Gooey about gorillas? Loco about lions? Potty about penguins? With over 700 species of animal to look at, a day trip to ZSL London Zoo will be right up your street. But even if you’re indifferent towards most of the animal kingdom, you’ll still find something to enjoy on your visit here.
London Zoo is 170 years old, steeped in history and has not one, but 12 Grade I and II-listed buildings to admire. And if you’re worried about peering at creatures behind bars, you’ll be surprised to find that many animals aren’t in cages at all. The zoo offers its visitors amazing opportunities to interact with animals in walk-through enclosures like Meet the Monkeys or Butterfly Paradise. There’s more than enough to keep you occupied for the whole day, so why not stay at a Premier Inn near London Zoo the night before, to get your big day out off to the best possible start?
With former residents that include Guy the Gorilla, Jumbo the elephant and Winnie the bear (the inspiration for AA Milne’s honey-loving character), it’s no wonder ZSL London Zoo is such an iconic part of London. The world’s oldest scientific zoo, it was opened in 1828 by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) who still manage it today. It was originally intended just for scientific study, but it opened to the public in 1847 in a bid to increase funds.
A lot of original buildings remain inside it - the Grade II-listed giraffe house is the oldest zoo building in the world still used for its original purpose and there’s a Grade I listed phone box at Penguin Beach.
Nestled in leafy Regent’s Park, the zoo seems so far from the inner city hustle and bustle, it’s easy to forget you’re in London at all. The park itself is pretty, well-kept and well worth a visit, so if you’re not in a rush, get the Tube to Regent’s Park and walk from here - it takes about 20 minutes.
If you do decide to come by car, ZSL London Zoo is on the A5205, not far from the Westway. Once there, the zoo has its own large car park. Expect to pay about £15 per day. It’s worth checking in advance though, because sometimes, in a bid to encourage attendance, parking for cars and motorbikes is free from 10am on Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays and school holidays).
It’s first come, first served though, and you can only park if you have a zoo ticket.
The nearest Underground station to ZSL London Zoo is Camden Town, but you’ll need to walk for about 10 to 15 minutes from here. Exit the station on the right-hand side, cross over the road and walk along Parkway for about six minutes. You can then follow the brown tourist signs from here. You can also walk from Regent’s Park in about 20 minutes. Another nearby Tube station is Baker Street, but you’ll need to get the 274 bus from here and get off at Ormonde Terrace.
The nearest mainline station to London Zoo is Euston and you can get the bus from here if you don’t fancy the Underground. Go to bus stop G and get on the 253 towards Camden High Street, then either walk to the zoo, or take the 274 from here. You could also get an overland train to Victoria then take a bus to the zoo. You’ll need to take the C2 from outside the station. You can also get the C2 from stops at Oxford Circus, Great Portland Street and Gloucester Gate.
With cycle lanes all over Regent’s Park, cycling to the zoo is really easy. Once you get to ZSL London Zoo, there’s a bike shed in the car park just opposite the main entrance but you’ll need to bring your own lock, and the zoo won’t be responsible if your bike gets stolen. If you wanted to hire some wheels, there are two docking stations - one in the car park opposite the main entrance and one in the Gloucester Slips car park.
ZSL London Zoo is packed with highlights, so we’ve picked out the ones we think you’ll really go ape over.
Land of the Lions
The newest of the zoo’s attractions, Land of the Lions is modelled on Sasan Gir, an Indian National Park synonymous with the Asiatic big cat. Three walkways traverse the huge exhibit and, from the train station to the crumbling temple, there’s so much attention to detail you’ll feel like you’re in an Indian village. But the stars of the show are undoubtedly the lions. Only several hundred remain in the wild, and this state-of-the art facility gets you closer to these magnificent creatures than ever before.
Meet the Monkeys
Both adults and kids will be enthralled with the Meet the Monkeys exhibit. You get to walk through the home of a breeding group of black-capped squirrel monkeys, with absolutely no barriers between them and you. The enclosure covers an area of 1,500 square metres and is designed to recreate the Bolivian rainforests as closely as you possibly can in the middle of the city. Seeing these creatures interact is so magical that even the hardest hearts will soften. They don’t let you take one home with you, though.
Great if it’s a bit chilly outside, this indoor attraction has the tropical temperature you’d expect from London’s only living rainforest. You start your journey in daylight, meeting animals like a family of two-toed sloths, tamarins and green iguanas - and if you’re lucky, they may come over to see you, too. Then you’ll step into the darkness to examine the nocturnal creatures of the rainforest, such as bats, rats and the beautiful slender loris. You can wander around on your own, or get extra information by taking a guided tour at 2.30pm.
Although you can just turn up on the day, it’s worth pre-booking tickets to ZSL London Zoo in advance as the queue at the main entrance can be long.
If you come on a day the zoo charges for parking, it costs around £15 for the day, but your ticket is valid until midnight - great if you fancied spending the evening in Camden without worrying about the car.
London Zoo is open every day of the year at 10am, except for Christmas Day when it’s closed completely. Check closing times on the zoo website because the zoo shuts earlier in the winter. Children under 16 will not be allowed in without an adult. Expect to pay around £30 for an adult ticket on the gate, although tickets bought in advance are cheaper. The telephone number for general enquiries is 0344 225 1826.
Unlike many other London attractions, it’s fine to take a picnic to London Zoo. But for a coffee, ice cream or a snack to eat on the go, there’s the Aquarium kiosk - it’s easy to find as it’s very near the main entrance. Great for kids is the Animal Adventure Cafe by the Animal Adventure children’s zoo or, for a more substantial sit-down meal, there’s the Terrace Restaurant. It serves stone-baked pizza, lasagne and curries and offers great views over the zoo from its outdoor seating area.
It may be cold and wet outside, but you don’t have to be. Warm up in the tropical heat of the Rainforest Life attraction, join the Harry Potter fans in the Reptile House or take a look at the fish in the Aquarium. If you don’t mind creepy crawlies, you could even go to the In With the Spiders exhibit - it’s the UK's first ever walk-through spider attraction. Even some of the outdoor exhibits have places where you can take shelter from the rain, such as the train station in the Land of the Lions attraction.
There are five disabled parking bays in the small car park opposite the zoo entrance. Once inside, great efforts have been made to make the zoo accessible, although some parts do remain tricky for wheelchair users, such as the Grade I-listed Lubetkin penguin pool which only has limited viewing for wheelchair users. Other than that, most of the paths are tarmac and there is level or ramped access to most buildings.
If you’re not too tired after a day spent walking around ZSL London Zoo, you’ll be pleased to hear there are plenty of exciting areas of London to explore, right on its doorstep. Most colourful of all has to be Camden Town. Just a 10 to 15-minute walk away, it’s packed full of vintage shops and market stalls - as well as an equally eclectic mix of people. And, with some of the hippest music venues in London, from Dingwalls to the Jazz Cafe, it’s a great place for an evening out.