Romantic Balboa Park is the nation’s largest urban cultural park consisting of a forest of exotic trees, well-kept gardens, and a majestic lily pond, which is the most photographed site in the park. Here too is the renowned Old Globe Theatre and 17 outstanding must-see museums, art galleries and one of the largest planetariums in the entire country. It is also the home of the world famous San Diego Zoo.
MUSEUMS: A WALKING TOUR
Recommended Shortcut Links
The part of Balboa Park that attracts the most attention is an area called El Prado, which is the street that runs east from the Laurel Street park entrance to the fountain in front of the San Diego Natural History Museum (16). Here, nestled in beautiful gardens enhanced by majestic palm and eucalyptus trees, are most of the park’s impressive museums, galleries and other attractions. All are within walking distance of each other. The rest of the park is spread out over hundreds of acres.
There is also a Free Balboa Park Tram that circulates throughout the park for your convenience. The tram takes you right to the door of many must-see museums including the San Diego Air and Space Museum (25). It operates daily 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m. with extended summer hours. The bright red tram picks up passengers every 10–15 minutes in front of the museums and in the parking lots in the park. See map. Riders can board and disembark the tram at their convenience.
Visitors are encouraged to park in lighted parking areas at night and to use the well-traveled sidewalks from the parking lots. There are many parking lots throughout the park. They all offer free parking and are shaded in gray in the map in this chapter. Two of the largest and most convenient parking lots can be found in front of the Air and Space Museum (25) and the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park (31). Tram stops are located in both of these parking lots.
Yet an even better way to avoid parking problems is to book a tour with Five Star Tours. See Welcome.
Another free service in Balboa Park is the Balboa Park Visitors Center (13), which is located in the House of Hospitality (619-239-0512). It is open daily 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Gifts and event guides are available here.
They also offer free ranger-led tours, which meet in front of the Visitors Center. Park rangers discuss the historical and botanical treasures of Balboa Park every Tuesday and Sunday at 11 a.m.
A big money saver is the Multi-Day Explorer Pass, which is a combination ticket that allows you to visit a selection of 17 museums and attractions for seven consecutive days. The pass is ($57) for adults and ($30) for children. If you have only one day to spend in the park, the One-Day Explorer Pass is a great value at ($46) for adults and ($27) for children. This package includes admission to five museums. Also ask about their passports for children ages 3–12 and their Zoo/Passport Combo, which includes admission to the San Diego Zoo. Passports are sold at most of the museums, the Visitors Center, and at [balboapark.org].
The museums are also great venues for elegant cocktail parties, sit-down dinners with tuxedo-clad waiters, and children’s birthdays at themed museums like the San Diego Model Railroad Museum (14). For the convenience of our readers, we’ve included information on banquets, catering, weddings and events for many of the museums. Also see the Banquets & Catering charts.
Also see the Historical Museums chapter which features one-of-a-kind Museums scattered throughout the county. One must see Museum is Heritage of the Americas Museum. This one-of-a-kind Museum is a cultural and educational facility featuring an incredible display of the prehistoric and historic art, culture and natural history of the Americas. Seeing is believing, and this Museum should definitely be seen.
THE SAN DIEGAN TOUR
The SAN DIEGAN self-guided tour can start anywhere in the park, but a fascinating beginning is the San Diego Natural History Museum (16) (619-232-3821) [sdnhm.org]. It’s an essential Balboa Park experience with its spectacular exhibits. Each year, the museum features several blockbuster traveling exhibitions.
Across from the Bea Everson fountain is the Fleet Science Center (11) (619-238-1233). This large 93,505-sq. ft. science center showcases more than 100 interactive exhibits. Plus, they offer planetarium shows and IMAX® films on Southern California’s only Giant Dome Theater that surrounds visitors, creating a “you-are-there” experience. Permanent exhibitions include Kid City, Block Busters!, the Tinkering Studio, Nano and PowerPlay. Information about traveling exhibitions can be viewed here.
Admission ($19.95) for adults 13 yrs. and older; seniors ($17.95) for 65 yrs. and older. And children 3–12 years are ($16.95). Admission includes exhibitions and one IMAX® film. They open daily at 10 a.m. and close Mon.–Thurs. at 5 p.m. and Fri.–Sun. at 6 p.m. with extended hours in the summer. North of the Natural History Museum is the Moreton Bay Fig Tree (4), which was planted prior to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. This tree stands over 78 feet tall and is more than 120 feet wide.
Just past the Moreton Bay Fig Tree is one of Balboa Park’s most beloved treasures. It’s the delightful Spanish Village Art Center (3) (619-233-9050) [spanishvillageart.com]. Admission is free to the 37 studios and five guild galleries that showcase the best local artists in San Diego. This historic village is comprised of charming cottages centered around a colorful courtyard, which was built to resemble a quaint Spanish village in 1935 for the California Pacific International Exposition.
Wander from gallery to gallery and marvel at the work of more than 200 artists. You may even see some of them at work. This is a perfect place to purchase high quality art at reasonable prices for your home or office. And be sure to admire their handcrafted pottery, sculpture, blown glassware, paintings and much more! Each gallery in the village offers something different.
A great place to find original artwork at reasonable prices is at Gallery 23, which houses the Southwestern Artists’ Association (3) (619-232-3522). The association maintains an ever-evolving exhibit of original paintings every month from their juried membership of more than 50 local artists! Their selection of San Diego landscape paintings is so captivating that the office of the SAN DIEGAN is decorated with many pieces from Gallery 23.
The village is open daily 11 a.m.–4 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s). If you have ever wanted to sit behind a potter’s wheel, learn to blow glass or how to hold a paint brush, the Spanish Village offers art classes for adults and children. Also, demonstrations and events take place throughout the year including big patio art shows in the fall. Visit the annual calendar of events for exact dates and times.
One of the most endearing Balboa Park traditions, which has fascinated children of all ages for decades, is the Balboa Park Miniature Railroad (1). Children and adults just love it! Admission is ($3) and it’s open school holidays and Sat.–Sun. 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m., and extended hours in the summer. Next door is the historic Balboa Park Carousel (2) circa 1910. It’s one of the few carousels in the U.S. that offers a free ride if you catch the brass ring. Admission is ($2) and it’s open Sat.–Sun. 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
Your next destination should be El Prado (see map). Here you will find the lion’s share of museums and galleries. A must-see attraction is at the Casa de Balboa Building (13). It is home to the largest permanent operating model railroad exhibit in North America with 28,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum (14) (619-696-0199) [sdmrm.org] features interactive toy trains, Lionel-style electric trains and a 20-scale mile long rail crossing of the Southern Sierra Nevada mountain range. It is the only accredited railroad museum in the entire United States. Always expanding and always under construction are new exhibits that are created by local railroad clubs. Also fascinating is the Toy Train Gallery, which is home to an impressive exhibit of an imaginary town with multiple train lines. The town changes with the seasons; look for autumn colors in the fall and Christmas lights in the winter. Kids can even operate some of the trains with the push of a button!
Make sure not to miss a visit to the gift shop, which is filled with a fabulous array of memorabilia for the railroad lover in your life. Their selection of vintage railroad posters is especially noteworthy. And if you are a history buff, their Erwin Welsch Railroad Research Library is a must.
Big attractions here are their themed birthday parties and special events for kids of all ages. Contact Ana Penagos (619-696-0199). Also see Banquets & Catering.
The museum and gift shop are open Tues.–Fri., 11 a.m.–4 p.m. and Sat.–Sun. till 5 p.m. Admission is ($10.75) for adults, ($8) for seniors, ($5) for students, ($6) for military, ($4) for youth 6-14, and kids under 5 are free. Admission includes access to their railroad history library. Credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, VISA.
Also in the Casa de Balboa building is without a doubt one of the most interesting museums in San Diego. It’s the San Diego History Center (14) (619-232-6203) [sandiegohistory.org]. The Society is celebrating its 88th year of preserving San Diego’s rich history. In addition to exhibits, the museum offers lectures, workshops and educational programs. It’s open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is ($10) for adults, ($8) for seniors, students and military, and ($6) for children ages 6–17. Free Admission for children under 6 years of age. And on the second Tues. of every month, admission is free to San Diego residents with proof of residency.
Your next discovery should be the Museum of Photographic Arts (14) (619-238-7559) [mopa.org] on the west end of the Casa de Balboa building. The exhibits change three times a year and present captivating photographic works of art by well-known and up-and-coming photographers worldwide. It’s open Tues.–Sun. 10 a.m.–5 p.m. with extended hours on Thurs. till 9 p.m. and closed on all major holidays. Admission is ($8) for adults and ($7) for seniors, retired military and ($6) for students with I.D. Admission is free to active military.
Next door to the west is the House of Hospitality (13), which is home to the Visitors Center (13) and the award-winning The Prado Restaurant at Balboa Park (13) (619-557-9441) [dinecrg.com]. The Prado also includes a popular cocktail lounge. Their unique menu and charming setting make it a great place to dine.
Camera buffs never tire of taking photographs of the Lily Pond (9), which is one of the most photographed sites in the park. It was built in 1915. Just behind the Lily Pond is the Botanical Building (17), (619-239-0512) [balboapark.org] which contains more than 2,100 permanent tropical plants including an outstanding fern and orchid collection. The fine old wood lath structure is one of the largest of its kind in the world. It’s open Fri.–Wed. 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Closed city holidays and Thursdays. Admission is free. Equally impressive is the San Diego Botanic Garden located just 30 minutes north of Balboa Park in Encinitas at 230 Quail Gardens Dr. (760-436-3036). This hidden treasure was once a private estate garden and is now open to the public as a plant conservatory and tranquil retreat. Use their discount coupon for $2 off adult admission and $1 off a child admission up to 4 persons. See Encinitas chapter.
The Timken Museum of Art (12) (619-239-5548) [timkenmuseum.org] is considered the most critically acclaimed collection of European Masters, 19th century American paintings and Russian icons. Their helpful audio tour guides you through an extraordinary collection of French, Italian and Flemish paintings, including works by Rembrandt and Rubens. Admission is free, and the audio tour is ($5). Hours are Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m. and Sun. noon–4:30 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.
The historic San Diego Museum of Art (10) (619-232-7931) [sdmart.org] is the first, largest and most impressive art institution in the county. Its world renowned collections consist of 14,000 art pieces dating as far back as 1500 B.C. In addition, the museum has garnered international recognition for organizing and hosting major exhibitions featuring art from throughout the world. The museum is open Mon., Tues., Thurs., Fri. and Sat. 10 a.m.–8 p.m., Sun. noon–5 p.m. Closed Wed. Adults ($15), seniors and military with ID ($10), students ($8), children under 17 are admitted free.
While browsing through the park, you will undoubtedly hear the majestic sounds of the bells from the 198-foot California Tower (7) ringing every 15 minutes. The California Tower, which is in the San Diego Museum of Man (7), (619-239-2001) [museumofman.org], is considered to be one of the finest examples of Spanish-style architecture in the United States. The museum features fascinating exhibits on human evolution, Egyptian artifacts, Kumeyaay culture and Mayan monuments.
The museum is open daily 10 a.m.– 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is ($13) for adults, ($10) for seniors, active military with I.D. ($10), students and youth ages 13–17 ($8), and for children ages 3–12 ($6). Special exhibits are priced differently.
Tucked behind the Museum of Man is one of the country’s leading regional theater complexes and one of California’s oldest professional theater organizations. It’s the world renowned, Tony Award-winning The Old Globe (6) (619-234-5623) [theoldglobe.org], which features 15 plays and musicals and more than 500 performances each year. The complex comprises three theaters—The Old Globe Theatre, The Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre and the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.
Every summer, theater goers flock to their Summer Shakespeare Festival. The festival runs June–September and showcases three of the master playwright’s works performed under the stars.
Southeast of The Old Globe in the historic House of Charm is Mingei International Museum (8) (619-239-0003), which has been a big hit in San Diego for over 30 years. Here you’ll find Southern California’s largest and richest collection of mingei, which is art from all eras and cultures of the world. Their permanent collection consists of more than 20,000 objects from 141 countries. The museum features dynamic changing exhibits of historic and contemporary folk art, craft and design. The museum is open Tues.–Sun., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission is ($10) adults, ($7) seniors, ($7) youth ages 6–17, students and active military with ID. To appreciate the works of more of San Diego’s artists, visit the San Diego Art Institute Museum (8) at 1439 El Prado (619-236-0011) [sandiego-art.org], in the House of Charm. Every four to six weeks a new exhibition is presented showcasing the contemporary works of local and regional artists. Admission is ($5) for adults, ($3) for seniors, students and military with ID, and children 12 and under are free. Open Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. noon–5 p.m. and closed Mondays and major holidays.
In the heart of Balboa Park, next door to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, is the Japanese Friendship Garden (28) (619-232-2721). It is an idyllic retreat, radiating serenity, simplicity and beauty.
Balboa Park is also home to the second largest outdoor pipe organ in the world, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion (18) (619-702-8138) [spreckelsorgan.org]. It was first played here in Balboa Park in 1915 and its music resonates throughout the park. Best of all, organ concerts are free. Performances are held every Sunday at 2 p.m., rain or shine. The annual organ festival is at 7:30 p.m. from mid June–August.
One of the most popular attractions in Balboa Park is the San Diego Automotive Museum (24) (619-231-2886). The museum is open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Since the museum is at the far south end of the park, it’s a good idea to ride the free park tram that constantly circles from El Prado to the Aerospace Museum. There is also ample parking here (see map). Adjacent to the Space Museum, the Automotive Museum features rotating theme shows that display significant rare and exotic cars and motorcycles, and vehicles reflecting the history of the automobile. Enjoy the classics of bygone eras as you stroll through rows of cars that are all restored to glittering splendor. Browse through the automotive gift shop. Refer here for their seasonal exhibits.
History takes flight at the San Diego Air and Space Museum (25) (619-234-8291). Aviation history is truly a remarkable story, and it all unfolds at the San Diego Air & Space Museum in beautiful Balboa Park. Your journey through the evolution of flight begins as you enter the museum beneath two iconic aircraft, an A-12 Blackbird, an early version of what would become the fastest plane in the world, and a Convair Sea Dart, the world’s first supersonic seaplane.
The museum’s rotunda is packed with noteworthy air and spacecraft, including an airworthy replica of the Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” which he used to make the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Stand inches from the actual Apollo 9 Command Module nicknamed “Gumdrop” and a replica of the Bell X-1, the first plane to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight. The museum also is home to the largest collection of moon rocks west of the Mississippi, and is California’s official Air and Space Museum and Education Center.
The museum’s first gallery is dedicated to early flight, where you will stand beneath a model of the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon of 1783–the first manned vehicle to ever break the bonds of gravity and lift humans above the Earth.
Rare specimens of aircraft recreate the excitement of air combat in the museum’s popular World War I Gallery, which includes examples of planes from Great Britain, France, Germany and the United States.
Guests marvel at the entertaining and dangerous antics of the barnstormers of the 1920s and the air racers of the 1930s– including an iconic Gee Bee R-1–in the Golden Age of Flight Gallery.
The World War II Gallery includes some of the most recognizable war planes in the world, including: a Supermarine Spitfire Mk. XVI; Messerchmitt Bf 109G; Navy F6F Grumman Hellcat; North American P-51D Mustang; Chance Vought F4U Corsair; Douglas SBD-4 Dauntless dive bomber; and Mitsubishi Zero.
In the Modern Jet & Space Age Gallery you will get up close and personal with an A-4 Skyhawk jet, a McDonnell Douglas F-4J/S Phantom II, and an F/A-18 A Hornet “Blue Angel 1.” These beautifully preserved airplanes help visitors appreciate the increasingly complex technology represented in the classic military aircraft of Korea and Vietnam.
The museum’s evolving display of space age technology–including expert mock ups of spacecraft from the Mercury and Gemini programs–may never be finished for it represents an adventure which the human race has truly just begun.
During your journey through time, you’ll meet more than 200 luminaries from the history of aviation and space exploration in the world class International Air & Space Hall of Fame exhibit that weaves throughout the museum as it continues to grow with deserving new inductees each year.
And don’t forget to visit the one-of-a-kind American Women of Flight exhibit featuring some of the most famous women in aviation history, including aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran, Bessie Coleman– America’s first licensed female African-American pilot–astronaut Sally Ride, and the incomparable Amelia Earhart.
Throughout 2017, don’t miss Be the Astronaut, an interactive experience where you are in control as you launch a rocket, pilot a spaceship, and drive a rover in space. This exhibit was designed with the help of NASA experts. The exhibit is meant to be fun an educational as you learn about the solar system.
If you’re a history buff, an aviation enthusiast or simply searching for an experience you’ll never forget, the San Diego Air & Space Museum is for you. The San Diego Air & Space Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Don’t leave San Diego without visiting The San Diego Air and Space Museum. This “must-see” museum is open daily from 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. with the last admission at 4 p.m. Extended summer hours till 5:30 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Admission to the current special exhibition is only $5 extra for all ages and members with paid general admission. General admission to the museum is $19.50 for adults 12 and over; $16.50 for seniors, students and retired military with ID; $10.50 for youth ages 3-11; children 2 and under are admitted free. Max Flight Simulator is $8 per person. SDASM member are admitted FREE. Active military are admitted FREE. Be sure to use their $4 off adult admission coupons in the SAN DIEGAN or online. Present at time of admission.
A tour of Balboa Park would not be complete without visiting the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park (31) (619-239-2300) located in the former chapel of the Naval Hospital. This museum houses military artifacts and memorabilia from the Civil War to the present. Impressive murals of Pearl Harbor and significant historical military events adorn the walls.
A touching tribute to members of the armed forces is their beautiful Veterans Memorial Garden. Divided into three sections, it honors those who served “in the air, on land and at sea” with a walkway of flags, an amphitheater, fountain and a B-24 replica.
The museum is open Tues.–Sun. 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Admission is ($5) for adults, ($4) veterans and seniors, ($2) for students with ID, and is free to children 12 and under and military and their dependents with ID. Show their ad in the SAN DIEGAN for a 2 for 1 discount on admission. Memorial services are held the fourth Saturday of each month at noon honoring San Diego veterans. See Historical Museums chapter.
A historic must-see attraction, often overlooked when visiting Balboa Park because it’s located on the northwest side of the park, is the historic Marston House Museum and Gardens (32). It’s located at 3525 Seventh Ave. (see map) (619-297-9327) [sohosandiego.org].
This stunning estate home is built on five acres of rolling lawns, manicured formal gardens and rustic canyon gardens. As for the 1905 built home, it’s an innovative 8,500 square-foot home built with features light years ahead of its time. You must see this place to appreciate it.
Also learn about the lives and accomplishments of one of San Diego’s most prominent families and about the master architects and landscape designers who worked to create one of the region’s most important estates. It is a stunning venue for a wedding in their celebrated private garden.
Admission is ($15) for adults; ($14) for active military; ($12) for seniors 65+ and students with ID; ($7) for children ages 6–12 and children under 5 are admitted free. Save Our Heritage Organization Members receive unlimited free admission.
They are open Friday–Monday 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas). Their 40–45 minute tours starting every half hour. Please note: The last tour of the day begins at 4 p.m.