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.
- 1 History of Balboa Park
- 2 What to Do in Balboa Park for a Weekend
- 3 The Best Gardens in Balboa
- 4 Balboa’s 19 Museums
- 5 House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
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.
The Best Gardens in Balboa
It comes as no surprise that there are some beautiful gardens included in my list of What To Do in Balboa Park, and I have two favorites that I have returned to time and time again. These are the Botanical Building and Lily Pond, and the Japanese Garden. They are both very peaceful places to visit, and offer amazing opportunities for photography and spaces for a thoughtful pause.
Botanical Building and Lily Pond
If you stroll Balboa, it will be hard to miss the Botanical Building. I’ve never really seen anything else like it in my many travels. It is made of wooden slats that protect and shade the inner garden, but which allow open air in at all points. The center of the building is a dome with a flourished top, and five stucco arches underneath. In front of this building is the iconic lily pond.
When you visit on the outside, take the time to photograph the beautiful structure. Enjoy the activity of the lily pond, where people flock to take pictures and enjoy the atmosphere of the park.
Inside of the Botanical Building are a variety of plants such as orchids and palms. It is a shady paradise for reflection, and despite the open-air nature of the building, there is a magical, tropical quality to the interior of this building.
What is also great about the Botanical Building is that it is FREE to visit. They are closed on Thursdays, but are open Friday-Wednesday from 10:00a – 4:00p. If you are there while they are open, don’t miss it.
Japanese Friendship Garden
I have a huge soft spot for most things Japanese, so no What To Do in Balboa Park list of mine would be complete without including the Japanese Friendship Garden. And although this is a paid attraction, I think it’s well worth the visit, particularly in the cherryblossom season.
The garden itself isn’t particularly large, but it is unique in its hillside layout. When you enter, you will hike down the hill, through the garden, towards water features at the bottom of the canyon. There is a beautiful stream, surrounded by trees and carefully pruned shrubs. And my favorite part of the garden, hands-down, is the pond. There is a building of Japanese architecture built out over it, where you can enjoy the calming water from the shade of the porch.
In cherryblossom season, the garden becomes more crowded, but for good reason. Many of the trees lining the trails are cherryblossom trees, and they turn the garden pink when all of their flowers bloom. During this time, the garden celebrates by bringing in special vendors selling both gifts and foods.
Generally speaking, the Japanese Garden is CLOSED every third Tuesday of the month. Otherwise, they are open daily from 10:00a-6:00p. It costs $12 for adults to visit, and they have a variety of ticket prices for others. During cherryblossom season, which is in March in San Diego, prices may be adjusted.
Balboa’s 19 Museums
There are 19 different institutions included in the Museum section of the Balboa website. So, unless you have a lot of time, you won’t be seeing them all. You will have to make the hard choice of picking just a few to spend your time in. Even if you aren’t a huge museum fan, I think you should include at least one on your Balboa itinerary. There is a huge diversity of options, and even a free museum that you can visit if you are on a budget.
In terms of the kinds of museums, Balboa has several art and history museums, a science museum, and specialized museums like the Automotive Museum and Model Railroad Museum. To make the best choice for you, I would suggest checking out the full list over at the Balboa Park website.
Timken Museum of Art
While not large, the Timken Museum of Art is free to the public. Due to its very affordable price, if you visit Balboa while it is open, I would highly encourage you to go check it out. [Although, as of Fall 2021, they are still in the process of reopening.]
The small and understated building where the museum is situated, is just across from the Botanical Building and next to the Lily Pond. Upon entering, you will be greeted by beautiful classic pieces from across Europe and America. As per the mission of the museum, they seek to provide this space to all in order to “enrich lives and nurture the creative spirit in us all.” When I visited, I found the space to be very peaceful and perfect for thoughtful consideration of the art, so I had to include it in my what to do in Balboa Park list.
They are closed on Mondays, and open Tues-Sat from 10a-4:30p and Sunday from 12p-4:30p.
Some of My Favorite Museums
Museum of Us
The Museum of Us (previously the Museum of Man- thank you for the change) focuses on the human experience and our shared history. Here are some examples of exhibits they have had, to give you a sense for the flavor of the place – Kumeyaay: Native Californians, Living with Animals, Maya: Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth, Race: Are We So Different. On top of its exhibits, the museum lives in a beautiful, sculpted building.
This museum does a really great job being interactive and immersive. Whether you love history or just want to have a unique experience from among Balboa’s many cultural offerings, this one fits the bill. The Museum of Us is my favorite museum in the park. Although it is a less affordable option, I would be surprised if it disappointed.
Another cool element of the museum is that you can pay extra to visit the tower. While I would say that the price is on the steep side for this add-in, if you are a photographer, definitely consider it. The views of the park from the tower are pretty unique. I didn’t regret spending the money at all.
It is $19.95 for general admission and an extra $10 to visit the California Tower. They are closed Mondays and Tuesdays
The San Diego History Center
Located in an absolutely beautiful, Spanish-style building, the San Diego History Museum is one of those unique places where you can delve into the story of a place. While visiting San Diego as a tourist, this is a great way to learn more about the city, its past, and its people. Admission is by donation, and they are only open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Fleet Science Center
If you like science museums, it should go without saying that the Fleet Science Center would be a great option for you. The museum is expansive, immersive, and great to explore with your whole family. There are tons of hands-on things to do. And they also sport a theater and restaurant for when you need to take a load off.
Adult tickets are $21.95 and they are open every day of the week.
House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
Every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5pm the International Cottages come to life. If you have ever happened to stroll through while they are closed (or open for that matter), the cottages are little stucco houses with the names of countries posted next to their door. On the weekends, they open up, and you can walk through and visit. Some houses set up activities for visitors. Others have little items for sale or food to try. And still others serve as a meeting place for people from the places listed. All are manned by friendly volunteers who are happy to share their national traditions and answer your questions.
If you are ever in the park while they are open, I would not miss visiting the International Cottages.
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