Enjoy Balboa Park Without Spending a Dime

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Looking for a fun family adventure this summer that won’t break the bank? San Diego is lucky to be the home to Balboa Park, the country’s largest urban park, that offers tons of outdoor and indoor fun for every member of the family. We’ve got your guide to enjoying art, culture, history, and gorgeous weather without opening the wallet. Even parking is free!

balboa park girl stroller fountainPhoto credit: Ian D. Keating via Flickr creative commons

Free Tuesdays
If you’ve been wanting to check out the Balboa Park museums, make a plan to go on Resident Free Tuesdays. For the first four Tuesdays each month, different museums in the park are free for San Diego County residents and active military families. Check the schedule for a full list of the rotating museums with free admission dates. Make sure to bring I.D., as most museums will ask for verification.

Because of the obvious draw of free museum passes to some of San Diego’s best museums, Tuesdays are very busy. So be sure to arrive early and prepare for a bit of a walk from your car. The San Diego Natural History Museum does not allow strollers inside, but does offers stroller parking outside for free. Plan to bring a carrier if traveling with an infant.

Free Admission for Kiddos
If you want to escape the crowds of Resident Free Tuesdays, a few select museums offer free kids admission to little ones under 12 years of age. The Model Railroad Museum, Photographic Arts Museum, Veterans Museum, and the San Diego Art Institute all offer free kids admission with an adult admission, a great compromise to avoiding crowds yet still keep pricing affordable.

balboa park baby girl flowerPhoto credit: George Rulz via Flickr Creative Commons

Botanical Building
Looking to escape the midday sun and feast your eyes on beautiful plants? Go no further than Balboa Park’s Botanical Building. Directly backing up against the San Diego Zoo, the Botanical Building is a giant, partially open structure filled with a huge variety of plants and flowers. There are walking paths throughout the building for kids to run around on and enjoy, as well as several benches located throughout.

Spanish Village Art Center
Inspiration and sightseeing are always free at the Spanish Village Art Center. Kids can watch artists create in a variety of mediums and see the entire process involved in creating the pieces of art on display around the museum. There is even an outdoor glassblowing studio that is accessible for visitors of all ages to watch artists blow glass on their bench and fire glass in the kilns.

Balboa Park Tram
Give everyone’s feet a rest and let the kids enjoy a free tram ride through the entire park. A green tram departs every 15 minutes from Tram Central at Inspiration Point, located on Park Boulevard. Parking is free, and there are shaded benches for the whole family to sit on should you arrive a few minutes early. The ride takes about 20 minutes, and is a great way to give everyone a break and enjoy the park from a different perspective. Check out the website for a tram route map and directions.

girl playgroundPhoto credit: Phallnn Ooi via Flickr Creative Commons

After a day of museums, take a break at the nearby Pepper Grove Playground. The playground is located just an easy walk south from the museums along Park Boulevard. The park is a great place for a lunch break; there are plenty of picnic tables and restrooms are located on site.

The greatest attraction about Pepper Grove is it is a great place for those with a wide spread of kids in multiple age groups.There are two separate play structure areas, one for the toddler set, and the other geared more toward kiddos 5 and over. Both are close enough to each other for families to be able to play in the separate areas simultaneously without safety issues, and are complete with multiple swing sets, climbing walls and statues, playgrounds, and plenty of room to run around.

Although slightly farther away from the museums, the 6th Avenue Playground is a great playground for older and younger players as well. The Morley Field Playground is a good alternative for families with dogs, as is located adjacent to a great dog park.

Both of the Bird Parks are great finds for families with toddlers and/or infants. The parks have play structures geared more towards small kids, and cushioned surfaces for crawlers. They are much quieter and smaller parks, so they are perfect if you need to escape the crowds or are just looking for another new free spot to explore for a half hour.

balboa park girl fountainPhoto credit: Caitlin Doe via Flickr creative commons 

For those with a smartphone and little explores with a sense of adventure, geocaching in Balboa Park is a great activity for the entire family. Everyone can get in on the hunt and race to see who can find each geocache first. There are hundreds of geocaches in Balboa Park, with more being created and added every year. The only prep work is downloading a free geocaching app on your smartphone. Be sure to bring a pen so everyone can write down their name on the geocache and a camera to document the treasure hunt.

The Timken Museum of Art
Located adjacent to the Botanical Building, the Timken Museum is a tiny art museum, but filled with a wonderful collection of art from many different periods in history. This museum is very much hands off, and silence is appreciated (although security is very understanding about toddlers and high volume levels). Admission is completely free, although they do have a box for donations at the door. The Timken Museum is a great pit stop to briefly escape the sun and soak up some art before hitting up the next adventure. There is plenty of lawn space outside to run around, and a pool filled with koi fish and ducks to watch.

Spreckels Organ PavilionPhoto credit: Robert Lang, Spreckels Organ Society

Spreckels Organ Pavilion
Every Sunday afternoon from 2 – 3 p.m., families can enjoy free organ concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, one of the largest outdoor organs in the world. During the rest of the week, the pavilion is a great place for kids to run around and explore free of charge. Plenty of bench seating makes it a great spot to eat a picnic lunch or have an impromptu story time.

There are tons more features in Balboa Park that are completely free. Splash in one of the many Park’s fountains, or grab the stroller and hit the trails that wander through some of San Diego’s beautiful terrains. Bring a basketball or volleyball and start a game on of the park’s free and open courts. Take dog treats to the dog park and ask owners if you can meet their dog.

For more great ideas to play in the park, check out the Balboa Park Family Activity Guide

Balboa Park
1549 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101
Online: balboapark.org

What’s your favorite thing to do in Balboa Park? Have you found free hidden gems? Tell us in the Comments below! 

— Bryn Wied

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