San Francisco Zoo

A local's tips for visiting the San Francisco Zoo.

The SF Zoo has been a favorite of Bay Area kids for many years; there's lots for adults to enjoy here, too.

san francisco zoo flamingos
Flamingos at the SF Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo has been located at the end of Sloat Boulevard at Ocean Beach since 1929. It's been evolving over time from "animals in cages" to mostly animals in natural settings; the SF Zoo has a way to go, but they have been steadily adding imaginative exhibits. It's definitely worth a visit, and kids have a great time.

The Grounds

The San Francisco Zoo sprawls over 125 acres of park-like grounds and includes a carousel, steam train, playground, and a special children's zoo, along with the animal exhibits and eating places.

Highlights of the San Francisco Zoo

I won't list everything at the Zoo; the SF Zoo has all the "usual" animals. I'll just mention some of my favorite (and my son's, when he was little) exhibits and activities.

The Lemur Forest

A vast forest world of tree houses, swings and hammocks has been created for four species of lemurs. The humans have an elevated walkway to see the residents, with some lemur tunnels running under their feet for close-up views.

Children's Zoo

This is great fun for kids (and others)! There is a farmyard and barn area with goats, donkeys, llamas and sheep to pet and feed. You can buy a handful of food from the vending machines for a quarter. There are toy tractors to ride around on and hatching chicks in incubators to observe.

san francisco zoo, children's zoo farm
Tractors to ride
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Goats to pet

The Insect Zoo is popular with kids, but I almost can't bear to go in there. Plenty of hideous spiders, dung beetles and giant cockroaches.

My son loved the big rope spider web for climbing outside the Insect Zoo.

san francisco zoo, children's zoo farmyard
Children's Zoo Farmyard
san francisco zoo, spider web
The spider web

Penguin Island

Watch the penguins swimming around and waddling in and out of their little caves on the island. Feeding time is worth showing up for; their keeper gives a brief talk while handing out the fish individually. All the penguins have names, and the keepers can recognize every penguin by sight. They keep track of who eats how much at each feeding.

san francisco zoo, penguin feeding
Penguin feeding

Steam Train

Ride in open cars pulled by a miniature steam engine, which takes you through part of the park. Fun for adults, too. The one hundred-year-old "Little Puffer" is one of only three 22-gauge steam engines still running- in the world! I love hearing that nostalgic train whistle.

san francisco zoo, steam train
The Little Puffer

Antique Carousel

Exquisitely carved wooden horses, lions, dragons and cats to ride on; the original colors have been beautifully restored, with 1000 hours of work per animal. Created in 1921, this carousel has been here since 1925. Check out the strange faces carved on the frame up above.

san francisco zoo, carousel cats
Cats on the carousel

The Lion House

The lions and tigers are normally in open grottos, but are often brought into the caged areas of the historic Lion House. You can stand three feet away from the big cats and look into their enormous green eyes. The roaring inside the building can shake your whole body!

Too bad "feeding time" for the lions and tigers was discontinued; you can still see them up close, but not on a schedule. The following animals do have scheduled feeding times: penguins, grizzly bears, pelicans and giraffes. Check current times on the SF Zoo website.

Small Animal Habitats

san francisco zoo, meerkat photos
Meerkat watching

Several small animal species are set up with their own habitats where you can get a really close look at them. My favorites:

Meerkats: Could any creature be more adorable? One of them is always standing guard on a realistic termite mound.

The Otter River: A cement structure simulates a river with a waterfall; you can watch them playing in the water with their buddies.

Prairie Dog Town: Kids can crawl through a tunnel and pop up inside the prairie dog village.

The Tiger Incident

The San Francisco Zoo made international news in 2007 when one of the Siberian tigers escaped from its open-air home on Christmas day and killed a visitor.

san francisco zoo, tiger grotto
New tiger viewing area

There was a lot of controversy at the time about the height of the walls (and whether the tiger was provoked). Since then, the walls have been raised and a plexiglass barrier erected in the viewing area.

Previously, none of the big cats had ever escaped in the 40 years that structure had been there. Here is an article in the SF Chronicle about the tragedy.

Special Programs at the SF Zoo

There are always some interesting extra programs going on at the Zoo, like nocturnal tours, bicycle tours, and overnight camping. Summer volunteer positions are often available for teens. Check the SF Zoo website for current events.

San Francisco Zoo Hours

Daily 10 am to 5 pm. (Winter hours, Nov 7-Mar 12: daily 10 am to 4 pm.)

San Francisco Zoo Entrance Fees

Adults: $15
Seniors: $12
Children (4-14): $9
Under 4: free.
Discounts for seniors and San Francisco residents (about $3 off). Get $1 off if you take Muni and show a receipt or pass.

Getting to the SF Zoo

Muni: The L-Taraval streetcar and Buses 18 and 23 all go to the Zoo.

Driving directions are on the SF Zoo website,

San Francisco Zoo Parking

The San Francisco Zoo has a parking lot (for $8; $10 weekends and holidays) with entrances on the Great Highway off Ocean Beach, and on Sloat Boulevard near 48th Avenue.

Insider Tip: Unless there are mobility problems which make it difficult to walk half a block, there is no reason to use the lot. There's plenty of parking in the free lots along Sloat Boulevard next to the Zoo, plus there's lots of free parking in the neighborhood (and no 2-hour limit like some areas of SF).

Equipment Rentals: Strollers and wheelchairs can be rented near the entrance.

Places to Eat Near the SF Zoo

There are three restaurants or cafes inside the Zoo, with choices of salads, sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, pizza and ice cream, as well as beer and wine. Not exciting, but OK and convenient.

There is also a cafe across the street on Sloat Boulevard worth trying:

Java Beach Cafe at 45th Avenue near the famous Doggie Diner head. Gourmet omelettes and wraps, waffles and sandwiches.

If you've come with a car, you're not far from the Cliff House restaurant: just follow the Great Highway north up the beach. Expensive, but glorious views of the Pacific Ocean, especially when the sun is setting.

Maps of the San Francisco Zoo

san francisco zoo map

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Get a map of the SF Zoo

Download a map of the grounds and exhibits to plan your visit.

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