In the spirit of trying something new, I vowed to clock in a bit more exercise by exploring San Diego on foot, by bike, and via the occasional jog. Two of the best places to sightsee while logging in some serious steps are Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. In addition to being some of San Diego’s best attractions, they’re right next to each other.
Is it possible to visit Balboa Park and San Diego Zoo on the same day? This is a question I receive from readers quite frequently.
My trusty daughter-slash-budding-photographer agrees and tried this challenge with me. The result is that it was a full but fun day. With an early start and a late finish, it can be done with the expectation that we will not see either in full. Here is what we were able to get done.
First: Tips for Saving Time
You will need to prepare a little before you go in order to sightsee efficiently.
Buy Admission Before You Go
Arrange tickets in advance. Most people choose the Go San Diego pass, which combines multiple attractions into one sightseeing pass. You can purchase San Diego Zoo tickets and whichever Balboa Park museums you’d like to visit online individually. Or, Balboa Park has an Explorer Pass to consider for admission to multiple museums that I recommend. The caveat is that the Explorer Pass needs to be picked up in Balboa Park so you’d need to start there first.
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Choose a Convenient Parking Spot
Park in one spot for the day. I suggest the Zoo parking lot (on the end close to the museums) or the lot behind the San Diego Natural History Museum or Fleet Science Center, which are also close to the Zoo.
Driving between the Zoo and Balboa Park will only waste time, add frustration, and possibly be fruitless on busy days. The Zoo also has valet parking for $20, but otherwise parking at the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park is free.
Do Your Homework
Study the San Diego Zoo map and the Balboa Park museum maps in advance to decide exactly what you’d like to see and in what order.
Prepare to Walk
You’ll need good walking shoes, snacks, an external battery charger for your phone (especially if using the Zoo or Balboa Park’s apps), and determination to get it done.
Balboa Park: Two Museums, Gardens and Lunch
From the San Diego Zoo parking lot, we walked to the Fleet Science Center (arriving right at 10 a.m. opening) which is full of hands-on fun for kids.
Every exhibit is designed to teach them a lesson about science whether it’s building tall structures, playing with optical illusions and then some. We spent about an hour here which is enough time to get a good feel for how great it is.
After this, it was time for a quick snack by the fountain before entering the San Diego Natural History Museum.
We spent another hour in the San Diego Natural History Museum where there is a small collection of dinosaur bones, a great tribute to the flora and fauna of California, and much more that kids will love. While you could absolutely spend more time here, this also is a fine amount of time.
Truth be told, as we passed the Botanic Garden Building above (with a stop to admire the koi and gorgeous orchids inside) as well as the other fabulous Balboa Park museums on the way to the restaurant… I began to wonder if we could really get this done.
At this point, resting our feet over lunch at Panama 66 was most welcome. It’s my favorite Balboa Park restaurant. The food is good and they have an enormous craft beer selection, but it’s dog- and kid-friendly especially with the gorgeous sculpture garden in the back.
It’s located to the left of this fountain, below the Museum of Man’s California Tower.
An Afternoon at the San Diego Zoo
By the time we reached the San Diego Zoo it was after 1:30 p.m. I suggest that new Zoo visitors take the 35-minute narrated bus tour in order to rest the legs a bit more and get the lay of the land. You will see the major animals on this tour and it’s a great way to decide what you’d like to explore later, on your own.
Because we did not opt for the bus tour, we were unable to cover the entire Zoo in our remaining time and there are lots of things to do at San Diego Zoo for kids. We walked through the Australian Outback, Asian Passage, trekked up to the monkeys, around the flamingos, and into the Children’s Zoo where we like to pet the goats and pass by various other exhibits.
Tip: The San Diego Zoo is home to hundreds of thousands of tropical, native, rare, and unusual plants which not only provide shade to most of the Zoo, but make walking through it a treat. By 4 p.m. our feet were tired so we were done though the Zoo was open for another hour.
The Bottom Line
In a perfect world, you’d spend an entire day in each spot. But, in many cases, time is of the essence. 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. Study the maps in advance and the rest should fall into place. Then, go home or back to your San Diego hotel to rest!
Another Full Day: Seaport Village – USS Midway – Embarcadero
The other all-day itinerary I recently tackled is as follows. I parked near the USS Midway. I walked down the Embarcadero to see the street performers and to the edge of Broadway Pier to watch the sightseeing boats come and go.
From there, I walked down to Seaport Village to shop and soak in the culture, passing our famous tuna boats along the way (did you know that San Diego was once the epicenter of the nation’s tuna industry?). In Seaport Village, I spontaneously took one of our city’s rental bikes. This also is a full day of walking, but doable.
I plan to try more one-day San Diego walking itineraries this year. They are a great workout, let me tell you.
Have you ever visited the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park museums in the same day?
I originally wrote this post in partnership with goodnessknows snack bars but it has since been updated.