Balboa Park, not far from downtown San Diego, is one of the city’s main attractions, featuring museums, arts venues, a zoo, trails, many gardens, common areas, restaurants, and too many worthwhile places to list here. 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. Here are my favorite things to do in Balboa Park, including a roundup of savvy ways to save on admission. If you’re visiting for the first time, see my “know before you go” cheat sheet and map at the bottom of this page.
Top To-Do’s at Balboa Park
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. (Read my Zoo review and roundup of San Diego Zoo discounts).
San Diego Model Railroad Museum and Mingei International Museum are 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, or 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, weekly concerts at the Spreckles Organ Pavilion, the delightful December Nights holiday festival, and EarthFair, a huge two-day Earth Day festival that takes place in April.
But mostly what people do is head over to the park to spend the day walking around, browsing, people watching, grabbing a bite to eat, and catching a little culture. Some areas of the park are even dog friendly.
Balboa Park Savings
Various venues inside Balboa Park will offer discounts, coupons, and free days from time to time (which I’ve posted on the San Diego Museums Free Days & Discounts page).
If you’re making a day or week of it, check out the multi-day Balboa Park Explorer Pass that gets you into 17 of the most fun things to do in Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo Admission (zoo ticket includes One-day admission, guided bus tour and Skyfari aerial tram). The pass is valid for seven consecutive days and includes the following attractions:
Japanese Friendship Garden
Mingei International Museum
Museum of Photographic Arts
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
San Diego Air & Space Museum
SDAI Museum of the Living Artist
San Diego Automotive Museum
San Diego Hall of Champions
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
San Diego Museum of Man
San Diego Natural History Museum
San Diego Museum of Art
Timken Museum of Art
Veterans Museum & Memorial Center
San Diego Residents Free Admission Tuesdays
Several museums and attractions at Balboa Park offer free admission on Tuesdays. Top picks to check out: 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. Check the schedule updated on the official website to verify days.
Balboa Park Restaurants
When you’re spending the whole day at Balboa Park, and why wouldn’t you, you’ll 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, like The Prado, an award-winning restaurant located in the House of Hospitality.
Also worth a look: The Tea Pavilion, a quaint café at the Japanese Friendship Garden; Albert’s Restaurant, near the Gorilla Tropics at the San Diego Zoo (for pasta, steak, seafood, pizza, salad, and sandwiches); Craveology (for sandwiches, wraps, flatbread pizzas and paninis) in front of the Bea Evenson Fountain; and Lady Carolyn’s Pub, the Old Globe’s outdoor food and beverage pavilion (for sourdough soup bowls and sandwiches with Italian soda, cappuccinos, Irish coffee and wine).
Spreckles Free Outdoor Pipe Organ Concerts
San Diego has had a civic organist, who performs free weekly Sunday concerts at Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. The concerts take place in every Sunday at 2pm, and they’ve been doing it since 1917. 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. The organ features an ornate design with embellished gables and vaulted box structure. Savvy Trivia: 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.
Balboa Park December Nights
Start the San Diego holiday season right by sharing in the festivities at the Annual Balboa Park December Nights. December Nights is the biggest free festival in San Diego, with more than 300,000 visitors expected over two days.
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. (See my tips at the bottom of this page for visiting during December Nights.)
Free Annual Event Details
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 Free outdoor pipe organ concerts — Free. Year round, Sunday afternoon concerts at 2pm. Special summer series Monday evenings June through August. Check the schedule before you head out.
- EarthFair in Balboa Park — Free. Every year in April around Earth Day. The world’s largest free annual eco fair draws more than 60,000 visitors and 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. Follow the link above for info on getting there/parking and the shuttle.
- Balboa Park December Nights — Free. First Friday and Saturday nights in December. Check the schedule for updates before you head out. Free parking will be 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.
Balboa Park — Know Before You Go
- Official Info: 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)
- Savvy Savings: You’ll find many free days and discounts for Balboa Park museums and attractions on my San Diego San Diego Museum Free Days and Deals page. Plus the following options.
- Getting There: 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).
- Getting Around: 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.
- 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.