Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Balboa Park, San Diego

  • Published 2022/03/25

San Diego pretty much has it all, from gorgeous white-sand beaches, a bustling metropolis, and beautiful parks.

So, it’s a no-brainer why thousands of tourists flock to this Southern California city for leisure and adventure.

One of the prettiest attractions you should visit in San Diego is Balboa Park.

It’s a huge park, covering 1,200 acres home to dozens of museums, cultural landmarks, gardens, and entertainment establishments.

Historically, Balboa Park was reserved by the city of San Diego for public use in the early 1800s, until the park was developed to the beauty it is today.

Balboa Park is where nature, history, culture, and leisure meet.

Its lush grounds of gardens, fountains, and elegant Colonial Spanish Revival architectures virtually take you to a different world.

There are 17 museums to visit in Balboa Park featuring exhibits from dinosaur fossils, natural history, vintage automobiles, space travel, humankind, science, and many more.

In addition, Balboa Park is also home to numerous amphitheaters and theaters for musicals, concerts, and orchestras.

Moreover, it’s also home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

Given the magnitude of activities and attractions in Balboa Park, you might be overwhelmed.

Here are the 15 best things to do in Balboa Park to make your visit there unforgettable.

Climb the Iconic California Tower

Exterior of the California Tower

Dancestrokes /

Right after arriving at Balboa Park, the most distinct attraction you’ll be noticing first is the California Tower, which makes it an icon in this place.

Many say that your visit to Balboa Park isn’t complete without climbing and taking photos of this 200-foot tower constructed in 1915.

The California Tower is situated in the Museum of Us or formerly known as the Museum of Man.

Aerial view of California Tower

Nick Starichenko /

Oddly, the California Tower was closed for almost a century for unknown reasons.

Before it was closed, it was open to the public for 20 years until 2014; it finally reopened for everyone to climb its 125 steps.

Upon reaching the top of the tower, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the entire Balboa Park and San Diego.

A water fountain in front of California Tower

Ritu Manoj Jethani /

Immerse Yourself with Charming Artworks at the Timken Museum of Art

Exterior of Timken Museum of Art

Sherry V Smith /

The Timken Museum of Art is also called the “San Diego’s Jewel Box of Fine Art” because of the extensive collection of world-class artworks.

The museum is a great place to visit either by yourself or with your loved ones and have a closer look at the world-renowned Putnam collection of 19th-century American art, European Old Masters, and Russian arts.

People admiring art in Timken Museum of Art

EQRoy /

In addition, the museum also houses the Rembrandt painting on one of its exhibits.

Aside from free admission, there are many reasons to visit the Timken Museum.

It offers visitors enriching arts and cultural experiences from its rare and beautiful art collection.

Night lights of Timken Museum of Art

Daniel Avram /

Meet Animals at the San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo doesn’t entirely need a lengthy introduction because it’s well-known worldwide.

Vibrant name sign of San Diego Zoo

Sundry Photography /

This 100-acre attraction in Balboa Park is home to around 4,000 animals ranging from 660 species and subspecies.

It’s the perfect family destination you should include on your itinerary while visiting Balboa Park.

Tour bus of San Diego Zoo

Evgeniya Lystsova /

Kids and even kids at heart will be in awe to see elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, and hippopotamus at close range at the San Diego Zoo.

In addition, the zoo also features a beautiful botanical garden that houses 700,000 plant species.

Flamingos in San Diego Zoo

Felipe Sanchez /

Learn Something Cool at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

Exterior of Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

Lester Balajadia /

The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park boasts more than a hundred interactive exhibits that will tickle your imagination and curiosity about science.

One of its focal points is the massive IMAX film theater, wherein you’ll be taken to an outer space experience.

This science center in Balboa Park is also a popular destination for school field trips, educational camps, and science workshops in San Diego and the Southern California region.

Name sign of Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

Lester Balajadia /

In addition, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center hosts various science-related events regularly featuring exciting topics and shows about science.

With all that in mind, this interactive science center is a must-visit place in Balboa Park for the entire family.

A water fountain in front of Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Roam around the Museum of Us

Exterior of Museum of Us

Rosamar /

There’s a long list of attractions in Balboa Park that you should not miss visiting, including the Museum of Us.

The Museum of Us, or formerly the San Diego Museum of Man, has been operating for more than a century.

Many generations have already roamed through its vast halls and exhibits that feature unique artifacts from the past.

Entrance door and sculptures of Museum of Us

Rosamar /

The Museum of Us is considered a historic anthropology museum with various exhibits.

Its most famous exhibits are the “Instruments of Torture” exhibit, Beerology exhibit, Ancient Egypt exhibit, and Monsters exhibit, all with unique and exciting sights to see.

Visiting this place with your family offers a one-of-a-kind experience that will surely spark your enthusiasm, self-reflection, dialogue, and human connection.

Archways and lamp lights outside Museum of Us

Rosamar /

Discover the Flora and Fauna of the Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve

The Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve is a unique attraction in Balboa Park because it collects native plants from the Sunshine State.

In addition, this plant preserve offers you Balboa Park’s original landscape back in the day.

The 150-acre Coastal Sage Scrub also serves as crucial habitat for native wildlife.

This place is an excellent spot for hiking, mountain biking, off-road running, and other outdoor activities.

The entire plant preserve has numerous picturesque trails that give you a gorgeous view of the whole Balboa Park, making this place worthy of visiting.

Catch an Awesome Show at the Old Globe

Exterior of Old Globe theatre

Carl DeAbreu Photography /

The award-winning Old Globe Theater is inspired by London’s Globe Theater, where William Shakespeare popularly performed back in the day.

Although it’s a replica of the one in London, the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park has nothing short of elegance and charm.

Sign post of the Old Globe

Steve Cukrov /

If you want to catch world-class shows like an orchestra, symphony, musicals, and stage plays, this is the best place to watch them.

The old Globe hosts many world-class shows the entire year on its three unique stages.

In addition, the Old Globe Theater became a recipient of the prestigious Tony Awards in 1984 as an “Outstanding Regional Theater” and its contribution to Southern California’s arts.

Tables and chairs near the Old Globe

amadeustx /

Embrace the Peaceful Atmosphere of the Japanese Friendship Garden

Cherry blossom trees and a bridge in Japanese Friendship Garden

Sundry Photography /

The Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park is a unique and relaxing place to visit.

The garden’s flora and fauna resemble what a natural garden looks like in Japan.

This attraction in Balboa Park offers visitors a tranquil experience and beautiful gardens perfect for photoshoots.

Entrance of Japanese Friendship Garden

EQRoy /

Some of the Japanese Friendship Garden’s key features are the Zen meditation area, bonsai garden, and its koi pond.

In addition, the garden has a tea pavilion wherein visitors can enjoy an eclectic selection of imported teas.

This 12-acre area was constructed in Balboa Park to signify the friendship between the sister cities of San Diego and Yokohama.

Trees, plants, and a pond in Japanese Friendship Garden

SunflowerMomma /

Sweat Out at the Balboa Park Activity Center

If you’re looking for a unique and active experience in Balboa Park, head to the 38,000-square-foot multi-purpose gymnasium — the Balboa Park Activity Center.

This place is packed with top-notch sports facilities such as table tennis courts, volleyball courts, badminton courts, and other features.

This place is also popular for hosting local, regional, state, and even national-level sports tournaments.

It opened in the 1960s and has been one of the most beloved attractions in Balboa Park for fitness buffs and sports enthusiasts.

So, don’t forget to bring your sports gear when you’re visiting Balboa Park because you’ll be in for many sports action at this massive facility.

Browse through the Natural History Museum

Exterior and steps leading to Natural History Museum

Kit Leong /

Balboa Park is home to more than a dozen museums, including the Natural History Museum or the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Whether you’re a history buff or a casual tourist, something is exciting, and fun awaits at this museum which features rotating exhibits.

Interior of Natural History Museum

Conchi Martinez /

In addition, it has permanent exhibits like the “Fossil Mysteries,” which feature dinosaur fossils and prehistoric remains.

Other exhibits you and your family should check out at the Natural History Museum are “The Nat,” “The Real World,” and the “Coast to Cactus in Southern California.”

You can join guided tours inside the museum for a more convenient visit.

A dinosaur skeleton in Natural History Museum

Conchi Martinez /

Wander through the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

Colorful roses in Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

Cmilbrand /

Considered as one of the most stunning features of Balboa Park, the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden features more than 1,600 roses from more than a hundred varieties in this three-acre lot.

It’s a stunning place to visit where you’ll smell, feel, and appreciate the natural beauty of the roses grown in this garden.

The garden is best visited from March through December since that is the period for the roses to bloom.

Beautifully bloomed roses in Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

Tracy Immordino /

In addition, newer rose varieties are added to the garden, adding more beauty and elegance to it.

This garden is a recipient of many awards, including the “Outstanding Rose Garden” in the entire United States in 1978 by the All-America Rose Selections.

It’s a beautiful place to visit and take photos with your loved ones, or perhaps sit at one of the benches inside the garden and enjoy the scenery.

Vibrant roses in Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

Cmilbrand /

Listen to the Harmony of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Sunny day at Spreckels Organ Pavilion

HannaTor /

Balboa Park is home to the world’s largest pipe organ— the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

This famous attraction is an outdoor venue with an organ comprised of 4,530 pipes constructed for the Panama-California Exposition in 1914.

Water fountain of Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Steve Cukrov /

The pipes’ sizes are small as a pencil to the humongous 32 feet that produce harmonious sounds.

Regular concerts happen at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion if you want to listen to the sound of the organ.

Visiting this place is a great way to relax and watch free concerts from various musicians who play the organ.

The stage of Spreckels Organ Pavilion

HannaTor /

Get a Glimpse of Rare Cars at the San Diego Automotive Museum

Exterior of San Diego Automotive Museum

Sherry V Smith /

The San Diego Automotive Museum is a spectacular place to visit whether you’re a car enthusiast or not.

The museum offers visitors an extensive exhibit featuring various collections of cars and motorcycles from vintage to modern.

While visiting the museum, you’ll come across and even get a closer look at more than a hundred rare exotic cars, sports cars, muscle cars, and many more.

A motorcycle displayed in San Diego Automotive Museum

Aydin-Akin /

In addition, you can check out other exhibits that feature memorabilia, photos, and videos relevant to automotive history.

Spending an hour at the San Diego Automotive Museum is worthwhile for the entire family, especially car enthusiasts.

Cars displayed inside San Diego Automotive Museum

Inspired By Maps /

Flex Your Skills at the Balboa Park Golf Course

People playing golf in Balboa Park Golf Course

Larry David /

The Balboa Park Golf Course is a technical par-72, 18-hole golf course situated in the southern portion of the park.

Aside from playing golf, the Balboa Park Golf Course is known for its astonishing scenery that overlooks the entire park, San Diego, and the Pacific Ocean.

Aerial view of Balboa Park Golf Course

Alfred Twu, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Historically, the Balboa Park Golf Course is San Diego’s oldest public golf course.

Like most top-notch golf courses, the Balboa Park Golf Course has essential amenities like a driving range, halfway house, practice greens, coffee shop, and a pro shop.

Sunny day at Balboa Park Golf Course

Mds08011, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hike through the Golden Hill Park Trails

The Golden Hill Park Trails in Balboa Park is a popular hiking destination in Balboa Park.

It has multiple trails that offer different sceneries that highlight the beauty of San Diego and Balboa Park.

It has a half-a-mile trail where elders and kids love to hike, while the 4.4-mile trail takes hikers to the Switzer and Florida canyons.

Its longest trail, which covers roughly seven miles, takes hikers to the Florida Canyon on the eastern border of Balboa Park.

The trails pass through various museums and gardens in Balboa Park.

The Golden Hill Park Trails are perfect for discovering a different perspective of Balboa Park’s beauty.

In addition, the trails are not as technical as they seem, making them friendly to kids and elders.

Final Thoughts

There are so many reasons to visit this well-known park in Southern California.

It has virtually endless outdoor recreation opportunities, historical value, and entertainment for everyone.

So, which of these attractions in Balboa Park you’ll be visiting first?

Lastly, feel free to get ideas from this post if you’re overwhelmed by the dozens of attractions in Balboa Park.

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