Best San Diego Zoo with Kids Tips (& Itinerary)

As a multi-year San Diego Zoo member and mom of two animal-loving children, I have spent A LOT of time at this world-renowned zoo. I know which animals children love to see, the best places to eat, and the special extras that make San Diego Zoo with kids memorable. This zoo is huge so you probably won’t be able to see all of it in one day. Use my San Diego zoo tips and guide to find things to do to help you make the most of your visit.

Kids of all ages love the San Diego Zoo
Kids of all ages love the San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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Best Way to See Most of San Diego Zoo in One Day

Bus Tour near Zoo Entrance

If you want to see most of the zoo (about 75 percent) during a short timeframe, cough up a few extra bucks for the San Diego Zoo bus tour. You will view 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. If you have a child aged 3 or younger, though, I suggest skipping it. The tour takes 35+ minutes and you’ll spend most of your time placating your little one rather than enjoying the ride.

Most kids get a kick out of riding the double decker bus tour at San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo bus tour (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Kid Favorites at the San Diego Zoo

Flamingo and Duck Pond in 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’s 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.

Kids love the flamingo exhibit near San Diego Zoo's entrance
Flamingoes near San Diego Zoo’s entrance (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Otters in Lost Forest and along Center Street

Otters are typically some of the most active and playful zoo residents. Everyone loves to watch otters climb, dive, slide and swim. You can view a Cape clawless otter along Center Street as well as spotted-neck otters in Lost Forest.

Otters at San Diego Zoo with kids
Otters at the San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Penguins at Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks

Children giggle with delight when watching San Diego Zoo’s flock of flightless African penguins waddle and play. Plan to spend a lot of time at this exhibit.

Penguins playing at the San Diego Zoo
Penguins swimming at the San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Pandas in Asia Passage

Giant pandas on loan from China were once San Diego Zoo’s most popular residents. These Oreo-colored bears, however, returned to China in spring 2019. It is unclear at this time if and when the pandas will return.

You can still see red pandas, though, in Asia Passage. Although giant pandas and red pandas were once thought to be closely related, scientists have now categorized red pandas in their own unique family—the Ailuridae. Meanwhile giant pandas are the rarest member of the bear family.

Red panda at the San Diego Zoo
Red panda (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Most Beautiful Exhibit

Gorillas in 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-sized sculptures of the gorillas. Be careful, though, the bronze statues can get hot in summer.

A mama gorilla and her baby at San Diego Zoo with kids
A mama gorilla and her baby (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Most Elaborate Exhibits

Elephant Odyssey

Elephant Odyssey is definitely worth seeing when visiting the San Diego Zoo with children. 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 in this area of the zoo.

Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo with kids
Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Polar Bear Plunge in Northern Frontier

If you’re lucky, you might see a polar bear going for a swim and splashing about at Polar Bear Plunge during your family’s visit to the San Diego Zoo. You can view this massive mammal from an underwater viewing area or from above. The educational displays here show children how much polar bears need to eat each day (a lot!). There’s also a crawl-through polar bear cave made of faux plastic ice.

A polar bear taking a swim to cool off during a visit to San Diego Zoo with kids
A polar bear taking a swim at San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best View of San Diego Zoo

SkyFari at Discovery Outpost and Northern Frontier

Board SkyFari near the Children’s Zoo in Discovery Outpost or near Polar Bear Plunge in Northern Frontier. The ride will send your family soaring above the treetops for 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. There is an additional fee to ride this attraction but San Diego Zoo members ride for free.

The Skyfari ride provides great views of San Diego Zoo with kids
The Skyfari ride (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Best Hands-On Experience

Feeding Giraffes at 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 treats to these sweet, towering animals.

A baby and mama giraffe cuddling at San Diego Zoo with kids
A baby and mama giraffe (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Cuddliest Creatures

Koalas in Outback

A visit to the cuddly koalas is probably a necessity, especially if you’re visiting with an elementary-school-aged girl. Don’t expect a lot of action, though. Koalas are sleepy creatures so most likely you will find them taking a nap. Take a peek at nearby adorable creatures like wallabies and tree kangaroos in Outback while you’re there.

San Diego Zoo koala
San Diego Zoo koala (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best Place for Kids to Play

Discovery Playground in Discovery Outpost

The Discovery Playground provides a great space to let kids run around and get their wiggles out. It features a twisty slide and climbing equipment. Beware that toddler feet will likely get caught in the rubber climbing netting. While in Discovery Outpost, stop by the Petting Paddock to get up-close to goats, sheep, pigs and other farm animals. Check the daily schedule for animal encounters in this children’s zoo area.

Discovery Playground at San Diego Zoo with kids
The Discovery Playground (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best Food at San Diego Zoo

For surprisingly good lattes and other coffee drinks plus baked goods, check out Jungle Java in Lost Forest near the zoo’s entrance.

Meanwhile, Sabertooth Grill is one of the best eateries in the park. Most zoo food comes deep-fried and tastes like, well, zoo food. You can, however, find healthy, tasty options like wraps and salads at this restaurant. Plus, their soups are especially delicious.

If you’d like to indulge in a sit-down meal with table service at San Diego Zoo, you can! Make reservations in advance or pop into Albert’s along the Monkey Trail. The food is good, the setting is lovely and there are some decent wines on the menu. But, I personally would rather spend my time exploring the zoo than eating a lengthy meal.

Does this look like zoo food to you? Albert's serves the fanciest cuisine I've ever seen at a zoo!
Does this look like zoo food to you? Albert’s serves the fanciest cuisine I’ve ever seen at a zoo! (Photo from

Kids meals are available at restaurants throughout the zoo. Expect standards like chicken strips, hot dogs, or quesadillas, depending on the restaurant.

Outside food and drinks besides baby food are not allowed, but San Diego Zoo is pretty lenient when it comes to packing children’s snacks. Since the zoo is located within the beautiful Balboa Park, you could easily bring a cooler filled with food to keep in your (rental) car. Get your hand stamped to enjoy a meal at a picnic table in the park and reenter the zoo once bellies are full.

Top of your visit to the San Diego Zoo with kids with a ride on the Balboa Park Railroad
Balboa Park Railroad (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best Way to End a Visit to San Diego Zoo with Kids

A miniature train located just outside the zoo’s entrance typically runs every day during summer and spring break, but only on weekends off-season. If sharing a train with a gaggle of school-aged children, beware that field-tripping kids scream in unison through the tunnel. It’s best to wait for the next train.

Balboa Park Carousel, built in 1910, is one of the few carousels in the world that still offers the brass ring game. Big kids and adults who want to play should choose an outside horse. Then 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.

Balboa Park Carousel
Balboa Park Carousel (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best San Diego Zoo Itinerary

This itinerary does not cover every single animal at the San Diego Zoo. It’s a big zoo, after all. But it does include the best things to do at the San Diego Zoo with options for shortening or lengthening your visit to suit your family’s needs.


When you arrive, stop by Jungle Java near the entrance to get your caffeine jolt to help you tackle the zoo. Then head to Center Street (a.k.a. Bear Canyon) where you can spy on bears of all sorts. An optional add-on is to make your rounds through Outback to view koalas and other adorable animals from Down Under before hitting up Center Street.

San Diego Zoo bear
San Diego Zoo bear (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)


If you’re hungry, stop for some Asian lunch at Hua Mei Cafe, named for the zoo’s former matriarch resident panda. Otherwise, wait to eat at Sabertooth Grill near Elephant Odyssey, my pick for the best food at San Diego Zoo. To get there, walk through a portion of Africa Rocks. You can spy on playful African penguins along the way.


After lunch, head up through Elephant Odyssey to view the pachyderms and learn about their ancestors. You’ll see big cats like lions before reaching Northern Frontier, where polar bears are the stars.

Next, board the Skyfari for an uplifting way to view the zoo and reach Discovery Outpost. If you’d rather walk, take Bashor Bridge before winding your way through the Monkey Trails. If taking this route, then make sure to stop by the gorgeous gorilla exhibit.

In Discovery Outpost, pet the farm animals in the Petting Paddock. Then rest your feet while children explore the Discovery Playground.

Lastly, hit up the Flamingo and Duck Pond before you head out, if you did not already see this exhibit at the end of your Monkey Trails tour.

If you’re feeling very ambitious, you could try to squeeze in additional Africa Rocks exhibits, the Lost Forest with its Tiger Trail and Hippo Trail, or the giant tortoises and Reptile House located outside the children’s zoo area of Discovery Outpost.

Lions at the San Diego Zoo
Male lions (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)


To watch any of the zoo’s animal shows and demonstrations, you may need to modify your itinerary somewhat. View a San Diego zoo map here to find locations and plan your day.

After exiting San Diego Zoo, round out your day with a ride on the Balboa Park Railroad and a spin on the Balboa Park Carousel.

If you want to follow this itinerary, I suggest printing it before you go, or pulling it up to follow once you’re in the San Diego Zoo.

More to Do in San Diego with Kids

San Diego Zoo is just one of many incredible things to do in San Diego. Read our picks for the top 15 San Diego attractions for kids. (Can you guess where the zoo ranks?)

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San Diego Zoo Tips and Itinerary

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If you liked this story, then I bet you’ll love our picks for the best places to visit in California with kids!

Do you have a favorite exhibit or activity at San Diego Zoo? Or do you have any questions about visiting San Diego Zoo with kids? Let us know in the comments below!

A Note from The Travel Mama: I did not receive any compensation related to this story. All opinions are mine, as always. 

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  1. Great post, Colleen! The Skyfari ride and the bus tour were the most memorable parts of our trip to the zoo. I would recommend going for multiple days or just ride the bus if you don’t have the time or multiple days don’t fit in the budget. We only saw part of the zoo and our little one was exhausted and fell asleep. The zoo is massive, many times larger than any other zoo we’ve visited so keep that in mind.

    1. Good advice! San Diego Zoo can be overwhelming to first-time visitors, especially if they think they’re going to see EVERYTHING in one visit!

  2. I haven’t been to a zoo in ages. The San Diego Zoo will be awesome to see. My favorite animals are the tigers.

  3. I would love to visit the San Diego Zoo! It looks like there are so many fun activities to do there as well as view and learn about the animals. Those flamingos are SO vibrant!

    1. This zoo really did spoil me for other zoos! Still, I enjoy smaller zoos where the focus is on conservation.

  4. My kids absolutely adore the zoo. This looks like such a great place to take them. So much to do and see!

    1. Almost too much! You could definitely spend two days exploring the San Diego Zoo if your kids really love animals.

  5. Now that we live in Arizona, we are planning on taking a trip to San Diego with our twins. The zoo is definitely on our itinerary! I’m bookmarking this because I know it will be a great resource when we go! Thanks!

    1. I live in Arizona now, too, Lisa! San Diego is such an easy and fun destination for us Zonies. Enjoy your SoCal vacay!

  6. I have not been to the San Diego zoo since I was a kid. Back then it was gorgeous I am sure it is even more gorgeous now. I would love to be able take my kiddos there and explore that zoo again. I like everything that you had mentioned here. These tips definitely are helpful.

    1. Glad you find the tips helpful, Jeanette! I love how San Diego Zoo gives their animals such expansive and nature-filled homes.

    1. My family is so lucky to have visited the San Diego Zoo so many times. We enjoy every visit!

  7. Wondering if you think toddlers have the attention span to do the Early Morning with the Pandas tour? We will have three-18 month year olds and a 4 year old in our group. We love the idea of the tour because it begins at 8:30am, which lets us maximize our morning at the zoo until nap time.
    Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks!

    1. Hi Katie – I haven’t personally done that tour. I see that it is 2 hours long, which might be a bit much with so many littles. It does sound interesting with the upclose animal encounters, though! If you are visiting in summer, especially on weekends, the line to see the pandas can be quite long. However, if you arrive right as the zoo opens and go straight for the pandas (going down Bear Canyon is the most direct route), you should not have to wait. I was just at the San Diego Zoo last week and was surprised to find there was zero line to see the pandas around 11 am, but February is off-season. Also, the pandas typically just lay there sleeping, so they’re not the most interactive animals at the zoo. Since they will be eating during the Early Morning with the Pandas tour, that might be more exciting. It’s really up to you to decide if you’re group will be able to handle a 2-hour tour! Either way, enjoy your San Diego Zoo visit!