Balboa Park is the Jewel of San Diego, and not just because it’s the home of our world-famous zoo. Set on 1,200 acres that were reserved for public use in the early 1800s, our cultural park has 17 museums and lots of 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 around.
You could try to do all of the things you want to do 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 that deciding what to do in Balboa Park will be overwhelming. Rest assured that it’s possible to experience a lot of the 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 be sure to 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.
The Balboa Park Explorer Pass or Go San Diego Card
I recommend that friends and family coming to San Diego use the Go San Diego® Card 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.
Which of the two you choose depends on how many San Diego attractions you’ll visit. The Go San Diego Card is best for visiting most Balboa Park museums in combinations 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, there are several options to consider.
The Multi-Day Explorer/Zoo Combo
This pass provides admission to 17 museums and the San Diego Zoo for a consecutive seven days which allows you to drop by the park when it’s most convenient. In addition to the zoo, you can visit:
- Centro Cultural de la Raza
- Japanese Friendship Garden
- Mingei International Museum
- Museum of Photographic Arts
- Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
- San Diego Air & Space Museum
- SDAI- Museum of the Living Artist
- San Diego Automotive Museum
- San Diego Hall of Champions
- 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
The One Day Balboa Park Explorer Pass
Provides admission to 5 museums in one day — perfect for solo travelers or groups who want to pack a lot into a short visit.
The Multi-Day Explorer
Provides admission to the above museums (but not the zoo) for a consecutive seven days.
The Annual Explorer Pass
If you’re a San Diego resident, this is one of the best city discounts around because it lets you pop into the park’s museums whenever the mood strikes. It’s a great deal and can make rainy days more fun. We have it.
Things to Do in Balboa Park
I’m going to share more information about some of our favorite museums and attractions below, but before I do that, I wanted to mention museum hopping as an activity all its own.
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.
The Botanical Building and the Lily Pond
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 all of San Diego because it’s beautiful and it’s also notable for being one of the largest wooden lath structures in the world.
Inside, there 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.
The San Diego Automotive Museum
If there are any gearheads 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.
The Museum of Man and the California Tower
The San Diego Museum of Man is Balboa Park’s famous museum of anthropology in the historic landmark buildings of the stunning California Quadrangle.
The museum itself is worth a visit to see the Native American and Mesoamerican artifacts housed there, along with one of the most important collections of Ancient Egyptian antiquities in the whole country.
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. Note that the California Tower is currently closed for seismic retrofitting but will open again hopefully at the end of the year.
The 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.
Timken Museum of Art
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 about 60 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.
The San Diego Air & Space Museum
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.
San Diego Natural History Museum
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.
The Model Railroad Museum
If you’re the lucky parent of a little one who is 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 the biggest scale Model Railroad Museum 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.
The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden
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 as fragrant as you might 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.
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.
Spreckels Organ Pavillion
Admire the over 5000 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 Pavillion is near the Mingei Museum and the Japanese Friendship Garden). If you’re lucky, you might hear someone practicing on it.
Hike Balboa Park
Many visitors stick to the museums and other attractions, but locals also come to Balboa Park for the trails.
There are 65+ miles of hiking, walking, and biking trails throughout the park. 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 as well as more challenging hikes.
Try Palm Canyon, which winds past more than 450 palm trees — some of which are more than a hundred years old.
Entertainment on El Prado
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.
Eat and Drink
Whether you need a quick kid-friendly fix (my daughter and her friends love the chicken nuggets 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 you’re 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?