A Comprehensive Guide to Balboa Park in San Diego

Learn about the museums, activities, gardens and more in Balboa Park

Balboa Park in San Diego
Balboa Park in San Diego. Image Source/Image Source/Getty Images

Balboa Park is the most famous park in San Diego for good reason. The sprawling park is located close to the historic Gaslamp Quarter downtown, and it is home to over a dozen museums and art galleries. There are also beautiful walking trails and many opportunities to listen to music or take in other performing art shows. Locals often come to Balboa Park for a leisurely picnic, date night, educational family outing or sunny stroll. Visitors to San Diego will also enjoy incorporating Balboa Park into their trip’s itinerary.

The Museums

Balboa Park has so many incredible and diverse museums that it can be overwhelming deciding which to visit first, or which to prioritize if you only have a few days to spend in San Diego. Here is a breakdown of each museum, what kind of people would find it most enjoyable, and what makes it stand out from other museums, and any special tips you need to know before going.

Centro Cultural de la Raza

This is a cultural arts center that is focused on preserving Chicano, Indigenous, Latin, and Mexican art forms and culture.
Who Will Love It: Those who enjoy art and learning about different cultures.
What Makes it Special: Along with the background of the cultures that you’ll learn about, the art forms it concentrates on are also neat to see in a museum, including theater, dance, music and film.
What to Know Before Going: Weekly dance and drum classes are offered for all age groups. Check the times.

Marston House

A turn of the 20th century home that was built in 1905.
Who Will Love It: Architectural buffs and those who like seeing how homes were set up in the past.
What Makes It Special: Was designed by local architects.
What to Know Before Going: It is surrounded by five acres of English and California influenced gardens so make time to visit the grounds if you enjoy botany.

Mingei International Museum

A museum that focuses on historic and contemporary folk art, crafts and art designs from all around the world.
Who Will Love It: Those who enjoy folk art and learning about a variety of different cultures all under one roof.
What Makes It Special: A focus on different people from around the world and during different stages of time.
What to Know Before Going: Events are often offered that teach visitors about art techniques. Check the days and times before planning your visit if this interests you.

 

Museum of Photographic Arts

A museum dedicated to photography, film, and video where you can learn the history of these art forms and see different examples of them.
Who Will Love It: Photographers, videographers and anyone who enjoys looking at high-quality examples of these art forms.  
What Makes It Special: It’s one of only a few museums in the country that focuses on photographic arts.
What to Know Before Going: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings are usually the quietest times to visit the museum.

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

Science-focused exhibits of which there are over 100 different hands-on experiences and exhibits for children and adults to explore.
Who Will Love It: Kids will love it and so will adults who still get a kick out of science.
What Makes It Special: The IMAX Dome Theater.
What to Know Before Going: There are many different areas of the museum, so check the map before going to make sure you plan your time there accordingly and don’t miss any of your must-sees.

San Diego Air and Space Museum

This exciting museum focus on air and space travel, where it’s been and where it’s going.
Who Will Love It: Travelers, kids and those who like dreaming about what the future might hold.
What Makes It Special: Interactive exhibits and historic aircrafts you can explore.
What to Know Before Going: It has a special kids-only area that is good for preschool-aged children.

San Diego Art Institute

An art museum focused on works of art from southern California and the Baja Norte region.
Who Will Love It: Those who enjoy learning about local art.
What Makes It Special: Rotating exhibitions of contemporary local art.
What to Know Before Going: It is the only contemporary art museum in Balboa Park.

San Diego Automotive Museum

A museum focusing on 20th-century vehicles.
Who Will Love It: Classic car enthusiasts and anyone who gets excited over seeing a cool car.
What Makes It Special: Over 80 different historic car models are on display.
What to Know Before Going: New special exhibitions of cars are rotated in every few months.

San Diego Hall of Champions

Learn about San Diego sports and athletes at this museum.
Who Will Love It: Sports lovers, particularly those interested in San Diego sports.
What Makes It Special: Houses memorabilia from past San Diego sporting events and athletes.
What to Know Before Going: The America’s Cup has an entire room dedicated to it so yachters and others intrigued by sailboats and marine life should be sure to check that room out while there.

San Diego History Center

A museum teaching visitors about San Diego’s history with lots of memorabilia and artifacts. 
Who Will Love It: Anyone wanting to learn more about how the city of San Diego came to be.
What Makes It Special: The museum has one of the largest photographic collections in the western United States.
What to Know Before Going: The museum also has a "History for Half Pints" program for kids ages three to five.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Learn about the history of trains and see a model railroad in a 28,000 square foot space.
Who Will Love It: Children will be delighted by all the choo-choo train fun while adults will appreciate the historical aspect. 
What Makes It Special: It is the world’s largest operating model railroad museum.
What to Know Before Going: Special kid activities occur from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.

San Diego Museum of Man

A museum that focuses on anthropology.
Who Will Love It: Those who are interested in learning more about humans and how they have operated in society over the centuries.
What Makes It Special: It is located beneath Balboa Park’s famous California Tower.
What to Know Before Going: You can get tickets at the museum to climb the California Tower, which is open for tours again after being closed since 1935. 

San Diego Natural History Museum

A museum where visitors can learn about animals and nature both in San Diego and around the world.
Who Will Love It: Kids and adults will enjoy seeing the life-size displays and hands-on exhibits.
What Makes It Special: A 3-D theater and the dinosaur exhibit.
What to Know Before Going: There are special kid events throughout the week and also special exhibits and 3-D films that are rotating throughout the year.

The San Diego Museum of Art

This is the region’s oldest and largest museum and focuses on art from all around the world.
Who Will Love It: Art lovers of nearly every kind.
What Makes It Special: Every summer the museum hosts Films in the Garden where you can catch an outdoor movie.
What to Know Before Going: In addition to its permanent collections that feature European old masters, Buddhist sculptures, Georgia O’Keefe paintings and much, much more, the museum also has temporary exhibits on display.

Timken Museum of Art

An art museum that mostly focuses on paintings by old European masters and American painters. 
Who Will Love It: Those intrigued by historical art paintings.
What Makes It Special: Paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Bierstadt and more iconic painters are on display.
What to Know Before Going: Admission is free.

Veterans Museum at Balboa Park

This museum preserves and honors the men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces and Wartime Merchant Marine through artifacts, memorabilia, and photographs.
Who Will Love It: Those who want to pay homage to the men and women who have served the country and learn more about their experiences.
What Makes It Special: The individual stories of veterans that have been shared with the museum and which you can hear about while there.
What to Know Before Going: Active duty military and VMMC members get free admission.

Worldbeat Center

This center promotes and preserves the African, African-American and Indigenous cultures of the world through art, dance, music and other art forms and educational activities.
Who Will Love It: Anyone who loves learning about culture and creative art forms.
What Makes It Special: You can take drumming and international dance classes through the center.
What to Know Before Going: It is housed in a former one million gallon water tower that has been painted in bright colors with gorgeous murals – get ready to take some pictures.

Performing Arts

If you love the performing arts you’ll likely be able to find a show that meets your interest at Balboa Park. A wide range of groups take the stage in Balboa Park, from ballet troupes to actors to orchestras to puppeteers.

The stand-out stage in Balboa Park is the Old Globe theater. This gorgeous, Tony-award winning theater has a rotating play roster, with the highlight for many locals being its annual production of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! which is an annual tradition for many families to watch.

Most of the dance and music organizations at Balboa Park are centered around the youth community, such as the San Diego Civic Youth Ballet which puts on productions of the Nutcracker and other ballets that you can get tickets to. There is also the San Diego Junior Theatre and the San Diego Youth Symphony.

Those looking for an out of the ordinary music experience should check out Spreckels Organ Pavilion, which houses one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs. The organ has over 5,000 pipes and the city’s designated civic organist performs free concerts every Sunday.

As for those puppeteers, you’ll find them at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater where they put on shows to the delight of children that include marionette puppets, hand puppets, rod puppets and shadow puppets.

Gardens at Balboa Park

The gardens at Balboa Park are impossible to miss since they line many of the main walking trails. It’s worth a bit of your time, though, to find the more elaborate ones tucked away inside the park. The Balboa Park Botanical Building with its more than 2,100 plants and calm water features is a great place for a picnic or budding horticulturalists to visit, while the Japanese Friendship Garden is a beautifully elaborate garden perfect for strolling through.

Active Things to Do at Balboa Park

Balboa Park has many ways to get your heart rate up – and not just from looking at all the historic and lovely works of art in the museums. Tennis courts, biking trails, hiking, golf and even lawn bowling are available to do in Balboa Park.

Special Events in Balboa Park

Balboa Park's December Nights

December Nights is a popular holiday tradition in San Diego. On the first weekend of every December, Balboa Park is decorated in streams of lights. Holiday decorations are set up and a fun festival provides entertainment, food and drink. Many of the museums stay open for the event and some even offer free admission. (See what type of entertainment has been at December Nights in years' past.)

Twilight in the Park Concerts

Weeknight concerts are performed in Balboa Park every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in the summers (check BalboaPark.org for exact dates) and feature local bands and musicians. The outdoor concerts typically start around 6:30 p.m.

Balboa Park After Dark

This is a fun event series at Balboa Park that occurs every Friday during the summer months and takes advantage of longer summer days. Balboa Park After Dark offers extended evening hours for nine museums (subject to change) and also has an array of Food Trucks on hand for a delicious dinner in the Park. 

Still not sure where to start in Balboa Park? Check out this recommendation for the top 10 things to do there. Which area of the park are you most excited to see?