12 Best Things to Do in Balboa Park

Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s most exciting places to visit. With museums, gardens, trails, art, and live shows, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
Todd Sarouhan
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means if you make purchases through them, I may be compensated at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
Best Things to Do in Balboa Park
Exploring Balboa Park
Best of Balboa Park
Save on Gear
Featured Hotel
Tours & Adventures

Exploring Balboa Park

San Diego Museum of Us in Balboa ParkAnkylosaurus Replica at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Founded in 1835, Balboa Park is full of rich history and culture. It is a National Historic Landmark District, and many of its buildings were constructed for the Panama-California Exposition and the California Pacific International Exposition in the early 20th century.

Today, the park is a popular destination for both San Diego residents and tourists alike. You can visit Balboa Park San Diego multiple times and still discover new things each time.

The park can get quite crowded, especially in the summer months, and you’ll see a wide variety of people wandering through the park and socializing. The city also hosts events in the park throughout the year, which creates a very fun and lively atmosphere.

San Diego has warm weather year-round, so you can enjoy the attractions in Balboa Park regardless of when you visit!

The park is located just north of Downtown San Diego, east of Little Italy and Banker’s Hill, and south of Hillcrest. You can access the park via car, San Diego’s public bus system, or even by foot, depending on where you’re coming from.

Note that there is relatively little parking available in Balboa Park. Many people opt to use a rideshare service like Uber or Lyft to avoid parking challenges.

Explore the winding pathways and gorgeous landscapes as you tour Balboa Park's Japanese Friendship Garden. With Todd as your guide, see what this scenic and relaxing Go City San Diego pass attraction has to offer.

Visit the Japanese Friendship Garden

The 12 Best Things to Do in Balboa Park

With so many attractions to choose from and activities to take part in when visiting Balboa Park, it can be difficult to narrow down which ones are best for you. Here’s a list of our favorite things to do when visiting Balboa Park!

Kids Reading Zoo Map at the San Diego Zoo
Kids Reading Zoo Map at the San Diego Zoo

1) Visit the World-famous San Diego Zoo

San Diego Attractions: San Diego Zoo

This is arguably the most popular attraction on this list, and for good reason! The San Diego Zoo is regarded as one of the best zoos in the United States and is home to hundreds of unique animal and plant species.

The zoo features animal species from all over the world, from Africa to Asia to South America and much more. You can opt to take one of the guided tours and learn about the animals in-depth or explore the zoo on your own. The zoo also hosts special ticketed events throughout the year for both kids and adults, so be sure to check the schedule before you visit.

Dining and shopping experiences are plentiful throughout the zoo so you can have a snack or meal and grab a souvenir to take home.

While you’re exploring, don’t miss the Skyfari Aerial Tram. This tram takes you from one end of the park to the other and comes with incredible views of the entire park as well as the Downtown San Diego skyline.

As a featured attraction in San Diego, the San Diego Zoo is part of the Go City San Diego Pass which offers discounted admission to the park.

Buy Zoo Tickets
Entrance to the Old Globe Theatre
Entrance to the Old Globe Theatre

2) Watch a Play at the Old Globe Theatre

San Diego Theaters & Venues: Old Globe Theatre San Diego

The Old Globe Theater can be thought of as the heart of San Diego’s theater scene.

If you enjoy performing arts, you’ll want to check out a show here while you explore Balboa Park. There are three stages at the Old Globe Theater - two indoor theaters and one outdoor theater.

The outdoor theater hosts San Diego’s annual summer Shakespeare festival. The Old Globe Theater also hosts modern comedies, musicals, and Broadway shows.

The Old Globe Marketplace features art, home decor, and other goods from local artisans and is worth checking-out during your visit. The theater also offers outreach and discounted tickets for teens and young adults throughout the year.

San Diego Zoo Gorilla Statue
San Diego Zoo Gorilla Statue

3) Explore Museums and the Zoo at a Discount with a Go City San Diego pass

San Diego Attractions: Go City San Diego Pass

If you want to get the best possible bang for your buck on your San Diego trip, you’ll want to pick up a Go City San Diego pass in advance to get the biggest discounts on admission prices.

The pass allows you to bundle the cost of San Diego’s top tours, attractions, and equipment rentals to save you money. The Go City San Diego pass offers discounted admission to several of the museums in Balboa Park, including the San Diego Museum of Art, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Museum of Air and Space, and more.

Buy Pass
Navy Jet Outside the Air and Space Musuem at Balboa Park
Navy Jet Outside the Air and Space Musuem at Balboa Park

4) Take Your Family to the San Diego Air and Space Museum

Balboa Park Museums: San Diego Air & Space Museum

The Air and Space Museum documents the aerospace industry from its humble beginnings to today’s modern technology.

Their permanent collection features iconic Wright Brothers gliders, WWII airplanes, early spacecraft, and more. As you explore the museum, you’ll learn about the development of today’s airplanes and spaceships, with photos, videos, audio, and more.

The museum also hosts special exhibits and events throughout the year. Discounted admission is available with a Go City San Diego pass.

Buy Museum Pass
Entrance of the San Diego Natural History Museum
Entrance of the San Diego Natural History Museum

5) Spend an Afternoon at the The Nat

Balboa Park Museums: San Diego Natural History Museum - theNAT

The San Diego Natural History Museum is affectionately referred to as “The Nat” by locals and is full of fascinating natural history exhibits that focus on southern California.

Here you’ll learn about unique animal and plant species, with fossils that will take you back in time and show you how the area evolved. They even have a living lab where you can say hello to unique species like lizards, scorpions, frogs, and more.

You’ll also want to check out the museum’s giant screen theater, which shows a rotating array of immersive videos about California wildlife and natural history. Know that The Nat hosts a range of events throughout the year, including guided hikes in the San Diego area, expert lectures on fascinating natural history topics, and more.

As with many other attractions and museums in Balboa Park, discounted tickets can be had with advanced purchase of a Go City San Diego pass, use discount code GVSD5OFF.

Buy Museum Pass
Lobby of the San Diego Museum of Us
Lobby of the San Diego Museum of Us

6) Learn at the Museum of Us

Balboa Park Museums: San Diego Museum of Us

The Museum of Us, previously known as the Museum of Man, is a fascinating anthropology museum that takes a look at human culture and history through unique exhibits. The museum is housed in a stunning building from 1915 that makes for plenty of great photo ops.

The exhibits at this Balboa Park museum are immersive and often hands-on, encouraging you to think differently about everyday life. One of their most popular exhibits focuses on the history of cannibalism to separate fact from fiction. Other exhibits focus on aspects of everyday life, like pets, beer, relationships, and more.

As you explore the museum, you’ll also view artifacts from ancient Egypt, the Mayan empire, and even the Kumeyaay Indians, a tribe of native Californians and the first people in San Diego.

Another must-see at this museum is the California Tower, which requires a separate ticket from the museum. You can take a 40-minute guided tour that tells you about the history of the building and takes you all the way to the top for some truly stunning views.

Get discounted admission with a Go City San Diego pass, use discount code GVSD5OFF to save even more.

Buy Museum Pass
Fleet Science Center Entrance Courtyard
Fleet Science Center Entrance Courtyard

7) Explore the Fleet Science Center

Balboa Park Museums: Fleet Science Center

The Fleet Science Center is another can’t-miss attraction in Balboa Park!

This science museum is very family-friendly, with tons of hands-on exhibits for both kids and adults. They have both permanent and rotating exhibitions that give you a look at science in action.

The science center is known for its IMAX theater, which shows a rotating selection of films about nature and science. This immersive IMAX dome will make you feel like you are out exploring nature, underwater, in space, and more. You do have to book tickets ahead of time, so be sure to check the schedule before your trip.

You won’t pay full-price for the Fleet Science Center when you get a big discount with a Go City San Diego pass, use discount code GVSD5OFF to save even more.

Buy Museum Pass
Hiking the trails of the Desert Garden Path at Balboa Park
Hiking the trails of the Desert Garden Path at Balboa Park

8) Hike the Trails

Neighborhood: Balboa Park

Balboa Park offers an extensive network of hiking trails for all skill levels. This is a great way to get some exercise and enjoy San Diego’s beautiful weather and scenery.

If you want to take it easy, there are plenty of gentle loops through the trees, the Balboa Park gardens, or you can stroll on the paved pathways and admire the park’s beautiful architecture.

If you’re looking for something a bit more challenging, there are plenty of steeper trails that will take you down through the park’s steep canyons. Many of these trails are also mountain-bike friendly.

On the east side of the park, you’ll find a sports complex with a baseball field, disc golf course, archery range, and dog park where you can enjoy spending even more time outside. The park is also home to one of the city’s municipal golf courses, which you can find in the southeast corner of the park.

One of the many Grassy area great for a Picnic at Balboa Park
One of the many Grassy area great for a Picnic at Balboa Park

9) Have A Picnic in a Grassy Area

Neighborhood: Balboa Park

Balboa Park is an ideal place to relax outside under the warm San Diego sun and have a picnic!

There are plenty of open fields throughout the park with picnic tables where you can enjoy drinks and snacks with your travel companions. If you don’t want to bring your own food, there are plenty of excellent restaurants in the surrounding neighborhoods that are open for takeout.

Painting of Venice Italy at the San Diego Art Museum
Painting of Venice Italy at the San Diego Art Museum

10) Go on a Date at a Museum of Art

Balboa Park Museums: The San Diego Museum of Art

If you’re into art of all kinds, Balboa Park may be the perfect place for you!

The park is home to a few exceptional art museums including The San Diego Museum of Art and the Timken Museum of Art.

The San Diego Museum of Art features modern and contemporary art including photography, paintings, artifacts and much more! Do know that the museum currently closes at 5pm each day except Wednesdays when it’s closed all day. Check ahead directly with the museum for any special events or hours of operation adjustments.

The Timken Museum of Art features fine art from around the world. Oil works on canvas are featured with information on each piece as you stroll the well-lit rooms at your own pace. Audio tours are available for a bit more information.

One of the best parts of The Timken Museum of Art is that admission is free! The museum is closed on Mondays and shuts its doors each day at 4:30pm.

The good news is The San Diego Museum of Art is part of the Go City San Diego pass so you can receive discounted admission when you purchase your pass in advance.

Buy Museum Pass
Saving Grace Climate Change Photography by Suda House at the Museum of Photographic Arts
Saving Grace Climate Change Photography by Suda House at the Museum of Photographic Arts

11) See Photography in a New Way at the Museum of Photographic Arts

Balboa Park Museums: Museum of Photographic Arts

The Museum of Photographic Arts features permanent and rotating exhibits specializing in photography, film and video. Explore the museum’s five galleries and take in the works of more than 850 photographers alone featured in the permanent collection.

The works represent styles from around the world and will teach and entertain you as you enjoy the thousands of photography-related items on display.

As part of the Go City San Diego pass, discounted admission can be had with purchase before you arrive.

The Comic Con Museum
The Comic Con Museum

12) Be a SuperHero at the Comic Con Museum

Balboa Park Museums: Comic-Con Museum

The Comic Con Museum is a new addition to Balboa Park and one you won’t want to miss!

In addition to Comic-Con San Diego held at the San Diego Convention Center each Summer, this permanent museum allows fans of art and pop culture to have a hands-on experience with the magic of Comic-Con year-round.

From action heroes to superheroes, the museum teaches guests about art, science, storytelling and more. Featuring comics, science fiction, fantasy, anime and games, the museum has interactive experiences for kids of all ages.

Go Snorkel with Go Pass!
La Jolla - Full Day Snorkel Rental
La Jolla Full Day Snorkel Rental
While visiting San Diego, discover the sea creatures of San Diego with a Full Day Snorkel Rental with your Go Pass in La Jolla. Take pictures of the areas marine life and coral. Snorkel, mask, wet suit and flippers are included in your rental.
Buy Now
Local Tips
What is a Go City San Diego pass?

The Go City San Diego pass allows visitors to experience more attractions while simultaneously saving money.

With the pass, you can visit San Diego’s top attractions like the San Diego Zoo or LEGOLAND, all while saving up to 55% off on admissions. Plus, the pass gives you the ability to skip the line when visiting select attractions.

Use our exclusive discount code GVSD5OFF to save an extra

Know Before You Go And Tips

There’s a lot to see and do in Balboa Park, so you’ll want to really maximize your time during your visit.

Here’s what you need to know before you visit the park.

Getting To Balboa Park

The first step in planning your day at Balboa Park is deciding how to get there.

If you have access to a car during your trip, you can drive to Balboa Park. There are some free parking lots in the park, including one by the San Diego Zoo. However, it’s important to note that parking is very limited, so you may need to park on the street in a nearby neighborhood and walk over.

If you are staying in Banker’s Hill or Hillcrest, you will be able to walk into the west side of the park, which is where the zoo and museums are located. If you are staying in the North or South Park neighborhoods, you will be able to walk into the east side of the park, which is where most of the hiking trails are found. If you are staying in one of these eastern neighborhoods and want to access the zoo and museums, keep in mind that the park is split in half by a large canyon and hiking to the other side may be challenging.

If you don’t want to deal with parking, rideshares like Uber or Lyft are a good option. These rideshares can drop you off at a desired point outside the park where you can walk in easily.

There are also city buses that stop near Balboa Park in Banker’s Hill. These can be a good option if you are trying to save money.

Don’t Forget Your Go City San Diego Pass

Many of the attractions in Balboa Park require you to purchase admission, which you can opt to do in advance or on-site. If you’re checking out multiple museums and attractions throughout the park, these admission fees can start to add up quickly.

The Go Citiy San Diego pass is an easy solution to this problem offering big savings on admission prices!

With the Go City San Diego pass, you can bundle admission to popular Balboa Park and other San Diego attractions as well as the cost of popular tours and equipment rentals. This saves you money and makes it easy to check out everything the area has to offer.

Be sure to use our discount code, GVSD5OFF to save even more!

Other Great Neighborhoods to Explore and Things to Do Near Balboa Park

Balboa Park is located just to the east of Downtown San Diego and a short drive from popular neighborhoods like Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter and the Embarcadero, which sits along the picturesque San Diego Bay. This area is known for great restaurants and shopping at Seaport Village. You can take in a game at PETCO Park, set out on a whale watching tour, or visit the USS Midway which calls the bay home.

If you are looking to explore Little Italy San Diego, make sure you check out our Best Things to Do in Little Italy guide.

If a day at the beach is on your mind, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and the many beaches of Mission Bay are all within 20 minutes.

La Jolla is another great option at less than 30 minutes away. Featuring beautiful beaches perfect for snorkeling, surfing and viewing local seals! The area has great shopping and cafes and is just south of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a great place to go for a hike or catch a sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

Coronado Island is one more location we would recommend at about 15 minutes away where you can explore the Coronado Island Beaches, visit the iconic Hotel Del Coronado or just enjoy San Diego’s great weather.

Find Food Nearby

After a full day of walking around Balboa Park, it makes sense that you might start to feel a bit hungry. There are plenty of great restaurants near Balboa Park, but it helps to plan ahead and find something that fits your preferences.

There are two sit-down restaurants in Balboa Park - Albert’s, which is in the San Diego Zoo, and Prado, which is near most of the museums. Both are reliable options if you’re looking for something upscale.

If you’re looking for a broader selection of restaurants you can head over to nearby Banker’s Hill. Here you’ll find a wide range of cuisines, including Mexican, Italian, French, Japanese, and more. There are even places with vegan and vegetarian options.

For even more food options, you can head north to Hillcrest or North Park. Hillcrest is a vibrant LGBTQ enclave, while North Park is known for its ‘hipster’ vibe. Both neighborhoods are known for high-quality restaurants as well as lively nightlife.

Wear Comfortable Shoes

No matter what you’re doing on your trip to Balboa Park, you should plan to do a lot of walking!

Wear shoes that you feel comfortable walking in and provide plenty of support. You should also make sure that you are wearing clothes that won’t restrict your movement as you move through the park.

If you plan on going hiking, make sure to wear shoes with plenty of grip. Some of the trails are quite steep, and most are not paved.

Plan for the Weather

Many of the attractions in Balboa Park are at least partially outside, so you’ll want to make sure to take the weather into consideration when planning your trip.

San Diego has relatively warm weather and sun throughout the year, but it does rain occasionally, especially during the winter. Check the forecast to see what the weather will be like during your trip and plan accordingly.

If you are visiting during the summer and fall, you can likely expect warm weather, and you’ll want to wear clothing that won’t be too hot. You’ll also want to bring sunscreen and sunglasses.

If you are visiting during the winter or spring, your chances of rain or a chilly day are going to be higher, so you may want to bring a light jacket, just in case.

Popular Activities

The World Famous San Diego Zoo
The World Famous San Diego Zoo
Discounts Available
Learn More
Museum of Contemporary Art
Museum of Contemporary Art
Discounts Available
Learn More
Museum of Photographic Arts
Museum of Photographic Arts
Discounts Available
Learn More
PETCO Park Tour
PETCO Park Tour
$22 per person
Buy Now
Featured Hotel
Carte Hotel San Diego Downtown, Curio Collection by Hilton
Carte Hotel San Diego Downtown
Boutique
Boutique
Conventions
Conventions
Families
Families
4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars
Carte Hotel San Diego Downtown, Curio Collection by Hilton has elevated the hotel stay. If you want unparalleled luxury with a great location, book a stay here.
Prices Starting at $162
Check Availability
Looking to Save on Tickets?
Save on Tickets
Explore all that San Diego has to offer & save up to 55% on attractions
This Month's Forecast
62°F / 76°F
Partly Cloudy in June
Jul
66°F / 81°F
Sunny in July
Aug
68°F / 83°F
Sunny in August
Sep
66°F / 82°F
Sunny in September
Tours & Adventures
The World Famous San Diego Zoo
The World Famous San Diego Zoo
Discounts Available
Learn More
Museum of Contemporary Art
Museum of Contemporary Art
Discounts Available
Learn More
Looking for Something Different?
More Best of Things to Do