San Diego has so many cultural activities and things to see, and the best part is that many of them are totally free. Balboa Park is one spot I always take visitors to, especially when they're on a tight budget. We had family visiting a couple weeks ago and managed to spend an entire afternoon in the park without spending a cent (except for a couple donations we felt inclined to give to some of the museums).
Here are the many things you can do in Balboa Park at absolutely no cost:
- Botanical Building, open Friday through Wednesday 10am-4pm. You'll enjoy an array of exotic plants (including Venus Fly Traps!) and koi.
- Timken Museum, open Tuesday through Saturday 10am-4:30pm. It features a variety of ancient paintings from all over the world.
- Spreckels Organ Pavillion, featuring free shows every Sunday at 2pm. Even if you can't catch a show, stop by to marvel at the ornate organ with over 4,500 pipes.
- Spanish Village Art Center is open daily from 11am-4pm. Admire the colorful sidewalk and check out crafts from local artists.
- International Cottages feature free music and dance entertainment from 12-4pm on Saturdays year-round and from 2-3pm on Sundays from March through November.
- Most of the gardens are free all year. Our favorites are the Rose Garden and the Desert Garden.
- Take a hike! Balboa Park has over 65 miles of trails for hiking and biking. The Marston Point trail offers some good mid-level trails of varying distances.
- Some of the best sculptures in the park can be found in the May S. Marcy Sculpture Court outside of the San Diego Museum of Art's Sculpture Court Cafe.
A couple tips for enjoying Balboa Park without spending a lot:
- Parking is abundant and free.
- Pack a lunch and bring a blanket. There are plenty of open spaces for a picnic and this is a good way to avoid racking up a hefty food bill at pricey museum restaurants or The Prado.
- People-watch at the fountain outside the Reuben H Fleet Science Center.
- The Carousel is open year-round 11am-5pm on Saturdays, Sundays and school holidays and open daily Mid-Summer through Labor Day. It costs just $2 per ride. Play the Brass Ring game while you're on to get more rides for free: sit on the outer horses and reach your pointer finger out when you pass by the ticket booth to score a brass ring. Turn in the brass rings for free rides! Just be prepared to pay cash – credit cards aren't accepted.
Balboa Park also offers Residents Free Tuesdays, where people who live in San Diego county can check out different museums on a rotating basis free of charge on the first four Tuesdays of the month. Bank of America card holders can get free admission to the awe-inspiring Museum of Photographic Arts during the first full weekend of every month through the Museums on Us program. If you're visiting around the holidays, many museums are open for free during one select weekend in December for December Nights.