Getting decked out for the holidays has become a full-on extravaganza at San Diego’s world-class zoo, in Balboa Park, just north of downtown San Diego. Visit the annual Jungle Bells celebration, from mid-December through early January, and get into the spirit in ways only the San Diego Zoo can inspire. Take a ride on the Polar Express, which uses 4-D special effects (achieved with 3-D glasses, plus such enhancements as wind, mist, and snow!) to make you feel as if you’re riding to Santa’s North Pole home. Another 4-D movie adventure is Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas, where fans of the flick can join Manny, Sid, and Diego on a quest to get Sid off of Santa’s naughty list.
Twinkle Light Trolley lets you sit back and tour the grounds after dark, all the better to take in elaborate lighted displays such as the Northern Frontiers Holiday Forest, with specially designed lighting adorning trees, and displays of winter-loving animals. Also enjoy carolers, musicians, storytellers, elves flipping around in their trampoline Toy Hop Shop, and—of course—a huge decorated tree.
No holiday celebration is complete without a reading of the poem The Night Before Christmas, and here, it’s animal-themed, hosted by Dr. Zoolittle.
Outside the zoo, Balboa Park gets dolled up during the holidays too. Visit during the annual December Nights event for special music and dance performances, seasonal activities and crafts, carnival rides, holiday foods from around the world at the International Cottages, and spectacular displays in the historic Botanical Building.
Visiting this expansive zoo in San Diego’s Balboa Park is more than a chance to see animals from all over the world: it’s a chance to see one of the world’s finest facilities for seeing and learning about rare and endangered species, all in carefully naturalized enclosures spread across 100 acres/40 hectares in Balboa Park. More than 3,700 animals from 650 species are showcased here, including crowd-pleasers like giant pandas and fuzzy koala bears and intriguing oddities like naked mole rats.
Plan to spend at least a day at this extraordinary site, and wear comfortable shoes—you’ll likely do a lot of walking. If you have to cut your visit short, no worries: just log onto a collection of entertaining animal cams, which let you see what’s going on with the a variety of species—the koalas and pandas as well as Sumatran tigers, polar bears, California condors, and more—even if you’re not in the park.
With their cartoon-cute looks and roly-poly gait, the zoo’s giant pandas are no-brainer favorites. The zoo’s resident trio—Gao Gao, Bai Yun, and their child, Xiao Liwu (born in 2012)—lumber about in their bamboo-shaded enclosure, munching away on leaves (about 700 pounds of bamboo are harvested per week) and seemingly oblivious to their adoring fans. It’s a rare chance to see these charmers—only an estimated 1,600 giant pandas are left in the wild, roaming the high mountains of western China.
To avoid crowds, consider joining the Early Morning Panda Tour, which includes access to the park before gates officially open. You’ll see the bears get their breakfast, then take a guided shuttle tour of the zoo.
Whether it’s a bounding kangaroo, a feisty Tasmanian devil or a stuffed-animal-cute koala, the fascinating animals of Australia are an entertaining assortment. The extensive Conrad Prebys Australian Outback exhibit at San Diego Zoo aims to let you see and learn about these intriguing creatures—some of them extremely rare—in attractive enclosures that mimic their natural habitats Down Under and provide clever viewing areas.
For example, wide decks wrapping around Queenslander House (a replica of an 1800s house from Queensland, Australia) overlook the koala colony, putting you at eye level with the bear-like creatures. Here you can watch the fuzzy marsupials groom, nap (which they do a lot), lord it over their designated areas (male koalas are territorial) and eat from their high perches in the enclosure’s trees. See if you can spy little koalas, called joeys, clinging to their mother’s backs.
Inside Queenslander House, find out more about these animals with a peek inside the koala-food prep-kitchen, where the keepers prepare the tree-dwellers’ meals of the tender shoots, leaves and twigs of the eucalyptus tree. Walk to the nearby enclosures to hear cockatoos squawk, kookaburras (a bird known as the bushman’s alarm clock) trill, chortle and hoot, and see wallabies hop.
If you’d like a more in-depth experience, book the one-hour Discovery Cart Tour to learn more about koalas, kangaroos and other animals from knowledgeable guides, who will answer your questions and relate how the zoo’s conservation efforts are having an impact worldwide. These tours go to areas of the zoo not visited by the bus tours, and groups are small, so the guides can answer more of your questions.
Whether it’s a chance to get an early-morning peek at pandas, or a special sleepover once darkness falls, special tours and insider activities take you from just looking at zoo critters to learning even more about them, and even meeting special zoo “ambassador” animals. Inside Look tours let you learn more about the zoo’s elephants, polar bears, and other creatures. Themed sleepovers let families and adults bed down in snug tents in a special area of the zoo, and take private tours and walks after dark. The ultimate way to go? It’s undoubtedly the Exclusive VIP Experience, a totally customized tour where you can design a special tour that best fits your own interests, so you can talk with animal experts, see off-exhibit areas, and have special animal interactions.
Sure you’ll want to see lions, tigers, and panda bears, but take time to visit some of the zoo’s less familiar species too. In the tropical African rainforest exhibits of Lost Forest, you’ll expect to find gorillas and hippos, but bonobos? Believed to be one of the world’s most rare and intelligent animals, these primates have a fascinating and complex social structures ruled by females. In the Arctic area (fittingly situated at the north side of the park), you’ll find enormous polar bears, but also the beautiful arctic fox, with special adaptions, like hair on the bottoms of its paws to help grip on ice, for living in a wintry world.
From pandas and koala bears at its iconic zoo, to a remarkable collection of museums and gardens, this oasis in the heart of the city has been a vibrant part of San Diego culture for a hundred years. First and foremost, Balboa Park is a horticultural marvel: the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden alone has more than 130 varieties of roses (learn more about it and the rest of the park’s greenery on free, 1-hour Offshoot Tours, offered on Saturday morning).
Museums abound; local favorites include the Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Culture reigns supreme too: The Old Globe Theatre hosts its famed Shakespeare Festival each summer; live bands and outdoor film screenings abound.
All this, plus one of the world’s finest zoos. Over 3,700 animals from 650 species—many of them extremely rare— are showcased at the San Diego Zoo, with naturalized exhibits covered roughly 100 acres/40 hectares. Get a special look at the zoo’s three giant pandas by signing up for “Early Morning with Pandas,” visiting the panda viewing area before it officially opens for the day. Check the Balboa Park website for special events, and for ticketing deals bundling zoo and museum visits.
Like a journey to Africa, a day at this spectacular park lets you see some of the world’s most magnificent—and endangered—animals at close range and in expansive naturalized enclosures. A cart safari ride leads you past roaming groups of rhinos, gazelles, giraffes, and other species ranging freely through savannah-like expanses. African lions wrestle with their cubs in specially designed enclosures that look like part of the whole, but are safely contained from other animals. There’s plenty to see on foot too: the amazing Tiger Trail exhibit lets you get remarkable underwater views of Sumatran tigers swimming in the exhibit.
"Static-line hot-air balloon rides and a long, long zip line ride offer great views of the park and surrounding region."
For even more up-close looks at the park’s animals, book a premium behind-the-scenes tour, or take advantage of unique experiences offered such as the Cheetah Safari, where you can watch as these amazing cats reach speeds of up to 70 mph. Special Jungle Ropes Safaris are a great way for your little monkeys to burn off some steam. Static-line hot-air balloon rides and a long, long zip-line ride offer great views of the park and surrounding region. And for a California-style hint of what sleeping in the African bush might be like, Roar & Snore Safaris let you spend the night in large tents (some even have beds and electricity) at a campground overlooking the African Plains exhibit.
Come for the animals; then take time to see the plants. The park has extraordinary landscaped areas, all worth strolling. Especially beautiful in spring is the Nativescapes Gardens, focusing on drought-tolerant species adapted to the region’s sunny, dry climate. Free, guided tours are offered at 10 a.m. the second Saturday in April and May (allow about 30 minutes to get to the Nativescapes Garden entrance from the park’s entrance; find your way with this map).
Useful info: The park’s hours are Mondays and Tuesdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Individual safari tickets range in price from $50 to $150. Download the San Diego Zoo app to plan your trip and to better enjoy it once you’re there.