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The Insider’s Guide to Balboa Park

Balboa Park Guide

balboa park architecture

Balboa Park is filled with beautiful Spanish architecture, 16 museums, cultural art centers, gardens, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. You could spend an entire day here exploring all that Balboa Park has to offer. That’s why I’ve created this insider’s guide to help you navigate the true heart of San Diego.

Things to Do

San Diego Zoo

The World-Famous San Diego Zoo needs to be experienced by everyone who visits. It’s home to over 3,700 animals from around the world and 700,000 plants. Make sure to take the Skyfari air-tram (it’s free). You’ll have a birds-eye view over the park as well as downtown. Below is our San Diego Zoo highlight reel, check it out!

Walk the Cabrillo Bridge

The Cabrillo Bridge was built-in 1915 for the Panama-California exposition, this bridge is the main entrance of the park. You’ll see sweeping views of the tower and downtown San Diego.

California Tower


The California Tower is an intricately detailed tower that soars above Balboa Park. It showcases amazing views of the city. Unfortunately, it is currently under construction so you are not able to climb the tower at the moment. They plan to open it back up to the public in summer 2020 though!

Spanish Village Art Center


Easily, the most colorful part of the park is the Spanish Art Village. Created in the 1930s, the exterior of the shops has remained the same since then. Because of this, you don’t want to miss this part of the park. It’s home to countless artists as well as a gem museum.

Balboa Park Carousel

Placed here in 1910, this historic landmark has preserved all of its original hand-carved animals since the day it opened. In addition to this, it’s one of the few in the world that still has the brass ring game for riders. It’s a perfect activity for the kids and is open daily from 11-5:30 pm


Undoubtedly, the gardens in Balboa Park are my favorite part of the park. Plants from all over the world with plenty of palm trees, cacti, and succulents to give Balboa Park that signature San Diego southwest vibe.

Botanical Building + Lilypond


An iconic building that you’ll see in most Balboa Park pictures. Housed in front of a beautiful lily pond, the Botanical Garden is a true diamond of the park. Furthermore, this garden is home to 2,100 permanent plants as well as ones they rotate throughout the seasons. My personal favorite is when they add the poinsettias at Christmas. It’s free to enter and is open Friday-Wednesday from 10 am-4 pm.

Japanese Friendship Garden

balboa park Japanese friendship garden

Built for the friendship between San Diego and it’s sister city Yokohama. Immerse yourself in Japanese culture here. There is a tea shop at the top and you can indulge in some delicious ramen as well. It’s open daily from 10 am-6 pm and costs $12 to enter. Also, if you’re a San Diego resident, every third Tuesday it’s free to enter!

Palm Canyon

Palm Canyon is made up of 450 Palm Trees with some of them dating back to 1912. Making this spot a true hidden gem in the park. It is located behind the House of Charm.

Rose Garden

Finally, the Rose Garden displays around 100 varieties of Roses. As a result, this part of the park smells so great! It’s in a remote part, across the bridge from the Natural History Museum.

Balboa Park Museums

If you love museums, you would LOVE Balboa Park museums because there are 16 of them ranging from history to science. A few of the top ones are:

San Diego Air & Space Museum

San Diego Museum of Man

San Diego Natural History Museum

The San Diego Museum of Art

On the other hand, if you don’t love museums, you can skip them entirely and just marvel at the gorgeous architecture.

It can be expensive to visit all of the museums in the park since they all have separate admission fees. But with the Explorer Pass, you can visit all 16 museums within a seven-day time frame for $59!

Performing Arts

Old Globe Theatre

balboa park december nights

First, The Old Globe Theatre was built in 1935 as a replica of the one in London where William Shakespeare performed many of his plays. They house 15 plays annually with the most famous one being “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. You can check out their current events here.

Spreckels Organ Pavillion

balboa park spreckels pavillion

In addition, this theatre is outdoors and is home to the largest outdoor pipe organ and gorgeous architecture. During the year they perform many symphonies here.

Fun Fact: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones played concerts here in the ’60s. Apparently, sales were not that great. Imagine if they played here today? I would pay an obscene amount to see that!

Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre

A great activity for children. With shows running three times a day on Saturday and Sunday. They also have some showtimes during the week. Check out the schedules here!

Balboa Park Events

December Nights

balboa park december nights

Balboa Park December nights always take place on the first weekend of December. It’s a holiday celebration that is similar to a Christmas Market. Best of all they have food vendors, artists, performances, and free admission to all the museums from 5-9 pm.

Food Truck Friday’s

Last but not least, Food Truck Friday’s is the hotspot during the summer. Vendors with cuisines from all over the world gather here every Friday evening from May to September. 

In conclusion, if you’re visiting San Diego you don’t want to miss this part. I hope you enjoyed the insider’s guide to Balboa Park and gained some insight into your visit. For more San Diego guides head here!




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  • Reply Brittany | Bucketlist Bri

    I love your street photograpy shots, Courtney! Balboa Park looks like you came straight outta Barcelona. I haven’t yet visited San Diego but hopefully this summer we’ll get to go in the van! xx

    January 24, 2020 at 9:30 am
    • Reply Courtney Delfino

      thanks for the love Brittany! So cool that you can road trip in your van!

      January 24, 2020 at 9:49 am
  • Reply Taylor Deer

    I love Balboa Park! It’s one of my favorite parks in the world. Your photos are so beautiful! 🙂

    January 25, 2020 at 11:38 am
    • Reply Courtney Delfino

      Mine too! I feel so lucky to live down the block. Thanks for the support Taylor 🤍

      January 25, 2020 at 11:45 am

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