Balboa Park is the largest urban cultural park in the United States, spanning 1,200 acres. It’s also the number one ranked historic landmark in San Diego. This open air mecca is home to 15 San Diego museums, the nationally renowned San Diego Zoo, and several theatres, restaurants, gift shops, gardens, and diverse recreational spaces. Natural vegetation, lush gardens, pristine landscapes, and Spanish architecture combine to create this urban oasis. The epicenter of the park is El Prado, a wide walkway and boulevard where visitors can access most of the museums, as well as the Reflection Pond – featuring lilies and koi fish – and Botanical Building. The walkway ends at the grand Bea Evenson Fountain.
What to Do at Balboa Park
The fifteen museums in Balboa Park reflect a wide range of themes. The San Diego Museum of Us, San Diego Museum of Art, Rueben H. Fleet Science Center, and San Diego Natural History Museum are a few of the highlights. Each of the independent museums at Balboa Park focuses on a different aspect of San Diego history and culture. The Old Globe theatre complex showcases San Diego’s theatrical talent. Spreckels Organ Pavilion features one of largest outdoor pipe organs in the world.
The natural space is one of the main draws to Balboa Park. There are 65 miles of trails where guests can take a casual stroll through landscaped areas, or a challenging hike through rugged terrain. Recreational areas are scattered throughout the park, including horseshoe pits, picnic facilities, secluded gardens, and children’s playgrounds. Balboa Park dining options range from simple cafés and snack bars to The Prado, an upscale restaurant located in the House of Hospitality.
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is a park highlight for many visitors. It is home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered species. With the array of onsite attractions, guests are often surprised when their visits coincide with one of the park’s many extravagant events. Balboa Park hosts a wide range of annual events such as December Nights – a large Christmas festival, San Diego Pride Music Festival, and EarthFair.
Balboa Park Essentials
The main entrance to the park is across Cabrillo Bridge, which leads to a few parking lots within the park. There are also several larger lots off Park Boulevard, as well as street parking along the park’s perimeter. Parking is free. Guests can get maps and other park assistance from the Visitors Center in Hospitality House, which is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Picking, removing, or destroying any plants or vegetation in the park is prohibited. No roller skates or skateboards are allowed at Balboa Park. Bicycles are allowed in all but a few locations.
No smoking or glass containers are allowed in the park. Alcohol is permitted between 12 p.m. and 8 p.m. in seven park lawns. Check the Visitor’s Center or park website for these locations. Portable barbecues are allowed in Balboa Park, but fires must be contained within the barbecues, and coals must be disposed of in the park’s concrete hot coal containers. Dogs must be leashes throughout the park, except for Nate’s Point and Morley Field where they may be off-leash. Pay attention to park signage for acceptable-use rules.
Near Balboa Park
Hillcrest and Little Italy are two San Diego neighborhoods closest to Balboa Park. Little Italy is a Downtown neighborhood up the hill from San Diego Bay. Visitors will find Italian culture, fun eateries, boutique hotels, and lots of art galleries. The DoubleTree San Diego, on the edge of Little Italy, is a great value franchise hotel in close proximity to the park. It has a rooftop pool. Queenstown Public House restaurant is within walking distance of the hotel.
Hillcrest is a cultural hot spot in San Diego and the heart of the San Diego LGBT community. Visitors can drive straight up 5th Avenue from Balboa Park to University and be in the best part of the neighborhood. Hillcrest is brimming with diverse culinary options. Start with Urban Mo’s Bar & Grill for an introduction to the spirit of this lively neighborhood.