Beautiful Balboa Park in San Diego, California, is so many things. It’s the nation’s largest urban cultural park. It’s an oasis of botanical gardens and natural vegetation. It’s the #1 San Diego historic landmark. It’s home to the famous San Diego Zoo. And it boasts an impressive collection of 15 museums.
Whether you’re in San Diego on a family vacation with the kids, or you’ve come to San Diego with friends for some adult time, you’ll want to pre-plan your visit to Balboa Park to get the most out of your visit. With so many San Diego attractions jammed into one place, you’ll also want to use your Go San Diego Card to save money.
We’ve put together two-day itineraries for both families and singles. They cover a lot of ground in the park, and offer ideas for how to see as much of the park as possible while spending as little as possible. Enjoy!
Sample Two-Day Itinerary for Families with Kids
Experiencing Balboa Park with children requires careful pre-planning to get the most out of the park and zoo, but also to keep the under 12 crowd enthused and enthralled without getting too tired.
On Day One, you’ll want to enter the park from the 6th Street entrance on the Park’s west side, crossing the historic Cabrillo Bridge and parking in the large lot behind the Organ Pavilion. Your itinerary will start here and circle back to your car.
Day One – Morning:
SD Museum of Man – At the San Diego Museum of Man, your kids will fall in love with the Monsters! Exhibit on the first floor where they can do everything from exploring monster habitats to making monsters of their own. Adventure Kids in Egypt on the second floor is another must for kids.
Mingei International Museum – Before you can even get the kids in the door, there’s a friendly alligator out front of Mingei International Museum waiting for the perfect family photo opp. Inside, kids will find over 3,000 toys, hundreds of musical instruments, and other cool folk art across the museum’s diverse collections.
Lily Pond – After a busy morning, take the kids on a stroll through the Botanical Building and to see the lilies and koi fish in the Lily Pond out front. This is a free stop on the way to lunch at the Fleet Science Center. It’s also one of the most photographed spots in the park.
Day One – Afternoon:
Fleet Science Center – Before embarking on afternoon activities at the Fleet Science Center, head to Craveology, the science center’s casual food restaurant where they’re serving smoothies, salads, sandwiches, and snacks. This hands-on museum was made for kids with activities like trying to touch a tornado, building an invention, and creating a city.
San Diego Natural History Museum – The San Diego Natural History Museum is a place where kids’ imaginations can run wild. Camp-O-Saurus lets kids be paleontologists. They can examine the museum’s Focault Pendulum, learn about San Diego’s biodiversity in Coast to Cactus, and go on a scavenger hunt in Fossil Mysteries.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum – This museum is the perfect place to wind down the day. It’s the largest indoor model railroad museum in North America at 27,000 square feet. You can dive into the worlds of five separate model railroad exhibits that will fascinate everyone in the family from youngest to oldest. Such attention to detail! Kids will also want to check out Mac’s Kids’ Corner.
On Day Two you’ll want to head straight to the zoo parking lot off Park Boulevard and park there for the morning. After your zoo visit, hop in the car and continue a couple blocks south on Park Boulevard to Presidents Way. Turn right and park in the lot on the right, across from the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
Day Two – Morning:
The only thing on deck for the morning is the San Diego Zoo. It’s at the north end of Balboa Park, just past the carousel and miniature train ride. This world famous zoo could take you all day to explore, but with some pre-planning and your Go San Diego Card, you’ll see the most in the shortest time. You won’t want to miss the San Diego Air & Space Museum in the afternoon.
San Diego Zoo – The kids may never forgive you if they find out you skipped the San Diego Zoo at Balboa Park. Do yourself a favor and be ready at the gate with your Go San Diego Card when the zoo opens first thing in the morning, then head straight for the panda exhibit. Save some walking by taking the zoo’s free Guided Bus Tour. Grab a mid-morning snack or breakfast in a treehouse at Albert’s Restaurant.
Day Two – Afternoon:
San Diego Air & Space Museum – If you worked up an appetite from your morning at the zoo, lunch at Flight Path Grill is the perfect solution where the kids will get nourished and rejuvenated as they watch planes coming into San Diego pass overhead. Kids get inspired to reach for the stars at San Diego Air & Space Museum with rockets and planes, space simulators, and the Kids’ Aviation Action Hangar.
Sample Two-Day Itinerary for Adults
Your Go San Diego Card allows you discounted admission to 12 museums in Balboa Park. With this two-day Balboa Park itinerary, you can theoretically spend four hours visiting three museums and the Japanese Garden in the morning, have lunch at the Tea Pavilion Café, and visit three more museums and the Botanical Building and Koi Pond in the afternoon on Day One.
If you’re the type who lingers in museums, this schedule may seem unrealistic. You could cut one museum from the morning and one from the afternoon for a more leisurely experience. All the museums for Day One are conveniently lined up along El Prado.
Day One – Morning:
San Diego Museum of Man and California Tower – If you love beer, you’ll love the Beerology Exhibit on the first floor of the San Diego Museum of Man. Other exhibits include ancient cultures, race, living with animals, and more. If you’re lucky, you can plan your museum visit to coincide with a climb to the top of California Tower where you’ll enjoy epic panoramic views. (California Tower offers guided tours only; it’s an extra cost. If you can’t coordinate the two, it’s worth a second visit)
Mingei International Museum/San Diego Art Institute – The Mingei International Museum shares space with the San Diego Art Institute’s Museum of the Living Artist in the House of Charm. At MoLA, you’ll see the brilliant work of emerging SoCal artists. The Mingei presents stunning collections of international daily use art objects from diverse eras of human history. (These are separate tickets.)
San Diego Museum of Art – If it’s fine art you crave, the San Diego Museum of Art has one of the best collections in San Diego. You’ll experience collections by old masters of Spain and Italy, prominent South Asian paintings, and contemporary American paintings, among others. The museum regularly hosts significant exhibitions from around the world.
Japanese Friendship Garden – Need a Zen place to rest and rejuvenate? You’ll be captivated by the Japanese Friendship Garden. The koi ponds, stone arrangements, water features, unique landscaping, blossoming cherry trees (springtime), and sukiya-style buildings provide a magical experience. Guided audio tours are available.
Tea Pavilion Café – Either before, or after your time in the Japanese Friendship Garden, it’s time for lunch. The Tea Pavilion Café near the garden’s entrance serves an Asian-fusion menu and a wide range of imported teas. The lovely outdoor patio overlooking the garden is the perfect place to nourish your body and catch your breath before the afternoon museums.
Day One – Afternoon:
Museum of Photographic Arts – Just east of the Tea Pavilion, you’ll find the gorgeous Museum of Photographic Arts showcasing photography, as well as film and video. The museum is dedicated to presenting exhibits that address historical, cultural, and social issues. They have nearly 9,000 images in their contemporary collection alone, and 24,000 in all.
San Diego History Center – The San Diego History Center shares space with the Museum of Photographic Arts. This stunning museum is the caretaker of San Diego’s past. The Smithsonian Affiliate museum highlights the outstanding aspects of San Diego history from its tuna fishing past to its current craft brew scene, and so much more.
Natural History Museum – This beautiful museum is a must-see. Among the many exhibits and collections at the San Diego Natural History Museum is Coast to Cactus where you can examine the plants and animals of San Diego’s biodiversity – mountains, chaparral, deserts, and beaches. San Diego is one of 35 biodiversity hotspots worldwide. After your visit, check out the giant, ancient Moreton Bay Fig Tree next to the museum.
Botanical Garden – You don’t need your Go San Diego card to visit the Botanical Building & Lily Pond, because it’s free. On your walk back toward the car, take a few minutes to admire the orchids and other plants indoors, as well as the outdoor Lily Pond and koi fish.
The Prado at Balboa Park – Before you go, use your Go San Diego Card one last time for discounts at The Prado at Balboa Park. This National Historic Landmark restaurant can be found in the House of Hospitality, across the street from the Timken Museum of Art. Their outdoor terrace set in lush gardens is the perfect spot for a sunset cocktail or dinner.
*Note: the Timken Museum of Art, across the street from the Prado restaurant, is a must. If you have it in you for one more museum before dinner, this one is free. The fine art museum showcases American and European masterpieces, and closes at 4:30 p.m.
Day two has the San Diego Zoo on deck for the morning, and two more Balboa Park museums for the afternoon. Don’t worry, after all that walking at the zoo, these last two museums are away from the main cluster of museums from yesterday, and are right next to each other.
Day Two – Morning:
San Diego Zoo – The best way to visit the San Diego Zoo is to be at the gate when it opens in the morning and beeline it to the Panda exhibit. This exhibit always has a line – a long one, so you’ll be in the shortest line of the day. Next, hop on the Guided Bus Tour to get a narrated overview of the zoo. Preserve your energy by taking advantage of the Kangaroo Express Bus and Skyfari aerial tram to get around. All three are included in your ticket price. Plan your zoo visit before you get there, and skip the ticket office lines with your Go San Diego Card.
Day Two – Afternoon:
San Diego Air & Space Museum – If you didn’t grab lunch at the zoo, you’ll probably want to eat first before diving into the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Grab an affordable meal with a lemonade or a San Diego craft beer at the museum’s Flight Path Grill. Eating outside puts you in the flight path of incoming planes, which is pretty awesome. Expect replicas of historic planes, including the 1901 Wright Glider. The Apollo IX Command Module is also on display, and it’s the real deal. This is a fascinating museum you won’t want to miss.
San Diego Automotive Museum – This museum explores the evolution of motorized vehicles from a 1927 Bentley to Steve McQueen’s 1953 Allard. Automotive exhibits are always changing, so if you’ve been here before it will feel like a new experience. New exhibits are created three to four times per year. San Diego Automotive Museum is driven by their love for cars.
Tips for Visiting Balboa Park
Go San Diego Card – You’ll see the most attractions and save the most time and money at Balboa Park when you pre-purchase your tickets online with your Go San Diego Card and plan your day. As you approach each museum entrance, simply show your ticket via your smartphone and pass on in.
Getting there – To visit a majority of the museums with the least walking, enter from 6th Avenue on the east side and park behind the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Choose Park Boulevard lots for visiting San Diego Zoo and the Air & Space Museum, among others.
Parking – There are numerous parking lots throughout the park and zoo at Balboa Park – all free. Street parking surrounding the park and zoo is also free.
Visitors Center – If you find you need a little friendly advice (or a souvenir) during your day, stop by the Visitors Center in the House of Hospitality on El Prado. It’s next to the Prado Restaurant.
Closing Time – Some museums close at 4:30 p.m., so we’ve accounted for that with these itineraries. Some have later hours or extend hours during summer and holidays; check the operating times while planning.
Get your Go San Diego Card here to start your exploration of Balboa Park and San Diego Zoo.