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Balboa Park

The Cultural Heart of San Diego

As the largest urban cultural park in North America, Balboa Park is filled with cultural treasures, architectural grandeur, stunning gardens & award-winning performing arts.

San Diego's Cultural Center for over 100 Years

Encompassing nearly 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is a magnificent cultural complex that includes 17 museums, eight major gardens and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Often referred to as the "Smithsonian of the West," Balboa Park is the largest urban cultural park in North America, exceeding New York’s Central Park in size. Filled with cultural treasures, architectural grandeur, lush landscapes, stunning gardens and award-winning performing arts, it takes 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’s 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.

Balboa Park Explorer Passes

Balboa Park Explorer Passes are available online, at the Visitor Center, or at participating museums:

  • The Balboa Park Multi-Day Explorer Pass provides admission to 17 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 Balboa Park One-Day Explorer Pass allows you to choose any 5 of the participating attractions (Zoo not included).
  • The annual Balboa Park Explorer is the first-ever annual pass that provides general admission to 17 cultural institutions year round.

Balboa Park History

City leaders designated a large tract 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, the park’s highly ornamental style was the first of its kind 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. 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.

Balboa Park's Gardens

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

Restaurants in Balboa Park

The park is filled with a variety of restaurants appropriate for all budgets. From full-service eateries to walk-up cafes and snack carts, you'll find palate-pleasing options for the whole family. Here is a list of restaurants and their location in the park:

  • Albert's Restaurant can be found at the San Diego Zoo.
  • The Prado at Balboa Park is an award-winning, full-service restaurant located in the House of Hospitality.
  • Café Mingei serves up coffee, tea and treats on the Plaza de Panama.
  • Craveology is located in the east rotunda of the Fleet Science Center with tables outside next to the fountain.
  • Daniel's Coffee is located at the Spanish Village Art Center.
  • Dino Café is in the atrium of the Natural History Museum.
  • Flight Path Grill is located outside of the Air & Space Museum.
  • Home Plate Sports Café sits inside the Hall of Champions.
  • Lady Carolyn's Pub is the outdoor food and beverage pavilion at The Old Globe.
  • Panama 66, set in the outdoor sanctuary of the Museum of Art's May S. Marcy Sculpture Court and Garden, features locally sourced food, local draught beer and craft cocktails.
  • Prado Perk sits in the courtyard of the House of Hospitality across from the Balboa Park Visitors Center.
  • The Tea Pavilion is located in the Japanese Friendship Garden.
  • Village Grill is located on the corner of Village Place and Old Globe Way.
  • Snack Carts are conveniently located along the El Prado pedestrian walkway and also near the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

Attractions

A pioneer in building "cageless" exhibits, the San Diego Zoo is one of the best in the nation. The zoo's first residents were abandoned exotic animal from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition exhibitions, and today more than 3,600 well-care for animals (650 species) reside at our world-famous zoo.

Balboa Park Museums

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

Kid-Favorite Museums

Performing Arts

Balboa Park Tours

  • Tours from the Visitors Center:
    A fascinating 1 1/2 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, and cultural attractions—all created by experts in the field.
  • Architectural Heritage Tours (First Wednesday each month):
    • The Committee of 100, a group dedicated to preserving the historic architecture, gardens and public spaces of Balboa Park, leads tours that begin at 9:30 AM.
    • Offshoot Tours (Every Saturday) - trained volunteers guide these 10 AM tours on Saturdays, which are easy-paced, one-hour walks with rotating themes. 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 follow a self-guided tour of the best photo shots of Balboa Park!

Parking

Parking at Balboa Park is free and there are numerous small lots throughout 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 to Balboa Park's museums and attractions and runs daily from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM (Summer hours are daily from 9:00 AM to 8:00 PM). Park in the Inspiration Point lot (on the east side of Park Blvd., between President's Way and the Balboa Park Activity Center). Trams pick up every 8-10 minutes (at peak times, 20-40 minutes). 

Directions

From the north:
From I-5 take B Street/Pershing Street exit, heading toward Pershing Street. 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.


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