If you are visiting San Diego, you won’t want to miss Balboa Park. Honestly, you probably can’t miss it because so many popular things to do in San Diego center around this park! This huge park near downtown San Diego houses not just the San Diego Zoo, but also museums, gardens, beautiful architecture, and more!
Where is Balboa Park?
Balboa Park is centrally located near downtown San Diego. In fact, it’s just to the Northeast of downtown, and still very much within the city center. If you’re looking for an address, the main part of Balboa Park is located at 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA. But if you are looking to go to a specific part of Balboa Park, you will want to look up that address separately. Because this park is HUGE! I like to think of it as San Diego’s version of Central Park in NYC.
What is Balboa Park?
Balboa Park actually has a pretty interesting history. It was set aside as a park in 1835, but it really came into its own during the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-1936 California Pacific International Exposition. Balboa Park hosted both of these events, and both left in place many of the beautiful buildings and landmarks that make up the park now.
Today, Balboa Park is a cultural center for San Diego and a huge tourist attraction. There is tons to do in Balboa Park and it hosts regular events. So if you’re traveling to San Diego, you definitely want to make sure you allow yourselves plenty of time to do all you want to here!
Things to do in Balboa Park
Visit the San Diego Zoo
It almost seems unfair to include the zoo in our list of things to do in Balboa Park, because really the San Diego Zoo is its own full-day attraction. (Planning to visit? Here’s our guide to the San Diego Zoo!). But technically Balboa Park is the home of the San Diego Zoo!
Their histories are intertwined too. The San Diego Zoo began with some of the animals that were left after the same 1915 Panama-California Exposition that gave Balboa Park some its well-known buildings.
If you’re visiting San Diego, you’ll definitely want to make time for this world-famous zoo. We recommend visiting the zoo one day and planning another day (or part of a day) to do some of the other Balboa Park attractions.
If you are planning a museum visit in San Diego, it is extremely likely that the museum will be located in Balboa Park. Most of them require a purchased ticket, however the Timken Museum of Art is free. Here’s a list of the museums you can find in Balboa Park:
- Fleet Science Center
- San Diego Natural History Museum
- Timken Museum of Art (free admission)
- The San Diego Museum of Art
- Museum of Us
- San Diego Automotive Museum
- San Diego Air & Space Museum
- San Diego Model Railroad Museum
- Comic-Con Museum
If you plan on visiting a lot of the museums in San Diego, you might want to look into getting a San Diego Go Pass, which includes admission to many of the city’s most popular attractions.
Explore the Botanical Building
The Botanical Building at Balboa Park is perhaps one of the most photographed buildings in San Diego, and with good reason! It is definitely one of the most beautiful! (It’s the top picture of this post if you want a reference!)
This wooden slat botanical house was built for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition and now hosts a huge variety of plant life. It is such a lovely building to stroll through, and you’ll also want to check out the large lily pond right in front of it.
Admission is free, and it is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
2022 Note — The Botanical Building is currently closed for an 18-24 month restoration project!
Admire the Architecture
The buildings in Balboa Park are true gems of ornate architecture, and you’ll definitely want to spend some time just strolling through and admiring them. For the best parts, you’ll want to hit the Plaza de Panama and El Prado, which works out well because these are really the central areas of the park anyway.
Climb California Tower
One of the most iconic landmarks of Balboa Park is California Tower. This is another building that was built for the 1915 California-Panama Exposition.
While the building hosts the Museum of Us, you can also buy a ticket to climb to the top of the tower for a great view of San Diego! You must buy a ticket to the Museum of Us to also buy a ticket to climb the tower.
Tickets are for a timed, guided tour group. The tour lasts about 40 minutes and capacity is limited. If this is something you want to do, buy tickets ahead of time!
Explore the Gardens
Balboa Park is home to large variety of gardens you can enjoy. Some are free, while some require paid admission. Some of the most popular Balboa Park gardens include the Japanese Friendship Garden, the Alcazar Garden, the Botanical Building and Lily Pond (see above), and the Desert Garden.
Use the Balboa Park map to find the gardens you want to visit.
Visit the Spreckels Organ Pavilion
The Spreckels Organ Pavilion is home to the Spreckels Organ, the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world! (Fun fact — I grew up playing the piano, so I geeked out over this *just* a little bit!)
The organ was donated to San Diego for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. It is huge and truly something amazing to see! Every Sunday at 2 p.m. they offer free concerts, with additional concerts sometimes offered seasonally, especially during the summer months.
Visit the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages are a cluster of houses that represent 30 different countries around the world. Each house represents their country by showcasing food, music, history, dance, and more.
They are open every Saturday and Sunday from 12-5 p.m. On Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. (March-October), they offer a lawn program with music, dance, art, food and more!
Visit the Spanish Village Arts Center
The Spanish Village Arts Center is maybe the most colorful place in San Diego! This area is home to over 200 San Diego artists and artisans, so if you’re looking for a unique San Diego souvenir, this is the place to go!
You’ll find all kinds of art to buy—they have painters, jewelry artists, sculptors, photographers, glass artists, and more! Plus, you can often find demonstrations going on in the courtyard and some studios offer classes and workshops.
Admission to the Spanish Village Arts Center is free, and it is open daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Ride the Carousel and Train
If you have kids who may not find the architecture and gardens of Balboa Park as exciting as you do, you can tempt (i.e. bribe) them with a train and carousel ride!
The Balboa Park miniature train offers rides on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. September through mid-June. During the summer (June-August) they are open daily from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The ride takes about 3 minutes, and tickets are $3.
The Balboa Park Carousel is a historic carousel that is open Saturday and Sunday (along with school holidays) from 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. During the summer, they are open daily during the same hours. Tickets are $3.
Both the Balboa Park train and carousel are located near the entrance to the San Diego Zoo.
Ride the Tram
One of unexpected favorite things we did in Balboa Park was to ride the free tram! Not only can this save your feet in getting to the different areas of this huge park, but it is also just fun and can give you a good overview of the different areas of the park.
The tram has several different stops throughout the park beginning at the Plaza de Panama, running through Pan American Plaza, and ending near the Veteran’s Museum & Memorial before heading back to the Plaza de Panama.
If you want to take a quick break from walking, or if you have kids who just need a little extra excitement, the free tram ride is a great option!
Enjoy the Fountains
Balboa Park is actually home to lots of beautiful fountains! And finding these can be its own fun activity. (And if you have kids, you know they will make a beeline to any fountain they see!)
The Bea Evenson Fountain near the San Diego Natural History Museum is the biggest and most impressive. But there is also the Plaza de Panama Fountain and there are several beautiful fountains tucked away in courtyards and gardens. So keep your eyes peeled!
Balboa Park is a place you will want to spend a good amount of time in during a trip to San Diego. From the zoo to the gardens to the museums, there are just so many things to do in Balboa Park!