25 best things to do in balboa park plus a free map

25 Best Things To Do In Balboa Park (+Events & Free Map)

If you’re planning to visit San Diego, chances are you’ve heard of Balboa Park.

But what is Balboa Park (because it’s certainly not just a “park”) and what can you do there? Well…a lot!

Welcome to the complete list of the best things to do in Balboa Park!

Balboa Park encompasses a full 1,200 acres that were reserved for the public all the way back in the early 1800s. And since then? It’s done nothing but grow.

Balboa Park

Today Balboa Park is known as America’s largest urban culture park, and has been ranked as one of the Best Parks in the World! Considering the abundance of incredible architecture, beautiful gardens, and family-friendly museums it’s a must-stop` for any San Diego vacation.

hippie couple travel to california san diego pacific beach siloutte sunset

Fun Fact: It’s actually the location AJ and I had our first date!

Read on for my list must-see sites, great places to grab a bite, incredible annual events, and answers to some common trip planning questions!

Heads up! This page may contain affiliate links. Essentially, all that means is that (at no cost to you) I can receive commission if you purchase something. If you want to know more about my personal practices you can read about them here.  

Best Things To Do In Balboa Park

Balboa Park is huge, and there are so many sites worth paying a visit. Planning ahead and knowing which sites to spend more time on will save you from indecision, and ensure you get the most out of your trip!

This list is full of only the best so you don’t have to waste time on tourist traps.

Gardens

The Botanical Building & The Lily Pond

By far the most photographed place in Balboa Park is the Botanical Building and the Lily Pond and it’s no surprise why! Smack dab in the middle of the park, the gigantic lily pond is not only stunning but holds a variety of koi fish and sunbathing turtles that almost always cause pause.

The botanical building makes an incredible backdrop before you even go in. Built in 1915 it is one of the largest wooden lath buildings in the world and home to over 2,100 plants. If you’re a garden lover (and even if you’re not) the large range of exoctic and colorful plants is a sight to see! Amazingly, the garden is always free and open for entry Friday-Wednesday from 10AM-4PM every week.

The Japanese Friendship Garden

One of my personal favorite Balboa Park landmarks, this 12 acre garden was designed using traditional Japanese techniques and incorporates cherry blossoms, koi ponds, bonsai trees, and even waterfalls. Initially, it was created as a symbol of friendship between San Diego and its sister city Yokohama (hence the name) and is the perfect place to get a small taste of Japanese culture in San Diego.

Grab an imported tea from the tea pavilion upon entry and take a few minutes to rest from your jet-lag in the zen meditation garden. Sadly, it is one of the few things in Balboa that is never free but the price is quite reasonable at $12 and offers discounts for seniors and students.

The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

Featuring over 200 different rose varieties, the Inez Grant Parker Rose Garden is one of the most hidden away and overlooked areas of the park…which makes it perfect for a picnic! Even if you don’t pack lunch, taking a minute to literally stop and smell the flowers is easy when surrounded by over 2,400 bushes.

The park is always open and always free with roses in bloom from March-December, but for peak beauty visit during April or May.

Architecture & Landmarks

The California Tower & Museum of Man

This 200ft tall tower was built near the main entrance to Balboa Park and is notable not only for it’s height and beautiful architecture, but also for the fascinating museum it holds within. The Museum of Man houses one of the most important collections of Ancient Egyptian artifacts in the country on top of a variety of Native American and Mayan pieces.

My personal favorite feature is the ability to climb the 125 steps to the top of the tower, where you can take in not only an incredible view of Balboa Park but of San Diego as well! To climb the stairs, you do need to purchase admission to the Museum of Man – but it’s one price I’m more than willing to pay.

The Spanish Village Art Center

A hidden gem, the Spanish Village in Balboa Park is often missed when visiting simply because it’s not on the main boulevard. Built in 1935 and modeled after a traditional village in Spain, the colorful walkway and fun shops are definitely Instagram worthy.

While Balboa Park itself always has a large variety of street performers, the Art Center will not only have live music, but is also where many artists paint, create pottery, or sculpt – some even host workshops if you’re looking to learn!

The Old Globe

This Tony Award-winning theater was built to look like the Globe Theater in London! Featuring both indoor and outdoor stages, it’s not only a cool landmark but actually puts on some incredible shows.

Different plays will be featured year-round, so it’s a good idea to check their events calendar so you can plan your visit. Considering the historical atmosphere, it’s no surprise they host an annual Shakespeare festival that is a must if you’re visiting during the months of July-September.

Spreckels Organ Pavilion

As the largest outdoor organ in the world, the Spreckels Organ is truly a sight to see! Living only 5 minutes from Balboa, and walking this area frequently, I can honestly tell you that there is always someone taking pictures here.

If you’re in the area, check it out, and maybe you’ll get lucky enough to be invited inside for a behind-the-scenes tour on the inner workings of the gigantic organ. If you want to hear it live, you’ll have to plan ahead, but there are free concerts every Sunday at 2PM.

Activities

The San Diego Zoo

This world-renowned zoo is located only a block from the center of Balboa Park! It’s home to over 4,000 rare and endangered animals, easily making it worth the trip by itself. The incredibly large zoo sections it’s animals by habitat including “The Lost Forest” full of different species of monkeys where you, very literally, will get quite lost ????.

If you’re trying to fit both Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo in one day, I recommend starting early and starting with the zoo because unlike the zoo, Balboa Park doesn’t close. During my most recent visit, we showed up at 1 PM expecting to be out around 4 PM but ended up racing the sun in our attempt to see everything and didn’t end up leaving until they kicked us out at closing.

Don’t make my mistake! Show up early and expect to spend between 4-5 hours if you want to see everything. Balboa Park will be just as beautiful in the afternoon as it was in the morning.

The zoo is definitely the most expensive thing in Balboa Park, but it also has the most to see so it’s a fair trade. If you’re planning to visit both the zoo and a museum or two I recommend purchasing this 7-day admittance pass that provides access to all of the museums plus the zoo to cut costs.

If Balboa Park is just one of many places you’ll be visiting in San Diego, opt for the San Diego Go pass instead to cut costs even further for attractions all around the city (like, really though).

Hiking Trails

If you have the time, Balboa Park has the trails – over 65 miles of them in fact. Trails are open to bikes as well as hikers and range in their distance as well as their difficulty, so there’s a hike for everyone.

Whether you’re looking for a nice stroll or an actual hike, there are plenty of options to keep you busy! Balboa Park provides a location based list of hikes so you can easily find your route. Pretty nifty if I do say so myself.

Museum Hopping

With 17 different independent museums in Balboa Park, it would be a feat to visit them all. Instead, I recommend picking a few favorites to bounce between throughout the day – it can be a great way to learn something new and give your skin a break from the sun.

Below I’ve listed the most notable, most popular, and personal favorite museums for you to pick from! Almost all museums in Balboa Park are incredibly kid friendly and offer interactive exhibits so don’t be afraid to bring them along for the fun.

Museum of Man

I know, I know, I already said it. But really! This is a must if you’re considering museums.

Not only can climb to the top of the tower and see an incredible array of ancient artifacts, but you will even find Peruvian mummies, a history of torture exhibit, and information about ancient beer crafting – with tasting available. Definitely my favorite museum in Balboa Park.

Timken Museum of Art

Considered one of the finest small museums in the United States, this museum only features 60 major works but offers an array of European, American, and Russian works of art. It is the only museum in San Diego to have a permanent piece of the Rembrandt collection on display, yet it is (amazing) always free entry.

A great museum for a bit of quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the larger museums, but probably the least kid friendly on the list (not to say you shouldn’t at least try and stop by).

The San Diego Air & Space Museum

In contrast, the San Diego Air and Space Museum is known as one of the largest aviation museums in the country. Featuring five centuries of aircraft history, including actual engines and rooms filled models, it can be easy to lose track of an hour or two.

This is the most kid-friendly museum I’ve listed, and it strikes a balance of interesting enough for adults and hands on enough for kids that some of the other museums (that I have not listed) in Balboa Park just miss.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum actually houses the largest model railroad in the entire USA with over 27,000sq feet of track. Model trains and landscapes weave in and out of rooms with splendid detail, which makes it intriguing for anyone of any age! I remember this museum clearly as my childhood favorite.

The Automotive Museum

Experience the evolution of the automobile! Featuring over 80 different vehicles from the 1900s, the museum aims to highlight the different stages of USA car culture over time.

The cars on display are changed out every four months, so there’s something new to see whenever you want to visit – but Louis Mattar’s Most Fabulous Car will always be on display (I guess you’ll have to stop by to find out why ????).

Take A Dancing Lesson

Mostly unknown (even to the locals) there is a wonderful dance club that hosts classes open to anyone for a mere 6$ (or less if you qualify for a discount) every Friday and Sunday evening. They vary their lessons year round, so there is always something new to learn.

Whether you’re traveling in a pair or solo, the class is accommodating to everyone and I can’t think of a better way to end the day at Balboa Park than learning how to dance after dinner. Check out their facebook group for the most recent information.

Grab a Bite or a Coffee

With 17 different restaurants and coffee carts, Balboa Park offers plenty of eatery options if you find yourself craving something to eat throughout the day. While there are a lot of options, I wouldn’t say all of them are good (sorry not sorry) – trust me, I’ve tried them. Below I’ve listed the locations I’d pick from when hungry in Balboa Park so you can skip straight to the good stuff. 

Cafe In The Park

Every time I visit Balboa Park, I always stop by Cafe In The Park for a coffee. I consider myself quite the coffee critic after working many years in a coffee shop, and I have tried the coffee from every cart in Balboa (and was often disappointed) but Cafe In The Park always satisfies.

Located in the Casa De Balboa building, directly across from the Lily Pond, it is easy to find and open every day of the week from 8:30AM-5PM. While I mainly go for coffee (and blueberry muffins – lets not pretend I’m not just as addicted to those), they also offer a variety of smoothies, sandwiches, panini’s, wraps, soups, salads, and even kid friendly choices that all all look pretty dang tasty. 

Everything is ordered at the counter so you can make this stop as quick or as long as you like. They are one of the few areas (besides sit-down restaurants) that offer an indoor seating area in Balboa Park so it’s perfect if you’re looking for a snack and a break from the sun or just a really good cup of coffee. 

The Tea Pavilion

Located right next to the entrance to the Japanese Friendship Garden, the Tea Pavilion offers not only a variety of imported teas but also an outdoor seating area with a beautiful view over the garden. 

Feel free to come hungry because despite the name they serve a lot more than just tea. The Pavillion actually offers a large variety of Japanese cuisine, including noodle dishes, rice bowls, soups, sandwiches, mochi, and even sushi! Probably not the most authentic sushi, mind you, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste just as good – maybe even better because of the incredible view. 

Panama 66

Another counter order option, but one with a classier feel to it, Panama 66 is located inside the San Diego Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden. Don’t worry though! You don’t have to pay museum admission to grab a drink here. 

Panama 66 is a local favorite, and can often be quite busy. Set in a pleasant outdoor courtyard and serving dozens of draft craft beers as well as cocktails and quality sandwiches there is little question why it’s so popular, but it’s a good idea to plan ahead because of it. Tables fill up fast and it’s first come first server, so it’s a good idea to make sure you find one before getting in line to order. The location is often bought out for large events, so if you really want to make sure it’s open during your Balboa visit you should check their website for dates they’re closed. 

The Prado at Balboa Park

If you aren’t looking to order from a counter and you want the real restaurant experience, The Prado will have all your bases covered. The award winning restaurant serves high-quality American cuisine, including favorites such as seared kobe beef sushi rolls and lobster bucatini. Drink-wise, they offer everything from margaritas to quality wines so you’ll have plenty of options. 

Complete with both indoor and outdoor seating as well as distinctive decor, The Prado fits right in and feels like it’s a part of Balboa Park, rather than a modern restaurant dropped in a historical building. It’s a completely unique experience, and definitely a great dinner date location while visiting San Diego. 

Food Truck Fridays

If you choose to visit Balboa Park on a Friday, you’ll be pleasantly surprised (or..I guess..happily expecting?) the large number of food trucks that take over the main walkway on El Prado every week during the months of June-September. Starting at 4PM and lasting through 8PM, different trucks offer a large variety of different cruises from the most expected (taco trucks) to the less expected (homemade pasta or grilled hand rolled sausages). 

Not only will there be excellent food, but each week a new musician or dance group performs in the central plaza providing the perfect atmosphere while you taste-test a couple of food trucks. The perfect opportunity to roll out your blanket and enjoy some free entertainment and a makeshift picnic.

Balboa Park Events

The events held at Balboa Park are honestly some of my favorites in San Diego. No matter the season or the time of year, Balboa Park is alive with fun things to do incorporating one of these into your visit to Balboa Park will make for a particularly unique and memorable experience. After all, locals flock to these events year after year, they can’t be all bad (because they aren’t bad, they’re actually great).

Balboa Park Graphic
25 Best Things To Do In Balboa Park (+Events & Free Map) 1

December Nights

Taking place the first weekend of December every year, December Nights is probably the largest and most well-known event at Balboa Park every year. Averaging over 350,000 attendees yearly, there is a ton to do and see throughout the event including an incredible variety of entertainers ranging from musicians, ballet dancers, and puppeteers to straight up parades. 

When you’re not watching performers, it’s a good time to check out the museums (which are open late and almost all free for the event), participate in some carnival games, jump on a ride, or check out the activity booths lining the El Prado walkway. 

When heading to December Nights (or any of these events for that matter), make sure you’re wearing your walking shoes and don’t drive a car  – parking will be atrocious. Instead, make sure to take the bus or an uber and save yourself the frustration and effort. 

Earth Day Festival

Taking place in April, the San Diego Earth Day Festival has been going strong for 30 years now, and there is always a large turnout. It was the first event I attended in Balboa Park (one of Aj and I’s first dates) and it totally blew my naive small-town mind with its size and community involvement. 

The event’s motto is “every day is Earth Day” and it aims to raise awareness and help individuals learn how to have a better impact on the environment, but it’s also just a lot of fun. With over 300 exhibitors, four entertainment stages, two beer gardens, an arts and craft show, and a parade there is more than enough to do and see. 

My personal favorite area to check out during Earth Day is the World Beats Center located south of El Prado near the Organ Pavillion’s parking lot. Hosting live reggae music and cultural performances, it’s a great place to lay out a blanket and relax amidst the food trucks and handmade product booths.

Ethnic Food Fair

Taking place near the Organ Pavillion in the International Cottages, the Ethnic Food Fair is a celebration of food and cultures all around the world. Hosted annually in late May, the fair only lasts one day from 11AM-5PM and features not only delicious food, but also live performance in native cultural clothing. 

Over 34 different cultures participate, serving a large range of options from tried and true classics to obscure dishes you might not find anywhere else in San Diego. While most booths take cards, make your life easier by coming with some cash as each cottage will have an array of samples ranging from 1-10$ and chances are you’ll want to try more than one. 

Chinese New Year Celebration

Dates vary, based on the lunisolar calendar, but the Chinese New Year Celebration is generally hosted in late January-mid February. Lasting two days and taking over an entire weekend, the celebration also takes place in the International Cottages and is headed by the House of China.

There is a ton to see with dragon dances, lion dances, Chinese performances, Kung Fu showcases, and calligraphy workshops taking place all day, as well as a variety of specialty Chinese food available to make sure you don’t go hungry. 

The Haunted Trail

Taking place in late September-early November, The Haunted Trail at Balboa Park is probably my favorite Halloween celebration in San Diego. While Balboa Park also offers a kid friendly Halloween carnival, the haunted trail will allow children over 10 but is meant for adults and will provide horror-lovers with the thrill they are looking for.

The event features a haunted trail through the trees that is over a mile long, as well as a maze that encompasses over 3500sq feet providing plenty of scare opportunities. Because of the event’s popularity, it’s a good idea to buy your tickets in advance so you can avoid the long lines or even denied entry due to filled occupancy. 

Common Questions For Planning Your Visit

What Should You Pack When Visiting Balboa Park?

  1. Your camera. I use the Huawei P30 Pro because it’s known for having the best camera out of any phone. If you’re looking for something more heavy-duty, I use the Panasonic G8 for all my DSLR fancy photoshoot needs. 
  2. Sunscreen. Don’t forget, it’s just about always sunny here so plan ahead and bring some sunscreen. My personal favorite brand is Australian Gold. I literally get compliments on how I smell when I wear this stuff!
  3. Sunglasses. For similar reasons, give your eyes a break and pick up some durable sunglasses (happy coincidence, these are also super cute!).
  4. Your daypack. Having a pick-pocket-proof bag will give you one less thing to worry about. The one that’s on my wishlist is the Duo Daypack by Wandrd.???? I spilled rotten milk in my old daypack and I swear it still smells a year later.
  5. A blanket or towel. Have something to lay over the grass so you can sit and listen to some local street artists – take it a step further by bringing lunch and making it a picnic. I like to travel light so I avoid bulky objects but this towel packs up real tight, is incredibly cute, and never holds onto sand or dirt so I don’t have to worry about packing dirt when I put it in my backpack. Seriously, love-love-love Tesalate towels!
  6. Good walking shoes. Having comfortable shoes can make the difference between a good visit, and a bad visit. After all there’s a lot to see and it will be a lot less fun if your feet hurt! I’ve been saving up for these Allbirds, their supposed to be incredibly light and super comfortable! I’ll update after I’ve tried them out.????
  7. Student or Military ID. Since so many things offer a discount, make sure to bring your ID so you can take full advantage!

I have a full universal packing list, complete with everything you need no matter where you go if you’re still wondering what to pack for the rest of your San Diego adventures. 

How Do You Get Around Balboa Park?

Once you’ve gotten to Balboa Park, getting around is easy. Everything is quite walkable within the park, though I do recommend you walking shoes as there is a lot of ground to cover. Bikes and Scooters are a great way to get there, or even the public bus if your not looking to rent a car, will land your smack dab in the center of the area – though the walkways do not allow bikes scooters, skateboards, or any other form of wheels as it’s often just too crowded to be safe.

How Much Does It Cost To Go To Balboa Park?

Visiting Balboa Park can cost as much or as little as you want it to. When visiting the park, it is completely free to walk around and take in all the gorgeous scenery and architecture – but going to the Japanese Friendship Garden, grabbing a bite to eat, or stopping by one of the many museums available can add up. Even without paying a dime, Balboa Park is definitely worth stopping.

How Much Time Do You Need At Balboa Park?

When visiting San Diego, schedule at least 1 entire day to Balboa Park if you want to visit the San Diego Zoo or any of the note-worthy museums. If, however, you just want to see the sites and aren’t looking to enter any buildings, three to four hours should give you enough time to soak in most of the landmarks and architecture. 

What Is There To Do At Balboa Park At Night (Is It Safe)?

Balboa Park is incredible during the day, but it’s actually my favorite to visit at night. Once the sun goes down, the crowds clear out, and all of the beautiful architecture is lit up on display by a variety of colored lights. Some vendors will stay until the late hours, and there are almost always others walking the park and it’s very safe up until Midnight. There are always things to do in Balboa Park at night if you’re looking for a unique perspective.

What Is Balboa Park Known For?

Balboa Park is best known as the largest urban culture park in the United States. It is celebrated for its incredible spanish architecture, it’s award-winning museums, and it’s stunning gardens. The best way to visit is to dedicate a whole day to simply soaking in the sunshine and the unique landmarks. 

Is Balboa Park Worth Visiting?

With an incredible variety of unique sites, there is something for absolutely everyone to see – and it is most certainly worth visiting when traveling to San Diego. For no money at all you’ll be able to experience a variety of culture and learn a lot about a variety of history.

Balboa Park Map

I have this super-nifty map you can check out and access anywhere! A great way to easily check out the must-see events near you while visiting, without having to bring anything besides your phone.

(If your a My Maps user (and you should be) you should bookmark this link for easy access!)

Is there something I missed? What’s your favorite part of Balboa Park? Drop a comment below so I can add it in!

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