Balboa Park: Where San Diego Goes on the Weekends 

Balboa Park is in the heart of San Diego, and the hearts of San Diegans. Ask and they’ll tell you stories of trips to Balboa: Family outings to the zoo. School trips to San Diego’s Hall of Champions. A friend’s wedding at the Natural History Museum. Dinner at the Prado. We could talk all day about the dozens of attractions — more than 60!

Did I mention that everyone loves Balboa Park?

New York has Central Park. Philadelphia has Fairmount Park. San Diego has Balboa Park. Look at a map of the city and you’ll see a verdant rectangle the size of a very small town. That’s Balboa Park. 1200 acres of museums, gardens, canyons, golfing, dog parks. You get the idea. It’s a shared backyard and urban playground. (Anyone who’s been to San Diego knows we have more than our share of playgrounds : )

Balboa Park is host to world-class cultural institutions that have been around for generations, breathtaking gardens, people exercising, Hollywood glamour (seen Citizen Kane?), and miles of trails for the walker and bicyclist. But even better than looking at a map is flying into town.

The plane approaches San Diego from the east, passing over the Golden Hill and South Park neighborhoods. One minute you’re looking at a patchwork of houses and roads, the next you’re gliding over the eastern side of Balboa Park (we’ll talk about the east and west sides more in a minute). Green fairways and winding canyons of coastal sage scrub. Before you know it you’re over the west side. Everyone’s craning their necks to spot Redwood Circle, an elephant in the zoo, and red umbrellas dotting the Plaza de Balboa. And then you’re on the tarmac.

Welcome to San Diego!


The park was named after Spanish-born explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. We have local civic leaders to thank for setting aside land for the park in 1868. Then in 1892, Kate Sessions — horticulturist, landscape architect, “Mother of Balboa Park” — launched an effort to improve the park (she was also central to developing the Botanic Gardens in Escondido, California.) Official plans and funding in the first decade of the 20th century, and the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, contributed to the park’s growth.

Where is it?

San Diegans often describe where places are by referring to five major roadways. Here’s Balboa Park: On the west is I-5 (Montgomery Freeway). On the north is I-8 (Mission Valley Freeway). On the east are I-805 (Jacob Dekema Freeway) and CA-15 (Wabash Boulevard). And to the south is CA-94 (Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway). I-5 cuts into the park downtown (Balboa’s southwest corner). Another route, CA-163 (Cabrillo Freeway), crosses the park north to south. For such a calm setting, there’s a lot of movement nearby!

And it’s surrounded by some amazing neighborhoods. Starting downtown and going clockwise: Little Italy, Banker’s Hill, Hillcrest, North Park, Burlingame, South Park, Golden Heights, Golden Hill, and then downtown again.

What’s in the Park?

More than 60+ attractions — not to mention open spaces and trails. Here are 12 reasons to get to Balboa Park (after you finish reading…):

  1. The renowned San Diego Museum of Art. Go see the El Greco!
  1. The Museum of Photographic Arts just introduced “Pay What You Wish”           admission.
  1. Timken Museum. Housed in a beautiful modernist building by local architect Frank Hope Jr. And it’s free!
  1. Japanese Friendship Garden. Perfect for a renewing afternoon walk.
  1. Dog Parks! Hey dog lovers, you have Grape Street, Morley Field, and Nate’s Point to choose from.
  1. Morley Field Sports Complex. Fitness buff? This is your place.
  1. 65 miles of trails. You read that right — 65 miles.
  1. Botanical Building. Plant, pond, and flower fan? Welcome (also free).
  1. San Diego Zoo. World famous and worthy of the hype.
  1. San Diego Art Institute. If you’re artistically-inclined, see an exhibit and take a class.
  1. The 1910 Balboa Park Carousel. You know you want to.
  1. Balboa Park Golf Complex. An 18-hole course, driving range, and more.

And we haven’t even gotten to the theater, tennis, dance lessons…

A surprising fact about the park is its layout. I said it looked like a “verdant rectangle” from above (poetic, right?). It does, but Park Boulevard bisects the park from southwest to north (downtown to North Park). Think of the east and west sides as “town and country.” Most of the cultural institutions are on the west side of Park Boulevard. The east side has the Naval Medical Center, Balboa Park Golf Course, Morley Field, and Balboa Tennis Club among other destinations. Are you starting to get a sense of this 1200-acre park’s size and offerings? Both east and west have tons of fun and beautiful spots. And they’re easy to access.

Getting Around

One benefit of the layout is that you can enter by car from all sides (there are other, smaller roads leading in too). If you’re on foot, just walk in anywhere. See the link at the end of this article for directions.

Speaking of being on foot, if you’re motivated (and I mean Motivated), you can walk all the way around. At a quick pace it will take two-and-one-half hours to walk those seven beautiful miles. Pay attention to the scenery and it might feel like five miles. If you love the sun at your back and the wind in your face you’ll want to rent a bike at any of the many new DecoBike stations around town. Or you can buy one used from Thomas Bike Shop in South Park for a friendly local experience. This small business has been around since 1907 ( San Diegans love being outside.

If You’re Still Reading and Not Running to the Park…

This post only touches on how great this park is. It has history, culture, and of course it’s full of happy tourists and friendly locals! Imagine living next door to this paradise. You could roll out of bed in your Banker’s Hill home, take in the view of North San Diego Bay, grab an espresso at Cafe Bassam, and walk across the street to watch a game of lawn bowling at the San Diego Lawn Bowling Club. Then walk across the iconic Cabrillo Bridge. And as long as you’re in the park you might as well enjoy tapas at Panama 66 with your feet up reading that bestseller.

You can learn more about Balboa Park, including getting directions, at Individual attractions have their own hours but the park is always open. Happy exploring!

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