San Diego’s must-see attraction is worth prioritizing if you have limited time here. One of the largest and most popular zoos in the world, the San Diego Zoo is famous for its leading role in conservation efforts and its innovative approach to habitats. It’s home to about 3,500 animals, representing about 650 species, many of which you won’t see at other zoos. Ever met an okapi, a gerenuk, or a giant eland? There’s a lot to see here, so budget at least two hours, more if you can.
If the last time you visited a city park you saw animals in small, depressing cages, you’re in for a big surprise. San Diego Zoo is known for spacious enclosures that recreate the animals’ natural habitats while also making it easy for visitors to get a clear view, and zoos around the world have followed its example. Not all animals are on display all the time—most also have off-display habitats for when they need a break from the paparazzi. San Diego’s warm climate means the zoo grounds are lush with trees and exotic plants, making a walk through some parts of the zoo feel more like a walk through the jungle.
If you’re exploring San Diego with kids, it’s easy to see why the zoo should be on your list. But if you’re traveling alone or with adults, that’s no reason you should miss out. While the areas near popular animals like lions, tigers, and bears can get a bit crowded or noisy, much of the park is surprisingly tranquil and allows for up-close animal experiences. Inside the Scripps Aviary, for example, visitors can get within inches of spectacular birds like the toucan or the cock-of-the-rock in an immersive rainforest environment.
The best way to see everything is to explore the zoo on foot, but that could easily take four or more hours. If you don’t have that much time, consider riding the “Discovery Cart” for an hour-long guided tour. Or, you can see the whole park from high above the treetops on the “Skyfari” gondolas.
Cover photo: Dan Croft.