Balboa Park in San Diego has stunning gardens, Spanish inspired architecture, a zoo, restaurants, and fifteen museums.
Balboa Park has beautiful Spanish-Renaissance buildings along its central avenue, on El Prado Boulevard. Most were constructed as part of the 1915 California-Panama Exposition.
See gorgeous plazas with fountains and reflecting pools, ornate facades, lush gardens, and fifteen Balboa Park museums.
There's no admission fee to enter Balboa Park, but some museums have an entrance fee.
The 7 free attractions are The Museum of Photographic Arts, Timken Museum of Art, Botanical Building, San Diego History Center, Spanish Village Art Center, Alcazar Garden, and Rose and Cactus Garden.
10 BEST things to do at Balboa Park
1. San Diego Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art is open 6 days a week (closed Wednesdays).
It's located in the stunning Plaza de Panama at Balboa Park. Sit by the charming fountain at the Plaza, with plenty of tables with umbrellas for shade.
The San Diego Museum of Art has 18,000 works of art in its permanent collection, with an emphasis on European works from the 16th to 19th centuries. See paintings from Matisse, Gauguin, Dali and Monet, at one of the most prestigious Balboa Park Museums.
Look up at the 3 statues on the front facade depicting the famous Spanish Old Master painters - Murillo, Velazquez and De Zurbaran. Can you see them holding their paint palettes?
This is another perspective of the Plaza de Panama, facing towards the House of Hospitality. The charming Prado Restaurant is inside.
2. The Museum of Photographic Arts (FREE)
The Museum of Photographic Arts is a free Balboa Park Museum (although donations are appreciated). It's closed Mondays.
This contemporary photography museum has rotating exhibitions from around the world. The exhibitions are spread across four galleries on one floor. There's also a modern cinema, that hosts regular film festivals showcasing art-house movies.
There are plenty of seating areas to relax.
The Museum of Photographic Arts is known for running exhibitions on international photographers. This is an exhibition focused on Australian photographers.
There's a fun booth to snap a photo of yourself. Take home the prints!
3. Timken Museum of Art (FREE)
The Timken Museum of Art is another free Balboa Park Museum (closed Mondays).
The Timken Museum of Art is adjacent to the San Diego Museum of Art. This five room museum is located inside a mid-century building, and has a permanent collection of 14th to 18th century European Paintings.
One of the most popular paintings is the View of Volterra (1838), by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (see below). Volterra is a medieval, hilltop town near Florence in Italy.
Don't miss the exquisite tempera paintings on wood panels from the 14th century. Above is the Madonna and Child (1387) by Niccolo di Buonaccorso. On the far right is The Trinity and the Crucifixion (1355) by Luca di Tomme.
The striking Lovers in a Park (1758) on the far right, is by Francois Boucher. Sign up for a docent led tour to understand more about these paintings, or listen to an audio tour on your mobile phone.
There's a stunning lily pond outside the Timken Museum of Art. The Timken is the mid-century building on the right below, and opened in 1965.
4. Balboa Park Botanical Building (FREE)
The Balboa Park Botanical Building is FREE to visit (closed thursdays and holidays).
The Balboa Park Botanical Building was constructed for the Panama California Exhibition in 1915, and is one of the most photographed attractions in Balboa Park. This enchanting setting is offset by a reflecting pool in the foreground, with koi and lily pads.
Wander inside the Botanical Building to see its unique architecture. Look up to see the intricate slats of wood used to construct the Central Dome. Paths meander through the interior of the building, with lush surroundings. Enjoy exotic plants like orchids and begonias, and stand beneath a giant tree fern from the Jurassic era.
5. San Diego Air and Space Museum
The San Diego Air and Space Museum is open 7 days a week (closed holidays).
The museum has a circular floorplan, that lays out the history of flight in chronological order. Start with early aviation exhibits like the Wright Gliders. Continue to WWI German, English and French fighter planes, once engaged in dogfights over the skies of Europe.
After WWI there were lots of attempts at breaking speed and distance records. This is the Spirit of St Louis that Charles Lindbergh flew in 1927 from New York to Paris, in the first non-stop, transatlantic flight.
This WWII era fighter plane is known as a P51D Mustang "Bunnie". It has a distinctive red nose and tail, and was part of the American Tuskegee Airmen program that shot down 100 German planes in WWII.
Get up close to an F/A-18 A Hornet Blue Angel jet, used by the US Navy for air show aerobatics.
6. San Diego Automotive Museum
The San Diego Automotive Museum is open 7 days a week (closed holidays), and has an excellent selection of cars and motorcycles from the last 100 years.
There's a fun kid's area, with a movie and race car for kids to climb inside. Kids can also sit on a motorcycle or hang out in the coloring book area. Balboa Park Museums are great for kids.
Do you recognize the car used in the 1980's hit movie Back to the Future?
This is the fictional DeLorean Time Machine that travels back in time to 1955. It was produced by the DeLorean Motor Company from 1981 to 1983. Can you see the gull-wing doors hinged on the roof?
This is a 1966 Bizzarrini P538. This race car was built in Livorno, Italy. See the rear engine?
This beige car below is a 1963 Studibaker Avanti. This is a luxury sports car.
Here's a black 1967 Austin London Taxi. It was once owned by Frank Sinatra, who sold it in 1971.
The museum also has a huge selection of motorcycles. Check out Evil Knievel's 1976 Harley Davidson, or Steve McQueen's iconic Husqvarna.
7. Fleet Science Center
The Fleet Science Center is the most kid friendly of the Balboa Park Museums. It's open 7 days a week (closed holidays).
The Fleet Science Center's main gallery is 67,000 square feet, and it has a fun selection of science experiments.
This is a dry ice experiment that is fascinating for kids to observe.
The main floor of the Fleet Science Center has a wide choice of experiments. Kids can learn about scientific concepts like electricity, gravity, and magnetism. There's so much to touch and explore.
Kids under 5 can visit the colorful Kid City play area in the mezzanine area. It's set up a like a mini city with roads, and there's also a soft play area for babies.
Step inside a factory and winch up food supplies using a pulley. There's also a car and firetruck to sit in. The Grocery Store is fun for purchasing plastic food.
This contraption has lots of chutes, tubes and tubes to drop balls in.
The Innovation Room is for budding architects. Kids can sit at tables and make buildings, castles or sculptures. They use wooden Keva planks or legos.
The Studio X room is next door to the Innovation Gallery. Each day there's a new project to construct. Materials are provided at the front desk. Kids can also do 3D digital printing. Here's an interlocking construction set. The Fleet Science Museum is one of the most educational Balboa Park Museums.
The Fleet Science Museum also has some temporary exhibitions, like the one below. This is a play area with a ball pit to jump in.
This temporary exhibit also has musical hopscotch, and sounds notes when the illuminated squares are stepped on.
8. San Diego Zoo
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is also at Balboa Park. It has acres of animal exhibits.
Book a 35-minute tour of the Zoo on a double-decker bus, or sign up for a VIP Tour with a personal guide. Get up close to animals like elephants, koalas or penguins in a Behind the Scenes Tour, and don't miss the daily zoo keeper talks.
The 4D Theater in the Northern Frontier is a must-see.
9. San Diego Natural History Museum
The San Diego Natural History Museum is open 7 days a week, 10am to 5pm. Closed holidays.
It has four floors of exhibits focused on the natural history of the local area. There are fossils, skulls, gems and more. The highlight is the 75 million year old dinosaur fossils from San Diego County. The brilliant gems will also dazzle you, and there's a kid's play area near the cafe.
10. Museum of Us
The Museum of Us is open 7 days a week from 10am to 5pm. Closed holidays.
It's located just past the arched entryway to Balboa Park in the California Building and Tower, and forms part of the California Quadrangle cluster of Spanish Colonial buildings constructed for the 1915 Exposition.
The Museum of Us has cultural anthropology exhibits, and includes archeological finds from the Maya and Egypt.
Climb the 125 steps to the top of the California Tower. See incredible 360 degree views of Balboa Park and San Diego. The tower has a carillon (electric keyboard) and so there are no bells inside. Listen to the enchanting carillon music drifting across the park.
Look at the beautiful California Building that houses the Museum of Us. The stunning yellow and blue dome is based on the Church of Santa Prisca in Taxco, Mexico. It could easily be mistaken for a church.
A renowned family of Italian marble carvers known as the Piccirilli brothers carved the facade. Can you see all the cast-stone sculptures in the building? The one at the top is Junipero Serra who founded the California Mission System. The rest of the figures are prominent figures in local history.
11. Spanish Village Art Center
Get free admission to the Spanish Village Art Center and see over 200 local artists at work in their studios. This is the biggest community of artists in California.
The artists work across all mediums like oil paintings, pottery, glass, metalwork, leather, photography and jewelry. Purchase some artwork.
Rent the courtyard for special events.
12. San Diego Model Railroad Museum
This 28,000 square foot museum has working trains in model cities. Peer through glass displays to see trains navigating mountain passes and villages. These are based on real Californian train routes like the Tehachapi Pass and Pacific Desert Line.
Kids can step up on platforms to get a closer look.
There's a video presentation at the museum's entrance.
13. Alcazar Garden (FREE)
Alcazar Garden has the wow factor! No wonder it's so popular for wedding photos. It's just near the Museum of Man.
The design is based on the Royal Alcazar Palace Gardens in Seville, Spain.
14. San Diego History Center (FREE)
The San Diego History Center is free to visit, open 7 days a week (closed holidays).
The History Center has rotating exhibitions like the photos below.
Here's an original Wells Fargo passenger stagecoach. Can you imagine riding in one of these bumpy coaches? They operated from the 1840's to 1870's.
Look at these beautiful urban murals in San Diego's Chicano Park. This park is a National Historic Landmark and gathering place for the Mexican community.
San Diego has a proud LGBTQ history. Look at these incredible costumes from the temporary exhibit on Legendary Drag Queens of San Diego.
Learn about the struggles and triumphs of the LGBTQ community.
15. Cactus and Rose Garden (FREE)
The FREE Rose Garden is across the road from the Fleet Science Center. This 3-acre garden has 130 varieties of roses. They are in bloom March to December.
The Cactus Garden was established in 1935. Some of these succulents are incredibly old.
Which gardens are free?
- Take in the sights along the El Prado boulevard.
- Explore the studio in the Spanish Village Art Center.
- Sit in the beautiful Plaza de Panama beside the stunning fountain.
- Stroll along the reflective pool outside the magnificent Botanical Building.
- Visit the Rose and Cactus Garden.
- Visit the Alcazar Garden inspired by the Alcazar Palace gardens in Seville.
- Take a photo at the Balboa Park Lily Pond.
Visit stunning Balboa Park restaurants
Balboa Park has a range of dining options. The most upmarket is Prado Restaurant (below). It's housed inside the historic House of Hospitality built for the 1915 California Panama Exposition. The restaurant has an eclectic, Spanish-inspired interior, with hand stenciled ceilings, hacienda lighting and bold artworks and glass sculpture.
Panama 66 at the Museum of Art also has a lovely setting in a open-air courtyard overlooking a sculpture garden.
Some more casual eateries throughout Balboa Park, include the Flying Squirrel at the San Diego Museum of Natural History, the Flight Path Grill at San Diego Air and Space Museum, and Craveology at the Fleet Science Center.
8 BEST activities for kids at Balboa Park
- Fleet Science Center is is the #1 attraction for kids at Balboa Park. The Fleet Science Center is full of interactive, STEM activities for kids, and a cool IMAX theater.
- Pepper Grove Playground is perfect for kids. It has different sections for older kids and younger kids. It’s south of the Fleet Science Center.
- San Diego Zoo
- Balboa Park Miniature Train departs just outside the San Diego Zoo’s exit. For a small fee, take a three minute train ride. There’s also a vintage carousel nearby.
- San Diego Model Railroad Museum
- Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater has some fun plays and pantomimes for kids.
- Museum of Man has Adventure Kids in Egypt with hands-on activities like constructing a pyramid with blocks, or digging for artifacts. Monster Artifacts is also fun, featuring the legends and habitats of unicorns, werewolf's and godzilla!
- Natural History Museum has a theater, store, cafe and kid’s play area. There are hourly shows in the 3D movie theater. See plenty of interactive exhibits. Fossil Mysteries has an impressive collection of prehistoric dinosaur fossils from San Diego County.
Know before you go
- Map of Balboa Park: here.
- Address: 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101.
- Parking: free.
- Balboa Park admission: free.
- Balboa Park museum pass: here.
- Free attractions: Timken Museum of Art, San Diego History Center, The Museum of Photographic Arts, Botanical Building, Spanish Village Art Center, El Prado Boulevard, Rose Garden, Cactus Garden, Alcazar Garden.