If you are planning a visit to San Diego in southern California, and you love art, architecture, and gardens, then you are in for a treat at Balboa Park. Continue reading for the best art and garden related things to do in Balboa Park in one day!
An oasis of gardens, green spaces, museums, and great architecture in the heart of the city, Balboa Park is deserving of at least one full day in your itinerary, even if your San Diego trip is not a very long one. And once you visit Balboa Park, you’ll vow to return, to take in more of the many beautiful things to see and do here.
Named after the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa and designated a National Historic Landmark, Balboa Park covers 1,200 acres near downtown San Diego. The first trees (for beautification) were planted in the park by botanist and landscape architect Kate Sessions, in 1892. She is known as the Mother of Balboa Park.
The park expanded and took its present shape over the subsequent decades, with museums and gardens being added over time. Balboa Park is home to an astonishing 16 museums and 19 gardens at the time of writing!
WHAT TO DO IN BALBOA PARK IN ONE DAY (ART + GARDENS)
With a multitude of museums and gardens to visit at Balboa Park, there are many ways you can structure a one day itinerary. We enjoy art, especially European masters, and gardens, so the attractions I have listed below are the ones we covered. In my opinion, they represent the best offerings in the park for lovers of art, architecture, and gardens.
Here then, are 10 amazing things to do in Balboa Park, in one day!
#1 Wander the Japanese Garden
I loved our wander through the Japanese Friendship Garden at Balboa Park. A beautiful garden set on two levels, the garden represents the friendship between San Diego and Yokohama, its sister city in Japan.
Laid out over 12 acres, the garden incorporates many traditional elements of Japanese garden design, but also has some unique, must-not-miss sights. The architectural elements are beautiful, and add to the aesthetics of the exhibit. The harmony of textures, colors, shapes, and materials makes for a lovely whole.
Make sure you don’t miss the statue of Kannon Bosatsu, the Buddhist goddess of mercy whose statues are very popular in Japan. The bronze statue is about 300 years old, and weighs 5,750 pounds. Created by Takumi Obata, the statue can be found near the stream in the Lower Garden.
Another superb statue can be found in the Upper Garden, next to the bonsai collection. The statue is believed to be of one of the two guardians of Buddha. The bonsai collection is gorgeous.
You’ll find a bamboo grove, koi ponds, little wooden bridges, stepping stones, and a variety of sculptural trees to admire in the Japanese Garden. When we visited in February, the magnolia in the garden was in bloom.
There are 200 cherry trees in the garden. They were in bud when we visited, with the first blooms open. They must look spectacular when in full bloom! The garden also features lots of azaleas and camellias.
Walk all the way to the end of the Lower Garden to see the beautiful little waterfall that cascades over moss-covered rocks, just behind the magnolia tree.
The Japanese Friendship Garden is located between the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and the House of Hospitality. The Japanese Garden has an admission fee. For hours and admission information, visit the garden website. Allow about 90 minutes.
#2 Admire the succulents in the Desert Garden
I love desert gardens for all the amazing leaf shapes and textures. Blooms are a bonus! The Desert Garden in Balboa Park is not huge (it is about 2.5 acres), but it has a great variety of succulents and drought-resistant plants from different parts of the world.
Walk the meandering path through the garden, pausing to take in the beautiful shades of leaf colors ranging from yellowish green to lime to bright green to bluish green. Admire the sculptural forms of these tough members of the plant kingdom.
Succulents bloom in the spring. When we visited in late February, I didn’t see a lot of blooms, but there were a few spikes here and there. I love the really tall spikes with the gigantic spray on top.
The garden was established in 1976, and has well over 1,000 plants. It is located on Park Boulevard, right next to the Rose Garden. To get to the two gardens, you have to cross over the pedestrian bridge by the Natural History Museum.
The garden is free to enter and it is open all year round. Allow about 30-45 minutes.
#3 Be enchanted by the Rose Garden
The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden is locate right next to the Desert Garden. Arranged in formal beds, with walkways in between, the garden is recognized as an Outstanding Rose Garden in the USA by All-America Rose Selections.
When we visited in February, the roses had not started to bloom yet. The garden is in bloom from March to December, with April and May generally being peak bloom time.
The Rose Garden at Balboa Park occupies about 3 acres and contains several dozen varieties. Each year, the garden includes some new introductions to the rose market. A group of local volunteers maintains the rose garden.
A large rose garden in peak bloom is a spectacle to behold, with the beautiful colors, form, and fragrance of thousands of roses. So if you love roses, plan on visiting at peak bloom time! We saw the Rose Garden at the Huntington Library in Pasadena in full bloom and were wowed. We plan on returning to see this garden at peak!
The Rose Garden is free to visit and is open all year round. Allow about one hour.
#4 Visit the Botanical Building
You will love taking photos of the beautiful Botanical Building. When conditions are right, you can get a great reflection of the building in the lily pond out front. You can also frame it through the arches across the road.
Built in the early part of the 20th century, the Botanical Building is one of the largest lath structures on the planet. Admire the lilies and lotuses in the pond, and smile at the antics of the ducks that call it home. When we visited, we saw some newly hatched ducklings here…they were tiny.
Inside, you can admire the many tropical plants. You’ll see exotic orchids, ferns with large fronds, and palms and other tall trees reaching for the roof.
The Botanical Building is located on the El Prado walkway. It is free to enter, and is open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Fridays through Wednesdays. It is closed on Thursdays and holidays. Allow about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
#5 Discover treasures at the Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art is a must-visit during your one day in Balboa Park. The facade of the museum is gorgeous, and has sculptures of the artists Velázquez, Murillo, and Zurbarán.
The museum features famous works by Italian and Spanish masters, including the likes of Goya and Zurbarán. It also contains works by other European masters, such as Rubens.
In the museum, you’ll also see 19th and 20th century American paintings as well as sculptures. The museum also holds a wonderful collection of South Asian paintings, as well as modern and contemporary art, so there is a lot of diverse art to view and appreciate.
The museum is located on El Prado. For hours and admission, visit the official website of the museum. Allow about 2 hours. You could probably spend a lot more time in this amazing treasure house of art, but within the constraints of a one day Balboa Park itinerary, you can spend about 2 hours here.
#6 Pop into the Timken Museum of Art
The Timken Museum of Art is a tiny free art museum that you must definitely visit! Sadly, it was closed when we visited Balboa Park, so it’s on our list for our next visit to the park.
The museum is home to a small collection of significant European old masters, Russian iconography, and 19th century American works. It holds the only publicly displayed Rembrandt in San Diego, as well as works by Rubens and by John Singleton Copley.
The museum is housed is a gorgeous mid-century modern building on El Prado. Visit the museum website for hours. The museum closes for special events, so call ahead if you want to make sure you can visit on the day you are in Balboa Park. Allow about one hour.
#7 Visit the Spanish Village
Walk to the Spanish Village Art Center if you have the time: you might see artists at work in the studios or the colorful courtyard. You may see painters or sculptors, jewelry designers, pottery makers, photographers, and many more types of artists.
The buildings, designed in the style of a Spanish village, and the courtyard, were built in 1935. Over the years, a vibrant local artist community made beautiful additions to the space, and today it acts as a backdrop for daily art demonstrations.
The Spanish Village is located about a 3 or 4 minute walk from the Museum of Natural History, and it is open everyday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
#8 Admire the architecture
The range of architectural styles you can see in the park is diverse. As you walk around, admire the beautiful buildings, the arched corridors, and the lovely hardscape details. The buildings and the plantings make for a harmonious whole that is a pleasure to stroll.
Some buildings in the park were built for the 1915-16 Panama-California Expo, some others for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Expo, and yet others as part of the ongoing development of the complex.
The Spreckels Organ Pavilion is built in Italian Renaissance style. It is the largest outdoor organ in the world. If you go close, you can admire the detail on the facade: the designs features leaves and shells.
The Casa del Prado has a stunning facade, with lots of detail. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it as we walked back and forth on the walkway! The Mingei International Museum has a facade built in the Spanish Colonial style: it reminds me of the San Diego Mission.
The California Building and Tower was built for the 1915-16 Exposition. The spectacular tower rises 200 feet above the building, and its bells chime every quarter hour. The architecture is a blend of several styles: Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque, Rococo, and Gothic!
#9 Walk the Alcazar Garden
If you have seen the gardens of the Royal Alcazar in Seville, Spain, the Alcazar Garden at Balboa Park doesn’t come close. But it is a pretty garden all the same and we enjoyed walking through it.
With the California Tower as its backdrop, the Alcazar Garden features lovely tilework in green, blue and yellow. It also features fountains, and a beautiful vine-covered pergola. Beds boxed with formal hedges hold bedding plants, similar to the Seville gardens.
We visited before prime bloom time, so the garden must look even prettier during the summer. I loved the warm walls, which did remind me of Spain.
The Alcazar Garden is located by the Mingei International Museum. It is free to enter, and is open year round. Allow about 30 minutes.
#10 Visit the Railroad Museum
For a fun interlude, see art of a different kind on display at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the largest operating model railroad museum in the world. I was ambivalent about picking this museum for our one day in Balboa Park, but my husband and I both loved it.
In the museum, you’ll see big scale models of actual railroads from the southwestern United States. The models are built and maintained by local railroad clubs.
The four lines featured in the museum are the Tehachapi Pass, the Cabrillo & Southwestern, San Diego and Arizona Eastern, and the Pacific Desert. The scenery is beautiful and all the little elements come together in fascinating displays that can hold you captive for hours if you let them!
The Railroad Museum is located on the El Prado Walkway. Visit the museum website for hours and admission information. Allow about one hour.
Not into model railroads? Other options include the Museum of Photographic Arts, which celebrates photography, film, and video, or the Mingei International Museum, which holds a variety of art created by unknown craftspeople to famous artists from all over the world.
TIPS FOR YOUR VISIT TO BALBOA PARK
Here are some tips to help you have a fabulous Balboa Park experience!
If you only have one day in Balboa Park, start as early in the day as you can. Although distances are not large, you do have quite a bit to cover. Since the free-to-enter gardens are open all day, you can stroll one or two of them before the museums open.
Starting early will help build in some cushion if you want to linger longer in a garden or museum you particularly like, or if you come across an attraction you decide you just cannot pass by without popping in!
Call ahead to check for closures
An attraction within Balboa Park may be closed on a particular day because of a private event, or for maintenance or restoration. If you are particularly interested in a museum, call a couple of days before you plan to visit, just to make sure it is open.
Parking at Balboa Park
If you drive to Balboa Park, know that there are some small parking lots very close to park attractions, but you have to arrive early (or be lucky!) to snag a spot in one of these lots.
Otherwise, you can park in the large Inspiration Point parking lot on the east side of Park Boulevard, and then take the free park tram to the main arrival area near the Mingei International Museum. The trams run from 9 a.m. to either 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. depending on time of year, with longer hours in the summer.
Within the park, the museums and gardens are located not too far from one another, so you can walk everywhere.
Food options in the park
There are several food and drink places scattered through the park. The Prado is a sit down, fine dining restaurant located in the House of Hospitality. With both indoor and outdoor seating, the Prado is a great choice for lunch.
The Tea Pavilion at the Japanese Friendship garden serves Asian inspired cuisine and a variety of teas. At Craveology, in the Fleet Science Center, you can get things like salads, sandwiches, and pizza. My husband had ice cream here and said it was good!
The Natural History Museum and the San Diego Museum of Art also feature cafes serving casual fare, and you’ll also find a couple of coffee shops in the park.
Free public wifi is available in the park.
Get museum tickets plus map at visitor info office
The Visitors Center is located on the Plaza de Panama inside the House of Hospitality. You can buy tickets here if you do not plan on getting a pass (see below). You can also get a paper park map, and obtain information on events happening in Balboa Park on the day of the visit.
Go San Diego Pass or Balboa Park Explorer Pass
If you plan to follow the itinerary above, and aren’t planning to take in too many other paid attractions in San Diego, a pass may not be cost effective.
But if your San Diego itinerary as a whole includes several paid attractions, the Go San Diego Pass is worth investigating, to calculate if you would save by buying the pass rather than pay for individual attractions. The three paid attractions included above are free with the card!
Balboa Park offers Explorer passes for different time periods. If you plan to add in other paid attractions, check about the Explorer Pass at the ticket office or on the park website.
So there you have it: my suggestions for the best things to do in Balboa Park, San Diego, if you enjoy art and gardens! Have you been? What is your favorite attraction in Balboa Park? Comment below to respond.
If you haven’t yet visited, Balboa Park is a fascinating place to add to your itinerary for San Diego. I hope I have inspired you to plan a visit!
And if you are planning a visit, I have other suggestions for fun things to do in San Diego. America’s Finest City has a lot to offer any type of visitor, among them the beautiful Cabrillo National Monument, the lively Gaslamp Quarter, and the historic San Diego Mission.
MORE FUN DESTINATIONS IN NORTH AMERICA
California: Fabulous California Weekend Getaways
Nevada: The Best Day Trips from Las Vegas
Massachusetts: Visiting Boston Public Garden
Alberta: The Best Things to Do in Lake Louise
British Columbia: A Day Trip to Mount Robson Provincial Park
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Photo License Timken Museum CC BY-SA 3.0