Must-See Zoos and Aquariums in California

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.

San Diego Zoo

San Diego, San Diego Zoo

San Diego, San Diego Zoo

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 naturalised enclosures spread across 100 acres in Balboa Park. More than 3,700 animals from 650 species are showcased here, including crowd-pleasers like giant pandas and fuzzy koalas and intriguing oddities like naked mole rats.

San Diego, San Diego Zoo

San Diego, San Diego Zoo

Plan to spend at least a day at this extraordinary site, and wear comfortable shoes—you’re likely to do a lot of walking. If you have to cut your visit short, no worries: just log on to 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.

San Diego, San Diego Zoo

San Diego, San Diego Zoo

Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens

For an African safari or an Amazon adventure, take a walk on the wild side at this remarkable, and remarkably varied, attraction 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 Mahale Mountains. World-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall praised the chimps’ habitat as one of the world’s outstanding zoo habitats.

The 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 orang-utans. The zoo is also a horticultural paradise with more than 7,500 individual plants. And, as you will discover in the children friendly California Condor Rescue Zone, it has played a key role in bringing the iconic California condor back from the brink of extinction. You can also go nose-to-nose with a rhino at the zoo’s Indian Rhino Encounter.

Sea World San Diego

From swooshing and swooping rides to interactive shows and million-gallon aquariums, this is one theme park that truly makes a big, big splash. See—and learn about—the amazing undersea worlds of animals from around the globe, including walruses, sea lions, polar bears and penguins. See (and touch) harmless rays and sharks, and be entertained by Shamu and other killer whales, as well as dolphins, in daily shows and presentations. Climb aboard a host of rides, too, including Manta, a high-tech roller coaster that has you twisting, diving and turning like a ray.

Aquarium of the Pacific

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.

The Living Desert

Learn about survival skills at its best in the Palm Springs area. 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.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey, Monterey Bay Aquarium

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, defines 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.)

Monterey, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Intriguing history or not, this is one big wow of a place. Mesmerizing 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 center of a swirling school of sardines, have 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 programs, sleepovers, and custom romance tours (nothing like a little undersea light to make things dreamy) are also available.

Monterey, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Oakland Zoo

Watch tigers wrestle in a naturalised enclosure and elephants play in their own splashing pond at the Oakland Zoo, home to more than 660 animals. Creatures are grouped in unique habitats, so you see giraffes and zebras roaming together in African savannah enclosure, or wander through a simulated tropical rainforest filled with acrobatic white-handed gibbons.

At the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, there are fun ways to explore. A wooden rope bridge gives the kids a perfect perch for watching river otters swimming and playing below. Tiger Trek kiddie roller coaster makes it all even more exciting. For great views of tule elk and bison in their expansive enclosure, as well as great Bay Area views, take a ride on the elevated Sky Ride.

But it is not all fun and games at the zoo, in fact, there is serious science going on here too. A special focus is the zoo’s efforts to help save the yellow-legged frog, an endangered Sierra Nevada species that has experienced a 90 percent decline in recent years.

Safari West

This extraordinary attraction in the rugged hill country of Sonoma is a fun destination, either on its own or when you are in the region sampling Sonoma’s award-winning wines. The goal is to give you a real safari-like experience, only 90 minutes north of San Francisco. Board open-air Jeeps for a guided tour through forests and across fields in search of exotic animals. A wide range of creatures roam the fenced property, including rhino, gazelle, and wildebeest. Come around a bend and you might have to stop for a band of zebra crossing the road. Or maybe your guide has seen giraffes’ heads poking above a nearby tree. Private safaris are also available.

Safari West also features an open-air aviary filled with fluttering birds, as well as primate enclosures. For an unforgettable experience, consider booking a night in one of Safari West’s deluxe safari tents, complete with roomy decks, polished wood floors, and hot showers. You can even schedule to have an in-tent massage.

San Francisco Zoo

Whether you have children in tow or you are on a grown-up getaway, this local favourite on the city’s south-west side makes for a fun way to spend a day, especially when combined with playtime or strolling 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, expansive 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 watch kangaroos and wallaroos, look closely for joeys peeking out of pouches. Penguin Island features highly social, and highly entertaining, Magellanic penguins—squawking, flapping, preening, swimming, and even breeding. Ultra-popular is the Fisher Family Children’s Zoo, a mini-zoo-within-a-zoo where children can get their fill of petting goats and ponies in the Family Farm area. There is also a special exhibit with close-up views of prairie dogs and meerkats, plus a historic 1927 Dentzel carousel, a miniature steam train ride, and a children friendly nature trail.

Check the daily schedule for special events and animal interactions, ranging from grizzly bear feeding time to talks with big cat keepers.

Birch Aquarium

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.