Things to do at Balboa Park in San Diego
Balboa Park, not far from downtown San Diego, is one of the city’s main attractions. If you’re visiting the area, you can’t go wrong putting this on your to-do list on a sunny San Diego day. I never get tired of visiting this place.
You’ll find so many fun things to do here, whether you like to meander through museums, take the kids to the zoo, walk along trails and gardens, dine at good restaurants, and so much more.
Want to see a show? The Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park is a Tony Award-winning, world-renowned pro theater group modeled after The Globe Theatre London. Check the schedule and see what’s coming up before you plan your visit to Balboa Park.
Here are my favorite things to do in Balboa Park, including a few savvy ways to save on admission to The San Diego Zoo and some of the museums. Many people will tell you the best thing to do at Balboa Park is go to the San Diego Zoo. It really is one of the best zoo’s I’ve ever been to.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum and Mingei International Museum are also among the most popular museums in San Diego, both located at Balboa Park, along with more than a dozen others. Are you an art, science, history geek (we are), or a military buff? You won’t be disappointed.
Along with some of the top cultural venues in San Diego, Balboa Park also holds some popular events, including annual parades and fairs, and weekly concerts at the Spreckles Organ Pavilion.
The delightful December Nights holiday festival is a must see if you’re in San Diego over the holidays. And EarthFair, a huge two-day Earth Day festival, takes place in April.
But mostly what people do is head over to the park to spend the day with their kids, walk around, people watch, grab a bite to eat, and catch a little culture. Some areas of the park are even dog friendly.
Savvy Tips for a First Time Visit to Balboa Park
Balboa Park with Kids
The park has plenty of kid-friendly attractions, including the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre. Other options include the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego Natural History Museum, San Diego Air & Space Museum, San Diego Automotive Museum, and San Diego Hall of Champions.
Balboa Park with Dogs
Dogs on leash are allowed in the park, including the trails and canyons. Plus, you’ll find three dog-off-leash zones:
- Balboa Dr. at El Prado, Nate’s Point (south side of Cabrillo Bridge) open 24-hour.
- Morley Field (northwest of tennis courts) open 24-hour.
- Grape St. Park, ONLY open Mon-Fri 7:30-pm; Sat-Sun & Holidays 9am-9pm.
Balboa Park Discounts
Balboa Park Event Discounts
These come and go fast, but to save around 50% off things like Street Food Cinema and other events, which you can find on my SavvyTix Balboa Park discounts page.
Discount Tickets $5 – $7.50 (reg. $10 – $15)
Deal: Acclaimed San Diego Civic Dance Company.
Location: Casa del Prado Theatre, 1800 El Prado, Balboa Park, CA 92101.
San Diego Zoo Discounts
This is the most requested discount on thing to do in the park, so I wrote a separate review and roundup of San Diego Zoo discounts.
Combo Discount Passes
If you’re making a day or week of it, check out the multi-day Balboa Park Explorer Pass that gets you into 17 amazing museums and activities in Balboa Park, including the San Diego Zoo (zoo ticket includes one-day admission, guided bus tour and Skyfari aerial tram). The pass is valid for seven consecutive days.
Balboa Park Tour Tickets
This one is a good choice if you’re coming to San Diego from out of the country. These are not always a deal, but we found a great price online for fun guided tours. If you have guests visiting from out of town (or are visiting yourself), check out this Balboa Park page for the following guided tours (and a few other things to do in San Diego):
- Balboa Park Private Tour
- Balboa Park Segway Tour
- Balboa Park Small-Group Walking Tour
- Balboa Park Scavenger Hunt Adventure
Free Things To Do at Balboa Park
Various venues inside Balboa Park will offer discounts, coupons, and free days from time to time (which I’ve posted on my San Diego Museums Free Days & Discounts page).
Museum Free Days
Several museums and attractions at Balboa Park offer free admission on Tuesdays for residents. But be sure to check the official schedule for any updates or changes before you head out. This is where all the best museums are, so you can hardly go wrong. But here are my top Balboa Park museum picks:
Mingei International Museum, San Diego Air & Space Museum, San Diego Art Institute, San Diego Automotive Museum, San Diego Hall of Champions, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego Natural History Museum, The San Diego Museum of Art, Museum of Photographic Arts, Reuben H Fleet Science Center, The Veteran’s Museum, and the Japanese Friendship Garden.
Savvy Tip: if you’re not a San Diego resident, avoid Tuesdays or you’ll have to fight the crowds that got in free. (So annoying!) Check the individual museums’ websites for possible free days for non-residents.
Free Annual Events
You’ll find many Balboa Park events taking place throughout the year, including theater and performing arts. The following are the big annual events that are free to attend.
Spreckles outdoor pipe organ concerts
Spreckles pipe organ concerts run year round on Sunday afternoons at 2pm. Plus, they run a special summer series, Monday evenings June through August (but check the official schedule for possible updates before you head out). San Diego’s civic organist performs these weekly concerts at Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, a free event since 1917. The organ features an ornate design with embellished gables and vaulted box structure.
These are family friendly with outdoor seating for up to 2,400 people. Free parking is available near the Pavilion. The Spreckels organ boasts 4,530 pipes from the size of a #2 pencil to 32 feet long. One of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, John D. and Adolph Spreckels donated the Spreckels Organ to the City of San Diego for the Panama-California Exposition in 1914.
EarthFair in Balboa Park
Every year in April around Earth Day, EarthFair in Balboa Park, the world’s largest free annual eco fair draws more than 60,000 visitors to this free event. EarthFair features more than 300 exhibits, a Food Pavilion, a special Children’s Activity Area, four live entertainment stages, Children’s Earth Parade, the eARTh Gallery arts and crafts show, and the Cleaner Car Concourse.
Savvy tip: Follow the “Know Before You Go” links at the bottom of this page for info on getting there/parking and the shuttle.
Balboa Park December Nights is the biggest free festival in San Diego, with more than 300,000 visitors expected over two days (first Friday and Saturday nights every December). You can wander into participating Balboa Park museums during evening hours admission free, and enjoy a variety of exhibits and live entertainment, including the Christmas tree at the Timken Museum, and the Reuben H. Fleet’s interactive Kid City. Check the schedule for updates before you head out.
Balboa Park Restaurants
When you’re spending the whole day at Balboa Park, and why wouldn’t you, you might want to stop at one of the many restaurants conveniently located near just about every venue. Some are great for those grab and go moments when you just want a hamburger, hotdog, pizza or a sandwich. Others feature more serious fare. Here are five I like:
An award-winning restaurant located in the House of Hospitality.
1549 El Prado, San Diego
The Tea Pavilion
A quaint café at the Japanese Friendship Garden featuring traditional Japanese green tea, sushi, noodles, rice bowls, miso soup, salads and snacks. But go for the views from the outdoor courtyard and deck.
2215 Pan American Plaza, San Diego
Inside the San Diego Zoo, Albert’s serves hearty pasta, steak, seafood, pizza, salad, and sandwiches. But go for the location. You are going to the zoo, right? (Zoo admission is required to dine here.) I like the open-air deck seating overlooking the private waterfall. But you can opt for inside seating overlooking the Treehouse gardens.
Located in the Lost Forest zone at the center of the San Diego Zoo
Go for sandwiches, wraps, flatbread pizzas and paninis, Located in front of the Bea Evenson Fountain at the Fleet Science Center.
1875 El Prado, San Diego
Lady Carolyn’s Pub
The Old Globe Theatre’s outdoor food and beverage pavilion is the place to go for sourdough soup bowls and sandwiches with Italian soda, cappuccinos, Irish coffee and wine. Really nice patio, too.
1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego
Balboa Park: Know Before You Go
Balboa Park Tickets
Other than those listed above, here’s a good website for tours and activities you can book before you go now in advance at Balboa Park. For most things (not counting theater tickets) you can get tickets when you arrive.
Discounts & Free Days
Here’s where to browse occasional Balboa Park discounts. Also see my post on San Diego Museum Free Days and Deals for specific museum discounts and museum free days within Balboa Park. Also, check out the Balboa Park Explorer Pass, a multi-day discount pass that gets you into 17 of the most fun things to do in Balboa Park. Local FYI: if you live in San Diego, you get free admission on Tuesdays (but check for updates before you head out).
Website balboapark.org; Phone (619) 239-0512. If you’ve never been to Balboa Park before, you might want to stop by the Visitors Center (across from The Prado Restaurant in the House of Hospitality). You can pick up park brochures, maps, and ask about the audio tour and free guided tour.
- Address: Balboa Park, 1549 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, California, 92101.
- Hours: The Balboa Park grounds are open 24 hours a day, the Visitors Center is open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily, and museum hours vary by institution (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s day).
Directions & Parking
The Park is near downtown San Diego, Balboa Park and is accessible from most major freeways. Parking can be a nightmare during peak times or major events, so plan ahead.
- Parking: Free in the Inspiration Point parking lot (east side of Park Blvd, between Presidents Way and the Balboa Park Activity Center). From there you can hop on the free tram. You’ll also find many smaller lots in the Park.
- Valet Parking: Available (for a fee) at The Prado Restaurant (but not on Mondays).
- For December Nights: Free parking is available at the San Diego Zoo lot (the only free parking). Get there early. Fleet Science Center lot (156 spaces) is available for persons with a valid disabled placard or license plate. Pick up the Shuttle at PETCO Park or City College — Friday from 3pm-midnight; Saturday 11:30am until midnight.
Getting Around Balboa Park
You’ll walk, mostly, but you also have options.
- The Tram: The free tram gets you from the parking lot to the center of the park, with stops at various museums and attractions inside the park. Fall and winter tram hours: 9am-6pm daily (November through May). Summer tram hours 9am-6pm daily (June through October).
- Bicycles: Yes you can ride a bike in the Park but NOT at the Spanish Village, House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, and the Rose and Desert Gardens east of Park Blvd.