For more than 150 years, San Diego’s Balboa Park has been a hub for recreation, cultural exhibitions and performances, wildlife conservation, history, horticulture, family picnics, and lazy Sundays. For almost all that time, it has also been the cornerstone of any successful vacation to San Diego, especially if it happens to be your first time visiting the seaside city.
Within its 1,200 verdant acres (almost double the size of Central Park), the National Historic Landmark boasts 19 gardens, 17 museums (soon to be 18), and cultural institutions covering everything from science and photography to model railroads, precious gems, and aviation, 10 dedicated performance venues for ballet, puppet theater, and Shakespeare under the stars, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, a vintage carousel, a golf course, sporting fields and gyms, and one gold standard zoo. It would take years to fully explore everything it has to offer. As your trip is probably far shorter than that, use this complete guide to craft a plan of attack.
In 1868, civic leaders set aside 1,400 acres for City Park, but it remained wild and undeveloped for decades. In 1874, the first of the park’s museums, the San Diego Natural History Museum aka the oldest scientific institution in Southern California, was founded. In 1892, Kate “The Mother Of Balboa Park” Sessions jumpstarted the park as we know it today when she started planting 100 trees and plants a year in exchange for acreage to house her nursery. From 1903 to 1910, the park was finally developed and was renamed Balboa Park in 1910 after the first European to spot the Pacific Ocean.
From 1935-36, the park played host to the California Pacific International Exposition, which called for more development. This time Balboa Park gained the Palisades building, the Municipal Gymnasium, Starlight Bowl, the Spanish Village Arts Center (which now houses 35 working artist studios), several gardens, and the Tony-winning Old Globe Theatre.
The U.S. Navy utilized the park during World War II. The lily pond became a rehabilitation pool, 400 hospital beds went into the art museum, and the House of Hospitality was a nurses’ dorm. On Christmas Day 1946, the California Tower carillon was installed and rang out for the first time. The bells are still heard every quarter-hour.
The park hosted the 1915 Panama-California Exposition (hence the 1910 renaming) and many of the ornate Spanish Renaissance buildings built for that event have since been repurposed as the park’s museums. The gorgeous Botanical Building, one of the largest lath structures in the world, was added for the expo as were the California Tower, the 1,500-foot-long Cabrillo Bridge, and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The zoo, inspired by the roar of a lion on display, was added in the fair’s second year.
Museums in Balboa Park
With 17 (soon to be 18) museums covering a wide variety of subjects from automobiles to zoological beasts, it’s hard to leave Balboa Park without learning something. The following museums are located within the park:
- Comic-Con Museum: Expected to open in 2021, this celebration of nerdtastic pop culture like comic books, cartoons, superheroes, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and cosplay is a year-round extension of San Diego's annual Comic-Con convention.
- Mingei International Museum: This collection of everyday art and crafts by normal people throughout eras and cultures will reopen in summer 2021 after a $52 million facelift.
- Centro Cultural de la Raza: Examine Chicano, Mexican, Indigenous, and Latino art and culture in a former water tower.
- Museum of Photographic Arts: This is one of only three museums in the U.S. dedicated solely to camera-created art.
- WorldBeat Center: Also in a water tower, this museum promotes and preserves the art, music, dance, and technology of African, Black, and indigenous cultures.
- San Diego Automotive Museum: A tribute to automobiles, motorcycles, driving, and car culture started by a collectors’ club in the 1980s.
- Fleet Science Center: Home to more than 100 interactive displays and an IMAX theater exploring all things science.
- San Diego Air & Space Museum: Knowledge takes flight at this collection examining aviation history, space exploration, and the science behind both.
- Marston House: A massive 8,500-square-foot arts and crafts-style home built in 1905 that was converted to a house museum in 1987.
- San Diego History Center: A local historical society founded in 1928 by the original owner of the Marston House
- Museum of Us: Formerly known as the Museum of Man, this cultural anthropology institution explores the human experience.
- San Diego Model Railroad Museum: It is the world’s largest accredited model train museum and contains enormous miniature representations of California railroads.
- San Diego Art Institute: A stunning pay-what-you-can showplace for contemporary pieces in all mediums made by regional (Southern California and Northern Baja) creatives.
- San Diego Mineral and Gem Society: Mine an appreciation for gems, fossils, minerals, and the lapidary arts here.
- San Diego Natural History Museum: The NAT teaches visitors about animals including extinct ones like the megalodon, insects, dinosaurs, fossils, and plants with exhibits spanning five floors. A theater shows 2D and 3D films daily and a constantly moving Foucault Pendulum proves the Earth is rotating.
- San Diego Museum of Art: Its collections include Spanish and Italian old masterworks, South Asian paintings, and paintings and sculptures by 19th and 20th-century Americans. Interpretive text is always bilingual. Also offers films in the garden, after-hours events for adults, and youth summer camps.
- Timken Museum of Art: See priceless works by old European masters, 19th-century Americans, and Russian icons, including the only Rembrandt on public display in town, for free.
- Veterans Museum at Balboa Park: It opened in 1989 to present exhibits on patriotic, military, and war-related subjects and honor the men and women who have served in the armed forces.
The San Diego Zoo
This 100-acre wildlife sanctuary—known for its pioneering work with California condors, rhinos, and pandas—is the first stop on most people’s trips, and with good reason. The zoo is home to 12,000 animals from more than 650 species and subspecies. Get a closer look by springing for the upgraded experiences like photo expeditions, meet-and-greets with animal ambassadors, and the Crazy About Cats tour. The Zoo’s important conservation work also extends to plant life. The accredited botanical garden has more than 700,000 plants from 3,100 species. One-day passes include a guided bus tour, a good way to get acclimated, and the Skyfari Aerial Tram.
Gardens to Wander
If you’re gaga for green spaces, Balboa Park is a must stop. All in, there are 19 distinct gardens, meaning there is bound to be something growing that piques your interest whether you prefer prickly cacti, Asian horticulture (Japanese Friendship Garden), medicinal plants (Trees For Health), or the sweet smell of roses (the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden grows 1,600 roses of 130 varieties on 3 acres). Some charge admission; others are free like the California Native Plant Garden. Start with the Alcazar Garden, patterned after the same-named landmark in Seville, Spain, and work your way through to the Zoro Garden, a sunken stone grotto that started as an adults-only nudist colony attraction at the 1935 expo. The only thing sans clothing these days are the butterflies that live in the garden now.
Performing Arts Venues
In addition to museum-sponsored films, concerts, and dance performances, visitors can be entertained by productions staged at a variety of venues within the park, often by arts organizations headquartered there. Catch free Sunday concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion where tunes are played on the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. Started in 1948, the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater is the longest continuously running puppet theater in the country. The San Diego Junior Theatre was established that same year, making it the nation’s first youth theater program while the Youth Symphony and Conservatory is the U.S.’s sixth oldest continuously operating youth orchestra. The Old Globe, patterned after the famous British theater, stages more than Shakespeare thanks to its two additional separate venues. Dance programs are put on by Civic Dance Arts and the San Diego Civic Youth Ballet. There’s a movement to save Starlight Bowl, a 4,000-seat 86-year-old outdoor amphitheater that has seen better days, underway currently.
Outdoor Things to Do
With so many attractions, it’s easy to forget that Balboa Park is first and foremost a fantastic place to enjoy a picnic, a stroll past big, old trees including one of the three largest Moreton Bay figs found in California, or a play friendly round of Frisbee. There are also plenty of dedicated dog parks (Grape Street, Morley Field, and Nate’s Point) within the park and playgrounds (Pepper Grove, Sixth Avenue, Morley Field, Bird Park at Cedar, and Bird Park at Upas) to tire out rambunctious pooches and little people. There are 65 miles of hiking trails peppered throughout the green space as well. From a half-mile to almost 7 miles in length, paths are available for novice walkers up to rambling masters.
It's a great place to get sporty with numerous courses, courts, and fields at your disposal. Balboa Park Golf Course, the oldest public golf facility in town, is a par 72 and also contains a nine-hole executive course, ocean views, a driving range, pro shop, coffee shop, and putting greens. The Tennis Club has 25 hard courts (all of which are lit for night matches), a stadium court that seats 1,500, and three challenge courts. Both are part of the Morley Field Sports Complex, which also features a swimming pool, senior center, archery range, ball field, velodrome, bocce and Petanque courts, and a disc golf course. The 38,000 square-foot Activity Center is used for badminton, table tennis, volleyball, and other indoor sports. The Lawn Bowling area near Cabrillo Bridge is home to a club that dates back to 1931 and still gives lessons. The Municipal Gym hosts basketball leagues, volleyball, and fitness classes.
Where to Eat and Drink
From quick nibbles between museums to fine dining in a historic building (The Prado), there are a lot of choices in the park. Sip tea and slurp noodles at the Tea Pavilion in the Japanese Friendship Garden. Nosh on casual salads and sandwiches at The Flying Squirrel cafe. Meals come with a side of waterfall views at Albert’s, a full-service restaurant in the Zoo. The International Houses usually serve the fare of their homeland Sunday afternoons February through September.
Venture beyond park boundaries to expand the list of options. Mister A’s has forged a flawless 50-year reputation for special occasion dining. Also in Banker’s Hill is the newest outpost of the Civico Italian empire. Or check out one of the places that made our top 20 restaurants list or the best breweries list.
Off the I-5 and Highway 163, BP is centrally located between many of San Diego’s trendy neighborhoods like North Park, Hillcrest, Downtown, University Heights, the East Village, and Banker’s Hill. Some public transportation options include DecoBike, rental street scooters, and MTS bus (routes 120, 7, and Rapid 215).
Tips for Visitors
- Entrance to Balboa Park and parking is free although most museums, performance venues, and classes require tickets or have paid admission. Special events like the Rock & Roll Marathon or the St. Patrick’s Day Festival cause street closures and limit or charge for parking. If you plan to visit more than once in a year or hit multiple attractions, the Balboa Park Explorer Pass might save you some money as it provides unlimited or discounted admissions to many of the museums, access to exclusive events or experiences, and discounted IMAX tickets. There are annual versions for families, adults, seniors, and college students.
- It’s a big park so take advantage of the free tram which runs daily, stops in three major parking lots (Inspiration Point, Organ Pavilion, and Federal), and deposits riders within a 10-minute walk of the most popular destinations within Balboa Park. Winter hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. while summer hours extend to 8 p.m.
- The Balboa Park Visitors Center hands out a bimonthly event guide and maps, features a gift shop, and runs the lost and found.
- Complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout the park.