Balboa Park is one of my family’s favorite places to visit in San Diego, California. There are a variety of gardens, museums, cultural spots, theaters, playgrounds and walking trails in this 1200-square foot park. And in pricey Southern California, it’s wonderful to find a single location with tons of activities that are completely free in San Diego! Balboa Park is a great place to spend the day (or a few days, if you have time) when visiting San Diego.
Free in San Diego
If you’re looking for free, this location has enough activities to keep you and your family busy for several days. Check out the museum website and the links throughout this article for planning tips.
My advice is to arrive early, pack lunch and a few snacks and wear practical walking shoes because this Park is expansive. Sundays are particularly crowded because of free special events that take place each week on this day. And don’t forget your camera, because Balboa Park and its 100-year old buildings and gardens are perfect for family photos.
In the middle of the city, parking can be hard to come by, let alone find a free place to park your car for the entire day. There are parking lots all throughout Balboa Park where you can park your car in close proximity to the attraction you wish to visit. When visiting on the weekends or busy times of the year (summer, in particular), be sure to arrive early to find the best spot. On crowded days or on special event days, there is often overflow parking available off-site with free bus drop off. Signs are posted on the sidewalks during these events.
Free Admission (Read the Fine Print)
Balboa Park is completely free to roam and explore. All of the gardens, playgrounds and walking trails are open to visitors every day and select attractions are also free. On each Tuesday of the month, museums and attractions rotate to offer free admission to San Diego residents. Some of the museums also offer free admission to active duty military and their family or local college students (with ID) . There is a rotating calendar online. This offer includes the Museum of Man, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, Japanese Friendship Garden and Model Railroad Museum.
Each October, the world-famous San Diego Zoo offers free admission to children as well. On the flip side, the Veterans Museum and Memorial offers free admission every day for active duty military.
Bea Evenson and Plaza de Panama Fountains
What kid doesn’t love a huge fountain? Mine have always loved sitting next to the fountains in Balboa Park, letting the cool mist spray them. Though you will often find guests splashing in the fountains on a hot day, this is prohibited so resist the urge to wade.
House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
Each Sunday afternoon, these cottages representing 33 countries open to the public. There are cultural decorations inside each house and food samples offered to guests. One of the houses also hosts a program on the lawn each week featuring music, dance, costumes, crafts and art representing their country. An annual Ethnic Food Fair gathers the countries for a joint cultural event including performances and food (event is free, food cost is extra).
Spreckels Organ Pavilion
Each Sunday afternoon, the organ rings out beautiful music in a free outdoor concert. This is an informal affair that welcomes children and pets. No tickets needed, just grab a seat on one of the many benches, pull out a snack and enjoy the sounds. Bring an umbrella during sunny months because there is no shade in this area. When I was a kid, my parents would bring me here with my roller skates and I’d skate around the perimeter of the pavilion while listening to the music!
Free Park Tours
Make a stop by the Balboa Park Visitor’s Center and find out what free tours are being offered on the day of your visit. There are botanical tours of the gardens, architectural tours that highlight the 100-year old buildings and Park ranger-led tours, as well.
Special events are offered year-round in Balboa Park.
December Nights has brought thousands to the Park for nearly 40 years to celebrate the “most wonderful time of the year”. Museums open their doors and offer free admission, there are top-notch music and dance presentations on various stages and crafts and games for children. Naturally this is an extremely popular event and it’s recommended to arrive early.
The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages also offer events year-round dependent upon the country and their cultural holidays. The dance clubs of the International Dance Association host a free festival each year with free lessons.
Tour with Your Pup
There are three dog parks in Balboa Park so dogs can get off leash and run or play. On a leash, you can bring your dogs with you on the hiking trails, through the heart of the Park or even to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion during the Sunday concerts.
This historical bridge spans the Cabrillo Freeway (scenic state route 163). This 1500-foot long bridge allows foot traffic and offers a beautiful view of the downtown city and Park.
There are various sculptural “gardens” throughout Balboa Park, some with art sculptures that encourage climbing and touching.
Free (or donation encouraged) Museums
Learn more about fossils, gems and minerals at the San Diego Mineral & Gem Society. Discover Chicano, Latino and Mexican culture, including Ballet Folklorico at the Centro Cultural de la Raza. Admission to the photographic gallery at the Museum of Photographic Arts is “pay what you wish” on certain days during the year. See more details via this link.
Bask in the Gardens
Family photos are made easy when there are so many amazingly diverse gardens in this park. Hardly a visit to Balboa Park goes by when you don’t see a bride taking pre-wedding photos in the Park or a model shooting for a magazine. Some gardens are larger than others, but each offer something unique.
We visit the Botanical Building during each visit (note that it’s closed on Thursdays and holidays). This large lathe building (built for the 1915 Exposition) is graced with a peaceful lily pond out front. This is a perfect respite on a hot day. Free docent-led tours are offered on the third Friday of each month at 11 a.m.
I love the Alcazar Garden for it’s gorgeous Moorish tiles, boxwood hedges and fountains. Kids will enjoy the Children’s Peace Garden outside the WorldBeat Cultural Center with educational gardening classes on Sunday afternoons. The Zoro Garden is a perfect place to spot butterflies (and we have, many times!)
Spanish Village Art Center
Stop by this quirky artist’s community and you might find yourself with a paint brush in hand! Just follow the brightly painted tiles into the courtyard and watch as local artists create beautiful and unique works. On our last visit, the kids participated in a free drawing lesson.
There are several different play structures in Balboa Park, geared for different ages and perfect for kids to burn off steam in between museum visits. We often let our kids play on the Sixth Avenue Playground before taking a long walk on the trails.
International Ethnic Folk Dancing
Enjoy couples dancing, mixers and line dances. Come to dance or just watch the fun on Sunday afternoons in the Balboa Park Club Building.
WorldBeat Cultural Center
Celebrating diverse cultures, the center offers special events like concerts and drum circles. They also offer an Alternative Health Event is offered bi-monthly with free acupuncture, massage, chiropractic and yoga.
A Walk in the Park
Balboa Park has 65 miles of trails that are perfect for walking, jogging, hiking or biking. The Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve covers 150 acres, with various hiking trails. For an easier walk, try the California Native Plant Garden which is five acres with a quarter of a mile long footpath. The 2-acre Palm Canyon packs 450 palms along the shady trail. Find out more (including PDF maps) via this link.
Have a Picnic
There are many restaurants and dining spots (from hot dog carts up to high-end dining), but if you’re aiming for low cost, bring your own lunch. There are large grassy areas and shady locations under the trees to lay down a blanket, eat a picnic lunch and even take a nap, if you wish!
Timkin Museum of Art
Noted as one of the best small museums in the world, it’s also the only free art museum in Balboa Park. See fine paintings from Rembrandt and van Dyck, as well as Russian icons and French tapestries.
Listen for the California Tower
No need to bring a watch! Each quarter hour, melodious chimes ring out from the California Tower that can be hear all throughout the Park. Tickets can be purchased to climb the tower and witness the amazing views of San Diego. Listening for the bells to ring is one of my kids favorite parts of visiting the Park!
Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden
Stop and smell one of the 1600+ roses that bloom in this 3-acre garden. It’s a gorgeous photo stop, especially when the rose blooms peak in April and May.
More Free in San Diego
If you’ll be in San Diego for a few days, be sure to check out the other free things you can do in the area!
What would you most like to explore on a visit to Balboa Park? Share with us in the comments!