Travel & Day Trips

Oakland Zoo vs San Francisco Zoo; The Key Differences

As the Bay Area’s two most popular wildlife institutions, the Oakland Zoo and San Francisco Zoo each offer unique experiences to animal enthusiasts.

Whether you’re a local looking for a weekend outing or a tourist planning your itinerary, understanding the key differences between these two zoos can help you make the most informed decision. Let’s break down the distinctions in terms of size, the number of animals, food, other attractions, parking, and other influential factors.


Starting with the physical layout, the San Francisco Zoo covers approximately 100 acres, while the Oakland Zoo spans about 100 acres of exhibits with an additional 525 acres dedicated to its natural habitat, known as the California Trail.

Thus, while both zoos offer ample space for exploration, the Oakland Zoo is significantly larger if you consider the entire park. The SF Zoo is impressive in size, given how small San Francisco is!

Number of Animals

The San Francisco Zoo houses over 2,000 animals representing more than 250 species, from tiny poison dart frogs to towering giraffes. In contrast, the Oakland Zoo is home to about 750 animals from 140 species.

Tigers at the Oakland Zoo

That means the San Francisco Zoo has more animals than Oakland does. Still, some of the most popular animals people seek out at zoos–giraffes, tigers, apes and more–are present at both zoos.

Each zoo also had unique animals. The SF Zoo has it amazing penguin island and unique creatures like koalas, whereas Oakland has tortoises that are older than any living person.


Both zoos offer a variety of food options within their confines. At the San Francisco Zoo, visitors can find Leaping Lemur Café offering organic and locally sourced food and beverages. There are also several snack carts sprinkled throughout the zoo.

The Oakland Zoo, on the other hand, boasts multiple eateries like the Tuskers Grill, which serves up BBQ favorites, and the Landing Café, located in the California Trail area, offering a panoramic view of six Bay Area counties. Both zoos cater to a variety of dietary needs, including vegetarian and vegan options.

I love the food at both zoos. It’s a cool thing about California–the food is almost always good!

Other Attractions

Aside from the animal exhibits, both zoos also provide additional attractions. The San Francisco Zoo features an impressive carousel, a miniature train, a children’s zoo, and the Elinor Friend Playground.

Steam train at the SF Zoo

The Oakland Zoo, meanwhile, hosts the Adventure Landing with a range of rides, including a roller coaster and a carousel.

Notably, the Oakland Zoo’s aerial gondola provides breathtaking views of the Bay Area, and the interactive California Trail exhibit offers a deeper dive into the state’s natural and cultural history. That’s quite a unique experience!


In terms of parking, both zoos have adjacent parking lots. The Oakland Zoo charges a fee for parking, while the San Francisco Zoo provides free parking on a first-come, first-served basis, but keep in mind that it can fill up quickly on busy days.

There is also street parking available around the San Francisco Zoo, though you might have to walk a bit. Overall I find parking at the Oakland zoo way easier, since the lot is much bigger.

Other Factors

Finally, it’s important to consider other factors such as the zoos’ conservation efforts and educational programs. Both institutions are heavily involved in conservation initiatives and offer educational activities, but their focus areas differ.

The San Francisco Zoo runs several programs to conserve endangered species, while the Oakland Zoo emphasizes local conservation, with a specific focus on California native species.

Koala at SF Zoo

Accessibility is another consideration. The San Francisco Zoo is easily accessible by public transportation, being close to the L Taraval Muni line. The Oakland Zoo, however, requires a car or a bus ride from the nearest BART station, making it slightly less accessible by public transportation.

In conclusion, both the Oakland Zoo and the San Francisco Zoo offer distinct experiences. Your choice may depend on your preference for size, variety of animals, food options, other attractions, parking, and other specific factors such as conservation focus and accessibility. Either way, you’re bound to have an enriching experience engaging with wildlife and learning about nature’s wonders.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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