Anyone who's visited will tell you about the days you could spend in Balboa Park, and they're right. There are hundreds of attractions scattered throughout this 1,200 acre park including countless museums, gardens, theaters, restaurants, and even the world-famous San Diego Zoo (which you can enter for a small fee of $50+. Yikes!). With so much to do it's hard to know what to prioritize and what's worth paying for. The good news is that if it's your first time to Balboa Park, you can have a great time without even cracking open your pocketbook. Here are the top 5 year-round activities to enjoy in Balboa Park for free:
Photograph the Botanical Garden
Hours: Friday - Wednesday: 10AM - 4PM
Take a walk down the park's central thoroughfare, El Prado, while enjoying the ornate architecture and beautiful tree-lined path surrounding you. Midway down the path you'll find the park's botanical building and reflection pool. Snap a picture of the park's most photographed building, then enter it to admire the 2,000+ plant garden.
Explore the Timken Museum of Art
Hours: Tuesday - Saturday: 10AM - 4:30PM and Sunday: 12PM - 4:30 PM
Near the botanical garden you can visit the Timken Museum of Art which is the only Balboa Park museum that is always free to residents and non-residents alike. This museum is small, but not without its gems. It contains many European, 19th century American, and Russian art pieces including the only Rembrandt on display in all of San Diego. Whether you're an art history buff or just curious, with the hefty price tag of $0 it's worth at least checking out.
Wander the Spanish Arts Village
Hours: Daily 11AM - 4PM
The Spanish Arts Village houses 37 studios and shops showcasing work from over 200 local artists. Chat with artisans at work and explore their many and varied creations. Treat this like a museum visit or as a way to pick up a unique San Diego keepsake or gift. Whichever you choose, make sure to strike up a conversation with the painters, sculptors, glass artists, ceramicists, jewelry designers, photographers, etc. while you're there!
Visit the Rose or Desert Garden
Stop and smell the roses at this award winning San Diego garden. To view the roses in bloom you'll want to visit March-December (with roses being in full bloom during April and May), but this secluded oasis boasts free access year round. It is run almost entirely by volunteers and houses over 130 varieties of flowers with over 1,600 unique plants. This is a beautiful place to wander, read a book, or enjoy a picnic.
Visiting in winter or not into roses? Maybe the Desert Garden will be more your style. Perfectly contrasted to the nearby rose garden, these winter plants are at their prime January through March. Cross the footbridge at the San Diego Natural History Museum to explore the 1,300 unique plants along Park Boulevard.
Enjoy a walk, run, or hike
Balboa Park has a combined 65 miles of walking and hiking paths great for all levels of fitness. Put on your walking or running shoes and enjoy a beautiful, scenic walk on the outskirts of the park or right through all of the main attractions.
- Golden Hills: Access Golden Hills from the Southeast entrance of Balboa and choose any of three different trails from .5 to almost 7 miles long. Choose the mid-length path to experience Eucalyptus and Oak trees in the park's secluded canyons.
- Marston Point Trails: Start this hike from the South and Southwest side of the park and access the West Mesa areas. If desired, take the longest path (3.3 miles) over the Cabrillo bridge and past many of the park's main buildings.
- Morley Field: Want a throw back to your high school Cross-Country days? These trails, accessible from the park's Northeast corner, are often included in Southern California cross-country races. There's a lot of elevation change and you'll have access to rarely seen parts of the park (though you'll also spend some time on the shoulder of the nearby road).
- Park Boulevard: Most easily accessed from the Gaslamp area, the Park Boulevard trails offer many options. You'll pass many of Balboa's central attractions and will also have the opportunity to explore outside of these areas if you have the stamina :).
- Sixth and Upas: Visit this section by entering the park from the Northwest, Hillcrest area. Experience much of the north side of the park as well as a few (or many) attractions by venturing on one of these 1.5 to 6.6 mile paths.
If this isn't enough to fill your first (free) visit to Balboa Park, there are often special events, performances, and deals throughout the year. Check out the official Balboa Park events calendar to see what free happenings might be going on during your visit.
P.S. Short on time in San Diego or trying to narrow down the list of activities? Check out this jam-packed 1-Day guide to San Diego. More time? Spread the activities out for a more leisurely trip :).