Getting Wild in the City at the San Francisco Zoo

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The San Francisco Zoo, tucked along the western edge of San Francisco on Ocean Beach, is a place to enjoy for everyone from toddlers to grandmas… and everyone in between.

It is interesting to revisit a place that held a special meaning for your child when she was  growing up. Will it be the same wonderful experience or disappoint? Returning to the San Francisco Zoo with my twenty-year-old daughter, Charlotte, twelve years after we had last been there was nothing short of magical.

San Francisco Zoo

The playful penguins have always been a highlight of a visit to the San Francisco Zoo. Photo courtesy Charotte Barrielle

Learning About the San Francisco Zoo

The most remarkable thing a visitor realizes when walking around the thoughtfully groomed grounds is that the animals housed at the zoo have habitats that allow them plenty of room to roam in areas that sometimes are remarkably similar to their native environments. But, spend some time talking to the zookeepers and you will find that very few of these animals ever spent much time in their native habitat—they were either abandoned and rescued young or born in a zoo in a “species survival program.” The San Francisco Zoo's mission is to connect people with wildlife, inspire caring for nature, and advance conservation action.

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San Francisco Zoo

The majestic giraffe greets visitors right inside the entrance to the San Francisco Zoo. Photo courtesy Charlotte Barrielle

We got to the zoo early on New Year’s Eve day on a brisk but beautiful morning in time for the Grizzly Bear keeper talk and feeding.  The San Francisco Zoo has two female Grizzlies—sisters—who are already teenagers. At 10:30 a.m. they were active and playful and unknowingly put on a fantastic show for all of us early zoo-goers.  Completely oblivious to humans, they played like cubs.  Kids and adults alike were in awe.

San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo grizzlies are two teenage girls that still play like cubs as they entertain visitors. Photo courtesy Charlotte Barrielle

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Zookeeper Talks Enhance the San Francisco Zoo Experience

A visit to the zoo is not cheap.  At $19 for adults and $13 for children (under 3 years is free) and $10-12 for parking, it is an investment for an average family. Don’t forget the food and souvenirs, which add up quickly. The San Francisco Zoo has so many areas to see that it is easily four hours of family entertainment.

I highly recommend getting to all of the feedings and keeper talks you can. We made it to see the red pandas, grizzlies, black bears, snow leopards, penguins and sifaka, a member of the lemur family. I learned so much and we both asked many questions that were happily answered. The young zookeepers are enthusiastic, informed and happy to share their knowledge.

San Franciso Zoo

Zookeeper Dave gives a great presentation about the Sifaka from Madagascar, a lemur. Photo courtesy Charlotte Barrielle

One of the highlights of this 40-acre compound is the African Savannah where the giraffes, zebras, ostriches and kudu live and roams together on a massive rolling mini desert. That area backs up to the gorilla habitat, which is also large with lots of toys, balls and climbing equipment like all of the Primate areas where the monkeys and their like play and groom each other all day, putting on great shows for visitors.

San Francisco Zoo

The male Mandrill is much bigger and more colorful than the female. And he puts on a show! Photo courtesy Charlotte Barrielle

Lemurs, Koalas and Crazy Birds….Oh My!

A unique concept I had never seen in a zoo is called the Lemur Boardwalk.  The boardwalk snakes through the primate area and the natural park setting where several varieties of lemurs live and play and fight and scream and run and hide. There are over 130 lemur species and there are about five living together at the San Francisco Zoo. The 25-30 lemurs living together make for some serious antics!

San Francisco Zoo

A lemur boardwalk snakes over the habitat of several species of lemurs as they play. Photo by Barbara Barrielle

Other highlights of the zoo are the white and black rhinos, koalas, wolf and black bears. The koalas hang out in their outside park on nice days and their indoor habitat on colder days. Either way, they sleep all day long

San Francisco Zoo

Although they sleep 23 hours a day and eat only eucalyptus, the charm of a cute koala can not be denied. Photo courtesy Charlotte Barrielle

The aviaries with birds freely flying around, sloths, frogs, lizards and snakes are also worth a walk through.

San Francisco Zoo

These spoonbills fly freely around the aviary where lizards, frogs and turtles are also found. Photo by Barbara Barrielle

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When You Go to the San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo is open year round but may close early and not open at all in inclement weather.  During the holiday season, an extra $10 for adults, $8 children gets you into an evening holiday lights show. See more articles from Wander writers on things to do in the San Francisco area.


As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary admission  for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

Written by Barbara Barrielle

Barbara is a long-time publicist who began writing four years ago with a specialty in food, wine, travel, and entertainment. Barbara also acts and produces films and has a feature film "Veracruz" releasing in early 2017. She also has two documentaries in production, including one on motorcycle road trips and another with a wine angle on the harvest. Barbara worked in the wine business for years and owns a small vineyard in Sonoma County. She loves to cook and bake and try foods from around the world. Extensive travel throughout the world, especially as a single mother, has been formative for Barbara and Charlotte, her incredibly savvy college student daughter. She lives in Healdsburg and Los Angeles.

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