Balboa park is really a cultural gem of San Diego, and no trip to this seaside city would be complete without a visit to this premier location. If you want to know about what to do in Balboa Park, here is a short list of what will be explored below. There are a variety of gardens, and museums of all kinds (some of them free). And on top of all that, Balboa is right next door to the San Diego Zoo, and walking distance from downtown. You could spend an entire weekend exploring this beautiful park, or you could visit different parts over time. Whatever the case, if you’ve never been and you are planning a visit to San Diego, don’t miss this special place. As I always say, it has a little bit of something for everybody.
History of Balboa Park
The land that Balboa Park now sits on is in the ancestral home of the Kumeyaay people, who have lived in the San Diego region for more than 10,000 years.
In 1868, post-colonization of the area, the land was designated a city park, but was not tended until Kate Sessions entered the scene in 1892. This amazing woman began planting 100 trees a year, and donating other plants in exchange for the use of some land as a nursery. Due to her tireless work and lasting impact on the place we know and love today, Kate is known as the “Mother of Balboa Park.”
More attention and investment was put to Balboa in preparation for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, at which time the park received the name it goes by today (replacing “City Park”). While much has changed in the park over time, many of the thematic ideas that we can still enjoy today were envisioned and developed at this time.
You can read more about the history of the park in Balboa Park History.
What to Do in Balboa Park for a Weekend
If you really want to experience the park, you will need to spend at least an entire day, if not two. You could certainly spend more time in Balboa if you wanted to visit all the museums, and many elements of the park are fun to revisit.
On a nice fall or spring day, I would suggest spending the morning walking through the gardens (see below for some good options). Eat lunch at one of the park cafes or surrounding restaurants, and then go to one of the park’s many amazing museums for the afternoon.
When it is really hot in San Diego, you can also escape the heat in one of the many museums, while also getting some amazing views of the architecture and park.