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All You Need To Know Before Visiting Balboa Park

By Fiona Chandra
Balboa Park
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To say that Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s top attractions is to put it too simply. 

Within the park’s 1,200 acres, there are 18 museums and 19 gardens, many of which are travel-worthy attractions on their own. Balboa Park is also located close to the Gaslamp Quarter, making it easy to explore both in the same day.

Balboa Park is named after the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa and the land for the park was originally set aside in 1868. It took a while to get the park developed, though, and the real work didn’t start until the early 1900s. Many of the buildings were built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition, and then in 1935-1936 for the California Pacific International Exposition.  

If you’re planning to visit multiple museums in Balboa Park, opt for an Explorer Pass. There is the Parkwide Pass good for (almost) any park museum and garden for seven consecutive days. It starts at $67 ($43 for youths). There’s also a limited pass that grants access to four venues in one day for $56. If you plan on spending more than one day here, the Parkwide Pass would be the most economical way to go. Note that the passes don’t include admission to the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, or the Comic-Con Museum. 

For those not renting a car, the Inspiration Point parking lot in the southern end of the park is closest to the Gaslamp Quarter, and the park has conveniently provided a free tram to most of the park’s popular stops. Even if you are driving, it’s easier to park and take the tram — just look for the green tram.  

With so many attractions in one park, it may be overwhelming to plan your first visit here. Read below to learn about some of the park’s best attractions. 

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo

Perhaps the most famous attraction inside Balboa Park is the San Diego Zoo, which occupies 100 acres of the park. Founded in 1916, the world famous zoo is home to more than 3,700 animals and 700,000 plants. While the zoo was for a while famous for their giant pandas, the black and white cuties have returned to China. There are still a lot of rare and endangered animals at the zoo, from clouded leopards to red pandas. 

The zoo offers single park tickets and combo tickets with the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, but the Safari Park is not in Balboa Park, so the combo ticket is good for any day within a year. 

San Diego Museum of Art

San Diego Museum of Art

This fine art museum is easily noticeable from the outside thanks to the heavily ornamented, Spanish-inspired façade. 

This is San Diego’s oldest and largest art museum with an extensive permanent collection and a particular focus on Spanish art. The museum also always has rotating exhibits that range from classics to contemporary. San Diego Museum of Art offers docent-led guided tours as part of museum admission.

Tip: When planning your trip, keep in mind that the museum is closed on Wednesdays.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Here’s a fun fact for you — the San Diego Model Railroad Museum is the largest indoor model railroad museum in the country. 

That’s right. There are 27,000 square feet of little trains and tracks, some of which are accurate replicas of historic train routes across the Southwest — like the Southern Pacific train traveling through Tehachapi Pass — making this museum visit a geography and history lesson to boot. 

They also have fun rotating exhibits. One of the upcoming ones will feature colorful circus trains. Even better, kids 12 and under get into this museum for free, so it’s perfect for families traveling with young ones. 

The Botanical Building

The Botanical Building

Originally built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, the Botanical Building is one of the world’s largest structures that’s made of lath — thin strips of wood that’s typically used for support. The laths for this building are made using redwood, so even if you don’t know what lath is, you’ll still appreciate the beauty of this building with its curved roof and the large dome overlooking the lily pond. 

The Botanical Building houses over 2,000 plants and while visitors can typically tour the inside, it is closed for renovation until 2024. Still, the beautiful exterior alone is worth seeing and taking a snap of. 

Parks and Gardens in Balboa Park

Parks and Gardens in Balboa Park

The parks and gardens are some of the most beautiful places in Balboa Park and worth a visit all on their own. 

There are 19 gardens in total, the most famous of which is probably the Japanese Friendship Garden pictured above. The Japanese Friendship Garden was built to commemorate San Diego’s sister city, Yokohama. It first opened in 1991 and currently has a koi pond, 200 cherry trees, azaleas, and camellias.

There is also a Japanese tea house that was originally built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition, and the garden regularly holds many workshops and events that celebrate Japanese cultural heritage. 

Other gardens worth visiting in Balboa Park are Palm Canyon with 450 palm trees, some of them dating all the way back to 1912, and the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden which houses over 2,400 rose bushes. Of course, Balboa Park’s gardens are especially beautiful to visit in the spring, but they’re great year-round. 

Tip: A lot of the gardens are free to visit, like the rose garden and Palm Canyon, so there’s plenty to see here without spending a dime. Admission to the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego Mineral and Gem Societies Museum, and the Mingei International Museum are also free.

Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Spreckels Organ Pavilion

The Spreckels Organ Pavilion is home to the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. The ornate pavilion is worth checking out, but the best time to come here is during an organ concert. 

They hold a free concert there every Sunday from 2-3 p.m. and in the summer, they also have free Twilight in the Park concerts on Tuesdays, Wednesday, and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. from June 21 to Aug. 24.

San Diego’s Crown Jewel

Balboa Park

History, beautiful architecture, culture, science, art, flora, and fauna — Balboa Park has all of that and more to offer. It’s certainly not a destination to miss when you visit San Diego

Whether you’re planning to check out multiple museums and gardens or just stroll around and take in the Spanish Colonial architecture for an hour or two, be sure to make a stop at this cultural hub in the city.

If you enjoyed the architecture and history of Balboa Park, you don’t want to miss San Diego’s popular downtown neighborhood, the Gaslamp District. Hip and historic, this is the place to learn how San Diego began, maybe even run into a few of its ghosts.

Read more in our in-depth guide to the Gaslamp Quarter or join us for a tour. We can’t wait to welcome you to sunny San Diego!