San Diego is one of the jewels in the crown of California’s coast and ranks as its second-largest city. Diverse and vibrant, San Diego is rich in history, shares a border with Tijuana, Mexico, is home to University of California San Diego, offers miles of beautiful beaches and a Mediterranean-like climate, and houses 16 military facilities. From the historic Presidio of Old Town to the Waterfront, Little Italy to the Gas Lamp Quarter, the city has been undergoing gentrification since the ’80s.
San Diego has a plethora of attractions to offer, and Balboa Park is easily one of the cities most beautiful. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re a history buff, an art lover, or someone who’s just trying to understand more about the world that we live in.
Certain parts of the park, such as the San Diego Zoo and the Reuben H. Fleet Center, are constantly top on the tourist radar, but there are so many other venues, attractions and gardens to visit, one day would not be enough to fit them all in. In fact, we recommend two or three days to really explore all of Balboa Park. You can certainly see a lot in one day, but if you’ve got the time plan for another day or two.
A Perfect Day in Beautiful Balboa Park
One of San Diego’s most beautiful points of interest is Balboa Park. With 1,200 verdant acres, fifteen museums, several performing arts venues, gardens, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park is practically a national landmark. Ranked as one of the Best Parks in the World, it is America’s largest urban cultural park, welcoming over 6 million visitors annually and where today’s perfect day takes place. To make the most of your day print out a map of Balboa Park prior to visiting.
Best Breakfast near Balboa Park
A visit to Balboa will take plenty of energy, so start your day with a hearty breakfast at the Hash House A-Go-Go. You know it’s going to be special when the locals are in line for up to half an hour, but fear not, they have coffee set-up outside to tide you over while you wait. They offer huge portions and a large menu, innovatively served in skillets – it’s no surprise they have been the recipient of the Best Breakfast Gold Medallion on many occasions from the San Diego Restaurant Association.
If you are looking for a quick breakfast, begin your day at Daniel’s Coffee Cart, located at the House of Hospitality in the heart of the park. This little shop offers a variety of coffee drinks and your choice of breakfast pastries. The coffee cart is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m
A bit of Balboa Park History
Horticulturalist Kate Sessions, christened the Mother of Balboa Park, was its first landscape architect. Ahead of her time, Sessions owned a commercial nursery. In 1892, in need of more space, she negotiated use of a 30-acre tract with the City of San Diego in exchange for planting 100 trees every year in exchange.
Plantings included everything from cypress and oak to pine, pepper and eucalyptus and she made the beautiful imported jacaranda tree a familiar San Diego bloom. This was the early beginnings of Balboa’s 1200-acre arboretum. Today, Balboa Park is one of the most lushly planted urban parks in the world. Its superlatives: 15,000 trees with 350+ species, 100-foot pine, and eucalyptus, 120′-wide Moreton Bay fig trees.
Balboa Park Gardens
Japanese Friendship Garden
The Japanese Friendship Garden for a moment of tranquility. The Friendship Garden began as a teahouse during the Panama-California Exposition and continues that tradition today. The winding paths lead through a garden that takes you into two acres of beautiful wisteria-covered trees with a koi pond and a Zen garden for meditation. While here, stop for a cup of tea and a sushi roll at the teahouse. It will be hard to leave the garden without feeling completely peaceful.
The Zen garden, koi pond, bonsai exhibit, ceremonial gate, and a Fujidana (wisteria arbor) transport you to Asia.
The most photographed place in Balboa Park is the Botanical Building. The Lily Pond and the lath structure of the building beckon botany lovers to see its flora display inside. Once through the building’s doors, a garden with a variety of plants and a couple of waterfalls will beckon you to stay and enjoy nature’s beauty for hours. Be sure to take a picture out front for memory’s sake.
Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden
Grab a bagged lunch and enjoy it amidst the 200 varieties of roses in Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden. Then make your way to the 193 x 43-foot Botanical Building’s Lily Pond with reflecting pool entry- one of the most photographed scenes in Balboa Park- with more than 2,100 permanent plants, including collections of cycads, ferns, orchids, palms, and other tropical plant species, there are seasonal blooms year-round.
The Famous Spreckels Organ Pavilion
Juxtaposed with the Japanese Friendship Garden is the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The Spreckels Organ is the world’s largest pipe organ in a fully outdoor venue and it comprises 4,530 pipes ranging in length from the size of a pencil to 32 feet. It is housed in an equally impressive, ornate vaulted structure; its highly embellished gables and flying buttresses are reminiscent of an elaborate, regal wedding cake.
Balboa Park Museums
Balboa Park houses 17 museums, tranquil gardens, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. At 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is the largest urban cultural park in North America and a must-see on any visit to San Diego.
Helpful Hint: To begin your day, arrive a little before 10 A.M., which is when most of the museums and attractions open.
San Diego Museum of Man
With more than a dozen museums to choose from that, all are independently managed, a great place to start is the San Diego Museum of Man. Housed in the landmark 200-foot California Tower, it is the region’s only Museum devoted to anthropology as well as arts, culture and scientific achievements. The collection includes Mayan monuments, rare Egyptian tomb artifacts, and Peruvian mummies. The museum will capture the attention of anyone who loves discovering secrets about the past. Mummy lovers will revel in the rare Egyptian tomb artifacts and Peruvian mummies.
San Diego Automotive Museum
Follow that with a trip into the past, visiting the classic cars in the San Diego Automotive Museum. The museum features vintage cars with over 80 vehicles from the 20th century. Anyone who’s got a need for speed will have the time of their life learning about how far the car has evolved.
Timken Museum of Art
Next, stop at the Timken Museum of Art. It’s considered to be one of the finest small museums in the United States and is filled with some of the best European and American artwork available. The museum is always free, so art lovers can enjoy Rembrandt and Rubens and everything in between to their hearts’ content. The Timken Museum of Art is always free.
Best Museums in Balboa Park for Kids
Take advantage of the wealth of museums where one can find culture and education immersed in fun settings that allow children’s imaginations to run free. Whether they are into cars and planes, animals, dinosaurs, space, dancing or singing- this is a can’t miss outing.
San Diego Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is the most kid-friendly since robotic dinosaur skeletons and wildlife panoramas abound. The Museum is an active research institution, dedicated to interpreting the natural world through research and education, offering local and international exhibitions.
San Diego Air and Space Museum
Kids will also love the San Diego Air and Space Museum shaped like a huge aircraft hangar and filled with real airplanes. The museum features five centuries of aircraft history. With actual airplane engines and rooms filled with plane models with moving parts to touch and look at, time will fly as you discover how the gigantic machines soar above us.
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
This epic museum contains two stories of hands-on exhibits and experiments featuring topics like electricity, aging and space travel.
Let your children run free in the Center’s scientific playground; they can play and learn for hours. But make sure you reign them in for a breathtaking IMAX movie in the unique Dome Theater; its circular shape and giant screen surround you with both image and sound. Shows run all day and they are guaranteed to fascinate your little ones with titles like Sea Monsters and Dinosaurs Alive. (You can buy a combo ticket to use the hands-on gallery and to see an Imax movie).
The best time to visit the Science Center is on weekends or on weekdays after 1 p.m. The best day for kids is the first Tuesday of every month when the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center hands-on exhibit is free.
Free Tuesdays for Balboa Park Museums
Balboa Park museums offer free general admission on a rotating basis throughout each month to residents of the City and County of San Diego, and to active military personnel and their dependents. Some museums may offer complimentary admission to their permanent collections only and charge for admission to special exhibitions, showings, and events. It’s best to check with each museum before you go.
Natural History Museum
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Museum of San Diego History
Museum of Photographic Arts
San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum
San Diego Museum of Art
San Diego Museum of Man
Japanese Friendship Garden
Mingei International Folk Art Museum
San Diego Aerospace Museum
San Diego Automotive Museum
House of Pacific Relations International Cottages and Hall of Nations films: “Children Around the World” (Ilam-3pm)
Useful Information: In addition to Free Tuesdays, there is a Passport to Balboa Park which is a multi-day admission book to 13 museums with savings of 50%. A Zoo/Passport Combo, adds a one-day deluxe admission to the San Diego Zoo. Passports may be purchased at Balboa Park Visitors Center and at participating museums.
Balboa Park Architectural History
The heavily ornate and architecturally significant Spanish-Revival buildings and the El Prado (the central promenade) was initially built to last just a year. They were to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal, celebrating the Port of San Diego as the ships’ first port-of-call after passing north through the Canal. Development started in 1911 with the Park opening on December 31, 1914. In the mid-1930s, the Park hosted the California Pacific International Exposition with new architectural influences from the Southwest and Mexican Aztec in addition to art deco and modern.
Balboa Park Restaurants
Looking to grab a bite, a pint or cappuccino a great spot for lunch or dinner in Balboa Park? Exploring this park means lots of walking and luckily there are some great choices for coffee, tea, lunch, and dinner. You can also bring a picnic lunch. You’ll find lots of spots throughout the park to enjoy a picnic in both shade and sun.
The Prado at Balboa Park
Located inside the House of Hospitality- a beautiful Spanish-style building- the Prado restaurant specializes in Spanish offerings like adobo-braised pork osso buco and sangria as well as international choices like tempura ahi and kids favorites like four-cheese ravioli. The Prado Restaurant in the heart of Balboa Park is the best place for a romantic dinner for two or a great place for an intimate gathering with friends after contemplating the artwork. The award-winning restaurant located inside the House of Hospitality has a beautiful interior that makes eating a meal a work of art.
A cocktail lounge with a variety of signature and exotic drinks makes waiting for your table time to relax you and help get you into the mood for a wonderful meal. The Prado is known for its delicious entrees, such as the garlic and rosemary pan-roasted boneless half chicken, but the dessert here is to die for, like the Tahitian vanilla bean cream cheese flan. For the ultimate dining experience try the cap steak followed by the chocolate soufflé cake. Decadent.
The Prado is open daily; Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from 11:30 a.m to 9:30 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m to 9 p.m. Reservations are suggested and can be made by calling 619-557-9441.
Panama 66 is an open-air restaurant in the San Diego Museum of Art’s Marcy S. May Sculpture Garden. The focus is on locally sourced, hand-crafted food and drink, from salads and sandwiches to seasonal cocktails and more. The bar features over a dozen local craft beers and Zagat-rated as one of the top beer bars in the country!
Restaurants near Balboa Park
For the more romantic, checkout Jsix at the Kimpton Solamar Hotel located in San Diego’s East Village. a formal and intimate dining experience. The rotating menu of locally and sustainably sourced quality ingredients combined with the 21st-century Moroccan décor featuring glass mosaic tiled pillars, Asian-influenced floral fabric fixtures and massive paned windows is a feast of creative, soothing food, art and décor.
The illuminated, sleek bar makes a martini a sure-fire first course. An open kitchen features Coastal California cuisine and, while the menu is small, it makes for some hard choices. Try the Caesar Salad or Maine Lobster Risotto, followed by the peppered rib-eye with rosemary roasted potatoes, Swiss chard and truffle oil or the pan-seared striped bass with Dungeness crab and green onion risotto. The goat cheese panna cotta or caramel balsamic crème brulée with ginger snap cookies makes a crowning finish to an incredible culinary experience. Dinner is served Tuesday – Saturday from 5:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
San Diego Zoo
Continue your day by exploring the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, which is deep within the Park grounds. With its famous Giant Pandas, it is also home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals representing more than 800 species. Interpreters are founts of interesting information and trivia. For example, one can tell African Elephants by their large ears shaped like the continent itself (Asian elephants have much smaller ears). The difference between apes and monkeys is that apes have no tails. Flamingos’ plumage is actually white, turning pink from their food source. Be there at opening and plan on at least a few hours.
San Diego Zoo Discounts
You can find San Diego Zoo Discount Tickets if you are a AAA member or active military at the ticket booth at the zoo. Trusted Tours also offers a discounted 1-day passes to the San Diego Zoo.
Balboa Park at Night
To finish the day, stroll through the park once more for Park After Dark. Every night year-round, there’s always something to enjoy, whether it be jazz programs or lectures and classes on artwork.
But the best part of the nightlife in Balboa Park is the opportunity to catch a play at the Old Globe Theatre. This remake of Shakespeare’s Globe has both indoor and outdoor stages and every seat is a great one. The Old Globe is internationally acclaimed and has even won a Tony Award. Performances vary, but the plays always offer a great way to end your day at Balboa Park.
Near the end of El Prado you will find the San Diego Junior Theatre. All plays feature the acting and singing of children ages 8 to 18 and most shows are suitable for ages 3 and up.
San Diego Tours
San Diego Pass
Hotels Near San Diego Zoo & Balboa Park
Kimpton Solamar Hotel is located in the Gas Lamp District and is in the center of everything going on. You can walk to restaurants, stores, and nearby nightlife is also great. The hotel lobby is small but very nice, the rooms are clean, nice comfortable beds.
Inn at the Park Well-positioned in the charming neighborhood of Hillcrest, it is ideally situated at the edge of Balboa Park West. This landmark hotel has an enduring history. While some of the décor is somewhat dated, it is in the midst of an ongoing facelift. Features include a kitchenette, complimentary wi-fi, and an incredible view of the city from Top of the Park restaurant. Great rates, an ideal location to Balboa and complimentary parking make this a real value.
Check out TripAdvisor for reviews of the 10 hotels closest to the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park.
Balboa Park Hours
Balboa Park grounds are open 24 hours a day. The Visitors Center is open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily, and museum hours vary.
Balboa Park Address
The heart of Balboa Park is located at 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101.
Balboa Park is a short drive or bike ride from Downtown San Diego and the Gaslamp district. It’s walking distance from many neighborhoods, including South Park, North Park, Hillcrest, Little Italy, East Village, Banker’s Hill, and University Heights.
Directions to Balboa Park
Southbound from I-5
Take the 10th Avenue Exit off I-5. Turn left on “A” Street and left again on Park Blvd. Follow the signs to Balboa Park.
Northbound from I-5
Take the Pershing Drive/B Street exit off I-5 to Pershing Drive. Take Pershing and then turn left on Florida Drive. Turn left on Zoo Place to Park Blvd. Left on Park Blvd.
Southbound from Hwy 163
Take the Park Blvd. exit off Hwy 163. Turn left on Park Blvd. Follow the signs to Balboa Park.
Parking in Balboa Park
Parking in Balboa Park lots is free. Park in the Inspiration Point parking lot (on the east side of Park Blvd., between Presidents Way and the Balboa Park Activity Center) for easy access to the heart of Balboa Park via the free tram. There are also numerous smaller lots throughout the Park.
For almost guaranteed parking at the southern end of Park Boulevard, you will find a large lot on President’s Way. If you are driving from the 163 exit, make the first right after turning left onto Park Boulevard. If you are driving south from the direction of the Zoo, turn left onto President’s Way; you will see it right after the Naval Medical Center. This free parking lot is huge and often empty, and though it is far walk from the museums it will save you a lot of time and hassles.
There is no place like historic Balboa Park to find a full day of affordable family entertainment. Located in scenic downtown San Diego and home of the famous San Diego Zoo, this museum-studded park is the jewel in San Diego’s crown.
6 Indispensable Items to Pack for a Day in Balboa Park
- Get the Fodor’s San Diego Day by Day Travel Guide.
- Balboa Park is beautiful and you’ll want to take photos! If you want to go beyond your smartphone, I suggest a mirrorless camera. I use the Sony Alpha a6000 .
- San Diego is almost always sunny, so make sure to bring Neutrogena Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Spf 45
- A great cross body travel bag. Keep your valuables safe and this bag allows plenty of space for everything you might want to pack for the day.
- Don’t forget sunglasses for the beautiful sunny days in San Diego. A.J. Morgan Unisex Sunglasses are a great choice and very affordable!
Read More About San Diego
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.
Balboa Park offers so many options it is sure to appeal to the whole family and will sure to be an adventure to remember forever. Thinking about visiting Balboa Park or San Diego? Ask your questions in the comments below!
Alexa Meisler is the editorial director of 52 Perfect Days. Born in Paris, France she has since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. She currently resides in San Diego with her husband and son where they enjoy exploring California and Mexico.
Travel has always been a part of her life; traveling to such places as Morocco, Tangiers and Spain as a young child as well as taking many road trips to Mexico with her grandparents as a young girl. Since then, she has traveled abroad to locations such as Russia, Taiwan and throughout Europe.
Prior to working at 52 Perfect Days she was a freelance travel writer; focusing on family and women’s adventure experiences.