Visit Balboa Park for a must-see attraction, whether you are visiting San Diego or a local. Balboa Park was founded in 1868 and is one of the oldest public parks in the nation. Most of the early architecture has been preserved, and today contains museums, the San Diego Zoo, natural vegetation zones, theatres, open spaces, shops, and restaurants. I love going there to visit one of the museums in the park or just for a nice stroll. It’s also great for people watching. It is a popular attraction, so it is busy no matter the time of the day.
Built in 1910, the Carousel is located near the entrance to the San Diego Zoo. The iconic attraction closed briefly in 2023 as it turned 100 for upgrades, but is open again. The Balboa Park Carousel is one of only 12 known remaining carousels in North America that operate a brass ring game. Tickets for the Carousel are $4.00/ride or 4 for $14.00.
The miniature train is a three-minute, half-mile loop through four acres of Balboa Park. The antique train is one of only around 50 remaining G16 models that still operate. Tickets are $4 for ages 1 to 99. Ages 5 and younger must ride with a paying adult.
SAN DIEGO ZOO
SPANISH VILLAGE ART CENTER
The Spanish Village Art Center features over 200 local artists of all different mediums. It is home to artists’ studios and spaces, and you can view live art demonstrations, and art-making activities, and participate in classes. The village was originally constructed in 1935 for the 2nd California Pacific International Exposition and is a vibrant place to visit. There is no charge to visit.
BEA EVENSON FOUNTAIN
The Bea Evenson Fountain is located adjacent to the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater, and is the perfect place for a family selfie, or relaxation. It was built in 1972, and is named in honor of Mrs. Frank (Bea) Evenson, the organizer of the “Committee of 100” which was formed in 1967 to preserve and protect the Spanish Colonial architecture in Balboa Park. There is no charge to visit.
FLEET SCIENCE CENTER
With all of its hands-on immersive and interactive exhibits, the Fleet Science Center is a fun experience for both kids and adults. The center has over 100 interactive exhibits throughout their permanent galleries along with special exhibitions. Tickets can be purchased online before visiting – $24.95 for adults, and $22.95 for kids. Please check their website for IMAX movie schedules.
CASA DEL PRADO
The Casa del Prado building is a perfect backdrop for any photo. The style is Spanish-Colonial baroque with lavishly garlanded columns. It was originally built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, and is now home to a number of youth arts organizations, the Park & Recreation Dance Program, and the San Diego Botanical Garden Foundation and Library.
The Lily Pond is the dramatic entry walkway to the Botanical Building. The koi fish, ducks, and flowers really make the pond special and beautiful. The pond is easy to find as there are almost always lots of people taking photos in front of the pond – so you might have to wait your turn.
The Botanical Building was built in 1914 but over the century it started to deteriorate, and is currently being restored to its original 1915 design, with current building code enhancements, rebuilding the historic arcades with Palladian windows, and restoring the grand entrances, thereby opening the inside space to the surrounding gardens as intended. It is expected to reopen in early 2024.
SAN DIEGO MUSEUM OF ART
The San Diego Museum of Art has both permanent collection galleries (European, Asian and American paintings and sculptures), as well as international temporary exhibitions. Located in the heart of Balboa Park, the museum brings the world’s finest art to San Diego. The San Diego Museum of Art offers free admission to San Diego County residents (with ID) on the third Tuesday of every month.
JAPANESE FRIENDSHIP GARDEN
The Japanese Friendship Garden includes meticulous stone designs, calming koi ponds, delightful water features, traditional architectural structures, and breathtaking vistas. The mission of the garden is to develop a traditional Japanese garden as a center to educate, engage, and inspire people of diverse backgrounds about Japanese culture and community legacy. They have a 0.8-mile loop trail that takes approximately 17 minutes to complete. Tickets are General $14 and Student $12.
SPRECKELS ORGAN PAVILION
The Spreckels Organ Pavilion is home to the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. They have free weekly concerts which showcase the more than 5,000 pipes ranging in length from 12 inches to 32 feet. It was built in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition, and there is close, convenient parking.
PALM CANYON TRAIL
Palm Canyon is a wonderful stroll in a tropical oasis within Balboa Park. It contains more than 450 palms (58 species) within its 2 acres. The trail entrance is next to the Mingei and it is only accessible by foot. This area is a hidden gem and is often full of photographers shooting engagement pictures and family shots.
OLD GLOBE THEATRE
The Old Globe is a professional theatre company located within the park. It is modeled after the Shakespeare-era Old Globe in London. There are three different venues: the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage for large performances, Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre for more intimate productions, and the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, a 620-seater outdoor theatre. Visit Balboa Park before going to a show, – or grab dinner at The Prado or Panama 66 before.
MUSEUM OF US
The Museum of Us is a museum of anthropology and is housed in a gorgeous historic building. The exhibits range from Ancient Egypt, BEERology, Cannibals, Kumeyaay, Living With Animals, and PostSecret. The museum is the perfect avenue to explore real cultural nuances as well as true human experience. It is is open Wednesday-Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The California Tower is one of San Diego’s most iconic historic landmarks. You can enjoy a climb to the top during a 40-minute guided tour. Seeing the breathtaking 360-degree view from the Tower’s eighth-floor viewing deck is unforgettable.
With its stunning architecture, lush gardens, world-class museums, and vibrant events, the park offers a captivating blend of history, art, and nature, making it a must-visit destination for every traveler, and a great getaway for locals. You simply must visit Balboa Park. It is close to all the great restaurants in Gaslamp Quarter, and scenic Mission Bay.