Balboa Park is a living, breathing part of San Diego’s culture. It’s the epicenter of a lot of the city’s culture, a safe space for family outings and a friendly, all-encompassing space to enjoy several of the city’s attractions in a single location, including 15 museums, several gardens and the famed San Diego Zoo.
This park in California calls itself the largest urban cultural park in the United States. What that means exactly, I’m not sure. But I do know that it’s a cool park and a fun place to hang out if you have some time to kill. The one thing that isn’t so fab, though, is the fact that you have to pay to get into most of the museums and, of course, the zoo. Though you won’t get a complete feel for the vibe of the park by skipping the paid attractions, there are several things you can enjoy for free when you visit Balboa Park.
- Parking – I first have to mention that parking is free and (mostly) abundant in Balboa Park, which is a huge relief. People would visit Balboa Park even if they had to pay for parking, so it’s nice that the city doesn’t charge for this service. Most attractions in the park open at 10:00 a.m., so if you arrive in the morning, there is no problem with finding a parking space.
- Walking Trails – There are several paved and off-road trails for runners and walkers throughout the park. There are signs throughout the park directing trail users of which paths to take, but if you’re interested in taking advantage of the trails, it may be helpful to check out the trail maps of the park.
- The Gardens – Spread across Balboa Park’s 1,200 acres are eight gardens, most of which are free to visit. The desert garden has more than 1,300 plants and the rose garden located near it has nearly 200 colorful varieties planted in it. I thought the botanical garden was particularly pleasant with the impressive array of plants located in such a small place, and I also enjoy the koi pond located outside. Walk around a bit; chances are you’ll run into a garden that welcomes you without a fee.
- Free-Standing Art – Throughout the park there are a few scattered sculptures and fountains that are fun to admire and relax near. We like the dragon located outside of the Mingei International Museum.
- Timken Museum of Art – This art museum is considered one of the best small art museums in the world and houses works by many famous artists. It’s only got four small galleries so you can speed through this one in a short amount of time, so if you have a few minutes, give this one a look.
- Spreckels Organ Pavilion – This massive outdoor seating area gives people a good place to rest for a few moments. The bonus? Organ music constantly plays in the background. A civic organist gives a free concert every Sunday.
- Art Vendors – Near the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages there are several independent art vendors. They sell a variety of items from their stands, including photography, jewelry, watercolors and ceramics.
Those who are residents of San Diego city or county, or those who are active military personnel, are able to take advantage of even more free activities every Tuesday, when the museums open their doors free of charge. Every Tuesday a different batch of museums is open with no admission fee (check the full schedule here), and with enough planning, local residents should be able to check out some of the greatest cultural icons in the entire city without spending a single cent.
What is your favorite free Balboa Park activity? If you live in San Diego or are familiar with the park, is there anything you would add to this list?