Location: Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Rating: 4/5 stars
Edinburgh Zoo (EZ) is a lovable yet strange zoo. It’s a chaotic mixture of some of the most modern, lovely exhibits I have encountered and some of the oldest and worst. Over the last six years that I’ve been a regular visitor it’s clear to me they are trying to fix this as fast as they can, as they move animals around the zoo and renovate enclosures much more regularly than any other zoo I’ve been to. However, if you are just visiting once it may strike you how dated some of the enclosures are. For me, this is a zoo with character and heart that is always visibly striving to better itself, a labyrinth with many hidden gems tucked away in every corner of the grounds and several charismatic animals that you can spend hours watching.
Why not five stars?
EZ lost half a star for the ‘how well treated the captive animals are’ category and half a star for the ‘The quality of the zoo grounds and the facilities available to you’ category, giving 4/5 stars. Read on to the ‘Worst parts?’ bit of this review for why I deducted these and go here for the star category criteria.
EZ is a challenge for photographers, but with some patience you can get some fantastic results. Many of the old enclosures are tricky to work with, the old primate house is dark and the many bird enclosures around the zoo have close mesh grid fencing. Even some of the newer ones can be difficult due to how scratched and clouded the viewing glass is in several of the exhibits. It’s usually possible to find clear patches of glass to shoot through, but that then makes getting good composition in your shots tricky! Despite this, several of the newly renovated enclosures provide great shooting opportunities as they have new, clear glass and if you have a long lens you can take advantage of the ditch style enclosures that have no barriers between your lens and the creatures, only distance (such as the sun bears and chimpanzees).
Most Recent Trip: October 2016
Total Number of Times Visited:
16 times since 2011, usually at least two or three times a year if not more!
Walking around EZ, I frequently get the impression it’s a maze where the old meets the new. It’s a long established, city zoo and therefore has to deal with two problems, inheriting old style enclosures from previous decades while being unable to expand their grounds. For visitors, this usually means that some part of the grounds will almost inevitably be undergoing construction as they try to bring all their enclosures up to date. As they are constantly building new things the zoo therefore has a lot of contrasts, fantastic modern exhibits beside dated, cramped ones and great guest facilities in one part of the grounds and little to nothing in other parts. The newer enclosures are wonderful and often feature innovative ways of getting their guests close to the animals or educating them on the species on display. The zoo contains several species you won’t get to see at other UK zoos like their famous Giant Pandas and Koalas, however this means it can be very crowded at times. The zoo grounds are well maintained and it’s a nice place to wander around although be warned, the zoo is entirely built on a hill with the zoo entrance at the bottom and a day there can be tiring for the unprepared. I’ve taken several friends there who were surprised by how much of a workout seeing the whole zoo in a day is! The signs and maps to help guide you are also not especially clear and getting from A to B can involve winding your way through exhibits in unlikely directions.
Value for Money:
At £19 for a full priced adult (discounts available for children 3 – 15, students, senior citizens and the unemployed, kids under 3 go free) EZ is one of the more expensive zoos I’ve been to here in the UK. Within the zoo, food is far more reasonable with a burger and chips meal priced at just £6.95, and fair quality for your money.
EZ’s two pandas, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, are the UK’s only giant pandas and this is certainly reflected in how many visitors they get, resulting in a ticket system being in place on their enclosure (you can’t just go to see them at any time, you get a ticket and go at the time allotted to you). However, the number of visitors and the amount of camera flashes they have to endure (despite lots of signs and frantic zoo keepers telling people to turn off their flashes) means that one or both pandas are frequently off show due to stress or illness. They are not personally one of my favourites, but you can’t really talk about EZ’s animals and not mention them.
The penguins are also fairly famous at EZ, firstly because yes one of their king penguins has been knighted and secondly because every afternoon the doors to the penguin enclosure are opened for the zoo’s ‘Penguin Parade’, where whichever penguins feel like a walk come out to wander amongst the guests. At time of writing this has been temporarily stopped due to Avian Influenza (bird flu) restrictions currently in place in Scotland but I’m sure it will return when the limitations are lowered. Again, personally not the sort of thing that interests me but a famous and popluar aspect of the zoo.
My personal favourites have to be the Sumatran Tigers at EZ, they used to have a pair housed separately called Tibor and Chandra, and many of my Tiger photos are of these two individuals. Tibor was always extremely interested in guests and would frequently come right up to the glass to watch people, and he was very distinctive as he only had one eye (one had to be removed in 2010 due to an old injury). Now they have a new breeding pair of Sumatrans called Baginda and Jambi who live in a brand-new enclosure called Tiger Tracks. This features a glass tunnel where the tigers can walk over your heads, which is amazing when it happens!
What else can you see?
The zoo has several primate houses ranging from excellent (the large, modern chimp house Budongo Trail) to interesting (Living Links, the primate behaviour research centre built in association with St Andrews University) to terrible (the old primate house near the pandas and penguins). They also have a great Sun Bear and One-Horned Rhino enclosures. Finally, EZ has a superb bird collection that is scattered across the zoo and can be tricky to find as none of the species are marked on the zoo maps. Take time to look into all the bird enclosures you see that are throughout the park and you’ll find some hidden gems!
As I have stated before, EZ is a strange mix of the age and quality of everything within its grounds and this is reflected in the facilities provided to guests. The lower parts of the zoo have many food options with great indoor and outdoor seating options, however when you go up the hill as you progress into the zoo the options to buy food, even from small kiosks, quickly disappear until at the top of the hill there is little to nothing to buy things from. Additionally, outside of summer time almost every food outlet is closed except the largest restaurants near the penguin enclosure. The toilets are small and similarly patchily distributed, I always think they aren’t really built to accommodate the crowds EZ gets, especially in the summer. They have one large, good gift shop as you exit the zoo which can get very busy if you leave visiting it until closing time.
I personally enjoy how it is easy to sit down beside an enclosure and actually watch the inhabitants for extended periods of time. This not only lets you get to know the individuals that live at the zoo, but if you are patient you can see some great behaviour and get lovely photos of the animals.
The education material throughout the zoo is some of the best I’ve seen and is always changing to be more interactive, innovative and up to date.
During the summer EZ also have a fantastic animal display (called ‘animal antics’) with a heavy emphasis on showing natural behaviours. The line-up for this show is always changing and every one I have attended has been informative and very enjoyable, particular favourite is the Southern Ground Hornbill demonstrating his foraging skills for feeding his mate when she is on a nest! The show is in an arena at the very top of the hill, in the summer the zoo runs a ‘train’ ride to help people get up there and back!
The jumbled organisation of the park can make it a pain to navigate through, especially if you’ve not visited many times before and know the best routes for getting places. As for the 4/5 score at the top of the review, EZ lost half a star for the ‘how well treated the captive animals are’ category and half a star for the ‘The quality of the zoo grounds and the facilities available to you’ category. Both of these stems from the fact that some of the enclosures and facilities are seriously outdated and need improving, and as I’ve mentioned previously this is reflected in how much of the zoo changes between visits as they move animals around and build new exhibits. For example, at time of writing the entire ‘big cat walkway’ section of the zoo, which was originally built in the 1920s, was seriously outdated and once held pairs of amur leopards, jaguars, wolverines and Sumatran tigers in small enclosures, has been completely demolished and replaced with educational boards. The tigers have a brand new, spacious enclosure, while the rest of the species formerly housed in the walkway won’t be returning to EZ and have been transferred to other zoos. Hopefully in time I will be able to adjust this score as the zoo brings all of its enclosures up to modern day standards, I guess only time will tell.
How to get there:
There are very good public transport links to the zoo from central Edinburgh, you can get to the city by train and then get a bus from the stations, or any of the bus stops for routes 12, 26 or 31 with Lothian buses.
I usually drive to the zoo, and parking is expensive. The car park is pretty large and I’ve always been able to find a space no matter how busy the zoo gets, but it costs £4 to use (cash only) and like everything about EZ, its built on a hill so make sure you’re good at your hill starts, especially when paying for the parking at the entrance!
EZ is on the outskirts of Edinburgh so you don’t have to do any serious city driving to get to it, if you’re coming from the south use the city bypass (A720) to get to the airport side of the city and take the A8 (Glasgow Road) toward the city centre. If you’re coming from the north, come over the forth road bridge and follow signs for the airport, that will get you on the A8 heading into the city (just don’t turn off for the airport once you are on the A8!). It is fairly well sign posted if you keep your eyes open, The zoo is on the left side of the road right beside a large Holiday Inn (the car park is actually shared between the zoo and the hotel). If you can see Murrayfield Stadium on your right then you’ve gone too far and missed it!
Try to visit outside of peak summer times. This zoo can get extremely busy and crowded, it is one of the city’s top attractions and there really isn’t that much space in the grounds compared to many other zoos in the UK. Visiting at off peak times of year can give unexpected bonuses too, like watching the big cats and meerkats play in the snow or getting to watch happy, relaxed, active pandas by myself because it was so cold no one else really came to the zoo!
Images taken at Edinburgh Zoo:
(Please note that several of the animal species in this gallery are no longer at Edinburgh Zoo.)