San Diego’s very own Balboa Park is one of the top attractions in all of California. On a visit to this National Historic Landmark, you’ll find 17 museums to explore, carousels and trains to ride, towers to climb, scavenger hunts, lots of playgrounds, and fun community-wide events throughout the year. Read on for our ultimate guide on what not to miss on your next excursion to this 1,200-acre urban cultural park.
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Explore Unbeatable Museums
For budding scientists who like to get hands-on, check out the changing exhibits at the Fleet Science Center. Have a train-obsessed kid? Watch the model trains run the tracks through tunnels, towns and over bridges at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Stomp and roar with the dinosaurs, open drawers full of butterflies and specimens of all kinds and behold the gemstones dug from the earth at the San Diego Natural History Museum. If your kiddos love cars, planes or rocket ships, you’ve got to take them to the San Diego Automotive Museum and the San Diego Air & Space Museum; they’re right next to each other.
Good To Know: Each of these museums has either a special kid’s play section, storytimes, classes and school break camps.
Insider’s Tip: Go on a resident-free Tuesday for free admission!
Ride the Carousel & Miniature Train
Whiz around the historic Balboa Park Carousel and try your hand at the ring toss game to win a free ride. All but two of the wooden carousel zoo animals are original from its creation in 1910. Hop aboard the Balboa Park Mini Train next door for a ½ mile ride through a man-made jungle and go through the wishing tunnel. If you go during the winter you’ll see it all dressed up in holiday lights. The train and carousel are towards the zoo; park in the Spanish Village parking lot just south of the carousel.
Hours: Open on weekends, holidays, school breaks and summers.
Climb the California Tower
Go where most people don’t even know you can at Balboa Park…up! Climb the secret staircase inside the California Tower at the Museum of Us. A guide will narrate the tour and lead your group up to the mid-level of the tower for unparalleled views that you didn’t even know were possible. Afterward, stroll around the interactive exhibits of the museum for a fun-filled way to experience this unique museum.
Good To Know: This is allowed for ages 6+, buy your timed tickets online.
Become Junior Rangers
Stop in at the Visitor’s Center and ask for the Junior Ranger Scavenger Hunt page, or download it from your computer before your next visit. This will take you all over Balboa Park, learning and seeing things you never knew, even if you’re a seasoned visitor. Older kids will answer the questions and younger kids will cross off their Bingo photos. Return these sheets to the Visitor’s Center and receive your free Junior Ranger Badges.
Good To Know: Depending on your kids’ endurance and walkability energy, this may take several visits to complete. You’ll find restaurants and food stands all over so stop and give those little feet a break in between your scavenging.
After all this exploring, find a playground nearby and let the kids run around for a bit. The closest playground is at Pepper Grove, just south of the Fleet Science Center parking lot. If you’re on the west side of Balboa Park, closer to the Museum of Us, walk across the Cabrillo Bridge and north along Sixth Ave. to the Sixth Avenue Playground. You may want to drive over since it’s a far walk for littles. Way over on the east side of Balboa Park near Morley Field is the Nature Exploration Area. This is a fun all natural play area with large rocks to jump across, logs and dried palm fronds to make forts with and sliced tree stumps that can double as pizza. Two other playgrounds are nearby, one is behind the Bud Kearns Memorial Swimming Pool and the other is the Bird Park Playground at the very northeastern corner.
Good To Know: The only ones with bathrooms nearby are at Pepper Grove and Bud Kearns Swimming Pool.
Wander the Gardens
Balboa Park has over 13 beautifully landscaped gardens in all varieties for you to stroll through, sit in the shade, watch butterflies or smell the sweet roses. The Cherry Blossoms bloom every March at the Japanese Friendship Garden, the roses peak April-June at the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden and there’s usually a butterfly release once a year at the Zoro Butterfly Garden. You’ll find plenty of other gardens to stroll through that are perfect for a relaxing picnic or just to get in touch with nature.
All of the gardens are free to stroll about except for the Japanese Friendship Garden has an entrance fee. This is a beautiful relaxing stroll to take little explorers on before or after a museum visit. Park behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion––the closest point to the Garden. Kiddos love to look at (and count) the giant Koi fish and jump across the rocks in the stream. Stop for tea time at the Tea Pavilion and order a teriyaki bowl and mochi ice cream too. There’s a lovely outdoor patio outside to sit, eat and enjoy the ambiance.
Good To Know: Kids 6 and under are FREE at the Japanese Friendship Garden.
Tip: Family memberships are inexpensive here and they’re part of the American Horticultural Society reciprocal garden membership program. Membership at one AHS garden will get you free reciprocal admission into other participating garden museums across the nation.
Balboa Park celebrates all year long with various holiday and cultural traditions. The main event was December Nights, drawing thousands of people to experience the park lit up and serving up foods, treats and fun for the holiday. This has changed due the pandemic, but hopefully they’ll bring this back up to its glory soon. Halloween is another fun time to celebrate at the park with trick-or-treat stands, costume contests and sometimes a pumpkin drop. The summer brings Balboa Park After Dark and Food Truck Fridays with live entertainment and kids activities. On Sundays, experience a new cultural tradition each week at the International Cottages. Check the events calendar for other fun events throughout the year!
Where to Eat at Balboa Park
Balboa Park has plenty of food and drink options to get you through a day of play. Their coffee carts will start your day, the food vendors will keep you going and their casual and sit down restaurants will help you refuel. Here's where to eat and drink your way around Balboa Park.
Start your day with some caffeine options at Daniel’s Coffee inside Spanish Village, at Prado Perk coffee stand next to the Prado Restaurant and at the Craft Café inside the Mingei Museum.
More recently this past year have seen food vendors selling hot dogs, popcorn, churros and other quick grab-n-go snacks. You’ll find these lined up along the main walkways and in the center in front of the San Diego Museum of Art.
If you’re looking for something quick and casual to fill up the kiddos, try these museums’ quick-casual cafes: Craveology inside the Fleet Science, The Flying Squirrel Café inside The San Diego Natural History Museum, Flight Path Grill inside the San Diego Air & Space Museum, Café in the Park just upstairs from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the Tea Pavilion next to the Japanese Friendship Garden and Lady Carolyn’s Pub is open one-hour prior to performances at the Old Globe Theater.
For sit-down dining options to enjoy as a date-night or to linger over table service while you rest your feet from all the walking, you’ll find plenty of culinary treasures. Head over to Panama 66 for outdoor dining and wander the hidden outdoor sculpture garden while you wait for your food to arrive. The Prado is Balboa Park’s finest dining restaurant that’s perfect for a special occasion or to make any day extra special. Artifact is the newest restaurant located inside the recently renovated Mingei Museum, where you’ll find carefully crafted dishes from all over the world to delight your taste buds.
––Bonnie Taylor and Nikki Walsh