This is a HUGE park ... you can certainly spend the whole day here. several museums .. gardens, amazing architecture. .. murals, people watching. water features .. lily ponds. sculpture .. lots to do thats free .. if you want to do the museums get the go pass to save money. I spent over an hour just in the rose garden .. best rose garden i'd ever seen. I took a billion pics that day.
We only had a day to spend and spent a lot of time at the huge rose garden ... another free thing that is amazing. We didn't have time to go to any of the museums so we looked around for free.
at the fountain a dude was dressed like some kind of viking and shouting ... .. he'd rush at people and they fell to the ground .. and stayed there ..some rolled a bit before being still .. someone was filming .. it was obviously something planned ... maybe students.
This theatre has the look of a cathedral from the outside. It houses local productions from and for local youth in this historic theatre across from the natural History museum in the north side of the park.
This building, known as the house of hospitality includes the visitor's center, restrooms and a café. the restaurant, the café el Prado is one of San Diego's best places to eat. The visitor's center also has a gift shop.
Every weekend there are extra events going on at Balboa Park. Of course while walking around the park, the botanical displays are seen, and there are street performers with tip cups out as well as palm readers, face painters and craft sellers all hoping to attract your attention long enough to make a sale.
Also there are clubs, associations and hobbyists who hold meeting or gatherings once a month or several times a year. These are generally open to the public and free of charge. These gatherings are usually announced in the local papers as well as on the Balboa Park website calendar. All sorts of Hobby clubs will have some sort of display going on at the weekends.
Usually there is no admittance fee and often times there are items to purchase. Two of my favorites are the Turtle Shows and the Orchid Shows. Almost any "hobby" will be represented during the year so it might be worth your while to check out what will be going on the weekend you're in San Diego.
My kids & grandkids especially loved the turtle shows. So many different kinds are represented and many can be held for a closer look. There usually are some for sale too. The only problem with buying a turtle is the they can live a hundred years.
I enjoy the orchid shows and usually buy a few that I like but I have no green thumb with these beautiful plants so never would try to win a prize. An added bonus to these shows is that the participants are happy to answer your questions and freely give advice.
The area known as El Prado is one of the most visually interesting parts of the park as some of the architecture - both original and reconstructed - was designed for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition: a sort of World Fair celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal. The “dream city" of architects Bertram G. Goodhue and Carleton M. Winslow, the structures feature a bizarrely harmonious mix of Spanish, Moorish, Mexican and Mediterranean influences later christened Spanish Colonial Revival. Some of them - like the tile-domed California Building - were meant to be permanent but others intended strictly for temporary purposes were slapped together from inexpensive wood and plaster with cardboard ornamentation.
When the fair was over and these "illusions" were slated for demolition, San Diegans kicked up a fuss and so they were either renovated or completely rebuilt, just as they looked, of more durable materials. Others were remodeled for the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition.
Today these relics of a bygone age house the Visitor Center, museums, arts organizations, offices and a restaurant, and you’ll find most of them along El Prado street and pedestrian sidewalk in roughly the center of the park. Historical tours - both self-guided and escorted - are available:
Even if you’re not into museums, this is a great spot for photographers (go on a sunny, cloudless day if possible) and architecture buffs.
Balboa Park was first established in 1868 as a 1,400 acre City Park. It was named after the Spanish explorer, Balboa in 1910. The Cabrillo Bridge was built as part of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal. It was the first multiple arched, cantilever type bridge built in California...costing $214,000. Then Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first person to drive across it.
The bridge leads you to a series of buildings left from the exposition which now house a Museum of Man, Museum of Art, restaurants, and more. There is also a Shakespeare Theater as well as another musical theater clustered around arched walkways, beautiful landscaping, fountains and a beautiful plaza.
I think our noses found this one before our feet did.
Our visit to the city happily coincided with peak season (April/May) for all sorts of spring flowers, and Balboa Park’s Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden was in riotous, full-out bloom. Established in the 1970’s, it has grown from 1200 original plantings to 2,500 of 200 varieties, large and small, in all the colors of the rainbow. It takes a volunteer staff of 45 gardeners to keep them fed, watered and pruned to perfection, and the three acres of beautifully tended beds provide a lovely - and very popular - backdrop for weddings and engagement photos.
Even if your horticultural thumb is closer, like mine, to black than green, this is a pleasant wander, I read, from March - December. Paths are paved and level - nice for baby strollers and visitors with mobility challenges - and wind around a fountain and shady, blossom-covered arbor.
Open every day, and entrance is free. Closest parking lot (also free) is at the Natural History Museum on the other side of the pedestrian bridge which crosses Park Blvd. to access the garden. See a park map here:
We ran out of time to do the San Diego Museum of Art (next trip!) but had just enough for a peek at this little gem. It’s an intimate, interesting collection of European and American artists of both names you may recognize and others which may be new to you - as they were to me. Among the former are a Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Hals, Bruegel, Corot, David, Murillo, Bierstadt, Copley and West. Of the latter, I was taken by 19th-century Eastman Johnson of cranberry pickers on the island of Nantucket, and a 14th-century Buonaccorso altarpiece.
Besides being blissfully uncrowded, a wander here is free, and they have docent tours - also free - in English, Spanish and German. Audio guides are available for rent in the gift shop. Children, service animals and donations are welcome but cameras and cell phones are not so please stow those during your visit, OK?
See the website for hours, lectures, tour schedules and special exhibitions:
The location of this botanical collection, right next to the Rose Garden, is an interesting juxtaposition of dignified beds of lush color/greenery and wild, dusty acres of spiky specimens. If you happen to be at the park during the months of January- March, you’ll find the cacti and succulents in bloom but the only bright spots otherwise are from some plantings of flowers here and there. You’re allowed to leave the paved sidewalks and wander around “forests” of larger plants, and the variety of shapes and sizes - from chubby barrel cactus to tangled Candelabra tree - are fascinating.
Open every day, and entrance is free. Closest parking lot (also free) is at the Natural History Museum on the other side of the pedestrian bridge which crosses Park Blvd. to access the garden. Paved paths are wheelchair and stroller friendly See a Balboa park map here….
…and a map of the garden here:
Balboa Park is just northeast of downtown. It is a beautiful piece of land with vast expanses of lush green lawns, many trees and blooming flowers. At this park there are hiking and biking trails, kiddy play grounds and it is a great place to spread a blanket and take in the sun or have a picnic. Here you can play typical park sports or just watch the fun.
At the Sixth Avenue and Laurel Street entrance there is a bridge to cross. Once over the bridge you'll enter into the remains of the Panama-American Exposition of 1915-1916 and those of the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935-36. The buildings are lovely and in each building you will find something that is interesting, educational or delicious.
Barriers have been installed to ban cars from the center of the Park making it more of a pedestrian area. Not sure has long this will last as it was the defunct mayor who did this without going through the normal procedure. There still are free parking lots around the park and they still offer free shuttles around the park as well.
These buildings house most of the bigger museums of SD as well as many of the lesser offerings, they are home to many associations some private, many open to the public and in these buildings you will find something to eat, from a snack to a gourmet meal.
Now did I mention that in Balboa Park you will also find the World Famous San Diego Zoo? Yes, that too is here.
Especially on weekends there are special events put on by local societies here, such as the House of Pacific Relations, a group of cottages built for the 1935 Exposition to house as many as 32 social/culture groups of other countries, open Sundays and periodic events such as, one of my favorites, an Orchid Show, the best place to find rare and beautiful orchids.
Check Balboa Park's website before you arrive to see if there are any special events going on during your stay that might interest you.
There are more photos and specific information in my Views of Balboa Park travelogue.
There is always a lot to do at Balboa Park and the list of events, plays, exhibits and programs changes all the time.
One great event is something called Balboa Park December nights - Friday, Dec. 6, 3-11pm, and Saturday, Dec. 7, noon-11pm
Museums are free from 5-9 PM and there are foods, music, entertainment from around the world
Plan extra time to get their and park during these events
For more information see
Sunday's at Balboa park are very special because there area a lot of extra free events
+ There are free organ concerts every Sunday at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion at 2 PM
+ the international Cottages, which are 32 cottages from around the world hold open houses every Sunday from noon - 4 PM.
+There are international lawn programs from 2-4 PM most of the year.
This is on top of all the normal events and things to do at the park