15 Must-See San Diego Zoo Exhibits and Attractions | 2021


San Diego Zoo has 650 animal species in 100 acres. It’s impossible to see every exhibit in one day. But you can see all of the top San Diego Zoo attractions. Here’s what they are, what makes them special, and the best order in which to visit them all in a day. Don’t just start walking in a random direction as I did on my first visit!

San Diego Zoo Penguins on list of must-see exhibits and attractions

Top 15 Animal Exhibits & Attractions at the San Diego Zoo

  1. Guided Bus Tour – a great overview of the Zoo
  2. Polar Bear Plunge – diving bears
  3. Gorilla Tropics – great apes, green, lush exhibit
  4. Koalas – the kings and queens of cuteness
  5. South African Penguins swimming with the sharks
  6. Feed giraffes – an unforgettable experience, cheap
  7. Lions – on the biggest cat trees you’ve ever seen
  8. Elephant Care Center – pachyderm pedicures
  9. Hippos – grace underwater
  10. Red Pandas & Snow Leopards – cuteness
  11. California Condors – monster-sized birds 
  12. Swamp Monkeys Playing with Otters – for giggles
  13. Orangutan Trail – they think you’re fascinating
  14. Lemurs & Leopards in Africa Rocks – animal drama
  15. Hike Fern Canyon Trail – because it’s beautiful

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Best Viewing Order for the Top 15 San Diego Zoo Exhibits and Attractions (to save you time and steps)

  1. Guided Bus Tour
  2. Gorillas in Lost Forest
  3. Hippos in Lost Forest
  4. Swamp Monkeys & Otters in Lost Forest
  5. Red Pandas & Snow Leopards at Asian Passage
  6. Polar Bear Plunge
  7. Lions at Elephant Odyssey
  8. Elephant Care Center
  9. California Condors at Elephant Odyssey
  10. Feed Giraffes in the Urban Jungle
  11. Koalas in Australian Outback
  12. Lemurs & Leopards in Africa Rocks
  13. Penguins in Africa Rocks
  14. Orangutans at Orangutan Trail
  15. Hike Fern Canyon Trail

For 30 more ways to save money visiting the animals, check out my San Diego Zoo discount tickets page.

#1 Take a Guided Bus Tour for a San Diego Zoo Preview

San Diego Zoo Guided Bus Tour

The Guided Bus Tour is one of San Diego Zoo’s best attractions for four good reasons:

  1. It gives you a great overview of the zoo’s layout. And it helps you plan which exhibits you may want to return to later in the day. 
  2. The tour operators will let you know about recent zoo baby births and additions to the collection
  3. Sometimes the best views of the hippos and tigers are from the tour bus.
  4. You can see about 70% of the zoo within 35 minutes. And it’s included with your admission.

INSIDER TIPS:

Sit on the driver’s right hand side of the bus on the upper deck. You’ll see more animals and more of the zoo.

On sunny afternoons you may want to ride in the bottom level of the bus. San Diego sun can feel quite intense on the upper deck of the bus because there’s no shade up there.

You might want to skip the Guided Tour Bus if you have a squirmy toddler. If the thought of your little tyke sitting still for more than half an hour makes you laugh hysterically, don’t ride the bus with them. Take your tot on a quick side trip to watch the flamingos while the rest of your group rides around the zoo. 

BONUS: Ride Skyfari Aerial Tram for a Scenic Zoo Shortcut

This aerial gondola ride takes you from the entrance to the Children’s Zoo all the way across the canyon to the entrance to Elephant Odyssey. The overhead views of the Zoo and the tower of the Museum of Man in Balboa Park are justifiably famous. It’s also a great way to cool off on hot summer days.

#2 Visit the Gorillas in San Diego Zoo’s Lost Forest

San Diego Zoo gorillas - mom and baby Joanne
Photo by San Diego Zoo

Gorillas have been the most popular animals at the San Diego Zoo since the 1930’s. And that’s unlikely to change any time soon. People love interacting with them, especially their babies and youngsters. As for the apes, they can’t understand why you silly primates stay on the hard concrete outside their enclosure when it’s so green and lush inside Gorilla Tropics.

The best time to see the gorillas is before 4 PM. Sometimes the gorillas choose to go into their back room then to get away from their adoring public. There are no set feeding times. But leaves, fruit and other food is put out 6 times a day.

Don’t ever bang on the viewing glass or yell. Don’t let your offspring do it either. It’s just rude. Gorillas are intelligent and express many of the emotions that we do. How would you like it if some stranger started banging on the windows of your home and shouting at you?

INSIDER TIPS:

Take the Monkey Trail to get to the Gorilla exhibit. It’s not as quick as Treetops Way, but there’s so much more to see along this route. The path goes by my favorite monkey, the spectacular black and white Colobus

#3 See Hippos Running Underwater in Lost Forest

San Diego Zoo baby hippo running underwater.
Bounding baby hippo!

The hippos are one of the top exhibits at the San Diego Zoo because you can have a safe, close-up experience with one of the most dangerous animals on the planet.

Hippos aren’t fat and clumsy, but they are big (with enormous teeth). They’re the size of a white rhino, but they bound along the bottom of their habitat like big balloons. Before I saw this exhibit I couldn’t imagine where the Disney artists got the idea for the hippo ballerinas in “Fantasia”. Now a hippo with a tutu makes a lot of sense.

Hippos prance along stream beds because they cannot swim. Which is strange, since they’re the closest living relatives to whales. (Want to see whales in San Diego? Go to Cabrillo National Monument Kelp and Whale Overlook). Their bodies are too dense. So they make use of clear eye membrane goggles and nose flaps to keep the water out between bounces to the surface to take quick breaths.

INSIDER’S TIPS: 

The hippos like to hang out on the left side of their pool. There’s always a crowd of people there. This is especially true if there’s a baby out on exhibit that day. If you’re taking photos with a cell phone you’ll need a bit of patience to get close to the glass. Be patient, the view’s worth it. 

If you’ve got small children they’ll have fun playing on the big bronze hippo sculpture. The statue is surrounded by that squishy playground surfacing to keep them from skinning their knees if they fall down. 

#4 Swamp Monkeys and Otters Playing in Lost Forest Will Make You Smile

The Swamp Monkeys and Otters are top animals at San Diego Zoo because you get lots of monkey business when you combine baby guenons with frisky otters.

African spotted necked otters are naturally curious, intelligent, and playful. They’re always investigating, hunting, or playing with something. They like to wrestle and play tag with each other both in the water and on the land. 

They’ve learned to play tag with the African spotted necked otters. They touch the otters’ tails and run away and the otters chase them.

#5 Red Pandas & Snow Leopards at Asian Passage – Cute & Beautiful

San Diego Zoo red panda

The cute red pandas and gorgeous snow leopards in Asian Passage make this San Diego Zoo exhibit a  top attraction. This area of the zoo used to get a lot more attention before the giant pandas went back to China in 2019.  But it’s still worth visiting because red pandas are the most adorable creatures that you’ve probably never heard of. And the snow leopards are still eye-poppingly gorgeous.. 

RED PANDAS

About the only things that the red pandas have in common with the giant panda is that they eat bamboo leaves and they’ve got a fake thumb.

These red and white raccoon-like creatures are vegetarian carnivores. That seems contradictory. But it just means that they eat mainly plants in spite of belonging to the Carnivore biological order that includes cats, dogs, and bears. 

San Diego Zoo snow leopard
Photo by Bob Ulrich

SNOW LEOPARDS 

These beautiful cats are called the “ghosts of the mountains” because they’re able to blend into their mountain habitat so easily that they seem to disappear. Add to this the fact that they’re solitary hunters and very rare and you have the stuff of legends. 

And if you’re a red panda they’re likely to call you lunch.

INSIDER’S TIP:

The big cats often get fed frozen white rabbits on Sunday mornings. You may want to avoid this exhibit if someone in your group is likely to be upset by this. Other times a large femur is hung where they have to jump up to successfully “kill” it and eat.

#6 Watch Polar Bears Plunge in Northern Frontier

San Diego Zoo polar bear

The polar bears in Northern Frontier are a  don’t miss San Diego Zoo exhibit because they’re so much fun to watch. And the observation windows at Polar Bear Plunge make it easy both when they’re on land and in the water.

They’re intelligent and playful. They like to prank each other. Have you ever snuck up on a friend in a pool and then jumped in with a cannonball splash to startle them? That’s what the polar bears do too.

They also love junk food. Only in their case the empty calorie snacks are carrots. They can’t digest them, but the bears love them. 

Polar bears are really black. Their fur is not white, but translucent. It only appears white because it reflects visible light back at you.

INSIDER’S TIP: The polar bears’ favorite diving rock is in building 27. There’s plenty of seating in the shade inside. It’s a great place to rest and be entertained, especially on hot days. 

#7 Listen to Lions Roar at Elephant Odyssey

San Diego Zoo lion about to roar.
Photo by Bob Ulrich

The lions have been one of the top animals at San Diego Zoo since its beginning. That was shortly after the  1915-16 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. 

In their glassed-in den, you’ll see just how enormous they really are, from their big teeth to their huge claws and paws. Males weigh up to 550 pounds and can reach 10 feet long. That’s HUGE.

You’ll likely find these laziest of cats asleep, (they can sleep 16-20 hours per day), but there’s plenty of other things to see around the lions’ enclosure too.

Check out the jaguars’ enclosure next door. They’re more likely to be awake. And they may be fishing in their stream.

The Fossil Portal's "tar pit" at Elephant Odyssey in San Diego Zoo

Don’t miss the Fossil Portal’s ‘tar pit’ that empties and reveals ancient lion and mastodon bones.

There’s usually a replica of a saber-tooth tiger skull that you can touch. Run your fingers behind the large front teeth and feel the serrated edges that helped them puncture the thick hides of their prey.

INSIDER TIPS:

Remain alert. If you see the male lion turn his back on you and raise his tail, walk quickly away…immediately. At least turn away or shield your face. Male lions can spray up to 10 feet and it really stinks. He’s not being mean, he’s just feeling a bit crowded and wants all the people to know who’s really the boss of this territory.

#8 See Pachyderms Get Pedicures at Elephant Care Center

San Diego Zoo Elephant Care Center - elephant pedicure.
Photo by San Diego Zoo

The Elephant Care Center is a San Diego Zoo must-see because it’s so unusual. Seriously, you’re not the least bit curious about a spa for elephants? You’ll see these gentle giants getting their nails and foot calluses filed by a wood rasp. They get garden hose showers and back scratches from brooms.

Elephant gets an eye exam and a compliment on her lush lashes at the Elephant Care Center in the Elephant Odyssey exhibit at San Diego Zoo.
Photo by San Diego Zoo. Caption added by SanDiegoing.com

This facility houses geriatric elephants from Safari Park and other zoos from throughout the US. It’s heartwarming to see the hard work of the keepers as they care for these elders. And the elephants appear to enjoy all the primping and fussing that they get in their ‘spa’.

There are also plenty of opportunities to view elephants in more conventional settings. They’ve got room to roam, ‘browse’ from feeding stations, and even take a bath in a pond.

INSIDER TIPS:

Secretary bird in the Elephant Odyssey exhibit at San Diego Zoo makes a comment, "Secretary bird? We're called Administrative Avians now. And I demand more snakes."

Don’t miss the spectacular secretary birds. They’re on the other side of the path across from the Elephant Care Center. These stork-like birds have a gorgeous red and yellow-skinned head with a fanciful crest of grey feathers and an impressive beak. They’re also sometimes tamed because they eat venomous snakes. It’s hard not to take a great photograph of them. 

#9 Catch California Condors Scavenging In Elephant Odyssey

California condor at San Diego Zoo's Elephant Odyssey

The California Condors are a San Diego Zoo top attraction because they’re monster truck-sized birds and one of the biggest conservation success stories anywhere. 

In 1982 there were only 22 of these magnificent birds left in the wild. The San Diego Zoo was given permission by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to start a zoological propagation program to save the species. By 1987 they were extinct in the wild. In 1988 the first zoo-bred California condor was born. More followed and the first ones were reintroduced to the wild. Now the world population of California condors is more than 500 and rising by about 50 per year. More than 330 are soaring free in the wild.

Everything about California condors is mega jumbo. Their bodies reach 4 to 5 feet long. Their wingspan can stretch 10 feet from wingtip to wingtip. They soar up to a cloud-piercing 15,000 feet, almost 3 miles up. They’ve been clocked flying at 56 mph and sometimes fly 160 miles in a day in search of carrion. They live 60 years in the wild. 

#10 Feed Giraffes in the Urban Jungle

San Diego Zoo giraffes will photobomb for biscuits.

The giraffes in Urban Jungle are one of the top animals at San Diego Zoo because they’re startlingly HUGE. Even if you’ve seen giraffes before, this exhibit is unique because you and the giraffes are standing at the same level.

We humans have a hard time grasping just how big they are in comparison to us. Feeding them brings their enormous heads down to our level where we can look them in the eye and say, “WOW”.

If you cannot get to the Zoo in time for the giraffe feedings, go to the Urban Jungle to see these graceful giants anyway. They’re still impressively large.

INSIDER TIPS:

Giraffe feedings take place Saturdays and Sundays from 12 noon to 1 PM.  You can Buy 3 giraffe biscuits for $15 starting at 11:30 AM. The giraffe treats are sold from a small shed behind Sydney’s Grill. This experience isn’t listed on the Zoo website because it is dependent upon the health of the animals and available zoo personnel.

#11 Capture Koala Cuteness in Australian Outback

Koala at Australian Outback at San Diego Zoo
Koala photo by Bob Ulrich

The koalas in Australian Outback are one of San Diego Zoo’s top attractions because this is the largest breeding colony of koalas outside of Australia. The viewing experience is actually better than seeing them in the wild in Australia, because they’re in trees at your eye level. You don’t have to put a cramp in your neck or suffer eyestrain from trying to spot them in 100 foot tall eucalyptus trees. 

It’s also a must-see because koalas have faces that look like they’ve just eaten chocolate dunked in bliss. They’re a dopamine flood in your reward center that you need, nay, deserve!

People always ask, can you pet the koalas? The short answer is that you cannot. For all their cute looks, they’re very unpredictable. They could hurt you or themselves. If you are interested in closer animal encounters see my page on holding animals at the San Diego Zoo

INSIDER TIPS: 

Keepers put out new eucalyptus leaves in the mornings. The koalas will be a bit more active then. They may even have their adorable button eyes open!

Do you want photos of your kids with koalas? There’s a climbing sculpture with bronze koalas on it that’s perfect. And if your child happens to fall down, the ground is covered with that spongy playground material. 

#12 Watch the Lemurs Tease Leopards at Africa Rocks

Photo by Bob Ulrich

This is a San Diego Zoo must see exhibit because lemurs are treetop ninja masters with a mischievous streak a mile wide. There are five different species here; ring-tailed, red ruffed, red-collared, and blue-eyed black lemurs, along with Coquerel’s sifakas.

Even though their natural predators are the nearby fossa, they recognize that the Amur leopards in the enclosure next door as hunters too. The lemurs also know that those big spotted animals can’t reach them. So the lemurs get close to their common fences to keep a careful watch. That gets the cats all excited and you’ll see crouched leopard tails twitch with anticipation. 

Amur leopard watching the lemurs at Africa Rocks in San Diego Zoo.
Amur leopard photo by Bob Ulrich

Then the lemurs bound away through the trees with incredible acrobatic ease. The cat then usually sits up like it was never really interested in lemur lunch and starts grooming itself. That’s typical cat behavior. But as soon as the lemurs come back it gets excited again. 

INSIDER TIP: 

Are you a little squeamish? These leopards are also often fed on Sunday mornings. Seeing the cats tear apart bunnies can be a bit upsetting for some kids and adults. If that’s the case, hurry on downhill towards the distraction of happily playing lemurs. 

Also, the leopards in Africa Rocks are Asian Amur leopards, not the African ones. That’s because the San Diego Zoo is part of the Amur leopard species survival plan and the space is needed for a breeding group of these big cats.

#13 See Penguins Flying Underwater at Africa Rocks

San Diego Zoo penguin swimming underwater at the Africa Rocks exhibit.
Photo by Bob Ulrich

The African penguins & leopard shark aquarium at San Diego Zoo is one of the largest of its kind.  It’s 170 feet long — that’s longer than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is tall. The aquarium is 13 feet deep in spots. The 200,000-gallon saltwater pool has a wave-making machine to mimic gentle surf rolling ashore on a cobblestone beach.

Their underwater observation area has 12 foot tall windows and benches where you can watch the penguins zig-zag and dart in their pool. They steer with their feet and “fly” through the water with their short, flat, stiff wings.

Penguins like being hand-fed sardines, caplin, and night smelt. They swallow them whole, head first. And when they’re waiting for food you can hear them make a noise like a braying donkey. That’s the reason why they’re also known as “jackass” penguins. 

Leopard shark swimming in the aquarium with the African penguins at Africa Rocks in the San Diego Zoo.
Leopard shark photo by Bob Ulrich

Another unusual feature of this exhibit is the leopard sharks. No one else has ever housed these sharks with South African penguins. The aquatic birds live with gully sharks in their native waters. Leopard sharks found off the coast of San Diego fill the same niche as the gully sharks. So the decision was made to showcase a local species instead of shipping the gully sharks thousands of miles. 

Even though the female sharks can grow to be 7 feet long (males are smaller), they are no threat to the penguins. Leopard sharks are bottom feeders and eat clams, crabs, squid, fish eggs, and small fish.

INSIDER TIPS: 

This is a wonderful place to relax and cool off on hot days. The underwater viewing area is in the shade and there are plenty of benches to sit on. 

Sometimes, if the penguins are hungry, or especially curious, they’ll watch and follow you or your kids. It’s good to know that they’re well cared for enough to be as curious about you as you are about them. 

#14 Watch Orangutans Watching You at Orangutan Trail

San Diego Zoo orangutan cheeked male offers forest wisdom. "You did not wake up today to argue with a melon...Just EAT it."

The orangutan exhibit is a San Diego Zoo don’t miss experience because of their intense intelligence and curiosity about us. And we’re fascinated by their long arms and prehensile feet that make climbing trees look like arboreal ballet. Their habitat is also beautiful with lush greenery, ponds and flowing water.  

Orangutans are known as the “old men of the forest”. They’re introspective, unlike chimps or gorillas (and some humans). When they have a problem to solve they don’t monkey around wasting a lot of energy trying one thing after another. They carefully observe. Then at the right time, they take one very specific action, applying just enough effort to get what they want. They’re like Yoda with orange fur. 

The most famous San Diego Zoo orangutan was Ken Allen. This male Bornean orangutan became a San Diego folk hero. He had his own fan club, t-shirts & bumper stickers. He was dubbed “Hairy Houdini” after several escapes from his enclosure in the 1980s. But he wasn’t really serious about escaping the zoo. He’d be waiting just outside his exhibit when the keepers came in the next morning.

Memorial plaque for Ken Allen, San Diego Zoo's most famous orangutan.

INSIDER TIPS: Ken Allen has a memorial plaque at the San Diego Zoo. It’s located on the opposite side of the path from the orangutans’ enclosure.

#15 Hike Fern Canyon Trail, the Most Scenic Part of the Zoo

Waterfall on Fern Canyon Trail in San Diego Zoo with jacaranda blossoms in a pool below.

Walking down Fern Canyon is a San Diego Zoo must-do because it’s the most beautiful, secluded part of it. The path is lushly planted and periodically crosses a meandering downhill stream and several waterfalls. But you have to be in good physical condition to appreciate it. 

Jacaranda blossoms on a large leaf found on Fern Canyon Trail in San Diego Zoo.

It’s just past where the Orangutan Trail meets Treetop Way, but before the bus ticket booth. 

INSIDER TIPS:

Don’t try to walk up or down Fern Canyon Trail if you’ve got bad knees. It has many steps. Another way of looking at it is that it’s a great workout for your core muscles, glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. 

Fern Canyon Trail is also not suitable for strollers. The easier alternate route to the exit is to take the elevator to the top at Bashor Bridge.

Don’t Miss These Attractions Coming in 2021

Some of the major attractions and exhibits were undergoing renovation or being rebuilt entirely when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the zoo to close temporarily. Because of this, I didn’t include them in this San Diego Zoo must-see list. They will be added as they are completed. 

Explore the New Denny Sanford Children’s Zoo

This totally new children’s zoo will have four different climate zones. It will have plenty of hands-on activities and will include some digitally enhanced environments that respond to your presence. It is scheduled to open in 2021. In the meantime, there is no Children’s zoo at San Diego Zoo. 

Let the Hummingbird Aviary Birds Bedazzle You

The small hummingbird aviary is being expanded to house twice the number of birds. There will be separate rooms to house different species that come from wildly different environments. 

Closing Thoughts

I hope that you find this list of the best San Diego Zoo animal exhibits to be helpful when you’re planning your visit. I’ve done my best to let you know not only which ones are not to be missed, but what makes them special.

If you liked this article, you may also be curious about what you should see and do at San Diego Safari Park. It’s the lesser-known animal preserve 35 miles north in Escondido, California. But it’s well worth the trip.

Let me know HERE how I can make this article on the top must-see San Diego Zoo attractions even more useful to you.

Nancy Ulrich

I'm nuts...about animals, polymer clay, mixed media art & husband Bob. Happily planted in San Diego among good friends, family that I would have chosen if given the choice and optimism for a bountiful future for us all.

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