The San Francisco Zoo has been a favorite of Bay Area kids for many years; there's lots for adults to enjoy here, too.
COVID note: the SF Zoo is now open again.
Visitors will need to book in advance for timed-entry tickets. See SF Zoo tickets for booking and more info.
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 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.
The zoo's newest exhibit has been created between the polar bear and grizzly grottos in Bear Country. A southwestern-style environment has been built to house three Mexican gray wolves.
The Mexican gray wolf almost became extinct in the 1970's. At that time, a small number of wild wolves were captured in Mexico and became the start of a program to breed them in captivity to build up their numbers. There are now several hundred in the wild and about the same number in captivity. These three wolf brothers are part of that program.
Two were out sunning themselves the last time I went; they look like large coyotes, with a little German Shepherd added in.
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.
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.
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. There are toy tractors to ride around on and hatching chicks in incubators to observe.
The Insect Zoo is popular with kids, but I almost can't bear to go in there. Creep yourself out with the hissing cockroaches and admire (!) the world's largest spider (you won't believe how big it is).
My son loved the giant rope spider web for climbing outside the Insect Zoo.
You can buy a handful of food from the vending machines for a quarter.
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.
The Little Puffer
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.
Cats on the carousel
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.
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. There are little windows to see into their underground burrow.
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. Lots of activity in there.
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.
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.
During the summer, local students are present in the Nature Trail area of the Children's Zoo to display various animals and discuss them. I loved getting to pet this adorable ferret!
The Storybook Keys are back. Many San Franciscans have fond memories of the plastic zoo keys that unlock a story about the animal nearby. You can pick them up at the entrance (the old keys don't work now).
The zoo playground has been completely redone and is really cool! Banyan tree climbing structures, a river, and the North Pole with ice caves and slides. Very imaginative and fun.
Each section is geared for a different age level; kids could spend hours here.
Daily 10 am to 5 pm.
(Winter hours, Nov 7-Mar 12: daily 10 am to 4 pm.)
Seniors 65+: $20
Children (2-11): $18
Under 2: free.
Tickets for reserved times can be purchased online form the Zoo website. See Zoo tickets to book.
Discounts for San Francisco residents: $22 adults, $16 seniors, 2-11 $15. Get $1 off if you take Muni and show a receipt or pass. Also, there are occasional free days for residents, posted on their website.
Retired and active duty military, and visitors with disabilities, get SF resident rates.
Note: I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through some of the links on this page, at no extra cost to you. This helps me provide all the free information I post on this website.
Tip: sometimes you can save $3 by buying the tickets through City Sightseeing.
Muni: The L-Taraval streetcar (catch it downtown, under Market Street) and Buses #18 and #23 all go to the Zoo.
See Muni routes for SF bus routes and stops.
Driving directions are on the SF Zoo website, sfzoo.org.
The San Francisco Zoo has a parking lot ($11; $13 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 more than 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. But watch the signs for street cleaning days: big ticket!).
Equipment Rentals: Strollers and wheelchairs ($15) can be rented near the entrance. Single and double strollers are $10 and $12. Also ECV's (electronic convenience vehicles) are available for $35.
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, the 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. Note: Cliff House is closed now, but the views from there are great. More on the Cliff House.
The Beach Chalet, also up the Great Highway near Golden Gate Park, is a another good place to eat. Beautiful ocean views, and good food. Try their in-house beers and admire the WPA murals in the entryway.
Go to SF Zoo map, where you can download a map of the grounds with a list of the exhibits to plan your visit.
COVID-19 Status: at midnight on Monday, March 16, San Francisco was placed under a "shelter-in-place order.
All residents were ordered to stay home, except for necessary trips to grocery stores and essential medical visits, and solo outdoor activities like hiking.
The city was gradually reopening of many businesses and activities, but in December, came under a strict, stay-at-home directive, due to a sudden increase in infection and hospitalization rates.
Since then, Covid numbers had dropped significantly, but recently started rising again.
Big changes arrived June 15, 2021: California is "fully reopened", meaning all business sectors will reopen to full or almost full capacity, including concerts, stadium sports and festivals. SF is basically open, though somewhat more cautious in some regards.
As of August 20, 2021, almost 80% of eligible SF residents have been fully vaccinated.
Vaccine requirements: Starting August 20, 2021, SF requires that all restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms check for proof of full vaccination.
Documents accepted: paper or digital vaccination records.
See SF Chron article re: vaccination.
Public transportation options had been cut back, but are expanding again. See SF transit for more info.
The cable cars are running again and are free during August! In September, they will resume full (paid) service, starting with the Powell-Hyde Line, and the other 2 lines to follow after.
See COVID rules for current SF status.
Mask rules: another change, starting August 3, 2021. Everyone is now required to wear a mask indoors in SF, whether vaccinated or not. People may go without masks outdoors unless the area is densely populated. Hospitals, schools, nursing homes and public transit, still require masks./p>
What is open? Muir Woods, the Botanic Gardens, Golden Gate Park, Japanese Tea Garden, Pier 39, SF beaches, Golden Gate Bridge, and Twin Peaks (car access on Portola, main parking lot open) are all open.
Parking lots for SF beaches, Twin Peaks, and the Golden Gate Bridge are open, including the Welcome Center lot.
Restaurants can now be open to full capacity for indoor and outdoor dining, and many restaurants are open for take-out or delivery.
Bars that serve food can serve customers indoors.
Businesses can allow customers inside, up to full capacity. Malls are open.The SF Zoo is open again.
Offices can reopen up to full capacity.
Alcatraz is open. The Day Tours and Night Tours are running on a somewhat reduced basis. The Cell Block is open also. See Alcatraz.
Hair salons, and open air tour buses, outdoor walking tours, and boat cruises can now operate.
Indoor museums are open, including the CA Academy of Sciences.
Travel to SF. Per the California Dept. of Public Health: non-essential travel to SF from outside California is discouraged but the quarantine requirements are no longer in effect.
Unvaccinated travelers are urged to get tested before and after arrival, and to self-quarantine for 7 days, but this isn't mandatory.
"Non-essential travel" basically means tourism.
Hotels are accepting reservations, but travelers are urged to limit contact with others in the hotel.
Indoor swimming pools are open to fullcapacity.
Schools: private schools are open. SF public schools started in-person learning for elementary students April 12. Older grades: negotiations are ongoing. Hopefully all grade levels will be open for in-person fall classes. Masks will be required for students in SF public schools in the fall.
Indoor gyms and indoor movie theaters are open to full capacity.
Indoor concerts, live theater, and sporting events, may open at full capacity. For indoor gatherings of >5,000, proof of vaccination will be required.
Outdoor events for >10,000: may require proof of vaccination or negative test, but aren't required to.
Check individual events for requirements.
Napa and Sonoma county wineries are open.
For a handy list of what's open or closed, in California, see California reopening schedules.
See coronavirus news in the SF Chronicle for details and updates.
Also see site and parking lot closures for the National Park Service (Alcatraz, Muir Woods, etc.)
Plus helpful info on which parks and hiking trails are open in the Bay Area.
Get the latest tips on visiting San Francisco.