Credit: Zane Persaud / Unsplash

How to Spend an Idyllic Day Exploring San Diego’s Historic Balboa Park

Between the Japanese Friendship Garden and the San Diego Museum of Art, There’s so Much to See in This Cultural Oasis

Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s most-loved attractions, luring in locals and tourists from all over. The entire neighborhood is one of culture, history and natural beauty, offering a unique glimpse into San Diego’s rich cultural heritage. When you enter the park, it feels like you’re in Europe—imagine stunning Spanish architecture, parks, fountains, museums and lush gardens everywhere you look. Balboa Park is also home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo (you could spend a full 24 hours there alone). With this guide, we’ll give you the rundown on how to make the most of one full day in this gorgeous, 1,200-acre park.

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Before You Go: Purchase an Explorer Pass and Get There Early

The best way to get the most out of 24 hours in Balboa Park is to purchase a one-day Explorer Pass online ahead of time, which will grant you access to any of the four venues within the park. We recommend trying to find a parking spot in the Organ Pavilion Lot for easy access to everything on our list. If you get there early, you shouldn’t have much trouble! 


9 a.m.

Coffee in the Plaza at Craft Café

Coffee in the Plaza
Credit: Fahmi Fakhrudin / Unsplash

After parking, head up the road past the Organ Pavilion until you see the Mingei International Museum on the left. Right outside, you should see a yellow sign that says Craft Café. Grab a coffee and pastry to-go and head out to the Plaza de Panama to find your perfect bench. It’s a great spot to people-watch, enjoy the fountain and beautiful buildings in the distance—all while pretending you’re on a European vacation. There’s also a Park Ambassador Information Tent located in front of the building if you want to stop by and grab a map or ask questions.


9:30 a.m.

Head to the San Diego Museum of Art

Balboa Park Guide
Credit: San Diego Museum of Art

At the back of the plaza, you’ll see a big beautiful building that is the San Diego Museum of Art. Wave your Explorer Pass at the door, and you’ll feel like a VIP member as you head in to gaze at modern and contemporary art. Right now, they’re featuring “Modern Women,” an exhibition dedicated to celebrating artwork by monumental female artists so often overshadowed by their male counterparts. They also have exhibitions focused on artists from Iran along with ones from all over Asia. This place is huge, so we’d recommend picking a couple exhibits that interest you and taking your time with those before heading off to the next stop. 



Lunch at Craveology + Explore the Fleet Science Center

Exit the art museum and head east across the plaza toward the Fleet Science Center, where all your nerdy science-kid dreams will come true. Before you head in, you can grab a quick lunch at Craveology, which is located in the same building. They have lots of ready-to-go options like salads, wraps, paninis and smoothies with outdoor seating to enjoy the views. When you’re finished eating, head inside to explore all the Fleet Science Center has to offer—we’re talking hands-on interactive experiences and exhibits on optical illusions, the science and history of electricity, outer space, new science and more. They also have a dome-shaped theater aptly called The Dome, where they show 360-degree documentaries on things like ancient caves, sea turtles and Antarctica (although we may not have time for that today).



2 p.m.

Meander Around the Japanese Friendship Garden

Dominic Nepomuceno
Credit: Dominic Nepomuceno

Head back in the direction of your car, and you can’t miss the Tea Pavilion at the entrance of the Japanese Friendship Garden. Originally designed to symbolize the friendship between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama, Japan, the garden is a beautiful cultural oasis that spans across 12 acres. It’s divided into several distinct areas, each with its own unique character and purpose. You’ll enter the Upper Garden first, where you’ll see a large koi pond, a waterfall and a traditional Japanese-style bridge. The Lower Garden is a more secluded area with winding paths, a bamboo grove and a traditional tea house. Take your time basking in the beauty of nature, and we’ll see you all blissed out on the other side.


3:30 p.m.

Grab a Treat From Daniel’s Coffee + Explore the Spanish Village Art Center

Head back across the plaza you sat in this morning to find Daniel’s Coffee, an adorable little coffee stand located in the heart of the Spanish Village Art Center. For a little pick-me-up before heading into your next museum, you can grab a coffee or iced Thai tea here to sip on as you browse around the colorful Spanish Village Art Center. Here, you’ll find Spanish-style architecture, colorful sidewalks and lots of art studios with artists selling unique, handmade pieces like ceramics, jewelry, paintings and sculptures. On another day, you can come back and take an art class!


4:30 p.m.

Walk Through the San Diego Natural History Museum

 San Diego Natural History Museum
Credit: San Diego Natural History Museum

From the Spanish Village Art Center, head south until you hit the famous San Diego Natural History Museum (aka “The Nat”). Right now, they have some really cool exhibits, including one called “Caught on Camera,” which shows real footage from hidden cameras that capture Southern California wildlife—if you’re brave enough to know what’s out there. They’ve also got one called “The Living Lab,” featuring real, live creatures local to the region that you may not typically see in the wild. Most famous is probably the dinosaur exhibit (think “Night at the Museum” vibes without the whole coming-to-life part). You’ll have so much fun exploring all the creepy, crawly, big, bizarre, wild, winged, scaly, surprising, hairy, horrifying (okay, I’m done) things this museum has to offer.



6:30 p.m.

Concert at Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Spreckels Organ Pavilion
Credit: Corban Murray / Unsplash

You may have noticed the giant pavilion on your right as you walked up from the parking lot this morning. That is the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, home to the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. Every night from 6:30-9 p.m., the park offers free concerts in this pavilion for anyone who wants to listen. We recommend putting your name down at the Prado and then sitting in the pavilion to enjoy a free concert while you wait for your table! 


7:30 p.m.

Dinner at The Prado

The Prado is Balboa Park’s historic restaurant, complete with whimsical Spanish decor, creative cocktails and diverse food options for everyone in your group. To start, we recommend the spicy calamari fries—long strips of fried calamari covered in a delicious Korean chili sauce (don’t worry, they’re not that spicy). But you know what is a little spicy and also incredible? The Prado’s Spicy Mezcal Margarita. Made with smoky mezcal, sweet agave, sour lime and spicy serrano peppers with a tajin rim, this margarita will wake up your taste buds in the best way possible. If you’re lucky, you can score a table outside and still hear some of that concert.


9 p.m.

Check In at the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina

Marriott Marquis
Credit: Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina

Whew, that was a long day! But it was so worth it, right? After all that eating, drinking and museum-hopping, we know you’re definitely excited to hop into a nice comfy hotel bed. Lucky for you, the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina is just a 10-minute drive away. This waterfront paradise overlooks a gorgeous private marina and is located right in the heart of San Diego. It’s not only close to Balboa Park (obviously), but also Petco Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy, Seaport Village and more. With all that nearby (and once you see how nice this hotel is), you better be careful—you’re gonna want to extend your stay.

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Sara grew up in San Diego and recently moved back after living on the Central Coast and traveling around Latin America for a while. Passionate about wellness both personally and professionally, she's worked for brands like Mindbody, Classpass, and Headspace and is a 200-hour registered yoga teacher (come take her class at YogaSix North Carlsbad!). Through it all, she's always had a passion for writing and loves contributing to Locale Magazine.




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