From rainforest canopies to luminous kelp beds teeming with sea life, California’s zoos and aquariums give you unforgettable glimpses of amazing animals in naturalistic habitats. Watch giant pandas amble through a miniature forest before they kick back with a snack of bamboo. Or look through underwater viewing windows to watch endangered California sea otters swim and dive. You can easily spend a full day at these outstanding attractions, many with special programmes and behind-the-scenes experiences. Attractions here are listed south to north.
Catch a glimpse of Pacific Ocean habitats, from the north-west’s frigid waters to the tropical ecosystems of Mexico and beyond at La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. High on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, 20 minutes north of downtown San Diego, this aquarium offers exhibits on a wide range of marine creatures, ranging from big whales to bizarre weedy sea dragons, a type of seahorse. Coral reef exhibits shimmer with tropical fish as well as chambered nautilus and lionfish. Get a closer look at sea stars, squishy sea cucumbers and other near-shore marine life in the aquarium’s outdoor touch pools in the Preuss Tide-Pool Plaza.
Thanks to its affiliation with the adjacent Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the aquarium presents plenty of cutting-edge scientific discoveries too. It is a great way to get a deeper appreciation of that beautiful ocean stretching to the horizon.
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 naturalised enclosures. A tram ride leads you past roaming groups of rhinos, gazelles, giraffes and other species roaming 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 Tiger Trail exhibit.
"Static-line hot air balloon rides and a very long zip line ride offer great views of the park and surrounding region."
For an even more up-close look at the park’s animals, try a premium behind-the-scenes tour, or unique experiences such as the Cheetah Safari where you can watch as these amazing cats reach speeds up to 70 mph. Special Jungle Ropes Safaris are a great way for your little monkeys to let off some steam. Static-line hot air balloon rides and a very 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 campsite overlooking the African Plains exhibit.
Come for the animals; then take time to see the plants. The park has extraordinary landscaped areas, all worth a stroll. 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 10am on the second Saturday in April and May.
No time for an African safari or Amazon adventure? Then take a walk on the wild side at the remarkable—and remarkably varied—Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens in L.A.’s Griffith Park. Explore tropical habitats at Rainforest of the Americas, and observe chimps in a natural setting of waterfalls, palm trees, and rock formations in Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains. (World-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall praised the chimps’ digs as one of the world’s outstanding zoo habitats.)
The 133-acre L.A. Zoo is home to more than 1,100 animals, including 29 endangered species. Get close-up (but safe) looks at spectacular Sumatran tigers, deadly Komodo dragons, and bright-orange orangutans. The zoo is also a horticultural paradise with more than 7,500 individual plants. And, as you’ll discover in the kid-friendly California Condor Rescue Zone, it has played a key role in bringing the iconic California condor back from the brink of extinction.
If visiting during the winter holiday season, stick around until after sunset to see the elaborate holiday lights show, Zoo Lights. With a cup of hot cocoa in hand, you can walk through shimmering light tunnels and a disco-ball forest, watch larger-than-life animal-shaped displays, and meet real reindeer.
Insider tip: Go nose-to-nose with a mama hippo and her baby at the zoo’s Hippo Encounter.
A secret gem along the Los Angeles County Coast, this expansive complex along the Long Beach waterfront showcases marine life from around the world. Banish the thought of little square tanks with plastic labels identifying puny schools fish. This aquarium joins the ranks of the world’s best, with enormous floor-to-ceiling windows letting you peer into entire underwater ecosystems. Step inside to walk beneath life-size whale models hung from the ceiling or to peer into the room-size, neon-bright coral reef exhibit, swirling with colourful fish. Exhibits continue outside, including a Magellanic penguin enclosure, where you can watch the comical birds swim underwater as well as waddle on land. Touch pools filled with tidal creatures let children get a closer look at native creatures living along the Southern California coast.
Special events include guest lectures on everything from global warming to saving sea turtles. Check ahead for free, open to all ages Friday evening events around the Shark Lagoon, where you will be able to touch harmless bamboo sharks and bigger species as well as rays in the aquarium’s Shark Lagoon. Night-life in the Long Beach area gets a boost from the aquarium’s monthly Night Dive event, open to ages 18 and over, with live bands, DJs and other activities.
Talk about survival skills. The animals and plants on show at this extraordinary attraction shed light on the amazing adaptions that make it possible to survive in the desert’s harsh environment. Walk through an incredible array—more than 1,400 species in all—of cacti, yucca, and other desert plants that grow in California’s Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, as well as other deserts around the world. You’ll see—and learn about—desert animals too, some of them undeniable charmers. African meerkats rise up on their hind legs, swaying as they pivot their heads and sniff the air. Desert foxes, with enormous bat-like ears, curl up tight for afternoon naps. And giraffes crane their necks and stretch out extraordinarily purple tongues to nibble on grasses outside their enclosures.
Cool morning tends to be the best time to see animals in action, so come early if you can. That’s not to say afternoons don’t have their merits: As the day heats up, tortoises and lizards come out to absorb the sun and, in the late afternoon, the zoo’s nocturnal animals, like owls and bats, start to stir. Evenings are also a pleasant time to stretch your legs on The Living Desert’s trail network, which leads into the nearby Santa Rosa Mountains. Keep your eyes peeled for native roadrunners dashing among the desert shrubs, looking for lizards and other prey.
The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. This unparalleled facility, with soaring, glass-walled tanks letting you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, sets the standard for aquariums. It’s also one of the best makeovers on the planet: in the early 1900s, the main building was a bustling canning facility for sardines, all chronicled in fascinating historical exhibits near the entrance. (Excellent behind-the-scenes tours shed more light on the aquarium’s history, as well as its remarkable inner workings.)
Intriguing history or not, this is one big wow of a place. Mesmerising tanks and exhibits showcase more than 35,000 animals and plants representing over 550 species—a large number of them California natives. Watch a giant Pacific octopus unfurl its tentacles, stand in the centre of a swirling school of sardines, let hammerhead sharks swim inches away from your face, and see how trainers do daily health checks of the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, California sea otters. A host of special activities, including junior diving programmes, sleepovers and custom romance tours (nothing like a little undersea light to make things dreamy) are also available. Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.
Stilettos, craft cocktails- and an albino alligator. San Francisco tends to push everything to the limit, but this Thursday night event has its own unique twist. The city’s premier science museum presents themed Nightlife events, ultra-popular with the city’s young and hip. Each week, the Academy’s savvy staff figure out new ways to shed light on cool topics, such as the secrets of animal migration, or how creatures see in the inky dark of night. Exhibits give you a rare chance to chat with academy scientists or see animals up close. Live music keeps things thumping, and designer drinks that are matched to the theme are served at different locations. As for that alligator, his name is Claude, a natural albino morph who lives in the Academy’s swamp exhibit.
Watch tigers wrestle in a naturalized enclosure and elephants chill out in their own splashing pond at the Oakland Zoo, home to more than 700 animals. Creatures are grouped in unique habitats, so you see giraffes and zebras roaming together in the African savannah enclosure, or wander through a simulated tropical rainforest filled with acrobatic white-handed gibbons.
Not all the zoo’s inhabitants are from such far-flung places, however—in the California Trail exhibit, visitors can see wildlife native to the Bay Area, but most of which have long since been pushed out. The experience begins with an open-air gondola Skyride (and a sweeping view of six Bay Area counties) to the Kaiser Permanente Visitor Center. Then, from a raised, protected trail, visitors can view sections of the exhibit that are dedicated to grizzlies, black bears, jaguars, bison, grey wolves, mountain lions, and eagles.
At the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, there are more fun ways for kids to learn and explore. A wooden rope bridge provides the perfect perch for watching river otters swimming and playing below. Tiger Trek kiddie coaster amps up the excitement, and the Clorox Wildlife Theater hosts family overnights, as well as concerts and Animal Encounters, where an animal is presented for an up-close experience.
But it’s not all fun and games at the zoo—in fact, there’s serious science going on here too. A special focus is the zoo’s efforts to help save the mountain yellow-legged frog, an endangered Sierra Nevada species that has experienced a 90 percent decline in recent years.
The sheer amount of African wildlife at this park will amaze even seasoned safari goers. Giraffes, rhinos, zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, bongos and other incredible animals roam rolling hills and woodlands in this expansive park, a 1½ hour drive north of San Francisco. Dozens of birds also call the park home, including cranes, flamingos, ostriches, and storks. Guests board small vehicles to tour the park with informative guides, and you really don’t know what will be around the next corner. Visitors of all ages also enjoy closer encounters with some of the park’s animals. For an unforgettable experience (families welcome), consider an overnight stay in a safari style tent with all the comforts: plush beds, private bathrooms, and a natural soundtrack outside that is straight out of the Serengeti.
Whether you’ve got children in tow or you’re on a grown-up getaway, San Francisco Zoo, located on the city’s south-west side, is a fun way to spend a day, especially when combined with playtime on or a wander along nearby Ocean Beach. The urban oasis originally opened in 1929, back when animal enclosures were mostly cages or concrete pens, and it has come a very long way since. Today, the conservation-minded zoo’s spacious enclosures recreate a range of global ecosystems, populated by over 1,000 animals representing more than 250 species. Spectacular plantings also feature rare, indigenous plants from around the world.
Must-see sites abound. At the Jones Family Gorilla Preserve, you can watch the startlingly human-like interactions of a family group of Western lowland gorillas. The Australian WalkAbout lets you see kangaroos and wallaroos—look closely for joeys peeking out of their pouches. Penguin Island features highly social and highly entertaining Magellanic penguins—squawking, flapping, preening, swimming and even breeding. The Fisher Family Children’s Zoo, a mini-zoo-within-a-zoo, is ultra popular and children can enjoy stroking goats and ponies in the Family Farm area. Twice a day, you can go behind the scenes on a 45-minute guided Secret Safari tour, which includes sightings of up to six different animal species. There is also a special exhibit that offers close-up views of prairie dogs and meerkats, plus the historic 1927 Dentzel Carousel, a miniature steam-engine train ride and a child-friendly nature trail.
Check the San Francisco Zoo website for a map and a daily schedule of special events and animal interactions, ranging from grizzly bear feeding time to talks by the big-cat keepers. The zoo is open 365 days a year, from 10 am until 5 pm.
Insider tips: ticket prices are $23 a day for adults, with discounts for senior citizens and children under 14. Children 3 and under are free. There is plentiful parking for a nominal daily fee.