Top 17 Things to Do in Balboa Park: Bucket List and Photography

The amount of things to see and do in Balboa Park, one of the largest and most photographed urban parks in the USA, is impressive. Catering to visitors of all ages and interests, the number of items on Balboa Park bucket list seems to grow with every visit.

Last updated: April 10, 2021

Things to Do in Balboa Park. Bucket List and Photography - Roads and Destinations

The Best 17 Things to Do in Balboa Park: Bucket List and Photography

While San Diego allures with pristine beaches and a number of hidden gems, Balboa Park intrigues with its rich cultural and historic heritage. With more than a dozen museums, lavish gardens, and impeccable architecture, the place is the epitome of urban beauty and magnificence. Indeed, you need a few days or even weeks to see all incredible landmarks and do all astounding things Balboa Park has to offer.

Simply showing up and expecting the area to entertain you might leave you overwhelmed and a little bit frustrated. Balboa Park bucket list with the top places to explore in the area, however, can save you a great deal of time and help make the most of your visit.

Whether you are interested in art and history or are after the next outdoor adventure, check out these top 17 things to see and do in Balboa Park. As a bonus, a guide to the most photographed places in Balboa Park is included at the end.

Things to Do in Balboa Park. Bucket List and Photography - Roads and Destinations
Things to Do in Balboa Park. Bucket List and Photography - Roads and Destinations

HERE ARE THE TOP THINGS TO DO IN BALBOA PARK:

If you are like me, you probably want to explore every corner of Balboa Park. The place that is bigger than New York’s Central Park indeed entices with the vast array of indoor and outdoor attractions. Time, however, might be your biggest obstacle in achieving this goal. Yet with the following must-do things in Balboa Park, you can see quite a lot and come very close to fulfilling your dream.

Balboa Park Bucket List: First Things to Do

1. Balboa Park Visitor Center 

While you can start your visit to Balboa Park anywhere you like, it’s recommended to check out the Balboa Park Visitor Center first. Located in the House of Hospitality, the place provides all new and returning guests with updated informations, including free guided tours.

Furthermore, center’s helpful staff and volunteers are eager to create your Balboa Park bucket list, adding the best places to see and do in the area according to your interests. The bi-monthly Balboa Park Guide that discloses new exhibits and performances also can be found at the Visitor Center.

  • Location: 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101 near The Prado Restaurant 
  • Hours: Open daily from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm 

2. Botanical Building and Lily Pond

One of the most popular things to do in Balboa Park, however, is a visit to the Botanical Building and the Lily Pond. The recognizable edifice sits adjacent to the Timken Museum of Art, astounding the guests with its spectacular seasonal displays. Falling into the category of the largest lath structures in the world, the Botanical Building features more than 2,100 plants including orchids, cycads, palms, and other species. 

Together with the Lily Pond, the favorite attraction belongs to the most photographed places in the park. Similar to many other Balboa Park bucket list destinations, the impeccable pair joined the area in the early 20th century when it was built for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. 

  • Location: Sits on El Prado walkway adjacent to the Timken Museum of Art
  • Hours: Open to the public on Friday through Wednesday from 10:00 and to 4:00 pm. The building is closed on Thursdays and holidays.
  • Entrance Fee: Free
Things to Do in Balboa Park. Bucket List and Photography - Roads and Destinations

Balboa Park Bucket List: Museums

3. San Diego Automotive Museum

Founded in 1988, the San Diego Automotive Museum rejoice all car enthusiasts. Thousands of people visit Balboa Park to explore museum’s compelling collection of cars and motorcycles. With more than 80 historic vehicles, the place uncovers the history of automobiles from around the world. Some of the finest autos such as a 1947 Louie Mattar’s Cadillac and the greatest motorcycle collections reside here. Even non-auto enthusiasts find the San Diego Automotive Museum inspiring and informative.   

  • Location: 2080 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Hours: The museum welcomes the visitors of Balboa Park from Tuesday to Friday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. Last admission is at 4:30pm. On Saturdays and Sundays, the museum is open from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm.
  • Admission Fees: Adults: $14; children (6-17): $7; children 5 and under: free

4. Museum of Us

The Museum of Us, one of the most popular attractions in Balboa Park, focuses solely on human beings. Providing exemplary exhibits, the place is devoted to human history and different cultures. One of the must-visit institutions in Balboa Park, it strives to inspire people’s connections by diving deeper into various traditions and their similarities to other nations’ customs and rituals.

  • Location: 1350 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Hours: You can visit the finest museum in Balboa Park from Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm.
  • Admission Fee: Check official website for details.
Things to Do in Balboa Park. Bucket List and Photography - Roads and Destinations

5. Timken Museum of Art

From history to fine art, the must-see places of Balboa Park explore all areas of human existence and interests. Home to some of the finest collections of European art, 19th century American art, and several Russian icons, the Timken Museum of Art welcomes all art enthusiasts. Many guests, however, visit this crown jewel of Balboa Park to feast their eyes on Saint Bartholomew, the only Rembrandt’s painting on public display in San Diego. 

The Timken Museum of Art takes its responsibility of introducing the park’s visitors to the fine art seriously. Free docent-led group tours enhance your visit with detailed information about the artworks as well as life of their creators. The tours can be scheduled during regular working hours and are available in different languages. Written submission, however, is required. 

  • Location: 1450 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92102
  • Hours: The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am until 4:30 pm. On Sunday, it entertains the visitors of Balboa Park from 12:00 pm until 4:30 pm.
  • Entrance Fee: Free

6. San Diego Air & Space Museum

The famous San Diego Air & Space Museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Devoted to science, space, and aviation history, it presents a large collection of historic aircraft and spacecrafts from all corners of the world. One of the top places to visit in Balboa Park, the museum inspires curiosity. It entices its guests with such exhibits as the actual Apollo 9 Command Module spacecraft and a replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis

  • Location: 2001 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Hours: You can visit the San Diego Air & Space Museum from Monday though Sunday from 10:00 am until 4:30 pm. 
  • Entrance Fee: Adults (12 and over): $22; children (3-11): $12
Things to Do in Balboa Park. Bucket List and Photography - Roads and Destinations

7. San Diego Natural History Museum (the NAT)

Learn natural history of Southern California, including the finest representatives of animal kingdom, at the San Diego Natural History Museum. The place houses ample interactive exhibits from rattlesnakes to flesh-eating beetles and dinosaurs. While the exhibitions rotate throughout the year, several permanent collections such as Fossil Mysteries ceaselessly remind the visitors of the past eras.

  • Location: 1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Hours: One of the must-see museums in Balboa Park is open from Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm. The place is closed on Monday. 
  • Admission Fee: Adults: $19.95; children (3-17): $11.95

8. Museum of Photographic Arts

Photography enthusiasts visit Balboa Park not only to capture its spectacular sites but also learn more about the history of the art. Founded in 1983, the Museum of Photographic Arts, invites the guests to explore its vast collection of nearly 9,000 images. The exhibits include contemporary artworks as well as historical masterpieces. 

The visitors of Balboa Park are welcome to explore the museum on their own or join guided tours. The latter cost $55. The museum admission, however, can be free. In fact, the Museum of Photographic Arts was the first institution in the park to introduce “Pay What You Wish” policy. 

  • Location: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Admission Fees: Pay what you wish 
Things to Do in Balboa Park. Bucket List and Photography - Roads and Destinations

Top Things to Do in Balboa Park: Gardens

9. Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

A charming garden full of roses is one of the best seasonal things to do in Balboa Park. Occupying three acres of land, the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden displays nearly 1,600 roses and fills the park with different fragrances and colors. The flowers usually bloom from March through December. The peak time is April and May. 

  • Location: Visit the finest garden in Balboa Park on the east side of Park Boulevard across the pedestrian bridge adjacent to the San Diego Natural History Museum.
  • Hours: The garden is open daily.
  • Entrance Fee: Free

10. Japanese Friendship Garden

Equally impressive, the Japanese Friendship Garden symbolizes friendship between San Diego and Japanese city, Yokohama. Adjusting the finest Japanese traditions to Southern California climate, the place invites the visitors of Balboa Park to explore Japanese culture. Simplicity and serenity reign here. Koi ponds, stone arrangements, and sukiya-style buildings further showcase the exotic customs typical for the faraway country.

  • Location: 2215 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Hours: The garden is open daily from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm except every third Tuesday of the month. Last admission is at 5:00 pm. 
  • Admission Fee: General: $12; students, military, senior (65+): $10; children ages 6 years old and under are free 
Palm Canyon - Roads and Destinations

11. Palm Canyon

It’s absolutely impossible to miss Palm Canyon. Two acres of land with winding paths and more than 450 palms enchant the visitors and make them feel like they were miraculously transported to a tropical island. 

One of the most intriguing things to do in Balboa Park, the place is crisscrossed with the narrow paths that take the visitors to different palm trees, some of which date back to 1912. A wooden footbridge connects the canyon with other must-visit places in Balboa Park such as the Old Cactus Garden and Spreckels Organ Pavilion. 

  • Location: Pan American Plaza across from the Spreckels Organ 
  • Hours: The canyon is open daily.
  • Entrance Fee: Free

12. 1935 (Old) Cactus Garden

Developed and designed by Kate Sessions for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, the Old Cactus Garden is another place you can’t miss in Balboa Park. The garden features some of the largest cactus in the park, including several exotic species from Africa. 

  • Location: The Old Cactus Garden sits behind the Balboa Park Club (2144 Pan American Road W, San Diego CA 92101).
  • Hours: You can visit this part of Balboa Park daily.
  • Entrance Fee: Free
Cactus Garden - Roads and Destinations

13. Zoro Garden

The Zoro Garden might have had controversial beginning, but it’s surely one of the most beautiful places to visit in Balboa Park today. Designed as a nudist colony for the 1935 California-Pacific Exposition, this sunken stone grotto garden houses a huge butterfly family. Monarch, sulfur, and swallowtail butterflies thrive in this paradise filled with larvae and nectar plants and small pockets of water in tiny dents in the rocks. 

  • Location: The Zoro Garden is located between the Fleet Science Center and the San Diego History Center.
  • Hours: Feel free to visit this mysterious area of Balboa Park any time of the day.
  • Entrance Fee: Free 

14. Alcazar Garden

Created in the finest European traditions, the Alcazar Garden resembles the gardens of Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain. Nearly 7,000 plants festoon the area, adding extra opulence to signature blue, yellow, and green Moorish tiles and a pergola residing in the garden. 

  • Location: The Alcazar Garden is adjacent to the San Diego Art Institute and Mingei International Museum.
  • Hours: The place is open daily.
  • Entrance Fee: Free
Spreckels Organ Pavilion - Roads and Destinations

Other Top Things to Do in Balboa Park

15. San Diego Zoo

One of the biggest attractions to visit in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is known for its unique inhabitants such as giant pandas, adorable koalas, tiny meerkats, and gracious giraffes. Home to 3,700 rare and endangered animals and more than 700,000 plants, the zoo is a great place to have fun and collect memories that will stay with you for years to come.

  • Location: 2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Hours: The operating hours vary from season to season. The zoo is usually open from 9:00 am until 6:00-8:00 pm.
  • Admission Fee: 1-day pass for adults (12 and older): $62; children (3-11): $52 

16. Spreckels Organ Pavilion

The Spreckels Organ is an outdoor pavilion that houses world’s largest pipe organ. The organ was donated to San Diego by John D. and Adolph Spreckels in 1914 with a purpose of entertaining the townspeople. As per the original Deed of Gift, free concerts has been held at the pavilion ever since.

  • Location: Pavilion – Pan American Place, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Hours: Sunday concert at 2:00 pm. From mid-June through August, the place hosts International Summer Organ Festival Concerts on Monday nights at 7:30 pm 
  • Admission Fee: Free

17. California Tower

The California Tower is one of the most popular attractions in Balboa Park. The iconic part of the California Building that houses the San Diego Museum of Us rightfully belongs to the most recognizable landmarks of San Diego. Created for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, this nearly 200-feet-tall tower encompasses different architectural styles. The intricate design was borrow from Spanish-Colonial churches in Mexico. 

  • Location: 1350 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Hours: You can visit the California Tower in Balboa Park from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm.
  • Admission Fee: Only guided tours are allowed in the California Tower. For more information, refer to the official website of the Museum of Us. 
San Diego - Roads and Destinations

The Best Places for Photography in Balboa Park

Boasting some of the most spectacular sites in San Diego, Balboa Park entices professional and amateur photographers alike. While the first might need to get permission, the latter can photograph away the lavish treasures of the area at any time.  

Botanical Building and Lily Pond

The Botanical Building and the Lily Pond are indisputable winners when it comes to the most photographed places in Balboa Park. Crowds of photographers and artists surround the area, capturing the famous reflection from all possible angles. Chose your optimal time and join their ranks during your next visit to Balboa Park. 

Alcazar Garden

While the Alcazar Garden surely smites the guests away with its elaborate ambience, the views of the California Tower often steal visitors’ attention. The iconic landmark towers over the garden, providing ample interesting photographic perspectives.

Palm Garden

The Palm Garden enhances your Balboa Park photography with the exclusive wooden footbridge and tropical vibes. 

Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

The floral abundance certainly can’t escape attention of the picture-thirsty visitors of Balboa Park. Festooning the area a good part of the year, the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden adds vibrant colors to the photogenic area. 

Final Thoughts on the Top Things to Do in Balboa Park: Bucket List and Photography

With the abundance of landmarks to visit and things to do, Balboa Park is truly one of the biggest gems and must-visit places in San Diego. The experiences you get here are incomparable with anything else. If you haven’t visited any of these places yet, make sure to add then to your Balboa Park bucket list as soon as possible.

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