Edinburgh Zoo can be found on the western side of Edinburgh, three miles from the city centre, occupying an 82 acre site on the southern slopes of Corstorphine Hill. Despite its large size, the zoo is very easy to overlook. Access is from Corstorphine Road, and other developments restrict the Zoo's frontage to not much more than the visitor centre and the access road to the car park. It is only once you have spent some time wandering around the zoo that you realise just how extensive it really is.
A few practicalities to begin with. The zoo's main entrance is the visitor centre that stands back from and above Corstorphine Road, and the road to the car park is between the zoo and the hotel to its east. It is served by a number of buses that come out of Edinburgh along Corstorphine Road, including the 12, 26 and 31.
Edinburgh Zoo occupies a site that climbs over 300ft from Corstorphine Road almost to the top of Corstorphine Hill. Despite this, it is fully accessible, and those wishing to avoid the uphill part of any tour can take the free Hilltop Safari ride (which is also fully accessible) from just behind the visitor centre to the top of the hill. From here it is all downhill back to the entrance on well-paved paths: though the slight downside is that it means you are more likely to miss something you'd really like to see than if you have taken a self-propelled circular route around the zoo.
Which brings us to the main practical point about visiting Edinburgh Zoo. On entry you will be given a brochure containing a map. You can find your way around simply by following the excellent signposts and your instincts: but you will probably have a more enjoyable visit, and run less risk of later realising you have missed one of the highlights, if you take a little time to work out what you want to see, and how to get there. This is especially important because when touring the zoo, the extensive tree coverage means you can seldom see much beyond the particular area you are in at the time.
From a visitor's point of view, there are three fairly distinct zones within the zoo, which divide quite neatly depending on how far you have climbed up Corstorphine Hill.
At its lower end, where it borders Corstorphine Road, the zoo is fairly narrow, Beyond the main entrance, visitor centre and shop you'll find a series of compartments lined by vegetation. Here flamingos compete for attention with sea lions, lemurs and others. Particularly interesting are the Steller's Sea Eagles in the African Aviary. These seem quite unpeturbed by humans standing just the other side of the aviary windows, meaning you can get a very close view of these magnificent birds.
The middle third of the zoo is its most built up area and includes the two cafeterias, the Education Centre and the Discovery Centre. The focal point is the "Mansion House". These days this fulfills a variety of functions, including as a popular venue for weddings. Previously known as Corstorphine Hill House, this was originally built in 1793 and as home to the Macmillan family was given a Scots Baronial makeover in 1891. In 1912 the house and surrounding estate was purchased for £17,000 by the The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and Edinburgh Zoo opened here on 22 July 1913. Today the society also owns the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie.
The layout of the zoo was inspired by the success of the Stellingen Zoo near Hamburg which took the - for the time - revolutionary approach of housing animals in something resembling their natural environments. This allowed Edinburgh Zoo to avoid the preceding century's ethos of zoos as exhibits of living trophies, and it placed education at the core of its activities from day one. Today the zoo plays a significant role in the safeguarding of species endangered in the wild, and you come away with the sense that although visitors do have the privilege of looking in on the lives of many of its residents, the emphasis is on making those lives as pleasant and "wild" as captivity allows.
The central third of the zoo is also home to some of its most popular attractions. Penguins first arrived at Edinburgh Zoo in 1914, and started breeding in 1919. The penguin pool you see today, built in 1930, allows a fascinating insight into the above and below-water lives of these amazing birds.
Nearby is the monkey house and, in late 2007, the temporary home of the chimps. The east end of the middle third of the zoo is the site of a series of major projects coming to fruition in late 2007 and 2008. These include Budongo, a world class chimpanzee enclosure, and Rainbow Landings, a new interactive rainbow lorikeet exhibit. Plans exist for the steady updating of all of the zoo's facilities over the coming 20 years.
The further or upper third of the zoo contains its more extensive enclosures. One highlight is the hillside home of the pride of Asiatic Lions. Catch them on a sunny day when they've been fed, and what you find are sand-coloured replicas of your domestic cat when it's lying contented in front of the fire.
Before you start thinking "cute", remember that these pussycats would gladly enjoy you as their next meal! More felines are on view nearby, and there's very little chance that the raw power of the tigers, evident even when they are resting, would ever leave you calling them cute: not to their faces, anyway.
Higher up on the shoulder of the top of Corstorphine Hill are the African Plains. Here you can find a large enclosure complete with zebras and gazelles: plus amazing views south over the west side of Edinburgh to the Pentland Hills. Other enclosures come complete with Maned Wolves (if you catch them when they are not asleep), camels, deer, antelopes and more.