Lions, tigers and (bison?) oh my! Those searching for an enjoyable day of animal exploration and education in San Francisco should check out the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens. Open 365 days a year, this zoo is home to more than 2,000 exotic, endangered, and rescued animals, hosting 100-plus acres of greenery and garden spaces, right in the heart of the city.
What animals can you see at San Francisco Zoo?
Regardless of the day or time of visiting the zoo, guests can check out a wide range of fascinating exhibits. Visit the Leanne B. Roberts African Savanna habitat which offers a multi-species landscape home to giraffes, zebras, ostriches, storks, and more.
Over at Hearst Grizzly Gulch, visitors can get (safely) up close and personal with rescued grizzly sisters, Kachina and Kiona. Lemurs prance throughout the Lipman Family Lemur Forest, which is the largest outdoor lemur habitat in the country -- and according to the zoo’s website, Penguin Island is home to the largest colony of Magellanic penguins outside of the wild.
The Zoo’s troop of gorillas are at the lush Jones Family Gorilla Preserve. Finally, find farm animals for feeding and petting at the Fisher Family Children’s Zoo. This attraction is actually home to a few important historic sites right on its grounds, too.
The zoo hasn’t always been a leading light in animal welfare; in the mid-2000s, according to a Commission of Animal Control and Welfare meeting, the zoo was accused of having cages that were too small and conditions that were inhumane. Nowadays, things have improved immensely and there’s a strong focus here on animal wellness. There’s a dedicated Wellness and Conservation Center, where the zoo uses studies and techniques to implement practices that ensure all the resident animals are thriving.
Visitors won’t find elephants at The San Francisco Zoo & Gardens, because the formerly used elephant compound was too small for comfort, and the animals were relocated a long time ago to destinations with larger spaces.
The San Francisco Zoo & Garden’s Dentzel Carousel is a valuable piece of history as one of the last remaining machines created by world-renowned carousel builder, William H. Dentzel, back in 1921. And of course, it’s open to children and adults of all ages because you're never too old to ride the carousel!
Next, check out the rare miniature steam train affectionately referred to as “Little Puffer” -- a real life “little engine that could.” This little train is pushing a century in age, and is one of only three remaining 22-inch gauge engines left in the world. After two decades in storage, it was lovingly welcomed back by the community and local railroad enthusiasts back in 1998.
Another attraction of the SF Zoo is the local bison, which have lived in this area since 1891 (even longer than Little Puffer!) and are located at the Bison Paddock in Golden Gate Park under the management of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (but cared for by animal staff).
Visitors can dine inside the zoo grounds at Leaping Lemur Café, The Station Pizza Parlor, or Café Playfield-- or head off-site after a day of adventure at one of dozens of great local spots nearby. Guests may bring their own food and beverages into the Zoo but no glass containers or alcohol are allowed in.
How to get there
The zoo is located at the intersection of Sloat Boulevard and the Great Highway, which runs along the coast of San Francisco's West peninsula. Parking is available at the Zoo on weekends and holidays for $13 and on weekdays for $11. Parking is free for guests with a disabled placard. There is also short-term free parking nearby in adjacent neighborhoods for visitors who are willing to walk.
Even though it’s a large parking lot, purchase a pre-paid parking ticket before visiting to avoid first-come first-served searching for a spot upon arrival. The zoo’s parking lot even hosts three Tesla charging towers for electric car owners.
Admission, reservations, pricing and programs
Admission prices can vary, but can be found regularly updated on the website. Prices go up to $25, with affordable access program discounts and local rates making it a lower cost option for a day of adventure.
Note that advanced reservations are currently required due to the capacity restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, and all guided tour experiences are currently on-hold, but traditionally guests can explore these exhibits on one-of-a-kind guided tours, to learn more about the animals, the gardens and the area’s rich history.
As of August 17, zoo gates open for pre-reserved times starting at 10am and closing at 5pm. The zoo itself takes roughly 60 - 90 minutes to explore, but can easily be drawn out by slowing down to enjoy the wide range of attractions within the park.
There are also a variety of tailored educational programs for visitors of all ages to try -- from kids camps, to adult focused “BikeAbout” tours and Ocean Explorer programs. There are wheelchair accessible tours as well and all the viewing areas on the Animal Amble, Gardens Tour and Senior Stroll are wheelchair or stroller accessible. Be forewarned that no tours are ever offered from Thanksgiving through New Years.
Where to grab a bite to eat and spend the night
Nearby attractions for a side trip afterward include Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach -- both of which are fantastic places to catch a sunset (if it’s an evening without the famous San Francisco fog layer, which is still beauty in itself).
After a day of exploring the world’s flora and fauna, relax with a bite to eat and a brew at local favorite, Sunset Reservoir Brewing Company, a modern, 2-story tavern creating craft brews served alongside tasty American food, with a large outdoor dining space.
At night, retire to The Ritz Carlton, San Francisco which is situated in the heart of the city’s upscale Nob Hill neighborhood, with sights of the San Francisco Bay and downtown skyline. It’s accessible to the zoo, while also being a short walking distance to neighborhoods to pay a visit like Chinatown and Union Square.