Explore the top zoos and aquariums in CA, including the renowned San Diego Zoo 🐪Get up close with animals at the best zoo and aquarium in the world!
California is renowned for its incredible natural beauty and biodiversity, from its vast forests and deserts to its rugged coastline. This rich array of habitats is home to an abundance of wildlife, making California zoo country. The state boasts some of the nation’s top zoos and aquariums, allowing you to discover animals from around the world without ever leaving the Golden State. Whether you want to come face to face with exotic creatures, learn about marine life up close, or simply delight in nature’s splendor, California’s zoos and aquariums offer memorable adventures for everyone.
What is the Number One Zoo in California?
While there are many excellent zoos to choose from, the San Diego Zoo reigns supreme and is considered the number one zoo in California, if not the entire country. Spanning 100 acres inside beautiful Balboa Park, the non-profit San Diego Zoo is a world leader in conservation efforts and cares for more than 3,500 rare and endangered animals representing over 650 species. Home to giant pandas, polar bears, Komodo dragons, giraffes, elephants, gorillas, and koalas, this impressive zoo showcases animals in naturalistic habitats meant to mimic their native environments.
Highlights of the San Diego Zoo include its new Africa Rocks exhibit with leopards, penguins, and lemurs; Tiger Trail featuring Sumatran tigers; and the Skyfari Aerial Tram that provides stunning overhead views of Balboa Park. Plus, the zoo offers numerous special experiences like private tours, safari adventures, and up-close animal encounters that allow you to learn more about its animal ambassadors. The San Diego Zoo sets the gold standard for zoos in California and is a can’t-miss attraction.
Best Aquariums in California
In addition to world-class zoos, California is home to some of the country’s top aquariums where you can discover the mysteries of the ocean. The Monterey Bay Aquarium on the beautiful Central Coast is one of the best aquariums in California, showcasing the rich marine life of Monterey Bay through hands-on exhibits housing sea otters, sharks, jellies, and even a kelp forest. Guests can touch intertidal creatures like sea stars and get up close views of playful penguins and sea otters.
For the largest aquarium in the state, head to Long Beach to explore the Aquarium of the Pacific. Spanning three major regions of the Pacific Ocean, this aquarium contains over 12,000 animals representing over 500 species. From sharks and rays to sea lions and jellyfish, the aquarium’s 100 exhibits educate visitors about marine conservation. An onsite animal hospital also rescues and rehabilitates injured local wildlife.
In La Jolla, near San Diego, the Birch Aquarium should also make your aquarium bucket list. This smaller facility focuses on research and education about ocean ecosystems. The Hall of Fishes features over 60 tanks showcasing animals from the Pacific, while the outdoor tide pools let you get hands-on with marine creatures like sea stars and anemones.
Must-See Zoos Around California
Beyond its headlining zoos and aquariums, California offers an array of noteworthy zoos perfect for families and animal lovers. The Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park is a great urban oasis spanning 133 acres. Home to over 1,200 animals, the LA Zoo has exhibits featuring chimpanzees, elephants, koalas, and rare reptiles. Trek through the Red Ape Rainforest to see orangutans and gorillas or visit the LAIR (Living Amphibians, Invertebrates, and Reptiles) complex.
For a safari adventure close to wine country, head to Safari West near Santa Rosa. You can take jeep tours of this 400-acre preserve to see giraffes, rhinos, and other African wildlife roaming expansive habitats. Stay overnight in luxury tents for the full safari experience.
Up north, the Oakland Zoo covers 100 acres and is renowned for its excellent elephant program. A must-see exhibit is the California Trail, reached by aerial tram, which showcases native wildlife like grizzly bears, bald eagles, and jaguars. The zoo’s steam train ride and carousel add old-fashioned fun.
Smaller Zoos Offer Family Fun
While massive zoos like San Diego and LA impress with their size, some of California’s smaller zoos are big on family-friendly fun. The Santa Ana Zoo makes for a pleasant outing to see monkeys, mammals, and birds in a lush setting. The Santa Barbara Zoo is another peaceful gem along the coast where kids love feeding the giraffes.
For quintessential California wildlife, visit the diminutive Orange County Zoo inside scenic Irvine Regional Park. Showcasing native species like black bears, coyotes, and bobcats, this tiny zoo makes for an easy outdoor excursion. Up north, Sacramento Zoo and Happy Hollow in San Jose are two more pint-sized zoos perfect for little ones.
Explore the Vast San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Adjacent to the world-famous San Diego Zoo is the 1,800-acre San Diego Zoo Safari Park, considered one of the top safari parks in the country. This expansive wildlife sanctuary provides even more opportunities to discover exotic creatures from around the globe. Safari tours transport you through expansive habitats where rhinos, giraffes, antelope, and other African animals roam together as they would in the wild. From the Africa Tram Safari to the Caravan Safari Jeep Tour, these guided adventures offer a one-of-a-kind safari experience without leaving San Diego. Zoo Safari Park is also home to endangered species like cheetahs, lemurs, condors and even the Park’s famous herd of Rothschild’s giraffes. Special animal encounters allow you to feed a giraffe, observe cheetahs running at top speeds, or even zip line over the expansive grounds for an aerial view of majestic wildlife.
Wander through San Francisco Zoo’s Vibrant Exhibits
Set against the Pacific Ocean’s rugged coastline, the 100-acre San Francisco Zoo is a delightful urban oasis brimming with vibrant wildlife exhibits and verdant gardens. As one of the oldest zoos in California, SF Zoo is home to over 250 animal species including endangered lemurs, dazzling butterflies and birds, playful prairie dogs, as well as grizzly bears, tigers, and gorillas. Must-see exhibits include the Lipman Family Lemur Forest with five lemur species roaming freely, as well as Penguin Island to watch the tuxedoed birds waddle and swim. SF Zoo’s botanical collection spanning 750 species adds to the park’s appeal. Hop aboard the historic Dentzel Carousel or soar on the popular Little Puffer steam train ride for extra family fun during your SF Zoo visit.
Discover Unique Animals at Oakland Zoo
Spanning 100 acres of natural hillside terrain, Oakland Zoo provides excellent habitats for its nearly 700 resident animals. While exploring this zoo, you’ll encounter kangaroos bounding past in the Australian Outback exhibit as well as chimpanzees and majestic tigers. The zoo’s extensive elephant program ensures exemplary care of these colossal yet endangered creatures. For California wildlife, ride the gondola up to the zoo’s California Trail to admire black bears, bald eagles, condors and sea lions. An onsite veterinary hospital underscores Oakland Zoo’s dedication to animal welfare through rescue, rehabilitation and research. Whimsical touches like an old-fashioned carousel and steam train add amusement during your Oakland Zoo visit.
Family Fun at Los Angeles Zoo
At 133 acres, the lush Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park provides an entertaining escape from the city. With over 1,200 animals spanning 250 species, kids will delight in visiting exotic residents like orangutans swinging through the Red Ape Rainforest or elephants roaming their spacious enclosure. Interactive exhibits let young guests dig for bones, excavate fossils, and observe the zoo’s bug collection up close. LA Zoo’s Nature Play Park also encourages creative outdoor play amid natural design elements. While adults appreciate the zoo’s beautiful botanical gardens, kids make a beeline for entertaining attractions like the carousel, train ride, and Tom’s L.A. Taxi Tours which add extra enjoyment to a day at the zoo.
Safari Adventure at Monterey Zoo
For a unique zoo experience on California’s scenic Central Coast, visit the Monterey Zoo. Founded by a former police officer turned Hollywood animal trainer, this small zoo provides up-close encounters with exotic wildlife. Hand-feed friendly elephants, meet a cougar or serval cat, and observe lions, tigers, bears, and primates in spacious enclosures. Stay overnight in an African-style tent at the zoo’s Vision Quest Ranch Bed & Breakfast where elephants even deliver breakfast. With personalized tours and animal interactions, Monterey Zoo offers a safari-style adventure perfect for families.
Birch Aquarium: Ocean Learning in La Jolla
In San Diego’s seaside community of La Jolla, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography offers an interactive way to explore Pacific marine life. As the public outreach center for world-renowned Scripps Oceanography, this aquarium focuses on education and research. Get hands-on in the tide pools, see tiny bioluminescent creatures light up the dark exhibit, and learn how scientists study our oceans. The Hall of Fishes showcases diverse sea life while the outdoor tanks feature playful leopard sharks and dazzling garibaldi. Birch Aquarium provides engaging ocean science learning for visitors of all ages.
Discover Nature at Santa Barbara Zoo
By the shimmering Pacific, the petite Santa Barbara Zoo occupies 30 acres of natural beauty. Home to 500 animals across 146 species, this zoo emphasizes personalized animal experiences. Hand-feed giraffes, take a private tour to feed rhinos, or watch the lions training up close. Gardens ramble over the oak-studded grounds, providing shade and lovely views. Ride the zoo train or soar on the zip line for panoramic vistas of the zoo and ocean. Santa Barbara Zoo’s intimate size and verdant landscape make for a refreshing zoo visit.
Aquarium of the Bay: San Francisco Marine Life
At Pier 39 in San Francisco, the Aquarium of the Bay provides an up-close look at local marine species. As one of California’s smaller aquariums, it focuses entirely on animals and plants native to San Francisco Bay. Walk through 300 feet of glass tunnels showcasing sharks, bat rays, and schools of silvery fish overhead. Touch tide pool creatures like sea stars and anemones at the hands-on exhibits. Even step outside to see seals, otters, and seabirds in their natural habitat along the bay. An excellent complement to San Francisco Zoo, the Aquarium of the Bay highlights the vibrant underwater world off San Francisco.
Immerse Yourself in Nature at Zoos and Aquariums
From African elephants in San Diego to tiny seahorses in Monterey Bay, the diversity of species at California zoos and aquariums is astounding. More than entertainment, these institutions provide an opportunity to connect with nature and learn about protecting wildlife worldwide. Exploring zoos and aquariums is one of the best ways to appreciate California’s ecology while having fun with the entire family.