My main reason for going to Saint Louis was to visit the famous Saint Louis Zoo. College friends from Saint Louis always mentioned how great the zoo was. I have also frequently encountered people and articles that mention San Diego, Cincinnati, and Saint Louis as the best zoos in the country, if not the world. The order of honor changes depending on the person, but as I have now visited all three zoos (and dozens of others throughout the world), as well as San Diego’s Wild Animal Park extension, I feel confident in my ability to rank them.
Clearly, San Diego Zoo and its sister Wild Animal Park are the greatest zoological complex that I have seen. Without the Wild Animal Park, San Diego would still probably be the best, though the Wild Animal Park decisively tips the scale. For second place, I think that both Cincinnati and Saint Louis could justly argue. They both have gorgeous grounds, they both have an extensive collection of rare and endangered animals, and they both have always been on the pioneering edge of captive animal habitat design. Saint Louis is free, but Cincinnati is the “sexier” zoo with more success in breeding animals in danger of extinction. As a Cincinnatian and a member of the Cincinnati Zoo, I would put my zoo in the second slot, but I would not hold a Saint Louisian in contempt if he offered the same honor to his own.
It is easier to assign where each zoo excels beyond all others. San Diego has the best panda, koala, and tree kangaroo exhibits. Its setting in Balboa Park makes it the best situated. Saint Louis’ Forest Park is lovely, but it is not as cool as Balboa Park, which may be the best urban park in the country. Cincinnati’s Zoo is poorly situated; it is the nation’s second oldest zoo, and the city built up around it. I would like for Cincinnati to develop an annex in Butler or Warren County that would serve as an extension like San Diego’s Wild Animal Park. For the main privation at the Cincinnati Zoo is its small and compact size. It does a lot with the little that it has, however.
San Diego also has a pleasant sky ride. Kings Island in Cincinnati used to offer such a ride but it closed down in the 1970’s, I believe. Yet, as I said before, it’s San Diego’s Wild Animal Park that is astounding. The safari train, the desert hills, and the giraffe encounters are unrivaled. Furthermore, the Lion Camp is awesome, and I mean that literally.
Cincinnati has the best children’s zoo, the best insect zoo, and the best primate exhibits overall, though both other zoos have excellent great ape enclosures. I would also add that Cincinnati features the best wild cat exhibits overall—though San Diego’s Lion Camp is amazing and Saint Louis’ Big Cat Country is impressive, too. Still, Cincinnati’s cat canyons and the Cat House put it first in this category. Cincinnati’s manatee house is as good as an aquarium’s. Cincinnati and San Diego compete for the rhinoceros and polar bear exhibits. I think that it holds its own with the birds, as well.
Saint Louis Zoo is an all around fabulous zoo, but some of its exhibits are unmatched. Its penguin house is shockingly cool, figuratively and literally. It actually has snow in it, and there is no glass between you and the penguins. Before I visited Saint Louis, I thought that San Diego’s Sea World had the best penguin exhibit, but it falls short of the experience of actually entering into antarctic weather yourself. Saint Louis also has the best hippopotamus exhibit, and the surrounding River’s Edge habitat is excellent. The River’s Edge Asian elephant habitat is one of the best that I have seen, though Portland’s (Oregon) exhibit is probably better. The National Zoo and the Los Angeles Zoo are building top notch facilities, but the D.C. zoo’s exhibit is currently under construction and I have never visited L.A.‘s zoo. I would also state that Saint Louis has antelope exhibits on par with San Diego. Moreover, the stingray pool is a treat; I’ve only seen such exhibits at aquariums and at Sea World before.
It is definitely worth your while to travel to Saint Louis to see the zoo. It is free, though certain parts of the zoo charge a minimal fee. You may visit these places in the first hour of the zoo’s day for free (between 8:00 AM and 9:00 AM during the summer), which include the children’s zoo, the stingray petting pool, and the rides. Thus, I recommend arriving at the zoo a few minutes before it opens. This will also allow you to park on the streets of Forest Park without any trouble, as the zoo’s parking lot charges a steep price. We arrived at 8:00 AM during the week, and we were able to park closer to the (north) entrance than the cars in the zoo’s parking lot—practically across the street from the doors. If you arrive later, these free street spaces fill up. Yet, the art museum’s massive parking lot is just a short walk up the hill from the zoo. If you cannot find street parking, you may park in the art museum lot. All of the parking lots in Forest Park seem to be public, open, and free except for the small zoo lot.
If you park close to the zoo, you may wish to picnic in Forest Park instead of spending money at the zoo. We packed lunches, but we ended up purchasing some cheese fries, anyway. It was the only money that we spent at the zoo (save for the gift shop); so it was still a good deal.
We spent the whole day at the zoo and we did not get to see everything. If you have the time, I would advise going twice. It’s free!