One of the nation's premier zoos, the San Diego Zoo offers more than 12,000 animals, representing more than 650 species and subspecies ... and even a few frogs! The zoo is big on conservation, and its Institute for Conservation Research has reintroduced more than 30 endangered species back into the wild.
Because of its hilly, predominantly tropical terrain, you will likely find a day at the zoo is a full workout, so make sure to wear your comfortable walking shoes. Don't let this stop you from making the trip! You can easily navigate this zoo with our San Diego Zoo tips and touring plan to have you walking downhill and taking shortcuts to ride back up! There are so many not-to-miss San Diego Zoo exhibits and attractions, including the lush grounds themselves, which the zoo maintains as an arboretum. On-site are many rare plants, some of which are grown to feed the animals (hello, koalas).
The zoo is situated within the beautiful Balboa Park, a destination on its own, with museums, botanical gardens, restaurants, trails and open space. Basically, it's a nature and animal-lovers paradise!
Our Top Not-to-Miss San Diego Zoo Exhibits and Attractions
Wildlife Explorers Basecamp
Let's start off with the newest of the not-to-miss San Diego Zoo exhibits and attractions. The Wildlife Explorers Basecamp replaced the former children's zoo. The area has indoor and outdoor animal exhibits and a huge play area. Your tadpoles can climb, scramble, explore and even cool off in water features at this new area. Bring a swim suit and towel in warmer months. There are dryers if clothes get wet. It hoppens.
Your little Wildlife Explorers can learn about nature, play alongside animals, encounter new species, and ultimately develop an empathy for wildlife. Tad always makes a beeline to spend time with the amazing species at the Spineless Marvels insect and spider habitats, and at Jake’s Cool Critters — a place for reptiles, amphibians, and more. Lily loves the butterflies and small primates. Both kids jump and climb like monkeys on the climbing structures.
Guided Bus Tour
While it's not an exhibit, this 35-minute tour takes you through most of the park aboard an open-air, double-decker bus. It's a great way to get the lay of the land, so to speak, and a terrific overview of the park. Take the Guided Bus Tour first thing in the morning and then set out for your desired destinations.
There's nothing like seeing these gentle giants up close. Through the glass enclosure, you can observe their family dynamics, watch them eat and see the youngsters at play on the ropes and trees. This shady forest setting makes a peaceful place to chill out and simply hang out near the gorillas. Curious gorillas might even come up to the glass to check you out too!
Polar Bears at Northern Frontier
The San Diego Zoo is home to three playful polar bears. Certainly one of the coolest places to view the polar bears is the underwater viewing room. They might just swim up to say "hi!" You can also watch them outdoors in their tundra habitat. Kids enjoy interacting with the life-size statues of polar bears, crawling through caves and popping through the ice like a seal — get your cameras ready! The easiest way to get to the polar bears is to take the Skyfari Aerial Tram to the back of the park and head downhill.
Skyfari Aerial Tram
Did we mention the San Diego Zoo is very hilly? One of the shortcuts for getting across the park is the Skyfari Aerial Tram, which offers spectacular views of the zoo and surrounding Balboa Park. It's a real treat and a quick ride. Your feet will thank you! Use Skyfari to get easy access to both the polar bears and to Elephant Odyssey, which will later lead you to an easy downhill journey through Africa Rocks.
Koalas in the Outback
Besides the frog (of course), one of my favorite animals has always been the koala. So, of course, the koala is on the top of my list to of not-to-miss San Diego Zoo exhibits and attractions. But even cooler is the San Diego Zoo's Australian Outback exhibit. The Australian Outback area offers hands-on activities, a climbing area and great views of my favorite marsupial. From the deck of the Queenslander House, you'll be eye level with the koala colony. You can also explore the Outback and see other Australian marsupials such as wombats, wallabies, Tasmanian devils and kookaburras.
This 2.5-acre elephant habitat includes both African and Asian elephants in a natural, open area that gives them plenty of room to roam. Inside the Odyssey, you'll find the Elephant Care Center, where you can watch zookeepers providing routine care to the animals. Let the kids burn off some energy in play area, which features life-size statues made for climbing and playing (look for the sleepy lions near that area) and the tar pit area. The fossil dig shows how mammoths, the elephant’s extinct cousins, used to live in Southern California, as well as saber-toothed cats, sloths and lions.
Giraffes in the Urban Jungle
Some of our favorite animals at the zoo are the giraffes. Maybe it's because they're so tall and we're so short. But we never miss out on a chance to see them. At the San Diego Zoo, you'll find a small herd of Masai giraffes within the Urban Jungle exhibit. Take a loop around the Urban Jungle to see the rhinos, cheetahs and other exciting animals.
Nestled inside the lush, African rainforest near the gorillas and pygmy hippos, you'll find more than 130 African native birds. They represent 35 different species inside this 80-foot-tall aviary. Let the tranquil sounds of the rushing water from the falls refresh you as you try your hand at bird watching.
Orangutans on the Orangutan Trail
Get ready to go nose-to-nose with the playful orangutans. They sometimes like to sit close to the observation area so they can watch the humans on display. The world's largest fruit-eating animals are very playful. You might catch them traversing their ropes or nets, munching on some tasty mustard, honey or barbecue sauce out of their "termite mound," or climbing their vertical sway poles. No matter what they are doing, they are always entertaining!
Take a look at the San Diego Zoo map. You'll want to approach this large area from the far right after visiting the Outback or Elephant Odyssey. The wide path takes you downhill (vs. an uphill climb from the Asian Passage direction). The path travels through six habitats in Africa Rocks. You'll wind past baboons, colorful birds, gorgeous leopards, crocodiles, lemurs and the fun-loving penguins. Be sure to spend some time in the underground aquarium viewing area. Enjoy the sharks and fish. That is, until the penguins zip though the water as if they're the true stars of the show (they did dress for the occasion)!
Where Are the Giant Pandas?
You may have noticed that Panda Trek is no longer listed as one of our recommended San Diego Zoo exhibits. Sadly, China called back all of the giant pandas from the San Diego Zoo at the end of April 2019. We are sad to see the giant pandas leave the San Diego Zoo. However, we'll still be hopping over to visit the red panda at Panda Trek.
The gorgeous Asian leopards are in that area, and they are definitely worth a visit. Keep your eyes to the sky because you just might spot those leopards looking down at you!
We hope you've enjoyed our look at the not-to-miss San Diego Zoo exhibits and attractions. Ready to go? Purchase your San Diego Zoo tickets now! If you're looking for help planning your trip, start with our San Diego Planning Guide, which includes all of the area major attractions.
Related: When to Visit San Diego