Your Ultimate Guide to California’s Best Attraction: Balboa Park

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San Diego’s very own Balboa Park was just voted the Best California Attraction. On a visit to this National Historic Landmark, you’ll find 17 museums to explore, a carousel to ride, towers to climb, trains to hop on, cool events from December Nights to Halloween Family Day and so much more. Read on for our ultimate guide of the best places to go with your kids on your next excursion to this magnificent 1,200-acre urban cultural park.

photo: Kevin Baird

Explore Unbeatable Museums
For budding scientists who like to get hands-on, we recommend the Fleet Science Center. Have a little LEGO®-lover? Find the fit-a-brick zone. Have a train-obsessed kid? All aboard to view the tunnels, tracks and train layouts at the Model Railroad Museum. Stomp and roar with the dinosaurs and understand our water systems at theNAT. Or if your kiddo can spot every make and model of cars on the road, the Automotive Museum is the way to ride. Go out of this world, see outer space and blast to the moon at the Air and Space Museum’s new exhibit: Be the Astronaut.

Insider’s Tip: Go on a resident-free Tuesday for complimentary admission!

photo: David Grant

Climb the California Tower
Seek out the mummies and monsters at the Museum of Man, then climb the hidden passage to the California Tower––which just re-opened after being closed to the public for 80 years. Little detectives (ages 6 and up) can scramble up the spiral staircase and peek out tower windows for an amazing view. There’s a guide who sets a proper pace for this adventure and provides a historical perspective of the California Tower and Balboa Park. Afterwards, stroll around the interactive exhibits of the museum. It’s a fun-filled way to explore the history of man and this majestic park.

Cost: $22.50/adult; $16/child (museum admission + tower tour)
Online: museumofman/californiatower

photo: Jasmine C.

Wander the Japanese Friendship Garden
This is a beautiful stroll you can take with little explorers 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. Stop for tea time at the Tea Pavilion and order a teriyaki bowl too. There’s a lovely outdoor patio where you can sit and eat. Garden entrance is free on the third Tuesday of each month.

Cost: $10/adult; $8/child; Children under 6 free

photo: Antone Kom

Ride the Carousel & Miniature Train
Whiz around the historic Balboa Park Carousel. Little riders can choose from horses to zoo animals and you can try your hand at the ring toss (outside stationary track). All but two of the wooden carousel zoo animals are original from its creation in 1910. Climb aboard the three-minute miniature train ride next door. (Psst… go during the winter to see the holiday lights). Give a little toot-toot to the lion and hippo as you cruise the half-mile track and make a wish going through the tunnel. Located near the zoo, you can park in the Spanish Village or theNAT parking lots (South of the carousel).

Cost: carousel, $2.75/person (open during summer); mini train, $3/person (open year-round)

photo: mliu 92

Seasonal Fun
Explore Balboa Park lit with holiday lights during December Nights. During these evenings, the museums are open for free and littles can decorate cookies, listen to the carols at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and delight in Santa’s lighted sleigh taking off in the sky. There’s plenty to do. Or dress up early (usually the weekend before Halloween) and hit the Park’s Halloween Family Fun Day event. You’ll find activities to do with treats and prizes handed out to the half-pints. It’s safe and fun. During the summer months, head to Food Truck Fridays for live entertainment, kids activities and an array of good eats from gourmet food trucks and Balboa Park After Dark for extended museum hours.

photo: Nicole C. via Yelp

Wheel It & Playground Time
Just roll with it on a bicycle built for four — a surrey. What could be more fun than exploring this 1,200 acre Park first-class in a surrey? You get a little exercise and kiddos get front-row fun. A perfect pit stop is the Pepper Grove playground (located South of the Fleet Science Center). You’ll find things that spin, slides to swoosh down and even a dinosaur to rock on. Good photo-ops, plus bring cash for the ice cream truck that parks on the street!

Cost: $35/hour (4-person surrey)

Where To Eat
Are the littles getting hungry? Nosh down on hot dogs, hamburgers and soft serve ice cream at the Village Grill behind the Natural History Museum. Over by the Fleet Science Center you can sit outside and enjoy the fountain when you eat at Craveology. They have salads and panini sandwiches, but the food can be a little pricey. If your little transportation expert wants to take a break from the Air and Space Museum, then the Alaska Airlines Flight Path Grill is a good go-to spot. From chili cheese dogs to grilled cheese sandwiches sit out on the observation deck and watch the colorful planes land at the airport. There are also many coffee and snack spots sprinkled throughout the park for a quick pick-me-up.


What are your favorite spots in Balboa Park? Let us know below.

––Nikki Walsh