Everybody loves the San Diego Zoo. We mean everybody—it’s the most popular zoo in America, drawing over 3 million visitors per year. And its popularity is well-deserved. The 100-acre preserve not only contains state-of-the-art exhibits showcasing some of the most interesting animals on the planet, it’s also one of the most beautiful zoos anywhere, with lush plantings of flowers and trees from as far away as Australia and Madagascar. But to navigate all those beautiful acres—and all those people—you need a plan. What are the best strategies for seeing the zoo? What are its hidden gems? And where can you grab a good cocktail after spending the day communing with lions and giraffes? Here's our guide to what you absolutely shouldn't miss.
Pandas are cuddly, pandas are adorable, pandas are very, very popular—which means that there are often big crowds thronging to glimpse the zoo’s panda trio: Xiao Liwu, Bai Yun, and Gao Gao. To ditch the mobs, sign up for the zoo’s new Early Morning With Pandas program ($89), which lets you into the zoo before it opens so you can have quiet quality time with the bamboo-chewing cuties.
Capuchin monkeys, colobus monkeys and northern black-crested mangabeys—who knew the planet contained so many different kinds of monkeys? You can see a whole mess of monkeys—many rare and endangered—in the zoo’s Lost Forest section, where the elevated Monkey Trail lifts you up into the forest canopy to give you close looks at our distant relatives.
Elephants are big—as much as 12,000 pounds—and noble and threatened in the wild, which makes the San Diego’s zoo Elephant Odyssey all the more essential to see. On view are five majestic pachyderms, one male bull elephant (Ranchipur) and four females. They’re mesmerizing, but there’s more to this fascinating exhibit. Like, for example, a fossil dig site where a simulated tar pit reminds you that California once hosted its own set of elephantine animals, notably the mammoths that inhabited the Golden State in the Pleistocene, 12,000 years ago.
Sure, aspiring wildlife photographers pay thousands of dollars to join photo safaris in Africa and Alaska. But for much less time and money, you can take world-class shots of world-class animals by joining one of the zoo’s photo workshops. Workshops run two days; there are classes designed for beginners and classes for experts, with one session focusing just on birds.
Seeing the zoo with somebody under the age of, oh, 8? The Children’s Zoo is a blessing. It’s easy to get to (right near the main entrance), and it has its own collection of animals appealing to kids, including a fossa from Madagascar (both the island and the movie) and some cool meerkats.
Ok, the food is decent, but not spectacular. But the thing about Albert’s Restaurant, the zoo’s signature dining spot, is that you’re eating in a tree house while looking out onto a waterfall. You almost expect to hear the hostess calling, “Tarzan, table for three.”
We love this secret spot because it’s an oasis of green quiet in the middle of the busy zoo. In Fern Canyon, a shady path leads you to lush plantings of jacarandas, honeysuckle, and, of course, ferns—including tree ferns that have grown 40 feet high. It’s a short walk that’s guaranteed to relax you.
Lions and wildebeests have their savannah watering holes. Human beings need watering holes, too. One of our favorites is Great Maple, a few blocks north of the zoo. They serve good salads, flatbreads, and burgers, but we’re especially devoted to cocktails like the Raspberry Old-Fashioned and an amazing array of Bloody Marys.