40+ Free Things to Do in Balboa Park
Gardens, hikes, guided tours, a museum and more
Many free things to do in Balboa Park are ones you’d likely seek out anyway. The activities on this list include hiking trails, playgrounds, special programming, gardens and even one of the museums.
Table of Contents
- Hiking Trails
- Dog Parks
- Children’s Playgrounds
- Interactive Sculptures
- WorldBeat Cultural Center
- House of Pacific Relations Cottages
- Spanish Village Art Center
- Spreckels Organ Pavilion
- Timken Museum of Art
- Other Balboa Park Free Museums
- Balboa Park Tours
- Balboa Park Gardens
- Botanical Building and Lily Pond
- Alcazar Garden
- Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden
- Zoro Garden
- Marston House Garden
- EthnoBotany Children’s Peace Garden
- Casa del Rey Moro
- Desert Garden
- Florida Canyon Native Plant Reserve
- Palm Canyon
- Trees for Health Garden
- Veterans Memorial Garden
- Old Cactus Garden
- Australian Garden
- California Native Plant Garden
- Free Balboa Park Seasonal Activities
All parking lots at Balboa Park are free, and there are several throughout the park. Download a Balboa Park parking lot map.
A free tram transports guests at roughly 10-minute intervals to the park’s center near the Japanese Friendship gardens.
If arriving early, try the parking lot at Inspiration Point (Park Blvd, between Presidents Way and the Activity Center) first.
Street parking around the outskirts of the park, particularly around 6th Street and Laurel Street is also free.
Parking during summer months, weekends, and special events can be tough so plan to come early.
For those who don’t even want to think about finding a spot, there are paid valet services from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. on Saturdays, and 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. on Sundays.
Balboa Park offers a whopping 65 miles of hiking trails. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re looking for a single-miler or a longer trek. Five marked trailheads where you can start lead to a total of 19 trails of varying length and difficulty. Dogs are welcome on a leash.
Golden Hill Trails Gateway
Golden Hills Trails Gateway starts in Golden Hills Park, a quiet and grassy area popular with joggers. Gates close at sunset, so hikes are best kept to the daytime. The gateway leads to three trails, which range from a 0.5-mile loop to a 7-miler that goes through the Florida Canyon Reserve. There are both paved and dirt roads, depending on which trail you follow. Location: 2591 Golden Hill Drive.
Marston Point Trails Gateway
It doesn’t start at Marston Point Park, but a little ways south. You can start at the park, too, you won’t have access to all four of the trails that start at the gateway. The trails range from 1-3 miles in length and are mostly paved. Location: Near Sixth Avenue and Elm Street.
Morley Field Trails Gateway
This trail features more natural, grassy areas as well as roadside trails. You’ll get a great view of the Florida Canyon as you wander around here. Beware, though that all three of its routes have a pretty sizable elevation change, which can be a leg workout. Some of the trails also require walking on the shoulder of the road, so keep an eye out if you have any little adventurers with you. Location: Morley Field Sports Complex
Park Boulevard Trails Gateway
The Park Boulevard Trails Gateway runs through the more historic areas of the park that were built for the 1915 and 1935 expositions in Balboa Park. Most of the trails are on the sidewalk for at least part of the walk. Trail #31 is a favorite 3-mile jaunt that goes through several of the park’s most famous sites and offers great scenic views of downtown. Location: South of Park Boulevard, near President’s Way.
Sixth and Upas Trails Gateway
This is the starting point for five trails, from 1.5 to 6.6 miles, each in the medium to the difficult range since they’re either pretty hilly or long. Trail #2, about 4 miles, is a great opportunity to see a bunch of the park’s best museums and gardens along one trail if you’re up for the trek. Location: Sixth Avenue and Upas Street.
Balboa Park dog parks allow dogs to run off-leash. Wide and open, they’re perfect for games of fetch, furry playdates, or getting some fresh air with your four-legged friend. Parking is easy around here, too, except for the occasional busy weekend.
Morley Field has easy access to the Florida Canyon Nature trails, where you can walk your dog on a leash after a romp in the park. Location: Alabama Street and Morley Field Drive.
Nate’s Point is a fenced-in area with water fountains and picnic tables. Location: South of El Prado and Laurel Street.
Grape Street is the largest Balboa Park dog park. It’s a little more out of the way in a residential area and has public restrooms and dog water fountains. Location: 28th Street and Grape Street
Note: The parks are mostly dirt-filled, so be mindful that you and your dog might get dirty. They also do not have specified big and small dog areas as many other city dog parks do.
Balboa Park offers tons of family-friendly activities in the main square, but if you have some little companions that need to get some physical energy out, hit one of the playgrounds.
There are five throughout the park, and while all of them are popular, some are more appropriate for specific age groups.
Bird Park at Cedar and Bird Park at Upas
These parks are perfect for toddlers and very young children aged 2-5 years. With a plastic play structure and cushioned ground, it’s a safe spot for little adventurers who are learning to walk or climb. This park is located in a friendly residential area, and you’ll often see locals hanging out. You can enjoy the views of Balboa Park, the California Tower, and the ocean while your little ones enjoy themselves. Street parking is usually available, but note that there are no public restrooms here. The closest ones are located at Morley Field, about a ten-minute walk away. Location: Both are situated along 28th Street.
Morley Field Playground
Morley Field Playground will be more interesting for children five years old and up. In addition to the usual slides, monkey bars, and swings, there’s a rock-climbing wall. It’s close to other amenities like the swimming pool (what swimming pool) and has public restrooms. This area is separated from the main drag by Florida Canyon, and like Bird Park, it’s a local favorite. Location: Northeast Morley Field Sports Complex.
Pepper Grove Playground and Sixth Avenue Playground
These two Balboa Park playgrounds have something for all ages. Both are separated into age-appropriate areas, with more relaxed activities like a sandbox for younger children and obstacle courses for older kids. These playgrounds were recently renovated a few years ago, so the structures are all pretty new and in great shape. The areas are enjoyable places to hang out and have great views of the Japanese Friendship Gardens and Spreckels Organ Pavilion across the valley. An ice cream truck occasionally makes a stop at Pepper Grove. Locations: Park Boulevard, near The Fleet Science Center (Pepper Grove Playground) and Sixth Avenue and Spruce Street (Sixth Avenue and Spruce Street).
These are a favorite with kids. Designed by Niki de Saint Phalle, some of the pieces in this eye-catching collection double as mini-jungle gyms as visitors are encouraged to touch, climb, and play. One of the most popular is the green dragon right outside of the Mingei International Museum.
The park recently revealed an additional outdoor art installation, called Art of the Open Air, in the Plaza de Panama (behind the Panama 66 restaurant). It’s not touchable but includes work from some fantastic artists like Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and Tony Rosenthal. Kids like running around this grassy area as well.
WorldBeat Cultural Center
The WorldBeat Cultural Center aims to share the cultures of African, African-American, and indigenous heritages in San Diego. It does this by promoting art, dance, stories, community, and more.
More specifically, they offer inclusive activities like drum circles, concerts, and bi-monthly alternative health events. There’s also a vegetarian restaurant, WorldBeat Cafe, inside if you want to stop for a bite.
House of Pacific Relations Cottages
Located along Palm Canyon near President’s Way, the House of Pacific Relations Cottages were created in 1935 for the second California Pacific International Exposition. Now each one is dedicated to a particular country to educate visitors and promote multicultural goodwill.
From Iran to Denmark, you can experience 33 different cultures. Each house offers some type of sweet treat as a way for visitors to sample that country’s culinary heritage, too (some treats are free while others require a cash donation).
If you’re visiting between March and October, make sure you don’t miss the free events on the lawn; every Sunday at 2:00 p.m. there’s a big celebration with dancing, music, and lots of food.
There’s also an international food festival in the spring, usually in May, and the cottages participate in the park’s December Nights celebration in the winter.
The houses are open every Sunday from 12:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m.
Spanish Village Art Center
This hidden gem of over 200 independent artists is tucked away in the northeasterly section of the park, near the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Built for the 1935 Exposition, Spanish Village Art Center is now home to 37 different studios. Each one exhibits the work of a different local artist from painters and sculptors to metalsmiths and glass-blowers. Stop by to pick up a one-of-a-kind treasure or walk through the fairs, gallery events, and more that take place during the year. You can also catch a daily demonstration from the artists themselves.
Spreckels Organ Pavilion
The Spreckels Organ was donated to the park for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and is the largest fully-outdoor pipe organ in the world (there are 5,000 pipes, some are up to 32 feet long).
Listen to free concerts by a civic organist every Sunday at 2:00 p.m. with an additional concert on Mondays at 7:30 p.m. from mid-June until August. The evening concerts are lovely with lights built into the arches that shine on the Victorian architecture.
After the concert, stick around to get a behind-the-scenes look at the structure and instrument.
The pavilion is spacious and full of seating, so even if you aren’t there during a show, it’s a nice place to chill out midday for a little bit. Beware that there isn’t much shade. Public restrooms are also conveniently adjacent to the pavilion.
Location: Right off of East Pan American Road. Park in the Organ Pavillion lot for quick access.
Timken Museum of Art
Timken Museum of Art is a short but lovely stop. Sometimes called the “San Diego’s Jewel Box of Fine Art,” this is the only always free Balboa Park museum. It’s pretty extraordinary even though it’s a quick visit compared to the nearby San Diego Museum of Art. The Timken houses very rare and sought-after works.
It’s the only exhibit in San Diego to have an original Rembrandt on public display (St. Bartholomew), as well as work by other iconic European and American artists. The core collection remains the same, but rotating exhibits feature different pieces.
Location: In the center of the park at 1500 El Prado, the Timken Museum of Art is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Other Balboa Park Free Museums
If you want to visit any of the other museums, they do offer free admission on a rotating basis for San Diego residents during Residents Free Tuesdays. A Photo ID with a San Diego address is required.
Balboa Park Tours
Head to the Visitor’s Center to join a guided tour. While you can always spend the day wandering Balboa Park on your own, organized tours are a great way to delve into the rich history and trivia of the park that you might not have known about otherwise.
The Visitors Center offers a few different types of tours:
- Ranger-led tours are good for anyone interested in the historical or botanical side of Balboa Park. Rangers will explain and answer any questions about the general history of the park, the gardens, and museums. Time and date: Every Sunday at 11:00 a.m., about an hour long.
- Offshoot tours are led by trained volunteers. The themes rotate depending on the week of the month, but vary from topics like “Balboa Park History” to “Desert Vegetation.” Time and date: Every Saturday at 10:00 am, about an hour long at a leisurely pace. No tours from Thanksgiving through January 2nd.
- Architectural heritage tours focus on the areas of the park built for the 1915 Panama California Exposition. Time and date: First Friday of every month at 10:00 a.m.
All tours meet at the Visitors Center at 1549 El Prado.
Balboa Park Gardens
Balboa Park is well known for its seventeen gardens. Admission to all of them is free, except for the Japanese Friendship Garden and the Botanical Garden inside the San Diego Zoo (a San Diego Zoo ticket is required). Balboa Park gardens are a can’t-miss for gardening and botany enthusiasts, or anyone just looking to snap a beautiful pic.
(Note that people have come across homeless populations in the Desert Garden, Old Cactus Garden, and Golden Hills, especially in the latter. There have also been mentions of these gardens not being very well maintained.)
Botanical Building and Lily Pond
This is one of the most photographed spots in all of San Diego. You’ll understand why as soon as you arrive. With the giant lily pond full of koi fish in front, it’s a stunning scene.
Built as a temporary structure for 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the Botanical Building is now one of the largest structures in the world made from lath, the flat wooden strips that give it the appearance of wicker. It’s shaped like a greenhouse, although it’s not fully enclosed.
The garden inside has more than 2,100 different exotic plants. More are added seasonally. There’s even a cute little scent garden inside where you can pick off leaves and smell them.
Location: El Prado next to the Timken Museum of Art. The Botanical Building is open every day except Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Free tours of the garden are offered at 11:00 a.m. on the third Friday of every month.
Named after the Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain, this quaint garden was built in 1935 to mimic the work of local architect Richard Requa.
The elaborate fountain and vibrant tilework are inspired by the colorful styles of southern Spain, which make it feel like a mini oasis (especially if you’ve been walking around in the San Diego sun all day).
In addition to gorgeous architecture, there are about 7,000 annuals planted in hedge boxes. The gazebo and flower-covered trellises make a nice shaded sitting area. Since it’s not as well known, it tends to be pretty quiet.
Location: Next to the Mingei International Museum. Open daily.
Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden
Three acres wide and packed with more than 1,600 roses from more than 130 varieties, this award-winning garden is a must-see.
The enormous collection is continually updated to include the latest trends on the market, so it’s a great stop for garden enthusiasts.
The garden is diligently maintained by volunteer members of the Balboa Park Rose Garden Corps (you might see them if you visit on a Thursday morning).
Whether or not you’re a floral enthusiast, the expanse of colorful blossoms will take your breath away so I highly recommend strolling through it. There’s a gazebo in the center if you want to sit down and take in the beauty. The flowers are in bloom from March to December, but the best time to go is in April and May.
Location: Park Blvd, across the pedestrian bridge from the San Diego Natural History Museum. Open daily.
Known as the best spot in Balboa Park for spotting butterflies, Zoro Garden has a pretty impressive history.
Built in 1915, it was a nudist colony during the 1935 California-Pacific Exposition, and members even put on theatrical shows for visitors. Nowadays, it’s just as clothing-mandatory as the rest of the park, but the cobblestone pathways and sunken trees still make it feel like a magical secret garden.
The garden is designed to attract and provide for butterflies: both the architecture and plants have created the perfect environment for them, so you’ll see them at every stage of their life cycle. While it’s not a huge garden, there is one main path that winds through; it’s worth the visit. The only thing to note is that the butterflies do usually hibernate during the winter.
Location: In between the Fleet Science Center and the San Diego History Center. Open daily.
Marston House Garden
Marston House Garden is a small English-style courtyard on the grounds of the George White and Anna Gunn Marston House. It’s quaint and Victorian, complete with a tea house, wooden gazebo, and manicured garden beds. It was built for the couple’s 50th anniversary in 1927. Many of the trees that were planted as a present are still there.
Location: 3525 Seventh Avenue. Open daily.
EthnoBotany Children’s Peace Garden
The mission of the Peace Garden is to teach the young about the role of plants in local history as well as in today’s world (although more mature crowds are welcome, too).
The whole garden is edible, with lots of unique fruits, veggies, and herbs. Community gardening classes are offered every Sunday at 11:30 a.m.
Location: 2100 Park Blvd. Open daily.
Casa del Rey Moro
Meaning “House of the Moorish King,” Casa del Rey Moro is based on the garden of a palace of the same name in Ronda, Spain. It’s pretty much a perfect copy of the courtyard, down to the reflecting pool and wishing well. The fountain is a replica of that found in the Guadalajara Museum of Gardens. Mexico.
Location: Behind the Prado Restaurant, east of the Old Globe Theater and Valet Parking on East Pan American Road. It’s open daily but occasionally closed for private events.
At two and a half acres, this is one of the larger Balboa Park gardens. It’s a stop for those who love anything succulent-related. Since 1976, the Desert Garden has grown to include about 1,300 different varieties of drought-resistant plants.
While the plants grow year round, they’re at full bloom between January and March.
Location: Park Blvd, next to the Rose Garden and across the pedestrian bridge from the San Diego Natural History Museum. Open daily.
Florida Canyon Native Plant Reserve
At 150 acres, this is the largest natural area of Balboa Park. It remains undeveloped to preserve the integrity of plants native to California.
Rangers recently started a program to remove foreign and invasive plants to maintain the original terrain of the park. However, it’s still open to the public, and many of the hiking trails pass through it. If you want to learn more about the plants, educational signs identify and describe them as you walk the trails.
Location: The reserve is a bit removed from the rest of the park, but there are entrances along Florida Drive. Open daily.
Like Florida Canyon, this is more of a reserve than an actual, manicured garden. It’s more of a mini-jungle than anything else.
Tropical and hidden, its winding paths are shaded by more than 250 palm trees. What started as a small plot of Mexican Fan Palms in 1912, Palm Canyon now spans 2 acres and has 58 different species of palm trees, along with some lovely magnolia trees at the entrance.
It offers easy access to other gardens by following the trail to the Old Cactus Garden or the wooden foot-bridge to the Alcazar Garden.
Location: The Pan American Plaza across from Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Open daily.
Trees for Health Garden
This garden promotes education on the uses of medicinal plants and herbs. It’s great for anyone interested in botany, herbalism, and how to incorporate nature in daily life. This Balboa Park garden is home to over 140 different species, including a cinnamon tree and a coffeeberry tree (not the same as a coffee plant; the tonic made from these plants is used treat poison oak).
Location: Balboa Drive and Quince Street. Open daily.
Veterans Memorial Garden
Dedicated in 2005 to members who served in the US armed forces, the Veterans Memorial Garden is separated into three different sections: ground, air, and sea defense. The Air Force section has a large bronze statue of a WWII B-24 fighter plane (many of which were built in San Diego).
Location: 2115 Park Blvd, in front of the Veterans Memorial Museum and Memorial Center. Open daily.
Old Cactus Garden
Built in 1935 with the help of botanist and philanthropist Kate Sessions, the Old Cactus Garden is home to the largest cacti in Balboa Park. It also has some striking desert flowers known as Sugarbush or Protea.
Location: 2144 West Pan American Road, behind the Balboa Park Club. Open daily.
Most of the plants in this garden were given to Balboa Park by Australian officials as a bicentennial gift in 1976. Now it’s expanded, but all the plants are still native to Australia. It’s pretty undeveloped, so it feels like a mini trip to The Outback.
Location: Gold Gulch Canyon, at the end of the Gold Gulch Trail. Open daily.
California Native Plant Garden
Take a swift look at 36 plants, mostly succulents, native to California. If you’re in the market for some eco-friendly landscaping, there are some good options to see here that may work in your own home.
Location: 2201 Morley Field Dr. Open daily.
Free Balboa Park Seasonal Activities
Annual Ethnic Food Fair (Spring)
It’s put on by the House of Pacific Relations in May (the actual food costs extra).
Chinese New Year (Spring)
Every spring, the House of China at the Pacific House of Relations puts on a celebration full of food, parades, and educational activities to celebrate the lunar new year.
Summer Movies in the Park (Summer)
Free movie screenings for families at Morley Field starting at dusk, usually about 15 minutes after sunset.
Twilight in the Park (Summer)
From June to August, the Spreckels Pavilion puts on evening concerts in addition to the weekly Sunday afternoon shows. The genres range from salsa to country to swing. These concerts start at 6:15 pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
Kids Free October (Fall)
As a part of Kids Free October, the San Diego Zoo offers free entrance to children under 11 with one paid adult. Kids get in free at the Fleet Science Center, San Diego Air & Space Museum and San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Details change every year so be sure to check which promotions apply during your visit.
December Nights (Winter)
At the beginning of December, the park turns into a winter wonderland full of rides, games, music, and more. Lasting only for two nights at the start of the month, December Nights is a top-rated San Diego holiday event. Parking is notoriously difficult, but you can take one of the shuttles that pick up in the downtown area. Check the website for more information about run times and shuttle stops.
See also: 60+ Free Things to Do in San Diego