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 special Easter lily shows in spring—add even more eye-popping beauty to the scene. Be sure to check out the ferns, cycads, and palms, as well as a “scratch-and-sniff garden.”
But you’ll 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 through 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 (patterned 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 flora, including eucalyptus and spider flowers. The Japanese Friendship Garden offers an austere beauty coupled with Sukia Style structures, stone arrangements, and koi ponds.
Kids 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 creatures 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 be sure to plan your visit right: It’s open every day of the week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Thursdays.