Larger than New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Millennium Park combined, San Diego’s Balboa Park comprises 1,200 acres of urban green space with 16 museums, 65 miles of trails, 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. The ornate structure, which was constructed in celebration 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 a dense, jungle-like atmosphere created by more than 450 trees.
Museums abound—local favorites 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 from 660 species are showcased at the San Diego Zoo. Don’t miss the koala bears, or the hugely popular orangutans. Check the Balboa Park website for special events, and for ticketing deals bundling zoo and museum visits.
Read on to learn how to explore this park in full—from gardens and restaurants to tucked-away hikes.