Having lived in San Diego for about ten years now, we're Balboa Park San Diego veterans. I remember walking around the park until labor started with my first son! It's been a go-to entertainment spot for our family. From homeschool friends to out-of-town guests, there's something for everyone here.
Must-Know about Balboa Park San Diego
Created in 1868, Balboa Park San Diego was a labor of love by the civic leaders of the community. Kate Sessions agreed to plant 100 trees per year in the park in exchange for 32 acres to use for her nursery, earning her the title, “The Mother of Balboa Park.” The San Diego Natural History Museum established itself there shortly after, and remains the oldest scientific institution in Southern California. Today the park boasts 17 museums and cultural museums – and we've explored just about all of them!
Getting Around Balboa Park San Diego
There are designated parking lots all around Balboa Park. There's also a free tram that circles through the park every day from 9am to 8pm June through October and 9am to 6pm November through May. And of course, there's always Uber. But if you're up for a hike, the park is just under two square miles. It has tons of trails, so it's a great way to get your steps in.
Where to Stay near Balboa Park
There are no hotels actually within the park's boundaries – but you can get really close! Steer clear of the downtown area with kids, as the Gaslamp is pretty lively and anything around Petco Park gets a bit dicey. We like to stay up near Hillcrest, where metered street parking is plentiful and the neighborhood's totally safe. Bonus: there are lots of convenient shops and trendy eateries!
Inn at the Park
We were recently hosted by our long-term sponsor Wyndham at the Inn at the Park, a newly-renovated historic building that has tons of charm and super-friendly hospitality. They have all the amenities that we love about Wyndham: easy accessibility to awesome sights, laundry facilities, free Wi-Fi, fitness center, lots of space for families and a kitchenette so we can dine in our own room!
This Worldmark property is one of 220+ properties that Wyndham timeshare owners can enjoy year after year with a flexible points system that has 90% satisfaction rates. Non-owners can rent the property through ExtraHolidays.com. There is no daily cleaning service, which I rather enjoy because it saves me money and I don't wind up stressing over being in and out at any particular time or picking up clutter. They also have a killer rooftop deck and tons of space for families to spread out with a variety of suites available.
Right around the corner, Jimmy Carter's Mexican Cafe is a local hotspot that's pretty good (but the wait can be looong!) and Cafe Bassam just down the street serves cute sandwiches and lattes.
Just across the road, Sixth Avenue Playground is the perfect spot to stretch the kids' legs after a long journey! It was a great way for us to connect with local families and get our kids to stop bickering with each other after being cooped up in the car. I love that they have separate play spaces for little and big kids (but there's still plenty at the big kid playground to keep the little ones occupied, if need be).
Balboa Park at Night
To maximize your time at Balboa Park San Diego, try to coordinate your arrival with the hotel's afternoon events. Inn at the Park often has really fun meet-and-greets with the concierge where they'll give you snacks and offer directions to the latest-and-greatest events all around the park. After all that, we set off to check out the Museum of Art's After Hours special! They let people in on Fridays from 5-8pm for just $5. FYI, if you're a resident, most museums within the park also offer free admission on a rotating basis on designated Tuesdays each month.
Kids are always free at the Museum of Art, and there's a fun app that will guide you around the exhibits and help you dive deeper into their history. This is a great fit for kids who can read well. Families with kids younger than that may want to check the museum calendar for family programs and Family Drop-In Days on select Sundays.
Just outside the Museum of Art is a funky restaurant and a laid-back courtyard, where street performers showcase their talents around sunset every evening and all day on the weekends. If you see the bubble guy, say hi for us!
Must-See Museums and Displays at Balboa Park with Kids
So. Many. Things. It's kind of hard to know where to even begin with Balboa Park. You could easily spend a week there and still have fun. But we don't usually have a whole week! We typically have one weekend, max. Here's how we spend it.
The San Diego Zoo
I mean, duh. This is an obvious one. One of the biggest tourist attractions in all of San Diego is right here! You'll want to leave at least – AT LEAST – 5 hours to explore this place, and that's barely grazing the surface. Hop on the bus for a quick overview of the park and whatever you do, don't miss the Skyfari for a killer view of the whole city.
Just don't confuse this with the San Diego Safari Park, which has our much-loved butterfly jungle. That's up in north county and it's a whole other trip that you TOTALLY need to take.
The Natural History Museum
This one's Nate's favorite because DINOSAURS! Real dinosaur bones. And sharks, and bugs, and rocks, and tons of California history. This is the spot where our 4-year-old, Ahren, about lost his mind because he found the REAL LIVE VERSION (er, real bone-dead version) of the beloved dinosaur toy that he takes everywhere.
I didn't have the heart to explain to him that his dinosaur toy is actually a hybrid created during the Jurassic Park series. It never actually walked the earth.
This museum is part of the ASTC program. I'm going to have to do a whole post on the Association of Science-Technology Centers program soon, since we're homeschooling full-time now and use this membership constantly. In summary, if you join one ASTC-member museum you get FREE access to any ASTC museum. And these are world-class places!
There are some caveats, like some will only allow up to four family members in for free (bummer for us big families), they many won't let you in if your “home museum” membership is within 90 miles of the museum you're trying to visit and some won't let you in if your home address is within 90 miles of the museum. Still, it's a phenomenal deal compared to paying full-price for every museum. We lucked out by joining as members at some random museum we passed through in New Mexico – and most San Diego museums don't check ID for home addresses.
The Fleet Science Center
Another ASTC member, the Fleet is like the ultimate kids' museum with a heavy focus on science. We've been to a few science museums that were kind of a “look but don't touch” situation. Not this place. You can let your kids go WILD here, running around and touching all the things and experiencing science stuff to their hearts' content. They also have cool IMAX shows.
Air and Space Museum
This one gets an honorable mention. You may not be able to realistically fit it into a weekend trip, but it's incredible. Go here. Pretend to fly planes and be an astronaut and stuff.
Balboa Park Train
This 3-minute ride is honestly a bit underwhelming if you're over the age of 4, but there's nothing like seeing your toddler's face light up as he shouts, “train, train, traaaaaaaaaaiiiin!” while you round the bend on a miniature model G16 that takes you on a half-mile tour.
Free Balboa Park Features
Located between the zoo and the museums, there are some can't-miss stop offs to stretch your legs and soak in that San Diego sun!
Probably our favorite spot in the entire park. You'll find a bunch of cool performers here playing music and sharing their…thoughts…on life. It's an interesting scene. And a cool place to snack on a sandwich or something. Which reminds me: there aren't many actual food vendors in Balboa Park, so it's a good idea to pack a sandwich and stuff.
Only open on Sunday afternoons and select Monday nights, Spreckels Organ Pavilion is a phenomenal sight to behold. If it jives with your schedule, don't miss it!
Spanish Village Art Center
This colorful courtyard showcases over 200 talented local artisans with jaw-dropping sculptures, paintings, textiles, metalwork, prints, glass-blown features and more.
Balboa Park Carousel
Ride a 1910 original hand-carved animal amidst hand-painted murals on the Balboa Park Carousel, and try your hand at the infamous brass ring! If you can grab the brass ring near the conductor (I've seen people successfully do it) then you win a free ride!
What's your favorite thing to do at Balboa Park San Diego?