Balboa Park is the Jewel of San Diego, not just because it’s the home of our world-famous Zoo. Set on 1,200 acres reserved for public use in the early 1800s, our cultural park has 17 museums and many beautiful gardens. There are also more than ten restaurants in Balboa Park, plus cafes, entertainment venues, and other attractions that San Diego residents enjoy year-round.

You could try to do everything you want in Balboa Park in one day, but it makes more sense to devote a few days of any San Diego vacation to exploring it slowly. Of course, the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Natural History Museum should be on your itinerary, but what if I told you that you can see fantastic model railways, art as it’s created, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, or a copy of the Globe Theatre in London?

Balboa Park has all that and more. Read on to check out some quick tips for planning your visit and some of my top things to do in Balboa Park.

Planning What to Do in Balboa Park

Given how much there is to see and do here, you might think deciding what to do in Balboa Park will be overwhelming. Rest assured that it’s possible to experience many free things to do in Balboa Park just by strolling through it.

Consider devoting one day to seeing the museums that interest you most. Spend another day at the San Diego Zoo, but schedule time to explore Balboa Park without a fixed itinerary. That way, you’ll cross your must-dos off your list, and you won’t miss out on the fun surprises in Balboa Park.

Save with Balboa Park Explorer Pass or Go City San Diego

If you purchase Go San Diego through the links below, I may be compensated.

I recommend that friends and family visiting San Diego use the Go City San Diego pass to make seeing the city’s attractions easier and less expensive. However, if your itinerary emphasizes Balboa Park attractions, take a look at the Balboa Park Explorer pass.

DON’T PAY FULL PRICE

Sightseeing passes save money in Balboa Park

Go San Diego Pass

The All-Inclusive and Explorer sightseeing passes include most museums in Balboa Park and over 50 other San Diego attractions.

Use promo code GOSDO5LJM for 5% off!

Balboa Park Explorer Pass

This pass includes 16 participating Balboa Park Museums.

Choose one of three pass options: a Parkwide Pass good for seven consecutive days, an Annual Pass (best for residents), or a Limited Pass that includes any four participating venues good for one day.

Which of the two you choose depends on how many San Diego attractions you’ll visit. The Go City San Diego pass is best for visiting most Balboa Park museums in combination with other top San Diego attractions like SeaWorld San Diego and LEGOLAND California during a vacation.

Purchasing either pass helps to ensure that you’re not paying a separate admission each time. You’ll want to visit multiple Balboa Park museums because they are close to each other (and none are big enough to require a full-day visit).

When it comes to the Balboa Park Explorer pass, these are the participating museums:

  • Centro Cultural de la Raza
  • Japanese Friendship Garden
  • Mingei International Museum
  • Museum of Photographic Arts
  • Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
  • Museum of Us
  • San Diego Air & Space Museum
  • San Diego Automotive Museum
  • San Diego History Center
  • San Diego Model Railroad Museum
  • San Diego Museum of Man
  • San Diego Natural History Museum
  • San Diego Museum of Art
  • Timken Museum of Art
  • Veterans Museum & Memorial Center
  • WorldBeat Center

Top Things to Do in Balboa Park

1. Museum Hopping

I will share more information about some of our favorite museums and attractions below, but before I do that, I wanted to mention museum hopping as its own activity.

There are so many museums in Balboa Park, and they’re quite close to one another, making it easy to bounce between them — especially when you have a Balboa Park Explorer pass.

Admire art by the old Spanish and Italian masters, then check out a replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, see a genuine Rembrandt, then learn more about African, African-American, and indigenous cultures — all in one day. You can immerse yourself in the art of photography before diving deep into military history. There are few places in the world where you’ll find so much education and inspiration in such a relatively small space.

Tip: Keep in mind that Balboa Park museums are independently operated, which means that opening times and admission fees will vary.

2. Balboa Park Visitor Center

What better place to begin your visit than the Visitor Center? You’ll find everything you need to know about the park, including maps, entrance fees, and all the best places to visit. You can also opt to join a free guided tour of the park with a volunteer from the center or enquire about their Architectural tours on the first and third of every month.

The Center also has a nice gift shop and is located in the House of Hospitality at 1549 El Prado.

3. The Museum of US and the California Tower

Things to Do in Balboa Park: Museum of Man and California Tower

The San Diego Museum of Us is Balboa Park’s famous anthropology museum in the historic landmark buildings of the stunning California Quadrangle.

The museum is worth visiting to see the Native American and Mesoamerican artifacts housed there, along with a fantastic collection of Ancient Egyptian antiquities.

I also recommend visitors check out the California Tower. Climbing the 125 steps up the iconic tower can feel like a workout, but your reward for making it to the top will be a not-to-be-missed 360-degree sweeping view of Balboa Park and San Diego. You’ll need a timed ticket for this fun experience.

4. The Botanical Building and the Lily Pond

Things to do in Balboa Park San Diego

This iconic attraction is one of my favorite free things to do in 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 San Diego because it’s beautiful and notable for being one of the largest wooden lath structures in the world.

Inside are thousands of fascinating exotic plants, including orchids, palms, and cycads. There’s even a hands-on scent garden (which kids love) where you can pluck off leaves to discover what various plants smell like.

Note: the Botanical Building is currently closed for renovation. You can check updates on the park’s website.

5. fleet science center

This amazing museum is just the right blend of fun and education for kids and many grown-ups too. Two floors are packed full of interesting and highly interactive displays and exhibits for kids of all ages.

Rotating exhibits keep things fresh as many people are return visitors, so check their website for what’s on when you’re planning to go. And check out what’s showing at the museum’s spectacular IMAX Dome Theater. Watching one of their movies on science, nature, or space in the majestic theater is quite an experience for the entire family.

The museum also has a great cafe called Craveology, which has a lovely outdoor area overlooking the park. Don’t miss the great gift shop so you can take home a memento of your experience.

House of Pacific Relations International Cottages

One of the most fun and unique things to do in Balboa Park is to visit the House of Pacific Relations Cottages.

Each of the 34 cottages dotted around this large expanse of lawn in the park represents a specific country and contains artifacts, exhibits, and information unique to that country to educate visitors and promote multicultural goodwill. Most cottages serve popular food and beverages from their culture.

Every Sunday at 2 p.m. between March and October, there are fun free events on the lawn around the cottages with dancing, music, and lots of food options. The cottages are located along Palm Canyon near President’s Way and are open every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

6. The San Diego Automotive Museum

Things to do in Balboa Park: San Diego Automotive Museum
Photo courtesy of Balboa Park

If any gearheads are in your family, this museum is a must-see. Inside, you’ll find a very cool collection of cars (and motorcycles, too) that showcase some of the highlights of our country’s car culture over time.

The cars on exhibit are changed every four months, but one of the most notable vehicles in the museum is always on display. No visit is complete without a look at Louie Mattar’s Fabulous Car, a 1947 Cadillac that Mattar outfitted with a stove, a washing machine, and even a toilet, so he could literally drive it non-stop — he gassed up using a moving fuel truck — from Alaska to Mexico City, and then across the U.S.

7. The museum of photographic arts at The San Diego Museum of Art

Focusing on photography and film, this stylish museum offers visitors a deep dive into the visual arts. It also gives the unique option of ‘pay what you wish’ when you enter, allowing everyone to experience the museum regardless of budget.

Various exhibitions focus on different themes and genres of film or photography, and the museum also showcases photographic competitions, especially those in the youth category. You can also book workshops and classes to learn new techniques in Aerial or Landscape photography.

The museum has merged with the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) and is now known as MOPA@SDMA. It is housed in its own facility, though, and not inside of SDMA.

Tip: This museum has a really cool gift shop for aspiring and professional photographers. I like browsing it when I go.

8. San Diego Natural History Museum

Things to do in Balboa Park: San Diego Natural History Museum

The San Diego Natural History Museum is a favorite of local kids, and it should top any list of things to do in San Diego with kids. It’s everything you want out of a natural history museum and more.

You can learn about Southern California flora and fauna or why a Foucault Pendulum does what it does, check out animals as different as bugs and prehistoric sharks, or gaze up in awe at “Al” (the Allosaurus in the lobby). If you’re visiting with kids, definitely check out the scavenger hunts in the Fossil Mysteries exhibit and movies in the Giant-Screen Theater.

9. Dorothea Laub Balboa Park carousel

The iconic carousel at Balboa Park is situated close to the entrance of the San Diego Zoo, next to the top parking lot. It boasts quite a history since it was constructed in 1910 in New York, and the original menagerie-style carousel features a beautiful range of animal rides, all of which are original, apart from the four miniature horses added in the 1970s.

You’ll ride to the sounds of a traditional military band organ, and those riding outside can grab the hanging brass ring to win a free extra ride.

The Carousel is free to ride on National Carousel Day (July 25), but expect a long line. Tickets are otherwise priced at $4 per ride or $14 for four rides. It’s usually open on weekends and school holidays but check its calendar.

10. The Japanese Friendship Garden

Things to do in Balboa Park: Japanese Friendship Garden

Also known as San-Kei-En, this peaceful 12-acre garden was created as an expression of friendship between San Diego and our sister city Yokohama.

The Japanese Friendship Garden was designed using traditional Japanese techniques, though native flora has been incorporated throughout. There are cherry blossoms, waterfalls, koi ponds, and bonsai trees, as well as stone arrangements and sukiya-style buildings.

While visitors can and do visit the garden (admission is required as it’s not one of the free things to do in Balboa Park) to sit and enjoy this meditative space, there are also classes, exhibits, and festivals held here throughout the year.

11. Timken Museum of Art

Things to do in Balboa Park: Timken Museum
Photo courtesy of Balboa Park

Visiting this small museum (sometimes called “San Diego’s Jewel Box of Fine Art”) is one of our favorite free things to do in Balboa Park. Fair warning — when I say small, I’m not kidding, though it does make for a relaxed experience.

There many major works on display — mostly paintings and sculptures by old European masters — as well as some works by American artists and Russian icons. It is the only San Diego museum with a Rembrandt in its permanent collection.

12. The San Diego Air & Space Museum

Best San Diego Museums: Air and Space Museum
Photo courtesy of Balboa Park

There are a ton of original aircraft and spacecraft in this museum (which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution), plus many more reproductions. It’s one of the largest aviation museums in the entire country, and you could easily spend hours here if you’re an aviation buff.

Kids love it because there are flight simulators and a lot of hands-on and interactive displays. After so much time spent flying, I get a kick out of the examples of flight attendant uniforms through the years.

13. comic-con museum

This unique museum was created thanks to the hugely popular annual Comic-Con Convention. Now, comic book and sci-fi fans can experience and enjoy these art forms year-round. The museum features fascinating rotating exhibits and lots of hands-on learning for visitors interested in anime, fantasy, video games, pop culture, superheroes, and more.

There are great STEAM-focused art activities for kids, including building their own superhero during workshops in the museum’s Makerspace, where 3D printers are also available for all kinds of creative activities. Comic fans will marvel at the museum’s incredible comic book collection.

15. The Model Railroad Museum

Things to Do in Balboa Park: San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Photo courtesy of Balboa Park

If you’re the lucky parent of a little one obsessed with trains (or you love trains yourself), this is one of the must-see museums in Balboa Park.

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is one of the biggest scale Model Railroad Museums in the whole United States (with over 27,000 square feet of layouts), and it’s just a fantastic place for kids and grownups to go and examine all the details hiding in these elaborate displays.

There’s also a children’s area of the museum with lots of buttons to push, which will delight tiny train enthusiasts.

16. The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

Things to do in Balboa Park: Inez Grant Memorial Rose Garden
Photo courtesy of Balboa Park

Visiting this beautiful garden is another one of my favorite free things to do in Balboa Park. There are more than two thousand blooming rose bushes in the garden, representing more than 130 types of roses — including newly cultivated varieties.

It is as colorful and fragrant as you imagine, and the shrubs bloom from March through December. To experience the full beauty of the rose garden, however, visit in April or May when the blooms are at their peak.

17. The Spanish Village Art Center

Spanish Village Art Center in Balboa Park San Diego
Look for the colorful tiles to find the Spanish Village Art Center

This is one of the hidden gems of Balboa Park. The Spanish Village was built in 1935 for the park’s California Pacific International Exposition and was designed to look like a traditional village in Spain.

Its history is fascinating, and the space itself is charming, but the real reason to visit the Spanish Village in Balboa Park is to see hundreds of working artists doing what they do best. On any given day, you might see people creating pottery or painting, sculpting or hosting a workshop event in the central courtyard. On the weekends, musicians can usually be heard performing in the square.

There’s also a great coffee cart called Daniel’s here!

18, Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Spreckels Organ Pavillion in Balboa Park

Admire the over 4500 pipes in the Spreckels Organ, the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. Free concerts are held every Sunday at 2 p.m. (check the schedule), but it’s easy to take a peek at it during your day in Balboa Park (the Pavilion is near the Mingei Museum and the Japanese Friendship Garden). If you’re lucky, you might hear someone practicing on it.

19. Hike Balboa Park

Things to do in Balboa Park: Hike Palm Canyon

Many visitors stick to the museums and other attractions, but locals also come to Balboa Park for the trails.

The park has 65+ miles of hiking, walking, and biking trails. They differ not only in terms of length and difficulty, but also scenery. There are pleasant strolls that will take you through the heart of the park and more challenging hikes.

Try Palm Canyon, which winds past more than 450 palm trees — some of which are over a hundred years old.

20. Entertainment on El Prado

Things to do in Balboa Park: Street entertainment

On any given day along El Prado (the main pedestrian street), you’ll find various activities set up by various permitted entertainers, including henna artists, giant bubble blowers, the hula hoop guy, musicians, and religious groups that add color to any visit.

21. Eat and Drink

Balboa Park restaurants: Craft beer at Panama 66

Whether you need a quick kid-friendly fix (my daughter and her friends love the chicken tenders at Craveology inside the Fleet Science Center), a soba noodle salad, an alfresco craft beer, or a curry, you can find it in Balboa Park. So, it’s okay to come hungry.

Picnicking is allowed, too. A popular spot is the lawn in front of the Botanical Building, but families stop to eat in the sunshine throughout the park.

If you live in San Diego like me or are a frequent visitor, I’d love to hear about your favorite parts of Balboa Park in the comments. Do you have any tips to share for first-time visitors?

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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