As a fifth-year San Diego Zoo member and a mama of two young children, I have spent a lot of time at this world-renowned zoo. I know the best places to eat, which animals kids love to see, and the special extras that make a visit memorable. This zoo is huge so if you have little ones who need to nap or you just don’t want to spend an entire day gazing at animals, you should focus on the best the zoo has to offer instead of trying to see every single animal in one day. I provide the location of each recommended attraction in parentheses. View a map of the zoo.
The flamingos and ducks are favorites for the zoo’s youngest visitors
An Unexpected Favorite – Flamingo and Duck Pond (Lost Forest)
Imitate the flamingos standing on one leg and “quack” at the ducks at this pond. This is an easy exhibit to work into your schedule since it is located near the zoo’s entrance. Even though you will see many more exotic animals at this zoo, these birds are always a favorite, especially for toddlers and preschoolers.
Mama panda Bai Yun is one of the zoo’s most beloved residents
Best Path to the Zoo’s Most Famous Residents – Pandas (Panda Canyon)
The zoo’s most popular residents are its pandas, Bai Yun and her newest baby, Zhen-Zhen. On busy summer weekends you may have to wait in a long line to see the Oreo-colored bears. There are several paths to reach this exhibit in the zoo’s center, but I recommend taking the Monkey Trails through the Lost Forest. View monkeys and apes of all sorts as well as pygmy hippos and more along this route. If you have a stroller or a wheelchair, you will need to walk through Owens Aviary (past colorful birds and flowing water) and along the Sun Bear Trail (past bears and more monkeys) to reach Panda Canyon. Other visitors can take a more direct route via stairs at the end of the Monkey Trails. View the live Panda Cam.
Most Beautiful Exhibit – Gorilla Exhibit (Lost Forest)
This lush exhibit is overflowing with waterfalls and greenery. Get a sense of just how big these apes are by placing your hands in gorilla-cast imprints. Kids love climbing on the life-size sculptures of the gorillas.
Most Elaborate Exhibit – Elephant Exhibit (Elephant Odyssey)
This newly updated area of the zoo is definitely worth seeing. Learn about the world’s largest land animals and their prehistoric relatives, the mastodons, while wandering past live Indian and African elephants. You will also see camels, jaguars, and lions, among other animals. View the live Elephant Cam.
That’s me with my daughter, Karissa, aboard the SkyFari Aerial Tram in 2006
Most Uplifting Experience – SkyFari Aerial Tram (Discovery Outpost and Polar Rim)
You can board the SkyFari Aerial Tram near the Children’s Zoo in Discovery Outpost or near the lovely water-filled polar bear exhibit in the Polar Rim. The ride sends you soaring above the treetops and gives a birds-eye view of the animals below. It’s also a handy way to get from one side of the zoo to the other. View the live Polar Bear Cam.
Best Hands-On Experience – Feeding the Giraffes (Urban Jungle)
If you’re visiting during the summer or on a weekend, check the schedule for giraffe-feeding times. Your kids won’t soon forget handing branches of leaves to these sweet, towering animals.
This koala surprised me by climbing the branches of this eucalyptus tree rather than engaging in its usual koala activities – eating leaves or sleeping
Cuddliest Creature – Koalas (Outback)
A visit to the cuddly koalas is probably a necessity, especially if you are traveling with an elementary-school-aged girl. Take a peek at nearby adorable creatures like wallabies and tree kangaroos while you’re at it.
Here’s the Discovery Playground in the Children’s Zoo.
Best Place for Kids to Play – Children’s Zoo (Discovery Outpost)
This is a great place to let the kids get their wiggles out. The Discovery Playground has a twisty slide and climbing equipment but beware that toddler feet will likely get caught in the rubber climbing netting. There is a petting zoo with goats, sheep, pigs and the like. The playful otters who take up residence in the Children’s Zoo tend to be a big hit with children and adults alike. Also, kids love to watch mice crawling through the Mouse House, which is fashioned from a giant loaf of real bread.
Best Way to Squeeze it All in – Bus Tour (Near Zoo Entrance)
If you want to see most of the zoo (75%) during a short timeframe, you can cough up a few extra bucks for the bus tour. You see a multitude of animals with the added benefit of the driver’s educational commentary. Plus, most kids love sitting on the top level of the double-decker bus. However, if you have a child age three or younger, skip it. The tour takes 35 minutes+ and you’ll spend most of your time placating your little one rather than enjoying the ride.
Best Food – Sabertooth Grill (Elephant Odyssey) and Canyon Café (Asian Passage, near Panda Canyon)
The Sabertooth Grill is one of the best eateries in the park. Most zoo food comes deep-fried and tastes like, well, zoo food. However you can find healthy, tasty options like wraps and salads at this restaurant. Their soups are surprisingly delicious.
At my other favorite zoo restaurant, Canyon Café, I recommend the chicken taco platter. It’s not the best taco you’ll eat in San Diego, but it may be the best food you’ll find at the zoo.
At restaurants throughout the zoo kids’ meals are served in plastic buckets, which are perfect for taking to the beach. They are filled with standards like chicken strips, hot dogs, or quesadillas depending on the restaurant. Outside food and drink besides baby food are not allowed but the zoo is pretty lenient when it comes to packing children’s snacks.
A ride aboard the Balboa Park Railroad Miniature Train
is a fun way to top off a day at the zoo.
Best Finale for Good Behavior – Balboa Park Railroad Miniature Train and Balboa Park Carousel (Outside the Zoo’s Entrance)
A miniature train located just outside the zoo’s entrance typically runs every day during the summer and spring break but only on weekends during off-season. If sharing a train with a gaggle of school-age children, beware that field-tripping kids scream in unison through the tunnel. It’s best to wait for the next train.
The Balboa Park Carousel, built in 1910, is one of the few carousels left in the world that still offers the brass ring game. Big kids and adults who want to play choose an outside horse and reach out to grasp the small rings on each spin. Iron rings don’t count; only the rider who nabs the brass ring wins a free ride.
Do you have a favorite exhibit or zoo activity not listed above? Or do you have any questions about how to make the most of your visit to the San Diego Zoo? Let us know in the comments!