In addition to its famous SeaWorld, San Diego is home to two animal parks well worth stopping by. If you’re visiting San Diego on a tight schedule or limited budget, you may prefer only visiting one of the two.
Read our guide below to discover which animal park is the best for you and start planning your trip, today!
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo stretches over an area of more than forty hectares and is considered one of the biggest zoos in the world. It contains around eight hundred different species of animals and about four thousand specimens for visitors to enjoy. It also includes animals not commonly found in other zoos, like the giant panda and other endangered species.
Visitors can take part in events, interact directly with animals in their natural environment, or join themed itineraries- making for a fun and immersive experience. There is also a range of kids’ play areas, making the Zoo ideal for families.
Additionally, park admission and revenue are used to fund research and aid in conservation efforts and protection projects in forty-five countries across the globe. The park aims to protect many species worldwide and has aided in research on the giant panda for twenty-two years. It has also released specimens of forty-four different species into the wild.
The Zoo is located in Balboa Park, the largest park in San Diego. It is very easy to get there, regardless of which mode of transport you choose.
Balboa Park is located just eight minutes east of the San Diego International Airport. If you are driving, you can find it by entering “Zoo Drive” in your GPS and following the road to the park entrance. If you are using public transport, be sure to get off at the Park Boulevard and Zoo Place bus stop. Alternatively, you can make use of San Diego’s bike-sharing system.
Once inside the park, the San Diego Zoo is within walking distance and can be reached by following clear signs.
San Diego Zoo Hours
Guests will be delighted to know that the San Diego Zoo is open all year, every day, from nine AM to five PM. Tickets are sold in the form of day passes, of which there are two options to choose from.
Adult guests can purchase a basic Day Pass for fifty-eight USD, which includes admission to the whole park, a guided tour by bus, access to the Skyfari Aerial Tram, and access to the Kangaroo Express Bus. The basic Day Pass for children between three and eleven years costs forty-eight USD.
There is also the Day Pass Plus, which includes everything mentioned above, as well as admission to the 4D Theatre. The ticket price for adults is sixty-four USD, and fifty-four USD for children between three and eleven years.
If you aren’t on a tight budget or schedule, you can book the combined ticket which includes admission to both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park. Tickets can be booked in advance to avoid standing in long lines at the ticket office.
There are many things to do at the San Diego Zoo, from walking in tropical forests surrounded by tigers, storks, and tapirs to watching the feeding ritual of a pack of Tasmanian devils.
Because the park is home to several different areas, visitors have the chance to see wildlife from all over the globe in their natural habitats. The animals aren’t in cages, and their environments are well-kept.
There are many animals, from all twelve habitats, in the San Diego Zoo, namely:
- Desert – Including Brown Bears, Antelope, African Spurred Tortoises
- Prairie and Steppes – Including Bats, Andean Bears, Armadillos
- Temperate Forest and Taiga – Including Birds of Paradise, Giant Pandas, Dhole
- Island – Including Iguanas, Kingfishers, Lemurs
- Rivers and Lakes – Including Axolotls, African Pygmy Geese, Banded Archer Fish
- Tropical Rainforest – Including Babirusa, Agouti, Australian Brush-Turkeys
- Mountains – Including Chinchillas, Californian Condors, Coati
- Savanna – Including Bat-eared Foxes, Elephants, Cheetahs
- Tundra – Lynx, Bobcats, Polar Bears, Reindeer
- Ocean and Coastline – African Penguins, Bald Eagles, Dolphins
- Scrubland – Caracals, Clouded Leopards, Guanaco
- Wetlands – Capybara, Cranes, Opossums
Because the Zoo is so vast, it can be tiring walking around in the summer heat without a precise itinerary. Luckily, the Zoo includes several means of internal transportation to help guests get around the Zoo faster. These also typically include more information on the animals and their respective habitats.
The transportation options visitors can make use of in the Zoo include the Skyfari Aerial Tram, the Kangaroo Bus, and the Guided Bus Tour.
Skyfari Aerial Tram
The Aerial Tram is by far the most impressive mode of transport within the Zoo. It is made up of cable cars that cross from one end of the Zoo to the other, giving guests an exciting aerial view of the entire area. It is especially fun for children.
The Kangaroo Bus runs every day from ten-thirty AM to two-thirty PM. It runs every fifteen minutes and works like a shuttle, allowing guests to stop and get off or on at four designated areas.
Guided Bus Tour
This tour is included in all entrance tickets and consists of a ride on an open-top bus that takes guests on a half-hour tour of the entire Zoo. The bus runs from nine AM to four PM, and the tour guide provides fascinating information on a wide range of animals.
Shows and Themed Itineraries
While it can be nice to be in control of your own schedule, the San Diego Zoo is so big that wandering around by yourself may mean missing several fascinating habitats and animal exhibits. For this reason, the Zoo offers a wide variety of themed guided tours that help visitors make the most of their time there.
There is the Sunrise Photo Tour for photography enthusiasts, where guests can visit the park early in the morning before the gates open to the public. There are also encounters with animal ambassadors, like the Animals in Action Experience, scheduled at different times during the day, which allow guests to get close to and even touch certain animals.
If you’re in the mood for an animal show, you can stop by Wild About Animals. It is held every day at three PM, and trainers entertain visitors with their animal demonstrations.
And, if you’re visiting as a family, you can stop by Zoolittle Explores Australia on a Saturday or Sunday to meet the cheerful Dr. Zoolittle and learn more about his animals. The shows are held at twelve PM and one PM.
Finally, there is the 4D Theater, open to Day Pass Plus visitors and an excellent activity for kids.
Most visitors spend the entire day inside San Diego Zoo. So, unless you bring lunch with you, you may have to stop for food while you’re there. However, there is a wide variety of kiosks and restaurants to choose from, which means you’ll never be without a place to grab a bite to eat.
Albert’s Restaurant is open around lunchtime. There are also many places that serve fast food like pizza, fried food, and sandwiches, which can be enjoyed on the go. This is advised if you’re on a tight schedule, or you want to see as much as possible.
Other eateries include:
- San Diego Zoo Sandwich Co.
- Busy Bee Café
- Safari Kitchen
- Front Street Sweet Shack
- Sabertooth Mexican Grill
- Sydney’s Grill
- Hua Mei Café
- Treetops Bistro
- Lagoon Terrace
Or, if you’re looking for fast food, you can visit:
- Zoo Brew
- Bamboo Bar
- Sweet and Treats
- Jungle Snacks
- Jungle Java
- Kettle Korn
- Hua Mei Cones
- Tundra Treats
- The Pagoda
- Rocks Box
- The Bridge
- Ituri Hut
- Baboon Outpost
- Koala Cart
The Zoo is located inside one of the most beautiful areas in San Diego, making it well worth spending a night. It is also beneficial if you’re planning on visiting the Zoo early the next day, as you’ll be close enough to beat the worst of the crowds.
Balboa Park is home to beautiful walkways, public parks, Spanish Colonial mansions, and museums. There are also some great neighborhoods that make for ideal overnight locations, such as Hillcrest and North Park.
Hillcrest is vibrant, crowded, and artistic. It is also the center of San Diego’s LGBTQIAA+ community. There are various cafés, gathering places, and shops to enjoy.
North Park is equally dynamic and is known for its vibrant nightlife scene and late-night clubs.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Much like the Zoo itself, the Zoo Safari Park aims to recreate the natural habitats of its animals, but in even more breadth and detail. It is one of the world’s largest parks and has a wide range of exotic animals for visitors to enjoy, with many enclosures inspired by African savanna and forests.
Visitors can travel through the park with an off-road vehicle or a special trail, giving them the experience of an African Safari. It makes for some spectacular photo opportunities.
Some of the mammals that live in African vegetation include lions, gorillas, giraffes, and elephants. There are also several bird and reptile species.
However, African-themed enclosures aren’t the only things to be seen here. There are other parts of the park dedicated to other countries, as well, such as Walkabout Australia, World Gardens, and Asian Savanna. Other areas include Condor Ridge, African Outpost, Nairobi Village, African Plains, Tiger Trail, Lion Camp, African Woods, and Gorilla Forest.
The Safari Park offers Animal Ambassador shows. Or, if you’re fond of birds, you can stop by the Wings of the World Aviary or the Benbough Amphitheater – a great activity for the whole family.
Located around thirty minutes by car from Downtown San Diego, the Zoo Safari Park can be found on San Pasqual Valley Road. Taking a car is the recommended mode of transport, and daily parking is available for fifteen USD.
It is also possible to get to the Safari Park using public transportation, which often takes longer. Buses typically take around two and a half hours to reach the Park, and sometimes you will need to change buses halfway. Taking a bus also means you will need to walk part of the way there, from the Escondido Transit Center.
Alternatively, visitors can opt for round-trip transportation directly to the park, from their hotels. There is also the option to purchase tickets that include transportation and admission to the park.
San Diego Safari Park Hours
As with the San Diego Zoo, the Safari Park is open from nine AM to five PM every day, year-round.
For fifty-eight USD, adult visitors can purchase a Day Pass, which includes Safari Park admission and free admission to all shows, Cheetah Run, and the Africa Tram. The same ticket costs forty-eight USD for children between three and eleven.
Meet the Animals
When visiting the park, guests have the opportunity to learn more about the animals and meet them. At Nairobi Station there are cute animals visitors can pet or feed, like goats and parrots, and Frequent Flyers offers a closer look at birds like condors, eagles, and owls.
At nine-thirty AM and two-thirty PM, guests can meet alligators, cheetahs, and other rare animals with park rangers at Safari Base Camp. Guests can also meet a Sumatran Tiger at eleven forty-five AM.
If you’re fond of shows, you can watch incredible aerial tricks performed by birds of prey. There is also the exciting Balloon Safari, where guests can go high up in a hot air balloon for some breathtaking views of the park. Admission also includes Cheetah Run, if you’re interested in seeing how a cheetah hunts its prey (performed using a puppet).
If you’re visiting as a family, you can spend time at the Petting Kraal, a petting zoo with tame goats, or the Conservation Carousel, featuring sixty different rare and endangered animals. For six USD, young guests can take unlimited rides.
There are various ways to make your way around the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, including:
African Tram/ Safari Tram
The Africa Tram is included in every park admission – ideal for visitors trying to save money. The train runs every day, from ten AM, and takes visitors to most of the park’s main areas.
A Walk Through History
This is not included in admission but can be bought for twenty-nine USD. It is a walking tour, focused on teaching visitors all about the park’s fascinating history and its plans for the future.
This is not included in the Day Pass but can be booked for fifty-three USD. It is an hour-long guided tour, and visitors can choose between the Asia or Africa sections. The cart enters areas that are normally closed to visitors, which means animals can be seen from even closer.
This is not included in admission but can be purchased for seventy-seven USD. This zip-line tour offers visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and a spectacular bird’s-eye view of savanna wildlife, including rhinos and giraffes.
Behind The Scenes
This is not included in the admission price but can be purchased for eighty-seven USD. It consists of a series of guided tours, each lasting around ninety minutes, that provide more information about the animals. It is a great way to get close to wild animals.
This is not included in the ticket price but can be bought for eighty-nine USD per person. On this tour, visitors travel to the park’s expansive savanna habitats on the back of a covered open-air safari truck. They are accompanied by an expert guide who provides more information on the animals.
Sun-Up Cheetah Safari
This is not included in admission, but for ninety-nine USD, visitors can stop by the Safari Park early in the morning – before the gates open to the public. The park is calmer, and visitors get a chance to see exclusive sights, like cheetahs running at full speed.
This is not included in the ticket but can be purchased for one hundred and twenty-one USD. It is a two-hour safari in an off-roader, which takes visitors close to the wildlife to see incredible sights like giraffes feeding.
Roar and Snore Safaris
These are not included in admission but can be purchased for one hundred and forty-nine USD. Guests can choose between a variety of age-appropriate, themed sleepover categories and spend an overnight adventure at the San Diego Safari Park.
While this is not included in the ticket price, it can be purchased for six hundred and seventy-five USD. It is referred to as the experience of a lifetime, and this custom safari experience includes wildlife interactions, exclusive areas, and personalized service.
Much like the San Diego Zoo, it usually takes the entire day to visit the Zoo Safari Park. For this reason, most visitors either pack lunches or stop for lunch at one of the many dining options available.
It can be a great idea to check the available dining options in advance so that you don’t waste time trying to decide between them. Many people opt for fast food to eat on the go.
The dining options include:
- Kibo Cones and Snacks
- Mawazo Kitchen
- Tucker Truck
- Lion Camp Slush and Snacks
- Raptor’s Nest
- Thorntree Terrace
- Barking Deer Pizza and Beer
- Oasis Deli
- Macan Market
- Safari Coffee Outpost
- Rift Sand Bar
- Mombasa Cooker
- Okavango Outpost
- The Watering Hole at Kijamii Overlook
- Congo Kitchen
- Kalahari Cupboard
- The Sheared Sheep
Visitors will find the park on the outskirts of Escondido, making it a great place to stay overnight if you plan on visiting the Safari Park the next day. The city is located just thirty miles northeast of Downtown San Diego, in Southern California. It is a charming, historic city with great attractions, like craft breweries, wineries, and great dining options. The city also has a rich arts and culture scene, which means you’ll never be bored while staying here.
San Diego Zoo and Safari Park FAQs
What is the Lemur Walk?
The Lemur Walk is a way for visitors to spend time with ring-tailed lemurs at the Safari Park, walking along a pathway inside the habitat. It opens at nine AM and runs until the park closes at five PM. It can be very fun, especially when curious lemurs drop down from the trees to walk alongside visitors. Keep in mind that visitors have to be five years or older to be allowed in.
What is the Paws and Claws Inside Look Tour?
The Paws and Claws tour runs for an hour and a half and costs eighty-nine USD. It features special experiences with big cats and bears, such as a tiger keeper talk during which tiger keepers give visitors an inside look into how they look after their animals. Some of the animals included are Malayan tigers, sun bears, African lions, sloth bears, and grizzly bears.
How fast can a cheetah run?
It is estimated that cheetahs can run at speeds up to one hundred and thirty kilometers per hour. They can accelerate from standing still to one hundred kilometers per hour in just t seconds, which is faster than most racecars. However, cheetahs can only run that fast in short sprints while hunting.
What is a California Condor?
This is a type of vulture found in North America. It was listed as extinct in 1987 but has since been reintroduced in the wild in three U.S. states and Mexico.
Which animal ambassadors can I see at the San Diego Zoo/ Safari Park?
Some of the animal ambassadors visitors can expect to meet include armadillos, skinks, reptiles, giant anteaters, pythons, pygmy falcons, and porcupines.