Guided Bus Tour - Wikipedia - by ray_exploresThe guided bus tour takes you through 75% of the park, with informative narration from the tour guide. It is usually included with the admission ticket.

So if you are a first-timer, ride the bus, get to know the various sections, then walk back to explore your favorites in more detail.

If you are looking for a more personalized guided tour, try the Discovery Cart Tour. You get the whole cart for your group of up to 6 family members and enjoy an hour with an expert.

Skyfari Aerial Tram

San Diego Zoo Skyfari Gondolas - Wikipedia - by CburnettAnother way to avoid long walks is to take this cable car from one end of the park to the other.

The tram starts from Oasis Outpost near the entrance and ends at the Polar Bear exhibit.

Discovery Outpost

If you start your walk through the park on the left of the entrance – going clockwise – you will first encounter the Discovery Outpost showcasing several species of reptiles.

In reptile land you will see small creatures like the green iguana, and large reptiles like Chinese Alligators and Galápagos tortoises.

Lost Forest

Okapi - Flickr - by - Don DeBoldThe Lost Forest is my favorite part of the park – where you can find Tigers, Monkeys, and pygmy hippos.

Follow the Tiger Trail to explore the tigers, tapirs, fishing cats, and milky storks.

On the Hippo Trail, you will encounter the Hippos and their cousins, the pygmy hippos. You will also see a weird animal that looks like a cross between a Zebra and a Giraffe – it is called the Okapi.

Between the Hippo Trail and the Monkey Trail, you can pass through the Cripss Aviary. Walk San Diego Zoo - Pygmy Hipposthrough a lush rain forest with a brook, ponds and a waterfall and look around to spot the African Birds.

The Monkey Trail starts at ground level where you can watch Gorillas and Bonobs in their rocky habitats. You can then observe several species of monkeys at ground level or follow the trail to the canopy level to see them climbing and jumping between trees.

Kangaroo Bus

The bus is a convenient way to skip long walks and reach your destination quickly. It has four stops throughout the park and you can hop on and off at any stop.

The bus does not go through Discovery Outpost or the Lost Forest.

Red Panda - Flickr - by ray_exploresPanda Trek

You can’t find the Giant Pandas at the San Diego Zoo anymore - they were repatriated to China a few years ago. In their place, you can find the Red Panda, who also like to eat Bamboo and have cute faces like the Giant Pandas, but they are from a different species.  

Northern Frontier

San Diego Zoo - Polar BearThe Northern Frontier is home to the Polar Bear, Arctic Fox, Mountain Lion, Reindeer, and Zebra.

The polar bear habitat simulates the Arctic in summer. The bears are happiest when they are playing and fishing the large pool. You can view their aquatic activities from the underwater observation deck. You can then go above water to see them sunbathing.  


Albert's Cafe from Skyfari - Flickr - by Tim EvansonThere are a lot of snack and quick bite options throughout the park, but for best experience head to Albert’s in the Lost Forest.

Albert’s offers full-service dining where you can enjoy open-air deck seating overlooking a private waterfall, or inside seating overlooking the Treehouse gardens.

The food and prices are what you expect at an amusement park. There were some great dishes like Tandoori Grilled Chicken,  Seared Ahi, and the – and so-so dishes like the Fish Tacos.

If you prefer to eat outside the park, you can take an 8-minute walk to Balboa Park with several options.

We especially like Prado – next to the Railroad Museum – with a beautiful garden terrace and great views. Read more here.


If you live close by and plan to visit the zoo often, or of you just like to help, you can become a member.

There are several membership options ranging from $100+ for annual passes to Thousands of Dollars for donner club memberships.

See all the options here.