San Diego, California, has much to offer. In addition to its famous embarcadero, long military history, and near-perfect weather, the city is world-class in sports, dining, arts, and entertainment.
San Diego also has Balboa Park. Balboa Park covers around 1,200 acres and is pretty much a city within a city. Its history stretches back more than 150 years. Prior to that, the area was Kumeyaay land. Most of the buildings you see in the park today were originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. More buildings were added for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.
Begin your visit with a stop at the Balboa Park Visitors Center in the House of Hospitality at the Plaza de Panama. There you will find maps, souvenirs, tours, and knowledgeable docents to answer questions about the park. Or you can plan your visit in advance by checking out the park’s website and/or calendar of events.
The park has something for the entire family, even the furry, four-legged ones. Below are just 11 of the incredible experiences that await you in Balboa Park.
1. Balboa Park Tram
The free Balboa Park Tram is ADA-accessible and runs every 10–15 minutes during operating hours. It makes five stops on its route: three inside the park and two in parking lots.
Pro Tip: Hop on the tram and ride the complete circuit through the park. You’ll learn where most of the buildings are located while simultaneously getting a free tour.
2. Japanese Friendship Garden
There are many gorgeous gardens to explore in San Diego. One of which is the park’s Japanese Friendship Garden. The JFG celebrates San Diego’s friendship and connection to Yokohama, Japan, its sister city. Inside are koi ponds, Japanese-designed landscaping, streams, cherry trees, and a feeling of serenity when walking through.
Pro Tip: The park has about a dozen gardens. However, the Botanical Building, with its distinctive domed lath construction, lily pond, and exotic plants, is closed for extensive remodeling. The signs say reopening is planned for late 2023 but docents told me it will be closer to 2025.
3. Balboa Park Trails
Balboa Park boasts nearly 20 different hiking trails covering some 65 total miles. The park’s trails feature some of the most fascinating walks in San Diego. One of those trails transforms into The Haunted Trail of Balboa Park in October.
4. Recreational Activities
For those who wish to indulge their active side, the park features several venues that allow visitors to join in many of their favorite recreational activities.
You can participate in archery, swimming, golf, disc golf, lawn bowling, tennis, cycling, and other recreational pursuits. The Morley Field Sports Complex adds even more indoor and outdoor facilities, plus it has a senior center. Many of these venues have their own unique history.
Pro Tip: Check the Balboa Park and/or Morley Field websites for availability and hours of operation.
5. Balboa Park Museums
The park has a collection of 18 world-class museums, featuring permanent, rotating, and touring exhibitions. Most have an admission fee, but the Timken Museum of Art is always free.
Just a few of the museums you can visit include the Centro Cultural de la Raza; several different art, history, and natural history museums; aviation, automotive, and model railroad museums; and the World Beat Center, Women’s Museum, and the Veterans Museum.
Pro Tip: The Balboa Park Explorer Pass will save you as much as 58 percent on general admission to 16 of the park’s 18 museums versus paying separately. See the details on the Explorer Pass website.
Museum Of Us
The Museum of Us, formerly the San Diego Museum of Man, is worth a closer look. The museum changed its name and focus in 2020. The entrance fee is currently $19.95 and is good for free admission on future visits for 1 year.
California Tower Tour
The California Tower Tour is a 40-minute guided tour that takes you up 152 steps to the viewing deck below the Spanish-tiled tower dome. As you climb, your guide will relay a history of the tower and Balboa Park — plus some information about San Diego’s various communities — that is difficult to find elsewhere. Your reward for making it to the top is a stunning 360-degree view of the park and the city of San Diego.
Pro Tip: Admission for the tour itself is currently $10, but you must purchase a ticket to the Museum of Us to access the tower. Tower tours have a limit of six people. You can walk in and purchase tour tickets at the Museum of Us, but it’s better to buy tickets online in advance to guarantee a spot.
Cannibals: Myth & Reality
Just across the plaza is the Cannibals: Myth & Reality exhibit. Don’t worry, you will not find any How-To displays inside, nor will you find yourself on the menu. What you will find is an eye-opening group of exhibits and artifacts that chronicle the history of cannibalism across various cultures of the world, including the United States. Entry is included with the purchase of admission to the Museum of Us and it’s not recommended for young children.
6. Balboa Park Theaters
Inside Balboa Park are four outstanding theaters:
In addition to year-round performances for children of all ages, the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater offers opportunities for apprenticeships, special programs for children, and workshops.
Residing inside the Casa del Prado Theatre, the San Diego Junior Theatre is the oldest continuously-run youth theater organization in the United States. The Junior Theatre provides programs, productions, performances, camps, and classes for children.
According to the website, The Old Globe was modeled after Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, England. The Old Globe has grown to three venues featuring indoor stages and an outdoor theater. Fittingly, a Shakespeare production was the Globe’s debut performance.
Located in the dome of the Fleet Science Center, the wrap-around dome theater shows several science, nature, and other types of films throughout the day, including some in IMAX. (IMAX films require a separate ticket.)
7. Spreckels Organ Pavilion
Built in 1915, the Spreckels Organ is the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, containing over 5,000 pipes. The organ and its pavilion were gifted to the City of San Diego by the Spreckels brothers, heirs to the Spreckels sugar empire.
San Diego Civic Organist and Spreckels Organ Society member Raúl Prieto Ramírez performs free concerts on Sundays at 2 p.m. During the summer, free concerts on Monday nights join the lineup. The organ and organist Prieto Ramírez must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated.
8. House Of Pacific Relations International Cottages
The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages is a collection of more than 30 cottages representing different cultures from around the world. Their aim is to “promote multicultural goodwill and understanding through educational and cultural programs.” Stepping inside a cottage “offers a window into their culture, history, and traditions.”
The cottages are open on weekends from 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Lawn Programs hosted by a member nation or cottage are held on select Sunday afternoons.
Ethnic Food Fair
The House of Pacific Relations Annual Ethnic Food Fair is back after a 3-year absence. During this highly-anticipated event, usually held in early May, the cottages come together and offer fare from various cultures. Entertainment — featuring performers in ethnic dress — highlights the fair.
Pro Tip: The fair is free but there is a charge for food.
9. San Diego Zoo
At the north end of Balboa Park is the world-famous San Diego Zoo. The zoo is home to more than 12,000 animals that represent over 650 species. You can learn more about them through various tours, shows, and programs. Behind-the-scenes experiences get you up close and personal with some of the animals. The zoo’s Botanical Garden contains nearly a quarter million plants.
Pro Tip: Although the zoo is located within Balboa Park, there is no direct access to the zoo from the park. You’ll have to drive a bit farther north on Park Boulevard to reach the entrance. However, there is a shuttle that runs from the overflow lot at the Veterans Museum to the zoo.
10. Dining In Balboa Park
You’ll probably work up an appetite during your visit. From fast food to cafés to full sit-down restaurants, you’re sure to find something pleasing to your palette. There are close to a dozen places to dine in the park.
Pro Tip: Take the opportunity to cross the historic Cabrillo Bridge. Constructed in 1915, the towering arched structure is a San Diego landmark. You can walk, bike, or drive across the bridge. You can see it from the park’s trails, but arguably the best view is a fleeting one as you drive State Route 163 to/from the Interstate 5 interchange. Cross the bridge and Little Italy and its crave-worthy restaurants lie just over a mile to the southwest.
11. Old Town Trolley Tours
There is one more incredible experience on this list, one that takes you outside of Balboa Park. Old Town Trolley Tours operates a hop-on, hop-off trolley that makes 11 stops on a narrated, 25-mile loop of San Diego, including one at Balboa Park. Balboa Park’s history figures into almost every stop on the tour. The trolley runs approximately every 20 minutes during operating hours.
Pro Tip: Though the trolley’s website does not list it, you can purchase trolley tickets at the visitor center in the park.