It’s lovely gardens and eclectic collection of museums are just two reasons to visit Balboa Park, but these will certainly keep a visitor busy for an entire day. I lived in San Diego for several years and return regularly, and yet there are many parts of this park I never saw until I decided to write this article. With a fresh, new perspective on the park I hope to encourage others to visit this impressive urban oasis.
Balboa Park History
My visit coincided with the park's 150th Anniversary celebration in 2018. Comprised of 1200 acres (almost a third larger than New York’s Central Park), the park was nothing more than vacant land for the first forty years. Around 1910 the park finally began to receive attention from the city and benefited from landscape, irrigation and building projects.
However, the iconic Spanish Renaissance buildings along the El Prado (the main boulevard of the park) were built specifically for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. It’s these buildings that helped put Balboa Park on the map.
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Balboa Park Gardens
Despite dozens of previous trips to this park I had no idea there were 19 gardens to explore. Some are quite small and easily overlooked, while others could be destinations of their own. All but two of the gardens are free. The ones I’ve focused on here are close to the center of the park and the El Prado making it possible to park once and walk. And if you're looking for things to do in San Diego with teens, this part of the park will keep all of your busy for hours.
Japanese Garden in Balboa Park
The Japanese Friendship Garden was the biggest surprise of my park visit. I’ll admit that the $12 admission fee made me pause, but I am so glad I paid the fee and made the steep walk down to the bottom. Because of its geography--a steep slope down to a narrow valley--this space is sort of hidden and therefore easy to overlook.
The perfectly maintained landscape and waterscape make for a beautiful and peaceful site. The slopes are mostly covered with green plants and trees, but the valley features a small stream, stepping stones, bridges and hundreds of flowering plants.
Botanical Building Balboa Park
On several previous occasions I’ve enjoyed the Botanical Building in Balboa Park and it never gets old. Visitors first encounter the lily ponds in front of the building which are usually home to a few families of ducks and ducklings. This might be the most popular “selfie” spot in the park.
The lily ponds and the Botanical Building were also built for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. Inside the building are over 2,000 plants including many ferns, orchids, and palms.
What is particularly impressive is that the tropical plants here are not protected by glass, but with a lath structure--small slats of wood connected to create the ideal lighting and temperature conditions. This type of construction combined with San Diego’s climate allow for the proper care of tropical plants.
The Botanical Building is free, but only open for six hours a day, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tours are offered at 11 a.m. on the third Friday of each month.
Balboa Park is a great place for a picnic, be sure to bring your deluxe picnic backpack.
Rose and Desert Gardens
The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Gardens and the Desert Gardens do require a walk over Park Blvd. using the pedestrian bridge, which explain why many people never see them. But it’s worth the extra few minutes walk to see these gardens.
I was visiting these gardens in September and there were definitely plenty of roses in bloom, but according to the park’s website, April and May are peak season. Regardless, I enjoyed the scent of thousands of roses in all sizes and colors. It takes 45 men and women of the Balboa Park Rose Corps to care for these 1600 rose plants.
The desert garden has some fascinating examples of succulents and cacti. I’ll admit that these types of plants are not my favorites, but its still worth a quick stroll through the area.
Both the rose and desert gardens have limited shade, so if visiting during a warm weather season I recommend a morning or evening stroll.
Balboa Park’s Museums
Balboa Park offers an impressive 17 museums! Most do charge an admisison fee, but if you'll be in San Diego for a few days consider purchasing the Balboa Park Explorer Multi-Day Pass. Not only does this pass include a ticket to the zoo, but also admission to 16 of the museums over a seven day time-period. A child's pass is $66 and adult's is $101.
During this recent visit I explored just four of the museums and will discuss those here. Again, I recommend some advanced research to decide which museums offer exhibits of interest to you and your traveling companions in order to make the best use of your day.
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Museum of Man in Balboa Park
The San Diego Museum of Man offers a wide range of exhibits that explore the human experience. During my recent visit there were exhibits about the history of beer making, the role of animals in our lives and issues of race. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any of these current offerings appealing and cut my visit short. The displays were confusing and poorly organized. Since I’ve not been here before I’m not sure if this is typical, and I’ll certainly give this museum another try in the future. Adult admission is $13.
Recently the California Tower at the Museum of Man has reopened and tours can be booked in advance. I did not have time for this, but do hope to do it in the future. I think the views of Balboa Park from the tower would be lovely. Tickets for the tower include admission to the museum and can be purchased online.
Explore tours of Balboa Park and San Diego offered through Viator.
San Diego History Center
I didn’t plan to visit the San Diego History Center, but when I learned that it was free I decided to check it out. There is currently an exhibit exploring San Diego’s history through the eyes of female pioneers and another one about San Diego’s LGBTQ community. I was pleasantly surprised at the range of exhibits and topics addressed, and recommend visiting.
Getting hungry while visiting San Diego? Then head over to Liberty Station.
San Diego Museum of Art And The Timken Museum of Art
Both the San Diego Museum of Art and the Timken Museum are small, but what they lack in size is made up in the quality of their collections. Fortunately both are located next to one another in the park making it possible to enjoy all they have to offer in just a few hours.
As an art and art museum lover, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been in the San Diego Museum of Art. Their permanent collection is best known for Spanish Old Masters, but I was impressed to see a variety of other well known artists such as O’Keefe, Matisse, Cassat and Rivera.
A temporary exhibit that I especially enjoyed was Visible Vaults, an attempt to recreate a behind-the-scenes experience for visitors to see lesser known and rarely displayed artworks. A series of drawers can be opened each containing a small painting, drawing, photograph, or etching. Some of these are parts of very small collections that cannot make up an entire exhibit, or cannot be wall mounted due to the light. I felt like a little kid sneaking into a forbidden part of the museum. This is definitely one of the most creative exhibits I’ve ever seen in an art museum.
Admission to the San Diego Museum of Art is $15.
Next door is the Timken Museum. This very small museum houses some great Masterpieces including van Dyck, Rubens, and Rembrandt. There are rotating exhibits, and even a regular December exhibition of handcrafted ornaments by local artists Florence Hord and Elizabeth Schlappi. Jason and I were here last year to see the December exhibit and found it fascinating. If you’re in Balboa Park it would be a shame to miss this free museum.
Tips For Visiting Balboa Park
I highly recommend a stop at the Visitor’s Center at Balboa Park if this is your first visit. Its centrally located near most of the museums. While everything can be found online, the guidance of a park pro can really help.
Balboa Park now offers an app to download which is also a great way to get some guidance throughout the day. It includes practical tips from previous visitors.
Check the schedule of events prior to your visit. At times an event will make your visit even more better, however, it could also mean large crowds that will make parking and movement difficult.
Did I mention that parking is free?! Pretty unusual for a major city attraction. In fact, with a little pre-planning and a picnic an entire day could be spent at Balboa Park for no cost. In a city full of great sites, this is among San Diego’s best.