Did you know Balboa Park is the nation’s largest urban park? Home to plants and animals from around the world, interactive museums, and an abundance of outdoor activities, Balboa Park is a frequent stop for San Diego locals and tourists alike. To make the most of your visit, follow our Ultimate Balboa Park Guide.
About Balboa Park
Balboa Park was the first urban park in the U.S. that was actually reserved as an urban park before the city was developed. When the Panama Canal was scheduled to open in 1915, San Diego started planning for a world’s fair, which was to be held in Balboa Park. The Spanish Revival architecture was introduced to pay homage to the early Spanish settlers in California, and to set San Diego apart from the other west coast cities that were also planning a world’s fair.
Today, the buildings house 16 museums throughout the park including the San Diego Zoo, Fleet Science Center, and San Diego History Center. In addition, the park boasts sprawling gardens, tours, restaurants, and more.
Parking at Balboa Park is free. If you wish, valet parking is also available in front of The Prado Restaurant at the House of Hospitality for an additional fee.
However, this wouldn’t be a Balboa Park Guide without parking tips, right? For incredible views, park your car on the west side of the park over on 6th Avenue. To enter the park, you’ll walk through gardens and fields to cross the Cabrillo Bridge. While you walk over the bridge, take in the views of the city on your right and the San Diego Zoo to the left.
You may also drive into the park from 6th Ave over the Cabrillo Bridge and through the Plaza de Panama. Follow the road until Park Blvd. to access several large parking lots over at Inspiration Point.
Plus, the Balboa Park Tram stops in most of the parking lots and will transport you to destinations throughout the park. The tram runs approximately every 10 minutes.
For those with electric vehicles, charging stations are located at the Pan American Plaza, Fleet Science Center, and San Diego Zoo parking lots.
Balboa Park Guide: Things to Do
Balboa Park is the perfect escape for families looking for endless activities or couples searching for romantic things to do together. From museums to concerts, sprawling trails to wild zoo adventures, you’re bound to find something entertaining at Balboa Park.
Balboa Park Museums
Balboa Park is a museum lover’s dream come true. The park houses 15 museums (and counting) on topics ranging from history to science and everything in between. A few of the top museums include:
- The Museum of Man: Discover the evolution of mankind along with the cultures and traditions of humans throughout time.
- San Diego Museum of Art: Browse an impressive collection of art from around the world as well as rotating exhibits.
- San Diego History Center: Learn the story behind San Diego’s captivating history through interactive exhibits and galleries.
- Comic-Con Museum: A new addition to the park and Balboa Park Guide, the Comic-Con Museum is set to open soon. The attraction aims to celebrate the wonder of Comic-Con events all year long.
- Fleet Science Center: Explore 100+ exhibits about our world, solar system, and so much more.
As you might have guessed, it’s a bit difficult to visit several museums in a single day. For the best San Diego vacation, choose a few museums to visit and spread them out throughout your trip.
Since each museum requires separate admission, it is in your best interest to purchase an Explorer’s Pass. This allows you to visit more than one museum or attraction at discounted rates.
Do you find the performing arts fascinating? If so, use our Balboa Park Guide to discover what performances are happening during your trip. Look at the Events Calendar at popular Balboa Park venues such as:
- Spreckels Organ Pavilion: This outdoor theater houses the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ with 5,000 pipes. Free concerts are offered each Sunday at 2:00 pm.
- The Old Globe: Inspired by Shakespeare’s Old Globe in London, The Old Globe has three stages each serving as the backdrop for plays, musicals, and other performances year-round.
- Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater: Perfect for kids and kids at heart, this venue is the longest continuous running puppet theater in the country.
Other venues in Balboa Park include the San Diego Junior Theatre, Starlight Bowl, and WorldBeat Center. Be sure to get your performance tickets in advance, if necessary.
The gardens in Balboa Park are impressive and a must-see. Throughout the park, you’ll find gardens with hundreds of thousands of plants and trees from around the world. Wear your walking shoes, take some deep breaths, and enjoy the beautiful gardens during your trip.
A few of the most visited Balboa Park gardens include:
- Palm Canyon: This trail will take you down to a tropical oasis and lush canyon featuring over 450 palm trees of 58 different species.
- The Desert Garden: This garden also has so many unique species of cacti and plants, you’ll think you’re in a land right out of a Dr. Seuss book.
- Botanical Building: As the largest wooden lath building in the world, the building itself with its adjacent lily pond is one of the most photographed buildings in San Diego.
- Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden: There are 1,600 rose plants of 130 varieties in the 3 acres of this garden. Sniff, see, and soak in the tranquil landscape.
- Japanese Friendship Garden: This garden does require an admission fee. You’ll experience an amazing bonsai collection, koi ponds, and an exhibit house. Enjoy refreshments at the Tea Pavilion before or after your garden visit.
Balboa Park Attractions
On top of mesmerizing gardens and intriguing museums, Balboa Park is also home to several attractions. Make time in your schedule to experience top attractions such as:
- San Diego Zoo: This iconic zoo is home to 4,000+ rare and endangered creatures of more than 650 species, as well as more than 700,000 exotic plants.
- San Diego Mineral and Gem Society: Learn more about minerals, gems, fossils and the lapidary arts through hands-on activities and exhibits.
- Balboa Park Carousel: Go for a ride on this historic carousel dating back to 1910!
While the park has many beautiful areas for a picnic, you may not have time to pack your food. Not to mention, alcoholic drinks are not allowed in public areas in San Diego.
Instead, visit Balboa Park’s variety of restaurants including:
The Prado: This iconic restaurant sits in the historic House of Hospitality building. Featuring creative cocktails and culinary creations, this Balboa Park restaurant is a hot stop for tourists and locals. You’ll want to make reservations or take advantage of their happy hour in the lounge.
Panama 66: Located in the sculpture garden of the SD Museum of Art, this eclectic restaurant is casual, has open seating, a lawn for picnic style seating, amazing food options, and an extensive craft beer list.
Craveology: For a quick bite to eat, head over to the Fleet Science Center where you’ll find Craveology. From smoothies to flatbread pizzas, you’ll find the treat that suits your appetite.
Use the Balboa Park Guide for Your Visit
While you could easily spend a month exploring all there is to do in the park, our Balboa Park Guide helps you maximize your time at the park.
Bianca is a San Diego native, and prides herself on her knowledge of her city. As a professional tour guide, she offers food and drink tasting tours through her company: So Diego Tours. With 8 years in the tourism industry, she brings you updates on how to make the most out of your time, money and energy in her city.