San Diego’s Balboa Park is a sprawling cultural haven that includes 17 museums, botanical gardens, theaters, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Located just miles from downtown San Diego, the 1,200-acre historic mecca is one of the country’s most iconic urban parks and must-see attractions.

Attracting 15 million people annually, Balboa Park has days worth of activities and fun for the entire family. In addition to its open spaces, trails, and playgrounds, the Park is a bustling hub of diversity, loaded with art, restaurants, cultural events, and majestic-style architecture.

Balboa Park’s San Diego Zoo

This world-class zoo houses over 12,000 animals of more than 650 species on 100 acres of Balboa Park. Check out the legendary Komodo dragons, koalas, flamingos, penguins, and polar bears at this rambling municipal wonderland of creatures.

Leased from the city of San Diego, the zoo displays animal encounters and interactive live shows. Check the website for unique attractions and inside-look tours.

Photo Alert: Dusk and dawn are the peak times to capture great animal shots.

Close up photo of four Fossas laying on a rock at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California, USA

photo credit: San Diego Zoo via Facebook

Parking at the Zoo is free. Zoo tickets cost $62 for an adult day pass and $52 for children. Discounted rates apply for two-day passes.

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Balboa Park Museum Attractions

Be forwarded, you might need several days to thoroughly enjoy Balboa Park's enthralling list of museums and cultural institutions. The growing directory includes a World Beat Music Center, Automotive Museum, Veteran’s Museum, Contemporary Art Gallery, and San Diego History Center.

Pro Tip: February is Museum Month and the perfect time to explore with special rates during the Park’s extended hours.

    • Mingei International Museum: This museum holds a permanent worldwide collection of more than 26,000 objects from over 141 countries.
    • Museum of Photographic Arts: One of only three museums in the world dedicated to photography, the Balboa collection contains over 9,000 images and presents photographs, film, and video mediums.
  • The Fleet Science Center has over 100 interactive exhibits and allows visitors of all ages to explore. The center also showcases an IMAX film adventure on the wonders of the planet.

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  • San Diego Air & Space Museum: This museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is home to several historic aircrafts and contains a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and the actual Apollo 9 Command Module.
  • San Diego Natural History Museum: This iconic experience offers unique interactive dinosaurs and fossil exhibits. It also has daily showings of 2D and 3D films and its own Botanic Garden Escape Room!
  • Centro Cultural de la Raza: Centro features rotating exhibits and performances showcasing theater, dance, music and film.
  • The Marston House: Built in 1905, this house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features several historical walking tours.

Pro Tip: The Timken Museum is always free!

Balboa Park Botanical Garden

Balboa Park is a horticulturist’s dream with magnificent landscapes exhibiting thousands of flowers and plants situated in several gardens throughout the Park. Dogs and children are welcome.

Photo Alert: The Park’s Botanical Gardens offer gorgeous photo-worthy shots, especially in front of the lily pond.

View of water and gardens at Balboa Park - San Diego, California, USA

photo credit: Balboa Park via Facebook

  • 1935 (Old) Cactus Garden: Kate Sessions specially designed this garden for the 1935 California Pacific Expo. The Old Garden highlights some of the Park's largest cactus and succulent specimens.
  • Alcazar Garden: Inspired by the Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain, it’s known for its shady pergola, ornate fountains and turquoise blue and yellow Moorish tiles. Over 7,000 annuals are planted in Alcazar throughout the year.

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  • Botanical Building and Lily Pond: Built-in 1915, the historic building is one of the largest lath structures in the world and has more than 2,100 stunning tropical plants, palms, and colorful flower displays.
  • The Japanese Friendship Garden features beautiful black pine trees, wisteria, cherry blossom trees and unique bonsai exhibits.
  • Zoro Garden: This stone grotto, originally a nudist colony during the 1935 California Pacific Expo, is now a butterfly garden showcasing the complete life cycle of butterflies.

Balboa Park Dining

Balboa Park has several dozen delicious coffee houses, tea houses, pubs, cafes and restaurants featuring California cuisine in an exquisite setting. Here are a few for your consideration.

  • Prado Perk: This courtyard café provides mini milkshakes for the kids, fresh-baked pastries, and coffee drinks from the local roaster Café Moto.
  • The Prado at Balboa Park is a full-service restaurant with outdoor seating and charming decore. The Prado Lounge offers margaritas, sangria, beer and wine.
  • Worldbeat Café: This unique eatery provides healthy, natural vegan dishes from different cultures around the world. The café offers multicultural programs, music, art, poetry, theater and dance performances.
  • Café in the Park has something for everyone, from paninis and smoothies to baked goods, soups, and sandwiches. The café serves the freshest local ingredients.

Pro Tip: Alcoholic beverages are permitted from 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. in the following areas; Botanical Building Lawn, House of Pacific Relations Lawn, International Lawn, Mall Lawn, Moreton Bay fig Lawn, Pan American Plaza Lawn and the Recital Hall Lawn. (No smoking is allowed in the Park at any time.)

Balboa Park Tours

Exploring the Park is a vast undertaking for even the most ambitious visitor. Take advantage of the Park’s numerous tours that dive into the Park’s hidden secrets and history. Many of these interactive tours are free. The Park Ranger Tours, Comic-Con Tours, Botanical Building Tours and Off-Shoot Tours with Urban Adventurers are just a few of the many tours available. Here are some particular highlights:

  • Audio Tour: This 90-minute tour covers the Park’s many attractions and gardens. You can rent headsets from the Balboa Park Visitors Center with the latest rental at 2:30 p.m.
  • Architectural Tour: Discover the rich architectural wonder of the iconic Park buildings. These free tours are on the first Friday of each month at 10:00 a.m.
  • Japanese Friendship Garden Tour: Guests can explore the dry stone gardens, koi pond, cherry groves, waterfalls and lovely bonsai trees.

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Balboa Park Recreation

Balboa Park is a place for outdoor sunshine and recreation. The Park offers a few activities: biking, tennis, disc golf, world-class golf (with an 18-hole and 9-hole course), lawn bowl, archery with two archery ranges, and over 65 miles of 19 different trails.

Pro Tip: Dogs are allowed in Balboa Park with over three parks specifically built for your furry best friend!

Balboa Park History

In 1868, city officials set the goal to establish a city park. Kate Sessions, a local botanist and “Mother of Balboa Park,” contributed to the Park by planting over 100 trees and donating shrubs and bushes. She received 32 acres of land within the Park for her nursery. Sessions’ horticulture efforts included exotic plants and flowers like birds of paradise, queen palm and the poinsettia. Around the turn of the century, a master plan for the Park included installing water systems, more planting and building roads. In 1915 the Park hosted the Panama-California Exposition. Park commissioners officially named the Park after the Spanish-born Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a European explorer who first spotted the Pacific Ocean.

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In 1935, San Diego hosted the California Pacific International Exposition. At this time, many of the buildings and landscapes were added to the Park, including the Old Globe Theatre. In 1977 Balboa Park and the historic Exposition buildings were named National Historic Landmarks and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today the bustling Park is the heart of the city’s cultural scene.

distant ground view of California Tower and The Old Globe in Balboa Park on a sunny day in San Diego, California, USABalboa Park Hours & Parking

Balboa Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Parking in several Balboa Park lots is free. For easy park access, park in the Inspiration Point parking lot (on the east side of Park Blvd.) via the free tram. There are also many smaller lots throughout the Park.

Balboa Park Admission

Balboa Park is a public park and free for all to enjoy, with the exception of certain special events. The playgrounds, dog parks, trails, and gardens are all free.

Balboa Park is also home to several museums, classes, tours, entertainment venues and the San Diego Zoo. Each organization has its own admission fee. Please check the website for more information.

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Balboa Park Explorer Pass

Explore Balboa Park’s many museums, cultural centers and famous art galleries and save up to 58% off general admission. (Please note: Some museums have limited days of operation, and the Comic-Con Museum is not included with the Explorer Pass options at this time.)

Balboa Park Explorer Pass provides complimentary or discounted admission to special events, tours, and exhibits. Pass holders also received discounted IMAX tickets and admission to the California Tour and the Marston House Museum with no black-out dates.  (Family cost: $299 annual pass, Adults: $129, Seniors: $99, Children (age 3-17) $99.)

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