Every visitor to San Diego must make room in their schedule for the amazing, “world-famous” San Diego Zoo. The Zoo covers 100 acres on very hilly terrain in the heart of down-town, transforming an urban jungle into a real rainforest. The Zoo is a privately-funded non-profit organization and is one of the best-kept zoos in the country.

It was founded by Dr. Harry Wegeforth, who traveled around the world trading local specimens such as rattlesnakes for increasingly more exotic species. As both an animal menagerie and a botanical garden, the San Diego Zoo is home to 4,000 animals and 700,000 plants, creating a lush and varied setting for education and amusement.

The best time to visit the zoo is in the morning as the animals tend to be awake and lively. Start your visit with breakfast at the Flamingo Café located just to the north of the main entrance. They serve classic breakfast favorites until to 11 a.m.

After breakfast, consider taking the double-decker bus tour, as the size and terrain of the zoo can be overwhelming. The bus loading dock is located directly across the main entrance north of the flamingo lagoon. The tour takes about an hour and offers a great overview of the animals and exhibits.

The bus will drop you off in the same location where you boarded, and while back near the main entrance, head to the oldie-but-goodie reptile house. The classic reptile house features a giant yellow anaconda and a two-headed snake as its slithery stars. At the end of the road heading south is the Children’s Zoo, which is full of activities including where little ones can compare their longest jump to those of different animals. A variety of entertaining shows like the hilarious Dr. Zoolittle and close-up experiences with cute touchable animals like goats, pigs and sheep at the petting zoo will entertain children for hours.

Check your zoo map for particular shows that you will want to catch and make a note of their starting times. Arriving early is often necessary if you want to get a shady, centered seat. Popular shows are the Sea Lion Show at the Wegeforth Bowl, where seals and seal lions interact with trainers to perform aquatic tricks, and the Wild Ones at the Hunte Amphitheater, where you can hear a white wolf howl.

Next, walk south towards the main entrance and look for the Tiger River sign on the left-hand side of the road. Head down the steep path into a tropical rainforest, leading you past exhibits filled with exotic small cats, pythons and birds, ever closer to the secretive tigers in their attractive natural-looking exhibit.

Continue down the path until you reach the Ituri Forest exhibit. The most wonderful creatures here are the river hippos. Watch them gallop underwater from this unique perspective, and see the keepers feeding them whole fruits and vegetables by throwing them into the hippos’ open mouths.

After exiting the Ituri Forest, follow the signs to Gorilla Tropics, where a family of apes, led by the mighty silverback gorilla, frolic in their large and open exhibit. Then continue to Monkey Trails and Absolutely Apes, the San Diego Zoo’s newest feature. This large open space of wandering, multi-level trails and bridges, occupies the former monkey house area, where the monkeys were once kept in small cages. Now the monkeys roam and climb free in large, exciting enclosures filled with trees, nets and toys. From tiny organ-grinder Capuchin monkeys to the oddball orangutans, you will have a hard time choosing your favorite.

In the middle of the Zoo, in its lowest-lying valley, you will find the giant pandas. A baby panda was born in the fall of 2007, so make this exhibit a top priority. Check your map for open times because the pandas have limited hours, and be aware that visitors must keep their voices low around the exhibit to avoid disturbing the animals. This exhibit is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view the endearing and endangered panda bear.

There is so much to see at the San Diego Zoo that it would be impossible to see it all in one day. Other animals that shouldn’t be missed are the koalas; these cuddly creatures sleep in eucalyptus trees at eye-level. Also check out Polar Bear Plunge, where you can watch a polar bear swim underwater to escape the heat of the Southern Californian sun.

The classic favorites: lions, elephants, rhinos, and bears, are housed in canyon exhibits built of faux rocks that have yet to be modernized. They are still worth a look for the charismatic species that dwell there; a favorite childhood moment of mine was shaking hands/trunk with a happy and well-adjusted elephant in his enclosure.

There are a myriad of stands and restaurants for lunch that serve a variety of cuisine, but highly recommended is Albert’s Restaurant, a full-service fine dining restaurant. Ask for a table on the back patio; where you can be seated beside a cool and refreshing waterfall. The sight of the rushing water and sounds of hooting gorillas in their exhibit create an exotic and reenergizing experience. The menu features fresh seafood and locally-brewed beers, as well as kid-friendly favorites such as pizza, sandwiches and quesadillas.

Next, explore the Zoo’s enormous grounds; no matter how crowded it gets you can always find a hidden rainforest path or an overlooked exhibit. If you find yourself on the far side of the park and everybody’s tired, take the Skyfari Aerial Tram back to the entrance – this ride provides not only transportation but an amazing bird’s eye view of the Zoo and of the San Diego skyline.

When your time at the zoo comes to an end, pick up a stuffed version of your favorite animal at the enormous and delightful gift shops that line the exits; they are well-stocked with toys, souvenirs, books and videos for people of all ages. Even without a memento, you will remember your experience at the San Diego Zoo as a place full of discovery, excitement and fun.

What & Where:
San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Dr; 619-234-3153)
Albert’s Restaurant (2920 Zoo Drive; Located in the Treehouse complex next to Gorilla Tropics; 619-685-3200 for reservations)

Aside from the zoo, there is also other San Diego entertainment to choose from such as nightlife events, music and concerts, and outdoor activities.

Getting There: Use this custom transportation guide from the San Diego Metropolitan System: http://www.sdmts.com/marketing/balboapark.asp, just enter your starting point or landmark and then Balboa Park.

From 163 heading south exit Park Boulevard (watch for signage because this exit is easily missed – stay in the right-hand lane as much as possible) and turn left at the light onto Park. Continue straight ahead until you reach Zoo Place; turn left into the parking lot.

From the I-5 heading north, exit Pershing Drive. Turn left onto Florida Drive and left again onto Zoo Place. At the light continue straight into the Zoo parking lot.

From I-5 heading south things are trickier but more scenic. Exit Cedar Street and continue straight to 6th Avenue. Turn left. Continue straight until you reach El Prado and turn right. Drive across the majestic Cabrillo Bridge, a San Diego landmark, and straight on through the park. At the roundabout continue straight ahead, left at the fountain and right again to reach Park Boulevard. Turn left at the light and then left again onto Zoo Place and straight into the Zoo parking lot.