Balboa Park Attractions
You could probably spend an entire vacation exploring Balboa Park attractions. This San Diego hotspot truly is unlike any other tourist destination in California.
It’s the largest urban cultural park in the entire country, with gorgeous gardens, beautiful Spanish-Renaissance architecture, and art installations. There are also 17 museums in Balboa Park, hiking trails, gardens, and more. Plus it’s home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
On this page, I’ve collected all my best tips for visiting Balboa Park, along with information about where to go, what to eat, and the passes that will make it easy to see and do everything you want to.
Tips for Visiting Balboa Park
What many people don’t know is that some of the best places to visit in Balboa Park don’t charge admission. There are hiking trails, playgrounds, performances, drum circles, and interactive sculptures.
You can explore different cultures in the House of Pacific Relations Cottages or watch artists at work at the Spanish Village Art Center. The Timken Museum of Art is sometimes called the “San Diego’s Jewel Box of Fine Art” because though small, it houses some impressive works (including an original Rembrandt). And of course, there’s the Botanical Building with its thousands of exotic plants.
Be aware that Balboa Park attractions and museums (and the Balboa Park museum stores) are independently operated, which means that opening times and admission fees will vary.
One of the most important Balboa Park tips I can share is to have a plan. The park is big (1,200 acres), and you’ll get to experience more of it if you have a loose idea of what you want to see and do. Plan to devote a day to exploring the museums that interest you most. It’s easy to bounce between them because most of them are clustered in the same area.
That said, you should also leave time for wandering because it’s one of the best ways to experience the park.
There is a sightseeing pass just for attractions called the Balboa Park Explorer pass. The combo pass gets you into the park’s 17 museums as well as the San Diego Zoo for a consecutive seven days so you can visit when it’s most convenient. There’s also a one-day pass option that gets you into five museums. And, if you’re visiting other San Diego attractions, the Go San Diego sightseeing pass includes many of the Balboa Park museums that require paid admission.
There are more than 10 restaurants in Balboa Park, as well as cafes, so when you get hungry or thirsty, you won’t have to go far. There’s everything from soba noodle salad to spicy curries to chicken nuggets. You can also picnic in the park, and you’ll see plenty of locals eating their lunches on the lawn in front of the Botanical Building.
Go off the beaten path! The San Diego Natural History Museum and the zoo are both wonderful but don’t miss the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, the copy of the famous Globe Theater, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, or the Balboa Park Carousel.
Balboa Park Restaurants
Of all the tips for visiting Balboa Park I share above, the one that bears repeating is don’t worry about getting hungry. There are so many wonderful places to eat and drink here. Panama 66, located at the San Diego Museum of Art’s sculpture garden has local craft beers, cocktails, salads, and freshly made sandwiches.
The Prado next to the House of Hospitality is one of my favorite Balboa Park restaurants. Open for lunch and dinner, The Prado dishes up creative cuisine like seared Kobe beef sushi rolls and lobster bucatini.
I also like to stop in at the tea pavilion in the beautiful Japanese Friendship Garden. They offer a diverse selection of green, white, black, and herbal teas, along with soups, rice bowls, noodle dishes, sandwiches, and mochi that you can eat at the tables outside.
If you’re a fan of this San Diego destination, what are your best tips for visiting Balboa Park?