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Kids Free in San Diego This October

Encompassing 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is a magnificent cultural complex that includes 15 museums, eight gardens and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Often referred to as the "Smithsonian of the West," Balboa Park is the largest urban park in North America, exceeding even Central Park in New York in size. Filled with cultural treasures, architectural grandeur, lush landscapes, stunning gardens and award-winning performing arts, it will take more than one day to see and enjoy it all.

Visiting the Park

The Balboa Park grounds are open 24 hours a day. Admittance is free to the Park grounds, Botanical Building, outdoor gardens, and some attractions. Admission charges vary at the other cultural attractions.

The Balboa Park Visitors Center is located at 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101. It is open daily from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM, and closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Pick up a bi-monthly Balboa Park Guide to What's New that lists all Park exhibits and performances and provides a map, (also available in Spanish.)

If you're planning to visit many of the Park's museums, purchase a Passport to Balboa Park at the Visitors Center or at any of the participating museums. It provides admission to 14 museums within a seven day period from the date of purchase, at a savings of more than 50% off the usual entrance price and the convenience of a one-time purchase. The Zoo/Passport Combo includes the Passport to Balboa Park plus one-day deluxe admission at the San Diego Zoo, all for one low price. Or, try their Stay-for-the-Day pass, where you can choose any 5 of 14 participating attractions (Zoo not included), for only $39. This pass is available online, at the Visitors Center or at the MTS Transit store downtown.

Balboa Park History

City leaders designated a large track of land for public recreational use in 1835, making it one of the oldest such sites in the United States. No further activity took place until 1868 when 1,400 acres of that land were set aside for a large city park. In 1870, the state legislature passed a law stating that the lands would be held in trust for a park forever.

For many years, there was little development of "city park" as it was then known. A high school, which later became San Diego High School, was built and several gardens were created by various private groups. Then in 1892, local horticulturist and botanist Kate Sessions leased 36 acres for a nursery. In exchange for using the land, she agreed that the nursery would be open to the public, and that she would donate hundreds of trees and plants to the city every year for its beautification. Sessions, who would become known as "the mother of Balboa Park," is credited with bringing in many of the different varieties of native and exotic plants to the park, and many of her original trees are alive and visible today.

In 1910, with preparations already underway to hold an expo to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal, the park was named for the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the first European to cross Central America and see the Pacific Ocean. A number of the buildings as well as much of the present-day look and feel of the park can be attributed to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Built in the Spanish Colonial-revival style, it was the first time that this highly ornamental style had been used in the United States. Scheduled to last only one year, the 1915 Expo was extended for a second year, and more than 3.7 million visitors came to the expo during its run.

Twenty years later, San Diego hosted the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition to boost the local economy during the depression and additional structures and landscaping were added to the park, including the Old Globe Theatre, International Cottages, and Spanish Village, all of which are still in use today.

In 1977, Balboa Park, and historic Exposition buildings from 1915 and 1935, were declared a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Landmark District, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As of this writing, plans are in progress for a year-long celebration of the centennial of the 1915–16 exposition, called the Balboa Park 2015 Celebration.

Balboa Park's Gardens

  • Botanical Building and Lily Pond - home 2,100 permanent tropical plant specimens
  • Japanese Friendship Garden - (free admission on the third Tuesday of each month for San Diego City & County residents (with ID), active military & their dependents)
  • Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden,- voted by the World Rose Society as one of the top rose gardens in the world
  • Zoro Garden - a sunken butterfly garden
  • Palm Canyon - an oasis which contains 450 palms
  • Desert Garden - 2.5 acres of succulents and drought-resistant plants from around the world
  • Marston House Formal and Primitive Gardens - five acres of rolling lawns, manicured formal gardens and rustic canyon gardens

Restaurants in Balboa Park

Visitors to the park will find a variety of restaurants and eateries appropriate for all budgets. From full-service restaurants to walk-up cafes and snack carts, visitors will find palate-pleasing options for the whole family. Pizza, pasta, salads, sandwiches and more. Here is a list of restaurants and where they are located at the park. For more information visit the Balboa Park website restaurant section.

  • Albert's Restaurant at the San Diego Zoo.
  • The Prado at Balboa Park is an award-winning, full-service restaurant located in the House of Hospitality.
  • Flight Path Grill found outdoors at the Air & Space Museum.
  • Daniel's Coffee Cart in the courtyard of the House of Hospitality across from the Balboa Park Visitors Center.
  • Dinosaur Café in the atrium of the Natural History Museum.
  • Galileo's Café located in the east rotunda of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center with tables outside next to the fountain.
  • Home Plate Bar & Grill located in the Hall of Champions.
  • Lady Carolyn's Pub at The Old Globe's outdoor food and beverage pavilion.
  • SDMA Sculpture Court Café by Giuseppe located in the outdoor sanctuary of the Museum of Art's May S. Marcy Sculpture Court and Garden.
  • Snack Carts are conveniently located along the El Prado pedestrian walkway and also near the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
  • The Tea Pavilion is located in the Japanese Friendship Garden.
  • Village Grill is located on the corner of Village Place and Old Globe Way.


A pioneer in building "cageless" exhibits, many changes have taken place over the years and today the San Diego Zoo is one of the best in the nation. The zoo's first residents were abandoned exotic animal exhibitions from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Balboa Park Museums

Free admission is offered on a rotating basis on the first four Tuesdays of each month to San Diego City & County residents (with ID), active military & their dependents. Free admission not valid for special exhibitions.

Kid-Favorite Museums

Free admission is offered on a rotating basis on the first four Tuesdays of each month to San Diego City & County residents (with ID), active military & their dependents. Free admission not valid for special exhibitions.

Performing Arts

Balboa Park Tours

Tours from the Visitors Center:
A fascinating one-hour audio tour of the Park can be purchased at the Balboa Park Visitors Center. There is an adult and child version of the tour, which covers Park history, architecture, horticulture, cultural attractions--all created by experts in the field.

Architectural Heritage Tours (First Wednesday each month):
Led by The Committee of 100, these tours are at 9:30 AM

Offshoot Tours (Every Saturday):
Offered every Saturday by trained volunteers, the tours start at 10:00 AM for an easy-paced one-hour walk with rotating themes. Tour themes include Balboa Park history (first Saturday of the month), palm trees (second Saturday), other trees in the Park (third Saturday), desert vegetation (fourth Saturday) and tour del dia (fifth Saturday). There are no tours from Thanksgiving through the 2nd Saturday in January. Reservations are not required.

Ranger-led Tours (Every Tuesday and Sunday):
Balboa Park rangers discuss the historical and botanical treasures of Balboa Park at 11:00 AM every Tuesday and Sunday.

Find more detailed information at Tours through Balboa Park or learn about a self-guided tour of the best photo shots of Balboa Park!


Parking at Balboa Park is free and there are numerous small lots through the Park, as well as one large lot at the end of President's Way (between the San Diego Hall of Champions and Spreckels Organ Pavilion).

Valet parking is available for a small fee in front of The Prado Restaurant at the House of Hospitality. Hours of service are: Tuesday through Thursday from 5:00 PM through 10:00 PM; Friday from 5:00 PM through midnight; Saturday from 10:00 AM through Midnight; Sunday from 10:00 AM through 10:00 PM There is no valet parking on Mondays.

A free tram provides access from the Inspiration Point parking lot (on the east side of Park Blvd., between Presidents Way and the Balboa Park Activity Center) to various locations within the Park. Trams pick up every 8-10 minutes (at peak times, 20-40 minutes). Riders may also board at one of the designated pick-up areas around the Park. Summer hours of operation are from June 1 through October 31, Tuesday through Sunday from 8:15 AM to 8:00 PM Monday the tram runs from 8:15 AM to 6:30 PM Fall/Winter hours of operation are from November 1 through May 31 daily, from 8:15 AM to 5:15 PM


From the north:
From I-5 take B Street/Pershing Street exit. Turn left on Florida Dr. Turn left on Zoo Place. Turn left on Park Blvd.

From I-15 or I-805 take Hwy 163. Take Park Blvd. exit. Turn left on Park Blvd. Follow the signs to Balboa Park.

From the east:
Take I-8 to Hwy 163 south. Take Park Blvd. exit. Turn left on Park Blvd. Follow the signs to Balboa Park.

From the south:
Take 1-5 to B Street/Pershing Street exit. Turn left on Florida Dr. Turn left on Zoo Place. Turn left on Park Blvd.

Free Visitor Planning Guide

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