The Casa del Prado and lily pond in Balboa Park, San Diego
Stuart Bak

Things to do in Balboa Park San Diego

San Diego’s Balboa Park is a huge tract of parkland located just north of Downtown. Sprawling across some 1,200 acres, it’s criss-crossed by several freeways and boasts dozens of attractive gardens, museums, galleries, theaters and other attractions as well as wild walking trails, stunning architecture and an assortment of cafés, bars and restaurants.

This massive urban playground could easily fill several days of sightseeing. Here are our top 10 picks for things to do in Balboa Park San Diego.

Go to the Zoo

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Covering around a twelfth of the entire Park, San Diego Zoo contains hundreds of species and thousands of animals and is one of the most visited zoos in the United States. Wander through the Lost Forest to spot the resident hippos, plus tigers, gorillas and more, and visit the Komodo Kingdom for your giant lizard fix. There are huge tropical aviaries, Arctic landscapes and – as the zoo is also a botanical garden – over 700,000 exotic plants to explore. Take the guided bus tour to get your bearings or hop on the Skyfari cable car for an amazing aerial view of the critters and vegetation below.

Admire the Architecture

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Many of Balboa Park’s buildings were designed for major Expos in the early 20th Century, which makes for a pretty diverse range of architectural styles. Stroll the broad El Prado boulevard to spot the Casa del Prado, a stunning Spanish-Colonial masterpiece with garlanded columns, shaded cloisters and tiled domes. And listen for the bell chiming every quarter hour from the lavish three-story tower of the California Building, with its colorful tiled dome and heady mix of Baroque, Churrigueresque, Rococo and Gothic styles.

See Some Fine Art

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The ornate Spanish Renaissance-style facade of San Diego Museum of Art is a masterpiece in itself and features within it three life-sized sculptures of Spanish Old Master painters Velázquez, Murillo and Zurbarán. Step inside to discover some of their finest pieces exhibited alongside other Spanish, European and American greats including Goya, El Greco, Klimt, Canaletto, Monet, Matisse and many more. The smaller Timken Museum nearby offers more of the same, while the Museum of Photographic Arts boasts a collection of thousands of fascinating images spanning the history of photography.

Explore the Japanese Friendship Garden

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Created to mark the harmonious relationship between San Diego and its sister city Yokohama, the Japanese Friendship Garden is 12 acres of pure zen, featuring tranquil koi ponds and waterfalls, a huge collection of bonsai trees and an extensive azalea and camellia garden filled with stunning white and pink blooms. Stroll the pathways to discover burbling water features and impressive statues cast in bronze, and visit in early March to see the cherry-blossom grove in all its spring finery.

Visit the San Diego Air & Space Museum

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Take a spin through the history of flight and space travel in this fantastic museum. Kids and aircraft enthusiasts will love to explore the many exhibits here, including Gumdrop, one of only 13 Apollo command modules on display anywhere in the world, and a faithful replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, the tiny plane flown solo from Long Island to Paris by Charles Lindbergh back in 1927. Other highlights include an amazing 4D cinema for fun, immersive flying experiences, and a model of the Montgolfier Brothers’s 18th-century hot-air balloon, the first ever to complete a successful manned flight.

Have a Picnic

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One of the best things you can do in Balboa Park is also one of the simplest: have a picnic! There are so many great spots to choose from in a green space this size but the east and west lawns of the Botanical Building are particularly picturesque, with views of the tranquil lily pond and lashings of sunshine. Note that, while alcohol is permitted here (and in a few other designated areas), glass is not, so remember to bring your Californian cabernet in a box and your San Diego craft beer in a can!

Take in a Show

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The Spreckels Organ Pavilion is a an elaborate confection in the Italian Renaissance style, with fine detailing that includes intricate leaves and seashells. It also happens to be home to the largest outdoor organ on the planet, so you just know you’re going to have to go along for a listen. Free organ recitals blast out from the pavilion every Sunday at 2PM, and there are evening concerts in the summer months. The nearby Old Globe is modelled on Shakespear’s London theater and puts on a busy program of plays and musicals throughout its summer and winter seasons.

Hike the Trails

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Balboa Park has a number of excellent trails designed for hiking, biking and even skating. These vary in length from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it half mile to a strenuous seven, with designated routes signposted at five main gateway points. Hit the three-mile Park Boulevard trail for a laidback stroll around some of the park’s top attractions, or tackle a more challenging ramble on the 4.4-mile Golden Hill trail. This route takes intrepid explorers over slightly more rugged terrain and deep into the native habitat of the Florida and Switzer canyons, as well as including a pleasant stretch of oak and eucalyptus-shaded pathway along the park’s eastern edge.

Meet Prehistoric Monsters

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The San Diego Natural History Museum is a fab family attraction with four floors of exhibits including a giant replica mastodon, dinosaur fossils and an exhibition of over 200 skulls that run the gamut from tiny reptiles and amphibians up to giant pachyderms. There’s a big-screen theater showing natural history films and plenty of interactive fun for inquisitive kids, who can examine fossils using archaeological tools and visit scientists at work in the Demonstration Lab. The Backyard provides a fun zone for toddlers to explore the natural world through play.

Ride the Balboa Park Carousel

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A firm favorite among visitors to Balboa Park for over a century now, this charming merry-go-round provides good old-fashioned entertainment in spades. Still running like a well-oiled machine on its original engine, it features a menagerie of beautifully crafted beasts including horses, giraffes, cats, pigs, a lion and... a dragon. Saddle up and enjoy this delightful throwback to a more innocent era.

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