The San Diego Zoo is a wonderful place to retreat when work has been stressful, and I need some exercise and entertainment. Since I live in Downtown, it’s literally a 7-minute drive to the Zoo. I’m also a Zoo member, so getting in and out is just as easy as visiting Balboa Park for the day. If I didn’t have a membership however, I would suggest pre-purchasing a San Diego Zoo ticket on Reserve San Diego to avoid waiting in line at the ticket office. And since our time is precious, I’ve created this guide to help you plan your day at the Zoo. You’ll save time, money, and avoid unneeded stress by using these Zoo tips. Follow along as I help you decide where to go and what to see.

Before You Get to the Zoo

Snooze San Diego

Snooze
Photo Credit: Joe Wolf/Flickr

Before I head into the Zoo, I like to relax with a great cup of coffee and a good, hearty breakfast. I would suggest going to the nearby neighborhoods of Banker’s Hill or Hillcrest for breakfast and coffee. Pappalecco is an Italian café that serves my favorite cappuccinos, and great breakfast Paninis, but if you’re looking for delicious American fare, head to Snooze. The benedicts are amazing, and you can mix and match flavors, which is a nice way to taste more of their menu!

The Zoo opens at 10am, so I usually get here before 11am. The San Diego Zoo parking is free, but since there is no parking structure, you may find yourself walking quite a long way to the entrance. The Zoo does allow outside food and water, so I usually bring a bag of trail mix and a bottle of water to hold me over. Sometimes I come in my workout gear to charge through the park, but if I don’t, I always wear comfortable walking shoes since the park is about 100 acres.

Once at the Zoo

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Visiting with an Orangutan

If you’ve never been to the Zoo before, I would suggest hopping on the bus tour. It will take about half an hour, and will cover about 60% of the park. The guide on the bus provides insightful information about the San Diego Zoo animals. The bus tour will pick up and drop off near the entrance, and is included in the admission.

To get my day started, I usually head straight to the Lost Forrest through Treetops Way. You’ll automatically get a sense that you’re no longer in San Diego, let alone in the U.S. The Zoo boasts tens of thousands of plants, and is considered a botanical garden, which is seen, smelt and felt on this trail. It’s magical! You’ll see various gorillas, monkeys and birds as you travel through this section of San Diego Zoo.

Next up is the Northern Frontier to see the Polar Bears. A walk up a slight hill is required, so be prepared with water. You can catch your breath at the 4-D Theater while you watch the Ice Age show. Keep in mind, however, that the show is an additional cost of $6 for non-members, and $5 for members.

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Views aboard the Skyfari

After the show, you can take the Skyfari – the Zoo’s iconic gondola that will have you ride over the entire length of the Zoo – back to the main entrance where you can head to the petting zoo and/or the sea lion show at 12:30pm.   Once you’ve watched the show, it’s fun to see the reptiles in the newer Discover Outpost. You’ll meet the Zoo’s oldest residents, the Galapagos tortoises who have been at the zoo since 1928.

Some of my favorite animals are toward the north side of the zoo at the Outback and Urban Jungle. You can walk here on Front Street. You will pass the main entrance and the souvenir shops on your right all the way until you get to the koalas. Watch these adorable creatures sleep and cuddle before turning around to see the rhinos and giraffes. It’s amazing how close you can get to these animals! They are so beautiful and strange looking. At this point, you may want to catch the Kangaroo Express Bus, which is a hop on and off shuttle that will take you to see the elephants, cheetahs, kangaroos and pandas. You will see signposts along the path for the stops, and it picks up every 15 minutes, or so.

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Koalas are a favorite San Diego Zoo sight

After you’ve cruised around on the Express Bus, you’ll have covered most of the Zoo and have probably worked up an appetite. Before leaving the Zoo, don’t forget to get your hand stamped in case you want to catch one last glimpse of your favorite animal.

After the Zoo

After a day at the Zoo, I’m happy, a little tired, and hungry. I’m all about heading into Balboa Park for a snack and drink at the bar at The Prado. Since it tends to get quite busy here on the weekends, I often opt for the more casual vibe of Panama 66 where the local beer flows, and the fries – amongst other menu items – are to die for!

San Diego is a wonderful city that will have you smiling every day, all day of your visit. Your visit to the San Diego Zoo will be just one of the highlights of your trip. There are a variety of things to do in San Diego, each just steps away from the next. In this Zoo day, you will have enjoyed great food, entertainment, exercise, and beer! Have fun and I’ll see you at the Zoo!


Bianca is a San Diego native, and prides herself on her knowledge of her city. As a professional tour guide, she offers food and drink tasting tours through her company: So Diego Tours. With 8 years in the tourism industry, she brings you updates on how to make the most out of your time, money and energy in her city.