Updated: Nov 17, 2019
There is so much to do and see in San Diego, but these two attractions are a must do. Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. Ever changing. Always amazing. Where culture, science, and nature collide, Balboa Park is home to more than16museums, multiple performing arts venues, lovely gardens, trails, and many other creative and recreational attractions, including the San Diego Zoo. With a variety of cultural institutions among its 1,200 beautiful and lushly planted acres, there is something for everyone.
Let's first go over the most popular museums that are all located in the park and can be accessed easily by foot. It's just convenient having so many choices, in one spot.
San Diego Air & Space Museum the Museum houses a collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft from all over the world, including a working flying replica of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the actual Apollo 9 Command Module spacecraft and the only real GPS satellite on display in the world. View artifacts from the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and other aviation and space pioneers! The Museum also offers interactive exhibits including MaxFlight® and F-35 simulators, a fun kid-zone, 3D/4D movie theater plus dynamic, hands-on and ever-changing traveling exhibitions.
The San Diego Automotive Museum This museum presents the story of the automobile in ways that engage the visitors and their experiences with cars. Compelling exhibits invoke a visceral reaction for the visitors about cars they have owned, loved, and driven. There is something for everyone. In addition to cars, the museum features a large motorcycle exhibit, memorabilia, and videos that put the automotive experience into cultural perspective. The museum was founded by San Diego car collectors in 1988 and has now grown to a museum that features automotive culture from around the world.
The San Diego Natural History Museum Explore the natural history of Southern California—from past to present - From rattlesnakes and flesh-eating beetles, to dinosaurs and fossils, to a pendulum that proves the earth is spinning, there’s something for everyone. Visitors will be impressed by the unique, interactive exhibitions that span across five floors. The museum features a giant-screen theater with daily showings of 2D and 3D films, as well as rotating exhibitions that bring nature to life.
The San Diego Museum of Man From monsters and beer history, to California Tower tours, to our relationships with animals and the truth about cannibalism – there’s always something interesting going on here. During your visit, you’ll explore a variety of unique, interactive exhibits that cover a vast range of human history and culture.
Other notable museums include: The Fleet Science Centre, Museum of Photographic Arts, The San Diego Art Institute, The San Diego Museum of Art and many, many more.
And coupled together with the museums is a vast array of performing arts. Side-splitting comedies, heart-breaking tragedies, lively musicals, breathtaking ballet, puppet shows, moving musical performances, Shakespeare under the stars, and weekly concerts on the world's largest outdoor pipe organ. With more than 10 dedicated performance spaces, and additional stages and entertainment added for different seasons and special occasions, you can always be swept away into another world through an inspiring performance.
Not done yet.
Make sure you take a ride on the historic Balboa Park Carousel. The 1910 Balboa Park Carousel, adjacent to the San Diego Zoo, is a menagerie of animals and all but two pairs are original with hand-carved European craftsmanship. Also original are the hand-painted murals surrounding the upper portion of the carousel and the military band music. This carousel is one of the few in the world still offering the brass ring game for everyone taking the 5-minute ride. And if you have little ones they will certainly like to ride the The Balboa Park Miniature Train. Although it is operated by the San Diego Zoo, the train gives 3-minute rides around a portion of Balboa Park just outside the exit of the San Diego Zoo and directly across from the Carousel.
Still not done. I told you. This place has a lot to offer!
Next up are the gardens. Perfect for sitting in the shade of a century-old tree, or relaxing on a bench watching butterflies, Balboa Park has lush, unique, landscaped, gardens from end to end. Sweet-smelling roses, towering trees, acres of grass, prickly cacti with beautiful blooms, brightly-colored water lilies and lotus blossoms, and outstanding orchids all shine thanks to San Diego's climate. Find a spot to relax and have a picnic, or take a brisk walk through a landscaped garden designed decades ago by some of the original founders of Balboa Park.
Even more....the park boasts many recreational activities from a golf course, to disc golf courses, to hiking, biking and walking trails, to a velodrome, to lawn bowling and tennis courts. You'll find plenty of activities at Balboa Park to keep you moving.
And the best thing of all. Balboa Park is a public park, and available for all to enjoy! Entrance to the Park and parking for Balboa Park as a whole, is free, with the exception of some special events. Playgrounds, dog parks, fountains, trails, gardens, architecture, history, statues and artwork are available to experience and enjoy, on a daily basis, free of charge. So if you are really on a budget or not interested in the museums or attractions, this park is still highly recommended.
But if you want to get the most out of the park, I would suggest getting a Balboa Park Explorer Multi-Day Pass. You basically save money and have the freedom to visit on multiple days for 7 consecutive days. You get admission to all the museums and to top it off, you also get a ticket to the San Diego Zoo including a Guided Bus Tour, Kangaroo Express Bus, Skyfari aerial tram, and all regularly scheduled shows.
Now to sweeten the pot even more. Parking is free. Don't like walking? The tram is free too!
Park in the Inspiration Point parking lot (on the east side of Park Blvd., between Presidents Way and the Balboa Park Activity Center) for easy access to the heart of Balboa Park via the free tram. There are also numerous smaller lots throughout the Park.
Balboa Park is also home to some great events: Balboa Park is home to hundreds of events every year. But it is a special treat when the bulk of the Park comes together as one, to focus on a specific occasion or theme. Whether it is a event that has become an honored, annual tradition, or something new to celebrate nature, innovation, or creativity, mark your calendar so you don't miss the next Parkwide event!
EarthFair April 22
EarthFair in Balboa Park is the largest free annual environmental fair in the world. Each year, the EarthFair draws around 60,000 visitors. Produced by 300 volunteers, EarthFair 2018 will feature more than 300 exhibitors, special theme areas, a Food Pavilion, a special Children's Activity Area, four entertainment venues, the Children’s Earth Parade, the eARTh Gallery arts and crafts show, and the Cleaner Car Concourse.
Cinco de Mayo in Balboa Park - May 5
Enjoy family-friendly activities, free concert featuring Jarabe Mexicano, ballet folklorico dancing from La Fiesta Danzantes de San Diego, food trucks, and more!
Fiesta Botanica May 26
Visitors of all ages are invited to celebrate spring amid the region’s most spectacular historical gardens at Fiesta Botanica: Celebrating Balboa Park’s Plants & Gardens. The family-friendly festival kicks off with the Fiesta Botanica Wagon Parade along El Prado. The festivities continue with horticultural-themed lectures and demonstrations, hands-on activities for kids, live entertainment, tours of the park’s historic gardens, plant sales, food trucks, and more.
Balboa Park December Nights
The first Friday and Saturday in December each year, Balboa Park comes alive with the holiday spirit. 2 days and nights of music, dancing, performances, lights, food, and more!
The main attraction of Balboa Park is the world famous 100 acre San Diego Zoo. It is well known for its lush, naturalistic habitats and unique animal encounters and is home to more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals representing approximately 660 species and subspecies and a prominent botanical collection with more than 700,000 plants. It is viewed in several ways, first and foremost by walking along pathways, into aviaries, and through bioclimatic zones. There is a 35-minute Guided Bus Tour that gives a good overview of the Zoo, along with an Express Bus that stops at several locations to assist guests in accessing different areas. We suggest taking the Guided Bus Tour upon your arrival to acquaint yourself with the various areas where you would like to spend additional time. The Zoo is a unique walking experience that exhibits animals in the most natural way possible, adding shows and animal presentations throughout the day for additional enjoyment.
On my personal visit to the zoo we arrived before the gates opened and were surprised to find that while waiting we got to see a zoo handler and her owls close up. We decided to walk the zoo, and being their early was extra special. We found a pathway that was clear and the zoo was basically ours for the next hour without crowds. The animals were also very excited in the early morning and some of the monkees were especially vocal about our approach.
And if you could not get enough of the animals at the zoo you can also visit the San Diego Zoo's sister site: The Safari Park. There are many ways to enjoy this park but here are just a few:
Caravan Safari Travel in the back of a covered, open-air safari truck to visit at least two field enclosures. Get an up-close view of Asian and African birds and mammals, with an opportunity to feed giraffes!
Try to outrun a Cheetah! Witness the fastest land mammal up close and personal doing what it does best: run! Shiley's Cheetah Run, located near Lion Camp, is a unique, jaw-dropping experience for all guests that's included with Park admission. During Shiley's Cheetah Run, the sleek cat races on a straight 330-foot-long track that allows it to really stretch its legs and reach maximum speed of about 70 miles per hour. For an extra-special cheetah run experience, Cheetah Safari offers reserved, trackside seating to watch this same lightning-quick cheetah, just feet away, as it whooshes by in hot pursuit of a mechanical lure. Before the cat makes its entrance, you can relax in our Cheetah Safari seating area while being treated to a private up-close encounter with another African animal. After our cheetah star has finished his or her sprint, the large cat and its trainer will come over for an exclusive meet-and-greet opportunity. Have your camera ready! Cheetah Safari is available only through advance registration, and space is limited. Fee includes trackside seating and animal presentations.
Fly above the Park Flightline Safari is the ultimate recreational experience for those looking for excitement. Secure and comfortable in your harness, you will soar as high as 130 feet above the ground, with a spectacular bird’s-eye view of rhinos, giraffes, and other wildlife in the fields below you.
The Safari Park is about 35 miles from San Diego Zoo and public transportation is available, however, we do recommend you drive and enjoy the North County while you are near The Safari Park.
On our next episode we will cover The Inland Valley, The North County Inland and the Inland Mountain and Deserts.