In San Diego, there is perhaps a singular wonderland where sprawling green space meets cultural attractions, live performance venues, and scientific inquiry. Balboa Park is so impressive, that navigating its amenities can be like asking San Diegans what their favorite taco shop is — brace yourself for options, and lots of them. To make the most of your visit, think about how you like to spend your time, and craft your itinerary around those pursuits. Here’s how, whether you’re with a group or exploring solo.

The Botanical Building at Balboa Park is just one of the beautiful places to explore and learn something © d.elish / Getty Images

Stoke Curiosity: Museums and Performing Arts Venues

Foresight from civic leaders transformed 1,400 acres in 1868 into “City Park.” Today, 1,200 acres in what might have been called San Diego Park or Silver Gate Park, is known as Balboa Park.

Throughout, choose from 17 diverse museums and immersive cultural spaces for an array of interests. There’s the Fleet Science Center for super-sized IMAX films about volcanoes or the life-saving sensory powers of dogs, or Museum of Photographic Arts, where you admire visual works by artists debuting in the U.S. for the first time (from the comfort of couches, if you wish). Every week, take in a full-size puppet show, the resonant sounds of Spreckels Organ on Sundays, or one of 15 mainstage productions at the Old Globe theater, from Shakespeare to How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

In 2020, anticipate entry to renovated and new museums, including global folk art Mingei International Museum, and Comic-Con Museum, though opening date remains ambiguous.

A unique structural cactus on a pristine blue sky
Wander through one of the many gardens, like the cactus garden which is home to a plethora of native species of cactus © marlenka / Getty Images

Hiking, Garden Gazing, And More

Marked (and unmarked) trails for all levels wend through and around the park, and more than a dozen gardens — rose, cactus, Moorish-inspired — are ways to contemplate the park’s natural attributes. Families tend to sprawl out on the grass of the Sculpture Garden, near San Diego Museum of Art, where you’ll also find outdoor restaurant Panama 66 (bookmark for craft beer and live jazz most Wednesdays). 

Or, sit down for a casual meal at The Tea Pavilion at the Japanese Friendship Garden, Craveology, Lady Carolyn’s Pub, or more upscale dining at The Prado. Show up for Food Truck Fridays through summer for more nibbles. Perk up at coffee kiosks like Prado Perk (just outside the Visitors Center), and Daniel’s Coffee (Spanish Village).

The main square of Balboa park with a fountain adorned in blue and white tile and surrounded by Spanish-style buildings
Admire the architecture surrounding Balboa Park's Plaza, left over from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition @ 

20th Century Architecture From The 1915 Panama-California Exposition

Original structures from the Panama-California Exposition can still be viewed today, fortunately, since most were meant as temporary buildings. Take for example, the elaborate details of the California Building (home to San Diego Museum of Man), its embellished three-story tower and unmissable Spanish-Colonial façade a blend of styles from Plateresque to Rococo. Gaze upward for its tiled dome, a mosaic of yellow, blue, and green hues.

Along El Prado, look up again to spot sculpted female figures of Casa de Balboa, whom appear to bear the weight of the building’s eaves. Across it, a lengthy lily pond announce the shapely Botanical Building. Biophilies can admire more than 2,000 plants within, including orchids, ferns, and palms. And, while you can certainly walk across Cabrillo Bridge — another holdover from the Exposition, the best way to see the earliest multi-arched bridge in Southern California is driving along route 163.

During the early 20th century, the Exposition was, in addition to marking the opening of the Panama Canal, regional officials’s grandest marketing campaign to attract settlement and commerce. The then-mayor, echoing expansionist sentiments of the time, summarized, “From this summit, the future bright as the millennial dawn, stretches before us and in the dim distance we see the San Diego of our dreams — the metropolis of the great West, the star of cities, built by love and labor upon the foundation stones of location, harbor, climate soil and the Exposition."

Art sits in front of a small shop on a street painted with multi-colored squares
Be sure to check out Spanish Village Arts Center where local artists in residence work and show off their creations © Richard Cummins / Getty Images

Know Before You Go

Before you arrive, it’s helpful to know the majority of parking lots line Park Boulevard, electric car charging stations are available in the Pan American Plaza, Fleet Science Center and San Diego Zoo parking lots, and valet parking is available in front of The Prado Restaurant, at the House of Hospitality. A free tram picks up passengers from select lots, and stops at multiple points throughout the park. Do note, however, that parking spots typically fill up before Noon on weekends.

Balboa Park features mostly flat, smooth surfaces, with ramps and accommodating bathrooms that should make getting around by wheelchair accessible. Some institutions, like the San Diego Natural History Museum, offer escorts of visitors with disabilities complimentary admission. 

Even with much of the park’s information available online, you can still interact with humans onsite — seek out the House of Hospitality building near Plaza de Panama for the Visitors Center. Here, also find public restrooms nearby, as well as near the San Diego Automotive Museum, Organ Pavilion, Sculpture Court History Center, and Spanish Village. And, rejoice! Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the park.

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