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The Best Things to Do in San Diego’s Balboa Park

Spanning 1,200 acres across the center of San Diego, Balboa Park is an enticing urban oasis you don’t want to miss. With magnificent architecture, world-class museums, ample green spaces, and captivating zoological park, this historic park has earned its place as a top California destination. 

With a diverse array of recreational activities to choose from, it can be a challenge to know where to begin! Consider the Explorer Pass, which acts as an inclusive ticket encompassing some of the cultural highlights to discover in the park. Take a stroll through the Japanese Friendship Garden, get up close and personal with wildlife at the San Diego Zoo, meander through distinguished museums showcasing an array of enriching interests, and immerse yourself in all things Balboa Park.

Botanic Building. Photo by F11photo.

Architecture & Gardens

Strolling through Balboa Park, it’s impossible not to notice the spectacular architecture on display. Marvel at the iconic Casa de Balboa, originally constructed to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915. The stunning Spanish Colonial Revival style building now houses the San Diego History Center, Model Railroad Museum, and Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA). The building itself plays a crucial role in showcasing and preserving the architectural and cultural heritage of the San Diego region and of California as a whole. 

Nearby, elevated 200 feet over the heart of the park, is California Tower, a “soaring, intricately detailed portion of the California building … [which] can be seen for miles around” (Balboa Park). Climb to the top for amazing panoramic views of the park and city beyond. Then, check out the Spanish Village Art Center, a lively, colorful artistic enclave featuring the studios and galleries of several local artists. While you’re at it, don’t miss a chance to meander through the Japanese Friendship Garden & Museum. This tranquil oasis has been thoughtfully designed throughout to immerse visitors in the serenity of Japanese landscaping and culture. The beauty of the gardens and stunning architecture scattered throughout Balboa Park makes for an enticing experience you won’t want to miss.

Red Panda. Photo by Ken Bohn, courtesy of Visit San Diego. 

The Zoo  

San Diego Zoo & Safari Park is expansive and endlessly educational. With their commitment to the conservation and preservation of wildlife around the world, the zoo engages visitors in educational experiences as they explore the park, sharing insights on the diverse species on display. Covering over 100 acres, the zoo offers an abundance of space to recreate the habitats of 650 species on exhibit … about 3,500 animals total! 

A particular favorite is the panda exhibit. The giant pandas here have helped in increasing awareness of conservation efforts for all wildlife. There is much to explore, so consider a guided tour or animal encounter and check out the immersive experiences around the zoo.

Photo courtesy of Mingei International Museum/Visit San Diego. 


Visit Balboa Park’s 18 diverse, world-renowned museums, each satisfying a range of interests, from fine art to dinosaurs, airplanes, and more. Art lovers will thrive at the San Diego Museum of Art, whose multi-faceted collection tells the story of over 7,000 years of art from all over the globe. Don’t miss the Mingei International Museum, where the global collection of folk art, craft, and design “celebrates human creativity in a variety of materials and forms” (San Diego Tourism Authority).

A favorite for all ages is the San Diego Natural History Museum, also known as The Nat. Here, exhibits shine a spotlight on paleontology, anthropology, and botany with a focus on Southern California’s natural history. The San Diego Air & Space Museum divulges the history of flight while giving visitors a closer look at aircrafts and artifacts that explore aviation and outer space. 

Balboa Park’s array of museums featuring art, history, science, and cultural diversity transform this beautiful urban park from a lovely greenspace to a cultural hub that appeals to all ages. With its captivating Californian architecture, renowned collection of museums, abundant green spaces, and sprawling, conservation-centric zoo, the historic Balboa Park has earned its place as a top destination for locals and tourists alike! 

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