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What to Do when Visiting Balboa Park, San Diego

Updated on October 19, 2014

Reuben Fleet Science Center, Balboa Park

Reuben Fleet Science Center in San Diego's Balboa Park
Reuben Fleet Science Center in San Diego's Balboa Park | Source

Balboa Park Overview

One of the most beautiful resources in San Diego is Balboa Park, home to the World Famous San Diego Zoo. Balboa Park also houses 17 fascinating museums that range from the kid-friendly Model Railroad museum to the expansive Reuben H Fleet Science Center, as well as 19 gardens that focus on both native and rare plants. It has performance venues that include the renowned Old Globe Theater and a number of unique attractions that will appeal to every family member. A visit to Balboa Park is a must on any San Diego vacation itinerary.

Balboa Park Money-Saving Tip

Balboa Park Savings Passports: If you plan to visit several museums while visiting San Diego, you may be able to save some money by purchasing a multi-day all-museum pass, a combination zoo/museum pass, or a single day 5-museum pass.

San Diego Museum

When planning your Balboa Park visit, be sure to allot some time to see at least one or two museums. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is a kid-pleaser, appropriate for young children to teens. It boasts a large IMAX theater, lots of hands-on exhibits, and a little "city" play area that toddlers love.

Even if large museums aren't your thing, seek out some of the smaller museums, like the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, with its amazing scale replica railroad lines constructed by volunteers.There is also a hands-on toy train area where young children can play. Or, if you like drumming, check out the schedule for the World Beat Center, where volunteers and guest artists often offer drumming classes or other cultural experiences. If art is your thing, the Timken Museum is home to the Putnam collection, a small but surprisingly rich collection of European and Russian art. History buffs might be interested in the San Diego History Center, which has a large photographic collection about the region.

If you're a traveling artist, you might be interested in San Diego Art Institute, a museum dedicated to advancing the work of San Diego artists. It is also home to Art Gym, open four nights per week. Bring your paints and pay $5 to "work out" at the gym on Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday nights. They supply a live model for artists, and host a monthly photo shoot with a live model for photographers. For teens working on an art portolio for college submissions, this is an inexpensive way to build a portfolio. (Parents need to go with teens.)

San Diego Museum

Museum Name
Reuben H Fleet Science Center
Family friendly, interactive exhibits, science-centric
Approx $12-$16
San Diego Air and Space Museum
Family friendly, teen interest, interactive exhibits, space simulator, science-centric
Approx $7-$18, extra for simulator
San Diego Automotive Museum
Family friendly, teen interest, auto buffs, historical interest
Approx $4-$10
San Diego History Center
Historical interest, regional interest
Approx $3-$6
Timken Museum of Art
Family friendly, fine art interest
Centro Cultural de la Raza
Multicultural interest, educational interest, fine art, workshops, programs
San Diego Museum of Art
Fine art interest, quarterly free family festival, educational interest, workshops, programs
Approx $4-$15
San Diego Museum of Man
Family friendly, Anthropological interest, hands-on children's exhibits.
Approx $5-$13
Museum of Photographic Arts
Photographic interest
Approx $4-$6
Marston House
Cultural and architectural interest, garden interest, tours given
Approx $4-$10
Mingei International Museum
Multicultural international art interest, folk art interest
Approx $5-$8
San Diego Art Institute
Visual arts interest, New works, new artists. Home of San Diego Art Gym.
Approx $3; $5 for Art Gym
San Diego Hall of Champions
Sports interest, teen interest
Approx $5-$8
Veterans Museum and Memorial
Armed forces interest, teen interest, veterans interest, memorial garden
World Beat Center
Multicultural interest, educational interest, classes and workshops, kid-friendly ethnobotony garden
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Kid friendly, scale railroads interest, historical interest
Kids free, Adults $8
When visiting San Diego's Balboa Park, be sure to seek out a museum or two. Note: prices are approximate and may change. Many museums offer free admission to children, though ages vary.

San Diego Zoo


Tip: Balboa Park for Kids

Download the guide, Balboa Park for Kids before you visit for specific information about family actitivies.

Balboa Park for Kids

San Diego Zoo

Pretty much the entire park is kid friendly, but there are certain attractions that are particularly exciting for young children. At the top of the list is the World Famous San Diego Zoo.This zoo may be an enlightening experience for a child who has never experienced a zoo that tries to create "animal zones" and natural habitats, rather than simply housing animals in cages. While the zoo is extremely walkable, multigenerational families or those with toddlers may prefer using the hop-on, hop-off bus that treks around the zoo. A more traditional bus tour in the zoo is also an option. Keep an eye out for animal encounters -- there is a cheetah that often is walked around the zoo with her canine companion.

Balboa Park Attractions

For kids fascinated by trains, be sure to take a ride on the miniature railroad located near the entrance to the San Diego Zoo. Also near the Zoo entrance is the Balboa Park Carousel, which still offers the thrill of capturing the brass ring. Kids who like puppets will love Marie Hitchcock's Puppet Theater, a long-time San Diego tradition. If you're visiting the park on a Sunday, stop by the Spreckels Organ Pavilion for a free afternoon concert on perhaps the world's largest outdoor pipe organ. The sound is intense, so if you have little ones, don't sit too close to the front, rather, sit nearby on the grass or at the top of the steps. Take a walk around the Prado area of the park, near the Reuben H Fleet Center, where you might catch a street performer. Look for the comedian who wraps himself up in a straightjacket and then unwraps himself. Finally, have an early evening picnic and let the kids blow off some energy at the playground located at Morley Field Sports Complex, located across the street from the Zoo, at Upas Street and Morley Field Drive. The complex also has a pool, archery range and a dog park.

Japanese Friendship Garden


Balboa Park Gardens

Possibly the best-known garden in Balboa Park is the Japanese Friendship Garden. It's a 2.5 acre garden area with a large koi pond and a Zen garden area. A tea house that sells tea and snacks is next to the garden entrance gate. The best way to see the garden is through a docent tour, offered only on certain days of each month, so it is best to check the schedule to see if one is offered while you are visiting.

Other gardens worth seeing include the Rose Garden, which is across the street from the Reuben H Fleet Center. The Rose Garden varies in its beauty with the seasons, and is particularly interesting in early spring. One benefit of living in San Diego, however, is that roses tend to bloom through Christmas, so the Rose Garden may be in bloom during at least some winter months. The Botanical Building is also well-worth a visit, as it houses some unusual specimens. The lily pond in front of the building is also of interest. You may see a few street musicians alongside the pond as well.

San Diego Balboa Park Family Highlights

reuben fleet museum, san diego:
The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, 1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

get directions

natural history museum, san diego:
San Diego Natural History Museum, 1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

get directions

san diego zoo:
San Diego Zoo, 2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

get directions

Balboa Park miniature railroad:
Balboa Park Miniature Railroad, 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

get directions

Balboa Park Train Museum, San Diego:
San Diego Model Railroad Museum, 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

get directions

Japanese Friendship Garden:
2125 Pan American Road East, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

get directions

Marie Hitchock Puppet Theater:
2130 Pan American Road West, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

get directions


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    • prokidwriter profile imageAUTHOR

      KA Hanna 

      6 years ago from America's Finest City

      Thanks Alison! Balboa Park is one of my most favorite places on the planet. I spend a lot of time there!

    • Alison Graham profile image

      Alison Graham 

      6 years ago from UK

      Wow, this is such an informative guide! After reading this, I really wanted to find out more and pay a visit, congratulations on a really useful hub, a go-to resource for families. Voted up and shared.


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