What kid doesn't love the zoo? It's the closest thing to a sure thing in parenting. Still, through trial and error we've learned that the absolute key to getting the most out of a visit to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is getting there before or after the crowds.
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There's certainly a lot to enjoy: the 62 acres of gorgeous grounds surrounding a swan-filled lake, the ability to get extremely close-up to both dangerous and cuddly creatures, the wide variety of wildlife and the perception that you're observing the animals in their natural habitat.
But let's face it, when you're surrounded by hundreds of summer campers willing to resort to any antic – whether screaming at the top of their lungs or banging on the glass partition protecting the animals from the crowds – to wake up the sleeping lions and bears, it does detract somewhat from the intimacy of your encounter with nature. Some of the younger English-speaking members of our group – still accustomed to following rules from the old country – were particularly appalled at the sight of campers throwing bits of Bamba and Bisli at the bears in blatant defiance of signs warning them not to do so.
So here's tip No. 1: Get there later in the day. The zoo is open on most days until 7 p.m., so a good time to come is about 4 p.m., giving you the minimum three hours needed to get the most out of a visit. An added advantage of coming later in the day, particularly in the summer months, is that it's a bit cooler, and the animals that prefer staying outof sight in shady corners during the heat of the day tend to be more visible.
Tip No. 2 – and this may sound counter-intuitive: If you're not observant,don't come on weekdays, but plan a visit on Shabbat if possible. This tip may be less applicable in the winter, but in the summer months, many of Jerusalem's secular residents opt for the beach over the zoo (and its religious residents obviously don't go to either), leaving the grounds relatively empty. One thing to bear in mind is that the zoo train, which costs extra, doesn't run on Shabbat. But based on our recent experience, you can easily take a pass on it. It was difficult to hear the explanations (all in Hebrew, by the way) of the guide amid the chatter of the passengers on board and hard to really take in any of the sights because the train never stopped moving.
The great thing about the zoo is that it tends to appeal to children of all ages – teenagers included. The Jerusalem zoo, though, offers special attractions for very young kids, most notably the petting zoo where they can wander among goats and sheep and the relatively new "Underground World" where they can crawl through tunnels and get an up-close look at little animals that live underground.
Upon arrival, you'll be given a pamphlet that lets you know the times when different animals are fed. It's a good idea to plan your excursion around the feedings, which provide a great opportunity to observe the animals in a more active state. Often, they are accompanied by explanations from zoo guides. The kids in our groups particularly enjoyed watching the 33 penguins hover around their feeder while he popped whole fish into their open mouths. We also learned some cool facts while we watched. (For example, did you know that penguins stay with one partner their entire lives, and males and females share the burden of protecting the eggs?)
Another highlight of the trip was a visit to the relatively new parrot exhibit, where you can roam freely among the spectacularly colored birds and even feed them. The nearby chimpanzees were another hit with the kids, delighting them with their human-like antics and what appeared to be a game of "steal the ball."
It gets very hot at the zoo in the summer, so it's highly recommended to come equipped with drinks and to wear a hat. Since walking around in the heat can be exhausting, it's also a good idea to bring some lunch and take a break. Our favorite lunch spots are the picnic table (if it's available) and under the olive and palm trees that provide shade on the lawn near the lake. There you can observe the gorgeous flamingoes and swans as you munch away. For those who don't feel like lugging along food – sandwiches and snacks can be purchased at a kiosk near the entrance, and ice cream and other snacks are available at various stands around the grounds.
It's worth noting that during the summer months, the zoo offers special night tours for visitors, with information available on the zoo's website: http://www.jerusalemzoo.org.il/len/
Address: Derech Aharon Shulov 1, Jerusalem (near Malcha)
Sunday-Thursday: 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Friday and holiday eves: 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Saturday and holidays: 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Adults (age 18 and up): NIS 49
Children (3-18): NIS 38
Children below age 3: FREE
Getting there: Both Egged buses and Israel Railways run lines that stop at the zoo. By car, it's 15-20 minutes from the center of Jerusalem.
Parking: Free of charge on premises