First-Timers Guide to the San Diego Zoo

“You went all the way to San Diego and DIDN’T go to the San Diego Zoo?”  That was most common comment I got about our last trip to San Diego.  We prioritized the San Diego Zoo this time around and we were not disappointed.  Sure, we admired the playful animals, but there was so much more:  amazing educational content that the kids loved to read, a reptile house that was amazing and terrifying, and a sky ride that took everyone’s breath away.  I now agree.  The zoo is a must visit in San Diego and something all ages would enjoy. 

San Diego Zoo Entrance Sign
The San Diego Zoo is a must see list for any family visiting San Diego


Set in the historic Balboa Park, The San Diego Zoo is a 100 acres of land set aside in 1916 originally to find a home for the exotic animals that were abandoned after the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.  As it is evolved over the years, it is moved from a showplace for the animals to a wildlife foundation dedicated to saving species around the world. They have had some successful breeding programs with pandas before they were returned to China in 2019.  And today they are working on efforts to help save the “chubby unicorns” (Rhinos).  The entrance fees to the park pay the conservation efforts, but also provide a way to educate the public on these beautiful animals.  All throughout the park, there is information on the animals, their habits and habitats, and the work the zoo was doing on conservation. 

Coffee Mug that says "Save the Chubby Unicorns" and has a rhino in blue.
Save the chubby unicorns!


We saw a variety of fun animals at the San Diego Zoo.  Some of the highlights included:

Giraffes eating included a baby giraffe
Giraffes:  I loved to watch the little calf wander around and get some leaves*
A cheetah napping, a male lion prowling, and  female lion lounging
Big Cats:  The Lion was out and prowling when we went by his cage.  Meanwhile the cheetah was sleeping lazily and let us get some nice shots of him*
A Tasmanian devil
Tasmanian Devil:  He looked nothing like the cartoon character
Koalas sitting in the trees eating and napping
Koalas:  The Outback was amazing and there were so many koalas.  There were even some babies.  They were so adorable, and cuddly, and just hung out in the trees eating and sleeping*
An Asian elephant drinking water
Elephants:  We came at a time when we got to enjoy the huge and graceful Asian elephants*
A polar bear looking down at the water
Polar Bears:  There was a fun polar bear who was sunning himself and playing a little in the water.  There is an enclosure to see them swimming, but he never wanted to swim for us*
A red panda making a face while sitting in a tree
Red Panda:  Unfortunately, the regular Pandas returned to China in 2019, but there were several active red pandas out and about.  These guys can be found all over Asia and look a bit like racoons, but much cuter*
A cobra, a snake eating a mouse, and a lizard lounging
The Reptile House:  This place was literally full of venomous lizards and snakes.  We even saw a few chowing down on huge rats.  It was all fun and games until we came home a few days later and found out a venomous snake with no known antidote bit one of the handlers a few days after we left…

Skyfari® Aerial Tram

My kids love any ride that takes you high over the park.  My husband does not because he has a fear of heights.  But he was outvoted, so we waited in the long line to take the Skyfari Aerial Tram across the park.  It is free, but due to COVID the line appeared long (due to social distancing) and they were only loading every other cart to have time to clean the ones in between.  Once on, you are treated to a 10-minute ride high above the park with a spectacular view of not just the Zoo, but Balboa Park and all of San Diego.  It is slow, completely safe, and even my husband enjoyed the ride at the end.  It is a great way to get from one corner of the park to the other, especially if you are towards the end of your day. 

Arial views of the San Diego Zoo from the Skyfari Aerial Tram
Even those afraid of heights said it was worth it for the views


Here is the one place where my reviews will be less than glowing.  Generally, I am a fan of bringing snacks and lunch to amusement parks and zoos to save money.  However, for whatever reason, we were too lazy to buy groceries this trip and decided to just wing it and buy food at the zoo.  Bad choice.  The lines were long, we waited over 40 minutes to order and get our food.  We ordered a family meal of pizza, salad, bread sticks and four drinks because it was economical (compared to other options) and it kept us fed. But it was not very tasty, especially not for the price.  But at least we got some big Zoo cups out of it, that we used to get free refills of water throughout the park.  It is edible if you are in a pinch.  But if you can bring lunch from home, or better yet, get reservations at Albert’s Restaurant, a nice sit-down restaurant on site. 

The one thing that was good was the dessert.  We always love to have a sweet snack/treat when we are at zoos or amusement parks.  After the sky ride, we landed right at Front Street Sweet Shack and decided to indulge.  My daughter and I shared the Funnel Cake Sundae while my husband and son shared the Super Soft Serve Sundae.  They were huge and we could not finish either, but not for lack of trying.  Both were extremely tasty, and a great way to beat the heat after walking all over the zoo. 

Funnel Cake A La Mode and a Soft Serve Sundae
Our Sweet Shack sundaes hit the spot

Covid Consideration

While vaccination rates are up, we are still managing a pandemic and several precautions were in place that are important to consider. 

  • Masks were mandatory.  It is expected that while California will be opening more broadly on June 15th, the mask mandate will still be in place.  And the zoo is a popular spot, so expect crowds and the need to mask, even though it’s outdoors. 
  • Currently, admittance is limited.  We purchased timed entry tickets to the zoo – guaranteed entrance on the day and time we wanted.  You can buy discounted tickets through the Go San Diego Card BUT you do not have timed entry.  This means that those with timed entry are admitted first.  If they hit capacity, you need to wait until someone leaves the park for your group to be able to enter.  We went during spring break, so I did not want to risk it and purchased timed entry tickets. It was a good call because the zoo was crowded the day we went.  But it may not be as crowded mid-week before school is out for the summer. 
  • There is a temperature check and a health screening to enter the park.  Obviously, if you are sick stay home. 
  • You cannot leave and return due to the capacity limitations at the zoo.  Once you are in, you are in. 
  • Water Fountains are turned off throughout the zoo due to COVID.  However, any food vendor will provide you water for free.  They can not fill your water bottle for you, but they will give you a big cup of water that you can use to fill your water bottle. 
  • Several attractions are closed during COVID (at the time of publications).  This includes shows, animal encounters, play structures, the Kangaroo bus and any tours. The 4D theatre opened May 1st.


This was indeed one of the best zoos we have visited.  Large enclosures for the animals, a caring and dedicated fleet of staff and volunteers, and a clear statement of its mission that you could see throughout the park.  The kids oohed and ahhed over the animals, but I found the education stuck with them a lot longer than expected, as they told us random facts they read throughout the trip and into the next week.  And I have the chubby unicorn cup to remind me of how beautiful nature can be, and the amazing work that the San Diego Zoo is doing to keep our world’s wildlife here to stay. 

1st Timers Guide to the San Diego Zoo

* Starred Photos taken by Atma Photography

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