Balboa Park, in the heart of sun-soaked San Diego, is the largest urban cultural park in the United States and one of the city’s premier attractions. Perfect for an unforgettable day trip or a weekend adventure, Balboa Park is where culture, history and nature converge. From beautifully kept gardens to world-class museums, miles of hiking trails to fine-dining restaurants and art galleries, there’s something for everyone in San Diego’s favorite city park.
Ideal for families, couples seeking a romantic retreat, and culture enthusiasts alike, there’s so much to do in Balboa Park you could spend days exploring its 1,200 acres without even scratching the surface. So pack your walking shoes and get ready to discover the best things to do in Balboa Park.
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Table of Contents
Start Your Journey at the Balboa Park Visitor Center
It’s impossible to see everything in Balboa Park in a single trip so you’ll need to plan what you most want to see and do during your visit. To help you plan your trip you should start your day at the Visitor Center, in the House of Hospitality, where you can pick up a free map and get tips about current exhibitions and upcoming events.
The majority of the attractions in Balboa Park are independently run by non-profit organizations which means that admission fees and opening times do vary. Of course, entrance to the park itself is free, but you will need to pay to enter many of the museums and other attractions. To save money on admissions, you can purchase a Balboa Park Explorer Pass which will give you up to 58% discounts on museum admissions within the park.
Free Balboa Park Map
You can pick up a map from the Visitor Center but if it’s more convenient you can download a free Pdf version from the official park website.
Balboa Park Events - Stay Up-To-Date With The Park’s Exciting Calendar
Each and every month, Balboa Park hosts dozens of events of every kind, including one-off exhibitions, charity walks, workshops, film screenings and more. So it’s always worth consulting the official park calendar to see if you can time your visit to coincide with an event that could add an extra dimension to your experience.
You can browse the official Balboa Park Calendar, here.
10 Must-See Attractions and Things to Do in Balboa Park
San Diego Zoo - Animal Adventures in Balboa Park
San Diego Zoo, in Balboa Park, covers more than 100 acres and is famous for its authentic, naturalist habitats and lush fauna. It is home to more than 3,500 species of animals, many of whom are rare and endangered, as well as 660 species of plants. A fantastic place for a fun-packed morning with the kids, some of the zoo’s headlining attractions include the herd of elephants, the pride of lions, Xiao Liwu the panda and the sleepy Galapagos Giant Tortoises.
Pro Tip - While you’re visiting the zoo you can stop off for a bite to eat at Sabertooth Grill which is open for breakfast and lunch. With outdoor terrace seating that overlooks the elephants’ enclosure, you’ll never find a restaurant with a similar view anywhere else! The food on offer is fairly simple and includes snacks and sandwiches as well as soft drinks, beer and wine, but it’s just what you need for a light lunch.
The Museum of Man and the California Tower - History Brought to Life
This spectacular anthropology museum houses some truly unique exhibitions that include fascinating Native American and Mesoamerican artifacts as well as one of the most valuable Ancient Egyptian collections in America. Next to the museum, the huge California Tower provides amazing 360-degree panoramic views of the park. Of course, to enjoy these views you’ll have to climb up the 125 steps to reach the top first. Even so, it’s definitely worth making the effort because the views are genuinely awe-inspiring.
The Botanical Building and the Lily Pond - Timeless Beauty
Balboa Park’s Botanical Building is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. Built in 1915, it's one of the biggest wooden lath structures in the world and is home to thousands of species of plants including rare orchids, palms, cycads and hundreds of exotic flowers. Entrance to the Botanical Building is absolutely free and the Lily Pond outside makes a stunningly picturesque backdrop for a romantic picnic with a loved one.
Pro Tip - If you’re visiting the Botanical Building with the kids then make sure you stop by the hands-on scent garden where you can pick the leaves to find out how the various plants smell.
The Japanese Friendship Garden - Graceful Zen Magic in Balboa Park
The Japanese Friendship Garden, also known as Sankei-en, is a 12-acre haven of tranquility that celebrates the ongoing friendship with San Diego’s sister city, Yokohama in Japan. The Zen-inspired gardens have an enchanting atmosphere and contain numerous waterfalls, koi ponds, elegant stone gardens, cherry blossom trees, and Sukiya-zukuri buildings.
One of the highlights of the garden are the artfully created bonsai trees that are also on display. Although the Japanese Friendship Garden was designed using traditional Japanese aesthetics it also includes native San Diegan plants, symbolizing the coming together of the two cultures in harmonious friendship.
Pro Tip - The Japanese Friendship Garden hosts regular exhibits, classes, and festivals throughout the year which are definitely worth visiting if you get the chance. The gardens are a great spot for meditation and you’ll often see members of the local San Diegan spiritual community sitting quietly under the cherry blossoms.
Timken Museum of Art - Classical Art in an Intimate Setting
Nicknamed ‘San Diego’s Jewel Box of Fine Art’, this tiny museum is one of the vast park’s best-kept secrets. Even though there are only about 60 works of art on display, the carefully selected collection of paintings and sculptures is really something to behold.
The museum's Putnam collection includes magnificent worlds of art by famous European masters as well as American artists and even a few Russian icons. In fact, the modest Timken Museum is the only gallery in San Diego that has a priceless Rembrandt in its permanent collection.
You can find out more about the Timken Museum of Art and learn about upcoming lectures and events by visiting the official website, here.
San Diego Natural History Museum - Celebrate the Diversity of our Planet
This delightful museum is a lovely place to visit with children but the exhibits and displays are equally interesting for adults and anyone who loves to learn about the wonders of the natural world. The San Diego Natural History Museum contains dozens of fascinating exhibits that are designed to help visitors learn about the natural history of Southern California and Baja California. The museum contains lots of exciting interactive exhibits, a giant screen theater, and a stylish rooftop bar.
To find out more about upcoming events you can visit the San Diego Natural History Museum’s official website, here.
The Spanish Village Art Center - A Vibrant Hub of Living Creativity
The Spanish Village Art Center is an absolute must-see in Balboa Park. Originally built in 1935, you can see hundreds of working artists’ studios at the center. Depending on when you visit, you’ll see contemporary artists creating paintings, sculpting, or hosting dynamic workshops in the beautiful central courtyard. During the weekend, the center comes to life as musicians play up-lifting performances in the courtyard to an adoring crowd of visitors to the park.
Admission to the center is completely free and if you’d like to find out more about upcoming workshops, special exhibits, and events, you can visit the Spanish Village Art Center website, here.
Spreckels Organ Pavilion - A Unique One-of-a-Kind Spectacle
One of the most unusual attractions in Balboa Park is certainly the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. With over 5,000 pipes, it's the biggest outdoor pipe organ in the world and definitely makes a great background for a once-in-a-lifetime selfie! Each Sunday, at 2 p.m., there are free concerts although you can often hear people practicing on the organ during the week.
Pro Tip - If you’re looking for a really special place to have a picnic hamper with champagne in Balboa Park, then drop by Spreckels Organ Pavilion on Sunday afternoon to listen to the free concert while you picnic in the sunshine.
Hiking in Balboa Park - Get Off the Beaten Track
With more than 65 miles of hiking trails that crisscross Balboa Park, you can really get back to nature without even leaving the city! There’s a good selection of routes that range from some pretty tough hiking challenges to leisurely strolls through the center of the park. This means there’s a hiking trail to suit every level of fitness and ability, so don’t worry if you’re not ready to climb Mount Everest just yet!
Pro Tip - One of the most spectacular hiking trails in Balboa Park is the Palm Canyon route. This trail takes you along a winding path that passes more than 450 palm trees, many of which are more than 120 years old.
Eat in Balboa Park - The Prado Restaurant
Balboa Park is home to more than 10 restaurants and cafes, including upmarket fine dining establishments, laid-back sandwich bars, and fun, family-friendly eateries. Of course, you can always take your own food and have a picnic in the park but it’s also nice to treat yourself to a gourmet meal at the end of a busy day of sightseeing.
One of the best restaurants in Balboa Park is the award-winning Prado Restaurant, in the House of Hospitality next to the Visitor Center. With indoor and outdoor seating, it’s open daily for lunch and dinner and serves an innovative Spanish-influenced fusion menu. Among the many showstoppers on offer, the Spicy Calamari Fries, the Red Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs, and the mouth-watering Prado Paella, really stand out as must-try dishes.