Larger than New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Millennium Park combined, San Diego’s Balboa Park comprises 485 hectares of urban green space with 16 museums, 104 kilometres of paths, and of course, the internationally renowned San Diego Zoo. Dating back to the early 19th century, Balboa is one of the oldest public parks in the nation.
Luckily for visitors, much of the early architecture has been impeccably preserved, including the iconic California Tower. This ornate structure, which was constructed in celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal, reopened in 2016, allowing anyone to climb to the top of its 125 steps and enjoy one of the best views in town.
With a mix of native plants and carefully cultivated gardens, Balboa Park is a horticultural marvel. The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden alone has more than 130 varieties of roses. The Japanese Friendship Garden offers stark elegance and a lovely koi pond, while Palm Canyon shades visitors in its dense, jungle-like atmosphere, created by more than 450 trees.
Museums abound, local favourites include the San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Culture reigns supreme too: The Old Globe Theatre hosts its famed Shakespeare Festival each summer. Outdoor film screenings, plays and concerts are hosted in the park year-round.
All this, plus one of the world’s finest zoos. Over 3,700 animals and 660 species are showcased at San Diego Zoo. Don’t miss the koalas, orangutans or the hugely popular giant panda enclosure. Check the Balboa Park website for special events, and for ticketing deals that combine zoo and museum visits.
Read on to find out more about how to explore this park in full, from gardens and restaurants to tucked-away walks.
It’s known as the Smithsonian of the West for a reason: Balboa Park has a wide range of fascinating institutions, with specialities that will appeal to almost every curious mind.
The San Diego Museum of Art is only one of Balboa Park’s many fine art museums, but as the largest and oldest, it’s a good place to start. The collection features pieces from 5,000 BC to the present day, all housed behind an intricate facade designed to mimic a Spanish cathedral. The free-admission Timken Museum of Art offers a similar range of pieces in a smaller space. In the Museum of Photographic Arts, visitors can gaze on the more than 24,000 pictures in the permanent collection, or head to Mingei International Museum, which celebrates beauty in ordinary objects such as textiles and bowls.
Those curious about engineering will appreciate the handful of park museums dedicated to how stuff works. The San Diego Air & Space Museum houses an impressive number of original and replica aircraft—Apollo 9, the Wright Glider and a Super Marine Spitfire, to name a few which help visitors understand the wonder of flight. Petrolheads should check out the San Diego Automotive Museum, which has a 1947 Cadillac that still holds the record for driving from San Diego to New York and back, without stopping. For a better understanding of the physics behind machines, head to the Fleet Science Center for interactive exhibits that are good for children (and adults) of all ages, while children and trainspotters will also love the Model Railroad Museum. Some children would argue, too, that the park’s 1910 Herschell-Spillman Carousel, near the Activity Center, is a museum in itself.
Two more can’t-miss stops include the San Diego Natural History Museum, which allows visitors to channel their inner archaeologist with dinosaur skeletons and mastodon bones, and the truly unique San Diego Museum of Man, which focuses on one of earth’s most peculiar creatures with rotating exhibitions on animal cohabitation, cannibalism and the invention of mythical beasts.
Located in San Diego’s Balboa Park, the Fleet Science Center combines serious learning with hands-on fun. The centre is part-museum and part-cinema/planetarium, both of which offer immersive experiences tailored to explorers of every age. With a motto of 'please touch', the Fleet Science Center uses tactile techniques to help visitors better understand our world and how it works.
When the centre’s Giant Dome Theater opened in 1973, it was the first IMAX Dome (or OMNIMAX) in the world. Today, the cinema continues to transport viewers with films about nature, technology and more. For a special experience, head to the Fleet Science Centre on the first Wednesday of the month for The Sky Tonight show and listen to astronomers as they lead you through a journey to infinity and beyond.
The museum features a mixture of about a dozen permanent and visiting exhibitions. The permanent areas include 'Nano', which breaks down the field of nanoscience from the visible to the unseen, and 'Kid City', a play space dedicated to children aged 5 and under, complete with a fire engine and ball wall. Each exhibition challenges children (and adults) to master difficult concepts such as electricity and the power of air flow by balancing power grids and creating miniature tornados.
Browse the North Star Science Store for quirky, science-themed souvenirs and books, while hungry future-astronauts can try the outer space ice-cream sandwiches. For a more down-to-earth option, the museum's café Craveology serves fresh options such as five-grain salad, yogurt parfait and turkey lasagne.
The history of Balboa Park stretches back to 1835, so it’s little wonder that some strange things have happened within its 485 hectares. Did you know for instance, that Zoro Garden was once the site of a nudist colony or that in the 1980s, orangutans escaped from San Diego Zoo a total of nine times? A number of tours offered within the park highlight the park’s quirky history while also giving visitors a closer connection to San Diego’s fascinating park.
For an excellent overview, start at the Balboa Park Visitors Center. Ninety-minute, self-guided audio tours are available to hire (both adult and children’s versions), while free ranger-led walking tours start from the centre every Sunday. The park also hosts specialist tours focusing on specific areas of interest. There’s an Architectural Heritage Tour, held on the first Friday of each month, which highlights the way the park introduced the Spanish Colonial Revival style to Southern California. Garden fans, meanwhile, can enjoy a 45-minute Botanical Tour every third Friday. A number of Offshoot Tours held on Saturdays specifically address park history, palms, desert vegetation and more.
If you want to get a workout along the way, try the 5-kilometre trail run offered by City Running Tours (which includes an after-dark option on Saturdays). If you'd prefer a sweat-free experience, try Wheel Fun’s Segway tour or take a seat and enjoy the view with San Diego Trolley Tours, which stop at various museums on the circuit.
All the world’s a stage at Balboa Park, where you can enjoy just about every sort of theatre,from puppet shows to people-watching. The various stages within the park showcase acting, dance and song, while cultural programmes create opportunities to study the performing arts yourself.
The park’s oldest and most famous venue, The Old Globe Theatre, was created in 1935 in the image of (and named after) the famous London landmark. In the years since, The Old Globe has produced more than 20 original plays that have ended up on Broadway or Off-Broadway and in 1984 the company won a Tony Award for best regional theatre. Today, the legend lives on with 15 plays a year on the main stage, as well as smaller performances on the two auxiliary stages. In November and December every year, the must-see Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! transforms the theatre into a winter wonderland.
Enjoy charmingly old-fashioned fun at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, which is the oldest continuously running puppetry venue in the United States. The 234-seat theatre shows short adaptations of classic tales such as 'The Princess and the Pea' and 'Rumpelstiltskin'. Children will love the puppet meet-and-greet and the gift shop filled with marionettes. In a separate celebration of an oft-forgotten art, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion—the world’s largest outdoor organ holds free outdoor concerts every Sunday afternoon. The venue also hosts various musical acts as part of the Summer Nights series.
In the spirit of community education, Balboa Park cultivates a number of children's continuing education in the arts programmes. Civic Dance Arts, San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, San Diego Junior Theatre, and San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory all call Balboa home. Take a look at their respective performance schedules to see the best of the city’s young talent with very affordable ticket prices.
When it comes to dining at Balboa Park, forget everything you know about 'park food'. In fact, some of San Diego’s most exciting restaurants can be found inside this massive urban green space.
The courtyard in the heart of the park, for instance, is not only the centre point for many of the park’s museums, but also offers a romantic backdrop for Balboa’s very best food. Panama 66 pulls a rotating tap of 20-plus San Diego beers along with locally sourced salads and sandwiches. The open dining room, tucked inside a sculpture garden, hosts live music every Wednesday–Saturday night. If you’re after high-end food and service, head to The Prado at Balboa Park where you can enjoy whimsical Spanish decor, inventive cocktails and creative starters - think pan-seared duck breast with quinoa fried rice and tangerine gastrique.
Balboa Park’s museums and gardens keep the food charmingly on-theme. Hungry animal watchers can climb the steps to Albert’s Restaurant at the San Diego Zoo for a tree-top meal next to a private waterfall. Enjoy tea (the loose-leaf menu is massive) with your noodle soup at the bamboo Tea Pavilion inside the Japanese Friendship Garden. The Flight Path Grill, housed in the San Diego Air & Space Museum, keeps the meals simple (pizza and salads) but the real attraction is the buzz of engines swooping low on their way to San Diego International Airport, just a few short miles west.
As you plan your visit, keep an eye out for special food-themed events. Depending on the season, you might find a row of food vans on the Plaza de Panama. Every Friday in the summer (and for a week over the Christmas period), more than a dozen vans serving everything from wood-fired pizza to boba tea create a pop-up food court. On Sunday afternoons between March and October, stroll on the lawn among the little houses at the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages and nosh on a variety of international tasters from Austria, Peru, Turkey and Korea.
One of the very best things about Balboa Park is that it’s free to enter. With grounds open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you can always walk in. Once inside, some exhibitions, museums and attractions do require a fee, but there are still plenty of things to do in the Jewel of San Diego without spending a dime.
An incredible 104 kilometres of paths snake through the park, and there’s no charge for walking or running. For a short-but-memorable walk, try Palm Canyon. The path starts at a raised boardwalk accessible from the Mingei Museum and dips into a lush palm forest with a prehistoric feel. The Sixth and Upas Trails Gateway is the perfect place to start a longer walk. Maps and markings clearly outline circular routes that range from 2.5 to 10.5 kilometres long, taking explorers along oak-shaded paths.
While most of Balboa’s museums charge some kind of admission fee, there are a few notable exceptions. Don’t miss, for instance, the Timken Museum of Art, which is home to a wide range of masterpieces, from Rembrandt to John Singleton Copley. The Botanical Building is also free: relax among the ferns and orchids, and see if you can find the turtle in the lily pond outside.
For some quirky fun, check out a night of races at the Velodrome to watch local cyclists riding at breakneck speeds around the steeply banked track. Events are free and normally held every Tuesday and Friday nights from April to September, but check the website for details. The Spreckels Organ Pavilion also hosts a Twilight in the Park summer concert series, with free organ concerts every Sunday year-round. Nearby, weekend afternoons are the prime time to explore the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages—a collection of little houses, each dedicated to one nation’s culture. Its open houses and lawn programmes (which welcome donations, but charge no admission fee) feature live music, cultural displays and culinary samples.
Balboa Park’s calendar is filled with festivals, tours, concerts and special events nearly every weekend of the year and some events are worth planning a whole trip around.
Seasonal events are huge in San Diego’s emerald gem. December Nights, held on the first weekend of that month, features special performances and light displays, unique shopping in the Starlight Winter Marketplace, and free admission to any museum. Balboa Park also does Halloween in a big way: The Haunted Trail challenges the courage of walkers with a mile of terrifying sights, while child-friendly Halloween Family Day has carnival games, craft projects and a rooftop pumpkin drop from the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
San Diego has a rich history of supporting diverse cultures, which is on full display in May during Balboa’s annual Ethnic Food Fair. Held at the International Cottages, representatives from nearly 40 countries set up shop to serve up local delicacies along with song and dance on the main stage. In February, the Chinese New Year Festival celebrates with a lion dance, calligraphy lessons, steamed dumplings and milk tea. Each March, the Japanese Friendship Garden welcomes spring with the Cherry Blossom Festival, when visitors flock to the gardens to see the pink blooms in all their glory while enjoying cultural performances and sake tastings.
The heart of June’s San Diego LGBTQ Pride weekend is the two-day festival in Balboa Park. Often cited as the largest civic event in the city, more than 200,000 participants enjoy live music, delicious food and an inclusive community.
There’s a reason why Balboa Park’s stunning Botanical Building graces countless Instagram posts. Constructed with slats to allow for the proper sunlight and air circulation for plants, this soaring lath house was built for the 1915–16 Panama-California Exposition and is one of the largest of its kind in the world, flawlessly framed by a flower-trimmed lily pond. With its distinctive blend of architecture and flora, this is easily one of the most photographed spots in all of Balboa Park.
But this dramatic building located on the El Prado walkway, next to the Timken Museum of Art—is more than just a pretty face. Step inside the jungle-y interior (no entry fee required) to walk beneath towering tree ferns and a Technicolor display of exotic orchids and other showy blooms. The indoor collection includes some 2,100 tropical plants permanently on show, and seasonal flower displays like the special Easter lily shows add even more eye-popping beauty to the scene. Don't miss the ferns, cycads and palms, as well as the 'scratch-and-sniff' garden.
But you’ll also want to head outdoors, of course, to explore Balboa’s many lovely gardens. The Old Cactus Garden, Desert Garden and the California Native Plant Garden all showcase succulents, cacti and other drought-resistant plants that typically flower from January to March. With more than 1,600 blooms, the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden is the sweetest smelling spot in the park, especially in spring.
If you’re looking for a more international experience, check out the Alcazar Garden (designed after Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain) where manicured flower beds and box hedges meet at mosaic turquoise fountains. On the other side of the world, but just a few hundred yards away, the Australian Garden invites visitors to explore the flora, including eucalyptus and spider flowers. The Japanese Friendship Garden offers austere beauty coupled with Sukia-style structures, stone arrangements and koi ponds.
Children will love the EthnoBotany Children’s Peace Gardens, where nearly every plant is edible. Learn about organic herbs, fruit trees and vegetables, and visit the Monarch Way Station to watch the lovely monarch butterflies flit by. The Zoro Garden, next to the Fleet Science Center, is also home to a number of butterfly species. Every May, the Zoro hosts an Annual Butterfly Release where hundreds of painted ladies take flight.
Insider tip:the Botanical Building offers free admission, but make sure you plan your visit: it’s open every day of the week from 10 am to 4 pm, except Thursdays.