Balboa Park is one of my family’s favorite destinations in San Diego. On two different trips, we have reserved two full days for Balboa Park – one day for the San Diego Zoo and another to roam the museums, gardens and playgrounds. Our two visits were several years apart, and my kids (ages 7 and 10) had just as much fun on our last visit as they did when they were preschoolers.
Balboa Park dates back to the late 1800’s and hosted the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The park’s historic architecture is beautiful, and it is truly delightful to explore Balboa Park on foot under San Diego’s blue skies and swaying palms. Balboa Park is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2015! Look for special exhibitions and events throughout the year.
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is one of the best and busiest zoos in the world and it is a top San Diego attraction for good reason. Read my full review of the San Diego Zoo here. The zoo is large enough that we find it difficult to see it all in a single day. If you have any energy left, it may make sense to visit the Balboa Park carousel and miniature railroad at the end of your day at the zoo, because they are nearby. Otherwise, I recommend saving the rest of Balboa Park for another day.
Balboa Park has five playgrounds, which are a fun and FREE way for families to relax and “get the wiggles out.” Some of the playgrounds are better suited for kids under age 5, while others are intended for ages 5-12. The playground we have enjoyed is the Pepper Grove Playground, which is good for all ages and is conveniently located behind the Fleet Science Center.
We love visiting museums on vacation because our entire family enjoys learning new things, and many of the 16 museums at Balboa Park do a good job of integrating education and play. Most of the museums charge admission. You can pay separately or bundle with an Explorer Pass.
We have found that 2-3 museums is plenty for one day. Here are the museums we have tried.
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center – The Fleet is my kids’ favorite museum at Balboa Park because everything is made for hands-on play. My daughter loved the optical illusions and the computer that showed her how she would likely look as she aged. My son’s favorite exhibits were the paper airplane launcher and the building block zone. If you love IMAX movies, The Fleet is home to the only IMAX theater in Southern California.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum – At 28,000 square feet, this is the world’s largest operating model railroad museum. We visited this museum when our son was a toddler because he was such a fan of Thomas the Train at that age. In addition to model trains running behind glass, kids are likely to enjoy the interactive play area and Toy Train gallery.
San Diego Natural History Museum – The NAT is located across the plaza from The Fleet, so the two make a natural pair for families. If your family loves dinosaurs, animals, rocks, and nature, the NAT is lots of fun. There is a small play area especially for toddlers and preschoolers on the first floor. We enjoyed the 3-D movie, which was included with admission.
The San Diego Museum of Art – This museum was my 10-year-old daughter’s top priority on our last trip to Balboa Park. She was taking art lessons and was excited to see the works of famous artists that she had learned about and copied. Seeing Monet’s “Haystacks at Chailly” was her goal, but we enjoyed seeing the modern art, the special Asian exhibition, and other art along the way. Ask about the Private Eye Gallery Cards when you arrive to help kids engage at this museum.
Timken Museum of Art – This museum is FREE, and is a smaller alternative to the San Diego Museum of Art. European masters, American paintings and Russian icons are the focus of this museum. Keep an eye out for famous names like Rembrandt, Rubens, Copley and others. If your family hasn’t visited many art museums, this is a low-risk opportunity to get your kids talking about fine art.
We have wandered through several of the 19 beautiful gardens at Balboa Park and still feel that we have barely scratched the surface. The Botanical Building is one of the most photographed buildings in Balboa Park and nestled among several of our favorite museums. The Rose Garden, Japanese Friendship Garden, the Zoro Garden and the Children’s Ethnobotany Garden are also good options for families, and all are FREE.
Find a historic carousel and historic miniature railroad near the gates of the San Diego Zoo. The Balboa Park carousel dates back to 1910, and it is one of the few carousels in the world where you can still try to grab the brass ring for a free ride. The miniature railroad is next to the carousel, and families with young children will likely enjoy both rides. The three-minute ride on an antique train will take you through four acres of the park.
Each ride costs $2 per person and is open daily during the summer and on weekends and school holidays during the rest of the year. Find the carousel and miniature railroad near the San Diego Zoo.
There are cafes and carts throughout Balboa Park, but we prefer to bring our own picnic to Balboa Park. San Diego’s weather is usually sunny and warm, and setting up a simple picnic on the lawn next to a playground keeps everyone happy and relaxed. It’s an easy way to keep costs down and serve a healthy meal that the kids will actually eat.
There is free parking throughout Balboa Park. Arrive before 10 am to be sure to get a parking space. On both trips, we parked behind The Fleet for our museum day and enjoyed easy access to that museum, the Natural History Museum, the model train museum and the Pepper Grove Playground.
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