There are endless things to do in Balboa Park and you could spend an entire week here exploring all that it has to offer. Balboa Park is filled with beautiful Spanish architecture, 16 museums, cultural art centers, gardens, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Having lived in San Diego for over 13 years now I can firmly say that it’s my favorite part of San Diego and is not to be missed when visiting! It’s commonly called the true heart of San Diego and I can attest to that.
So I’ve created “A Locals Guide on Things to Do in Balboa Park” to help you navigate your trip to the park!
Balboa Park Map
Below is a map to help you guide you through Balboa Park when visiting. Make sure to screenshot this!
Things to Do in Balboa Park
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. Furthermore, you’ll want to take the Skyfari air-tram (it’s free). You’ll have a birds-eye view over the zoo, Balboa Park, and can even catch a glimpse of Downtown, San Diego.
Below is our San Diego Zoo highlight reel, check it out!
Climb the California Tower
The California Tower is an intricately detailed tower that soars above Balboa Park. It showcases amazing 360 views of the city (up to 23 miles away). It was closed from 2019-2021 due to repairs but is now officially open for entry, so check out tickets here!
Walk the Cabrillo Bridge
The Cabrillo Bridge is technically the main entrance into the park. It was built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition. The best part about walking the bridge is that you can see sweeping views of the California Tower, planes flying in, the San Diego Zoo skyfari, and downtown San Diego!
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. Furthermore, it’s home to countless artists, a delicious coffee cart, and 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 am-5:30 pm.
Gardens in Balboa Park
Undoubtedly, the gardens in Balboa Park are the best part of the park. Plants from all over the world with plenty of palm trees, cacti, and succulents 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 eye-catcher in the middle of the park. Furthermore, this garden is home to 2,100 permanent plants as well as ones that 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
The Japanese Friendship Garden was built for the friendship between San Diego and it’s sister city Yokohama. You can really immerse yourself in Japanese culture here. Located at the entrance is a tea shop that also has delicious ramen. It’s open daily from 10 am-6 pm and costs $12 to enter. But, if you’re a San Diego resident, every third Tuesday it’s free to enter!
Did you know that Palm Canyon is made up of 450 Palm Trees with some of them dating back to 1912? It’s a pretty incredible part of the park and is a true hidden gem. There is a huge banyan tree at the start of the trail that is over 150 years old. In conclusion, it is located directly behind the House of Charm.
Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden
Finally, the Rose Garden displays around 100 varieties of Roses. As a result, this part of the park smells incredible and makes for the perfect photo opp! It’s in a remote part, across the bridge from the Natural History Museum.
Best Photo Spots
There are endless opportunities for beautiful photo spots in the park. Below I’ve listed my favorite places with past pictures I’ve taken there:
(order from left to right)
- Organ Pavilion
- Rose Garden
- Botanical Building
- Casa Del Prado
- Spanish Arts village
- North of Rose Garden on East Side of Park Blvd
- Plaza de Panama Fountain
- Inside the Botanical Building
Did you know that you can legally drink in Balboa Park?
There are certain designated areas within the park that allows drinking from the hours of 12 pm-8 pm. So head to one of these nine lawns, grab your white claws, and have yourself a picnic!
- Botanical Building East Lawn + West Lawn
- Federal Building Lawn
- House of Pacific Relations Lawn
- International Lawn
- Mall Lawn
- Moreton Bay Fig Lawn
- Pan American Plaza Lawn
- Recital Hall Lawn
Balboa Park Museums
If you love museums, you would LOVE Balboa Park because it’s home to 16 museums. You can easily spend an entire week checking them all out. Furthermore, there are a variety of museums ranging from art to history and science. A few of the top ones are:
- San Diego Air & Space Museum
- Museum of Us
- Timken Museum
- 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 Spanish Architecture.
Above all, 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!
Food in the Park
- Panama 66: The restaurant with the prime views in the park serving crafted food and cocktails.
- Fun Fact: It was Zagat rated for one of the best beer bars in the country!
- Prado at Balboa Park: Charming indoor/outdoor dining serving great mexican food.
- Craveology: located in the Fleet Science center this place is great for lunch (serving salads, paninis, and snacks).
- The Tea Pavilion at the Japanese Garden: Serving teas, sushi, miso soup, and snacks a true hidden gem in the park (closed on Monday’s and Tuesday’s).
- Daniel’s Coffee Cart: located in Spanish Arts Village.
- Prado Perk: Small coffee cart located in same courtyard as The Prado.
Performing Arts in Balboa Park
Old Globe Theatre
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
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. You can check out the schedules here!
Balboa Park Events
Firstly, Balboa Park December nights always take place on the first weekend of December. It’s a holiday celebration that is similar to a European Christmas Market. With 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 Fridays is the hotspot during the summer. Vendors with cuisines from all over the world gather here every Friday evening from May to September on the central mall. Finally, make sure to check out the Balboa Park calendar of events before visiting.
What to Pack for Balboa Park
While all opinions and recommendations are always my own, my content on this blog post may contain affiliate links for products I use and love. This means I get a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking one of these links. As always, I am so thankful for your support!
- Comfortable walking shoes. I love wearing my VEJAS and they are surprisingly comfortable for all-day wear. If you want a more athletic shoe, Asics are hands-down the most comfortable walking shoe EVER!
- A chic picnic blanket
- A light jacket
- SPF: this SPF brush is incredible when traveling because it goes right over makeup. Everyone needs it!
In conclusion, if you’re visiting San Diego you simply can’t miss Balboa Park, it’s a true gem and it’s considered the heart of San Diego. I hope you enjoyed my “Insider’s guide to Balboa Park” and gained some insight into your visit!
Finally, if you’re traveling to San Diego, you don’t want to miss my Ultimate San Diego Travel Guide! As always, drop any questions in the comments below and I’d be happy to answer them.
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