Balboa Park is the jewel of San Diego, and not just because it's home to our world-famous zoo. Set on 1,200 acres that were set aside for public use in the early 1800's, our cultural park includes 17 museums and many beautiful gardens. There are also more than tenRestaurants in Balboa Parkplus coffee shops, entertainment venues and other attractions that San Diego residents enjoy year-round.
You can try to do all the things you want to do inBalboa Parkin one day, but it makes more sense to take a few days of your choosingSan Diegovacation to discover it slowly. Clearsan diego zooand the San Diego Museum of Natural History should be on your itinerary, but what if I told you that you can see fantastic model roller coasters, moving artwork, the world's largest outdoor pipe organ or a copy of the Globe Theater in London?
Balboa Park has all of that and more. Read on for some quick tips for planning your visit and some of my top things to do in Balboa Park.
Planning things to do in Balboa Park
With so much to see and do here, you might think deciding what to do in Balboa Park will be overwhelming. Rest assured, you can experience Balboa Park's many free attractions just by walking through it.
Consider setting aside a day to visit the museums that most interest you. Spend another day insan diego zoobut be sure to schedule a time to visit Balboa Park without a defined itinerary. So you cross off your to-do list and don't miss out on Balboa Park's fun surprises.
Balboa Park Explorer Pass ou Go San Diego Pass
If you buy Go San Diego through the links below I can be compensated.
I recommend friends and family who come to San Diego to useGo to San Diego®a pass, thanks to which visiting the city's attractions will be easier and cheaper. However, if your itinerary emphasizes Balboa Park attractions, check outBalboa Park Explorerto spend.
OBSERVE: Go San Diego passes do not qualify for the annual Kids Free San Diego promotion in October.
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Which one you choose depends on how many San Diego attractions you visit. OGo to San Diegopass is best for visiting most Balboa Park museums in combination with othersbest san diego attractionslike SeaWorld® San Diego and LEGOLAND® California during the holidays.
Purchasing a pass helps ensure you don't pay a separate admission fee every time. You'll want to visit many of the museums in Balboa Park, as they're close by (and none are large enough to require a full-day visit).
When it comes to the Balboa Park Explorer Pass, there are several options to consider.
Multi-Day Explorer/Zoo Combo
This pass grants you access to 17 San Diego museums and the zoo for the next seven days, allowing you to enter the park when it's most convenient for you. In addition to the zoo, you can visit:
- Running Culture Center
- Japanese Garden of Friendship
- Mingei International Museum
- Museum of Photographic Arts
- Reuben H. Fleeta Short Center
- San Diego Air and Space Museum
- SDAI - Museum of the Living Artist
- San Diego Automobile Museum
- Hall of Champions in San Diego
- Historic Downtown San Diego
- San Diego Model Railroad Museum
- San Diego Museum of Man
- San Diego Museum of Natural History
- San Diego Museum of Art
- Timken Museum of Art
- Veterans Museum and Memorial Center
- Centrum WorldBeat
Balboa Park Explorer Day Pass
It gives you access to 5 museums in one day - ideal for solo travelers or groups looking to pack a lot for a short visit.
Includes admission to the above museums (but not the zoo) for the next seven days.
Annual Explorer Pass
If you live in San Diego, this is one of the best city discounts in the area, as it allows you to enter the park's museums whenever you like. This is great and can make rainy days more enjoyable. We have it.
Attractions in Balboa Park
go to the museum
I'll provide more information on some of our favorite museums and attractions below, but before that, I'd like to mention museum visiting as a standalone activity.
There are so many museums in Balboa Park, and they're right next to each other, making it easy to hop between them — especially if you have the Balboa Park Explorer Pass.
Admire the art of the Spanish and Italian old masters and see a replica of the Holy Spirit. Ludwik Lindbergh, see the real Rembrandt and learn more about African, African American and Native American cultures all in one day. You can delve into the art of photography before delving into military history. There are few places in the world where so much education and inspiration can be found in a relatively small space.
Tip: Keep in mind that Balboa Park museums operate independently, which means opening hours and entrance fees vary.
Botanical Building and Lilac Lagoon
This iconic attraction is one of my favorites.Free Attractions at Balboa Park. The Botanical Building and its beautiful lily pond were built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
It's one of the most photographed places in all of San Diego because it's beautiful and also has the distinction of being one of the largest clapboard structures in the world.
Inside are thousands of fascinating exotic plants, including orchids, palms and cycads. There's even a handy scent garden (which the kids love) where you can pick leaves to discover the scent of different plants.
San Diego Automobile Museum
If there's any gear in your family, this museum is a must. Inside you will find a very beautiful collection of cars (as well as motorcycles) that show some of the most important events in our country's automotive history over the centuries.
The cars on display rotate every four months, but one of the museum's most iconic vehicles is always on display. No visit is complete without looking at Louie Mattar's Fantastic Car, a 1947 Cadillac that Mattar equipped with a stove, washing machine, and even a toilet so he could literally drive around in it nonstop, refueling a gas truck on the go, from Alaska to Mexico City and then across the United States
Museum of Man and Tower of California
The San Diego Museum of Man is a famous anthropology museum in Balboa Park, housed in the historic buildings of a stunning California quadrangle.
The museum itself is worth a visit to see the Native American and Mesoamerican artifacts stored there, as well as one of the country's most important collections of ancient Egyptian antiquities.
I also recommend visitors to check out the California Tower. Climbing the 125 steps to the iconic tower may feel like a workout, but the reward of reaching the top will be unforgettable 360-degree views of Balboa Park and San Diego. Note that the California Tower is currently closed for seismic upgrades, but we expect to reopen later in the year.
Japanese Garden of Friendship
This peaceful 12-acre garden, also known as San-Kei-En, was created as an expression of friendship between San Diego and our sister city Yokohama.
OJapanese Garden of Friendshipit was designed using traditional Japanese techniques, although native flora is included throughout. There are cherry blossoms, waterfalls, koi ponds and bonsai trees, as well as stone arrangements and sukiya-style buildings.
While visitors can visit the garden (admission is mandatory as it is not one of Balboa Park's free attractions) to sit back and enjoy this meditative space, activities, exhibitions and festivals are also held here throughout the year.
Timken Museum of Art
Visiting this small museum (sometimes called the "San Diego Fine Arts Jewel Box") is one of our favorite free things to do in Balboa Park. Fair warning - when I say "small" I'm not kidding, although it does make for a relaxing experience.
There are around 60 major works on display - mostly paintings and sculptures by European Old Masters - as well as some works by American artists and Russian icons. It is the only museum in San Diego with a Rembrandt in its permanent collection.
San Diego Air and Space Museum
This museum (which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution) has a plethora of original planes and spacecraft, as well as many other reproductions. It's one of the largest aviation museums in the entire country, and if you're an aviation enthusiast, you could easily spend hours here.
Kids love it because there are flight simulators and lots of hands-on, interactive displays. After so much time flying, I am having fun looking at examples of flight attendant uniforms over the years.
San Diego Museum of Natural History
OSan Diego Museum of Natural Historyit's a favorite of local kids and should be at the top of any bucket listthings to do in san diego with kids. It's everything you'd expect from a natural history museum and more.
You can learn about the flora and fauna of Southern California or find out why Foucault's pendulum does what it does, see animals as diverse as prehistoric insects and sharks, or admire "Al" (the allosaurus in the lobby). If you're visiting with kids, be sure to check out the treasure hunts at the Fossil Secrets and Movies exhibit at the Giant-Screen Theater.
Model Railway Museum
If you're the lucky parent of a train-obsessed kid (or you love trains yourself), this is one of Balboa Park's must-see museums.
The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is the largest model railroad museum in the entire United States (with over 27,000 square feet of layouts) and is simply a fantastic place for children and adults alike to explore all the details hidden within these elaborate displays.
The museum also has a children's area with lots of push buttons that will delight little train enthusiasts.
A rose garden named after Inez Grant Parker
Visiting this beautiful garden is another of my favorite free Balboa Park activities. The garden has more than two thousand flowering rose bushes, representing more than 130 types of roses - including freshly grown varieties.
It's as colorful and fragrant as you can imagine and the bushes are in bloom from March to December. However, to fully experience the beauty of the rose garden, visit in April or May, when the flowers are at their best.
Spanish Village Art Center
This is one of Balboa Park's hidden gems. The Spanish Village was built in 1935 for the California Pacific International Exposition in the park and was designed to resemble a traditional Spanish village.
Its history is fascinating and the space itself is enchanting, but the real reason to visit the Spanish Village at Balboa Park is to see the hundreds of artists at work doing what they do best. Every day you can see people making pottery or painting, sculpting or conducting workshops in the central courtyard. On weekends, musicians are usually heard playing in the square.
Spreckels Organ Pavilion
Marvel at over 5,000 pipes at the Spreckels Organ, the largest pipe organ in the world. Free concerts are held every Sunday at (check the schedule), but it's easy to see during a day in Balboa Park (the pavilion is next to the Mingei Museum and the Japanese Friendship Garden). If you're lucky, you might hear someone practicing.
Tour to Balboa Park
Many visitors stick to museums and other attractions, but locals also visit Balboa Park for the trails.
There are over 65 miles of walking, hiking, and biking trails throughout the park. They differ not only in length and difficulty, but also in the setting. There are pleasant walks that take you through the heart of the park, as well as more challenging hikes.
Experience the Palm Canyon, which passes over 450 palm trees - some of which are over a hundred years old.
Entertainment in El Prado
Every day along El Prado (the main pedestrian street) you will find different activities organized by different licensed artists including henna artists, giant bubble blowers, a hula hoop, musicians and religious groups that add color to any visit.
Eat and drink
Whether you need a quick kid-friendly fix (my daughter and her friends love the Craveology chicken nuggets at the Fleet Science Center), a soba noodle salad, an outdoor craft beer or a curry, you can find it at Balboa Park. So it's good to come hungry.
Picnic is also allowed. The lawn in front of the botanical building is a popular spot, but families stop to dine in the sun throughout the park.
If you live in San Diego or are a frequent visitor like I am, I'd love to hear about your favorite parts of Balboa Park in the comments. Do you have any tips for first-time visitors?
Balboa Park is a cultural oasis that includes 17 museums, gardens galore and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. At 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is one of North America's most iconic urban parks and a must see on any visit to San Diego.What is Balboa Park best known for? ›
Balboa Park is a cultural oasis that includes 17 museums, gardens galore and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. At 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is one of North America's most iconic urban parks and a must see on any visit to San Diego.Is anything free at Balboa Park? ›
Yes! Admittance to the park grounds is free. Once inside the Park, explore the rich gardens and trails. The Botanical Building (currently closed) and Timken Museum of Art are always free.How long is the walk around Balboa Park? ›
Experience this 4.5-mile loop trail near San Diego, California. Generally considered an easy route, it takes an average of 1 h 39 min to complete. This is a very popular area for running and walking, so you'll likely encounter other people while exploring.How long should I spend at Balboa Park? ›
An oasis of gardens, green spaces, museums, and great architecture in the heart of the city, Balboa Park is deserving of at least one full day in your itinerary, even if your San Diego trip is not a very long one.Can you just walk around Balboa Park? ›
With grounds open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you can always walk right in. Once inside, some exhibits, museums, and attractions do require a fee, but there are still plenty of things to do in the Jewel of San Diego without spending a dime.What day is Balboa Park free? ›
Balboa Park Free Tuesdays can be a great way to take in a little arts, culture, and education on a budget.Where is the most photographed place in Balboa Park? ›
The enchanting view of the Botanical Building with the Lily Pond in the foreground is one of the most photographed scenes in Balboa Park and a "must-see" destination in San Diego.Are Balboa Park museums free? ›
See for Free at the Museums
Several of Balboa Park's great museums offer spaces, events and more that are free and open to the public. Admission to the Timken Museum of Art is always free, giving visitors amazing access to the Timken's prized collection, featuring works by Rembrandt and other masters.
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For incredible views, park your car on the west side of the park over on 6th Avenue. To enter the park, you'll walk through gardens and fields to cross the Cabrillo Bridge. While you walk over the bridge, take in the views of the city on your right and the San Diego Zoo to the left.Can you do Balboa Park and Zoo a day? ›
The Bottom Line
We learned that you can see and enjoy both in one day with strategic planning. I would plan for no more than two or three Balboa Park museums. Take the bus tour at the Zoo to see and learn as much as possible in a short amount of time.