This justifiably famous zoo is one of SoCal’s biggest attractions, showing more than 3000 animals representing more than 650 species in a beautifully landscaped setting, typically in enclosures that replicate their natural habitats. Its sister park is San Diego Zoo Safari Park in northern San Diego County.
Arrive early, as many of the animals are most active in the morning – though many perk up again in the afternoon. Pick up a map at the zoo entrance to find your favorite exhibits.
The guided double-decker bus tour gives a good overview of the zoo with informative commentary: sitting downstairs puts you closer to the animals. Once you’ve made the loop, your ticket remains good for an express-bus service in the park, a big help if you’re unable to walk far. The Skyfari cable car goes right across the park and can save you some walking time, though there may be a line to get on it. Either way, you’re going to do a lot of walking: carry quarters for the electric foot-massagers located around the park. Inquire about facilities for disabled visitors.
With the largest colony of koalas outside Australia (they're featured in the Conrad Prebys Australian Outback exhibit) you'll be koalafornia dreamin', while the giant pandas are hugely popular, too. There are more than 3,000 lizard species but the Komodo dragon is king: this Indonesian reptile can grow up to 10ft long, and looks fearsome when striding menacingly around the reptile house.
Other bioclimatic environments include the 7.5-acre Elephant Odyssey; Tiger Trail, a re-created Asian passage; Gorilla Tropics, and the Sun Bear Trail, where the Asian bears are famously playful. Get close up view of polar bears swimming at the Northern Frontier, and hippos grazing in the water through thick pains of glass on the Hippo Trail.
The Monkey Trail takes you through an elevated path into the tree canopy where you can see capuchin, colobus and spot-nosed monkeys swinging around. The large, impressive Scripps Aviary has well-placed feeders to allow some close-up viewing. And you can walk beneath exotic species of winged creatures inside the Owens Aviary. Finally, don’t miss Africa Rocks, an 8-acre exhibit for African plants and animals, due to open for summer 2017.
The zoo gardens are renowned and some of the plants are used for the specialized food requirements of particular animals. Pick up a brochure for the self-guided botanical gardens tour.
And, of course, the zoo is made for kids, from animal shows to a children’s zoo exhibit (where youngsters can pet small critters). Both children and adults will enjoy the animal nursery, where you can see the zoo’s newest arrivals. Babies of various species are born every spring and summer.
To leave the zoo and return the same day, get a hand stamp from the information booth near the entrance. The zoo is located in the northern part of Balboa Park. The (free) parking lot and the zoo fill up on weekends. Bus 7 will get you there from downtown.