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 right in. Once inside, some exhibits, 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 65 miles of trails snake through the park, and there’s no charge for hiking or running. For a short-but-memorable hike, try Palm Canyon. The trail 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 Trail Gateway is the perfect place to start a longer trip. Maps and markings clearly outline loops that range from 1.5 to 6.6 miles long, which take explorers through oak-shaded paths.
While most of Balboa’s museums charge some kind of admission, there are a few notable exceptions. Don’t miss, for instance, Timken Museum of Art, which is home to a wide array 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 jamming at breakneck speeds around the steeply banked track. Events are free and normally held every Tuesday and Friday nights in April through 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 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 programs (which welcome donations, but charge no admission) feature live music, cultural displays, and culinary samples.