Many people come to the city to enjoy SeaWorld’s exhibits and shows or the world-famous San Diego Zoo, but there is much more to explore around town.
You can spend days visiting the museums at Balboa Park, take a sunset dinner cruise in the harbor, or climb aboard an Aircraft Carrier.
In 1915, the parklands were used to host the San Diego Panama-Pacific International Exposition which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal and lasted for 2 years. Later many of the park's buildings were recommissioned as museums.
Interesting Facts: Kate Sessions is known locally as “the mother of Balboa Park”. She designed a lot of the park's landscaping and spent years planting trees.
You can spend a day just walking around and exploring the history and architecture, picnicking in the green zones, riding a mini train, going on a carousel, or visiting the International Village. The park is home to so many Museums, you will need days to explore them all. Some of my favorites are "Air and Space", "Science Center", "Natural History" and "Museum of Art".
To see the full list, go to the official website here.
Each museum requires a full review by itself to describe all its wonders, but I will be covering a few of them in this review.
For young children, several play areas are placed throughout the park. Some are near the museums. The best one is “Pepper Grove Playground” which is a large play area with picnic tables – right next to the Science Center.
Tip: Tuesdays are free admission days to all museums at the park, but only for San Diego residents.
The park is also home to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion – the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ. This unique organ contains 4,725 pipes ranging in length from the size of a pencil to 32 feet.
Tip: A free organ concert is performed every Sunday at 2 PM. The plaza is also host to special summer events. You can find an event calendar here.
The park also hosts many events throughout the year like the Haunted Trail on Halloween, the Ethnic Food Fair, the Chinese New Year Festival, and the Native American Annual Powwow.
On a recent visit, I got to watch energetic Native dances and browse handicrafts and arts on display at the Powwow.
I also enjoyed some amazing Pipe Organ music at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
San Diego Air & Space Museum
As you approach this museum, you are greeted by the sight of 2 stealth bombers – a good sign of things to come. If you love planes, helicopters, and spaceships, then you must see this place. The curators managed to put together a large collection of aerospace memorabilia and lots of aviation history in one place.
You can start your journey through the history of aviation by viewing the Wright Brothers replicas of the Wright brother's 1901 and 1902 gliders and learning about their wind tunnel experiments.
Interesting Facts: Charles Lindbergh made history when he flew from San Diego to New York and then non-stop to Paris on the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.
Then you can witness the advancement of both military and commercial aviation through the decades. Some planes on exhibits are the Memphis Bell, Stealth fighters, the Predator drone, the Spirit of St Luis, the Blue Angels.
Tip: The best way to enjoy San Diego attractions is by getting a Go City Card. You pay one price and get all the attractions you want. Go San Diego Card
For a little interactive fun, you can get into the cockpit of a helicopter and try the weird Cyclic Stick control. The cyclic control changes the pitch of the rotors.
For space buffs, the museum shows replicas of Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo along with space suits and photo collections.
Tip: as you walk through the exhibits, look up! A lot of aviation’s history is floating above your head.
When you have your fill of gawking at planes and spacecraft, you can try to fly one for yourself. Flight simulators rides are available for an additional fee. You can choose between single and multi-rider sims with various mission types.
During my visit, the Da Vinci exhibit was on display. You have to pay a little extra to get into this area, but it is worth every penny.
Da Vinci was the ultimate innovator. He explored and worked on so many concepts decades ahead of his time. Many of his inventions were so revolutionary, it was not possible to bring them to fruition during his lifetime.
Browse around to view Da Vinci’s gliders, tanks, robots, helicopters, design drawings, and of course his famous paintings like the Mona Lisa.
My only regret about this place is that it 95% air and 5% space. It would have been much more engaging if it covered more of the Space Age.
On the way out don’t forget to visit the fountain area at the center of the museum. While relaxing and enjoying the water fountains, you can gaze up at the hanging military planes.
Reuben H Fleet Science Center
The center has around 12 permanent exhibits and rotating visiting exhibits. Some of the permanent ones are “So Watt!”, “Look! Touch! Listen!”, "Origins in Space", "San Diego's Water" and “Tinkering Studio”.
Lots to see, so go to the center’s website here and plan your visit.
At the “So Watt!” energy exhibit, you get to investigate where our power comes from. A nice interactive solar power display shows how light is converted into electricity which then drives a floating ping pong ball.
Did you want to know where your water in San Diego comes from? The “San Diego's Water” display shows water sources and how it is delivered to your tap.
Yong minds can explore their senses through the “Look! Touch! Listen!” experiments dotting the whole museum floors. In one experiment, one person whispers into a hyperbolic saucer while another listens to the amplified sound reaching across the room to the other end.
On the other side of the museum, inquisitive minds can try to generate electricity with Jacob’s Ladder or make a ball levitate.
The “Origins of Space” exhibit currently shows the latest NASA images of deep space.
At the “Tinkering Studio”, ignite your inner Da Vinci and work with others on projects covering STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics).
During my latest visit, the guest exhibit was “Science Fiction, Science Future” – a great way to connect my childhood fantasies with current and future advances.
I truly believe that if you can dream it, you can make it happen. Many of the fantasies spawned by science fiction writers became realities - airplanes, space flights to the moon, and solar energy to name a few.
In this exhibit, you can try to move an object with your mind, read your DNA, interact with a robot or play a holographic game. You can also explore the ideas of Teleportation, Wormholes, and Cyborgs.
Finally, a science museum is not complete without an IMAX theater or a planetarium. This one has both.
The center’s Heikoff Giant Dome Theater is an ideal venue to project the latest IMAX films and digital celestial shows. Some of the amazing shows projected on this dome: Under the Sea, Island of Lemurs, and Aircraft Carrier. For the latest show schedule go here
Tip: Both the Science center and the Natural History museums are on the main pedestrian promenade (El Prado street). In between the two popular museums, there is a nice water fountain – a good place for pictures. If you take a pedestrian bridge in front of the Natural History museum you will end up at a beautiful cactus and rose garden with many photo opportunities.
San Diego Natural History Museum
This museum has 5 floors of permanent and visiting exhibits with 8.2 million artifacts – a lot to see and experience.
My favorite exhibits are:
Whales - Giants of the Deep: this is a visiting exhibit from New Zealand that lets you get close to the giant whales and learn about their biology. You can also examine fossils of whale ancestors or listen to whale songs. If you dare you can crawl through a giant replica of a whale’s heart.
Fossil Mysteries: This is a permanent exhibit that showcases 75 million years of Dinosaurs and Mastodons that used to live in the area. As you enter from the first floor, you will come face to face with a giant T-Rex and a flying Pterodactyl.
In one area of the exhibit, a photographic and fossil evidence exhibit tells the story of the dinosaur extinction.
Did you know that San Diego is one of the 35 most biodiverse regions in the world? I didn’t know that. I learned it at the Coast to Cactus exhibit in this museum. Using multimedia exhibits, hands-on experiments, and live animals you get to experience the richness of life in the area.
Build your own discounted San Diego Go Card Here - Multi-attraction Pass.
The fourth level has a photographic gallery with award-winning photos of nature and animals. It is also home to a future library.
Tip: When you take the stair to the upper levels, notice the panoramic view from the stairwell. Looking down, you will see a giant fig tree. This tree was planted 100 years ago (1915) but likes like it is much older.
Finally, don’t miss the giant movie screen at the museum. Admission is included in the ticket and it shows 2D and 3D nature features. You can catch a 3D movie about whales or about the coral reefs. Get the latest showtimes at the museum’s website here.
San Diego Museum of Man
The museum’s building itself is a magnificent piece of architecture. It shows a lot of detail on the façade and an intriguing mix of styles joining Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Rococo to present a unique Spanish colonial style.
Once you are done admiring the architecture, step inside and admire the collection of artifacts representing early native American cultures.
The museum showcases ancient American civilizations such as Maya, Hopi, and Kumeyaay with a special exhibit about Ancient Egypt.
At the “Maya: Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth” exhibit, experience the ancient Mayan civilization through its large monuments and archaeological discoveries.
Interesting Facts: Contrary to common belief, the Mayans are not extinct. Their descendants still live in central and Latin America. Learn about some of the ancient traditions that may have survived today at this museum.
The Pharos and ancient Egyptian civilization fascinated generations of people across the world. The wealth of monuments and artifacts they left behind is a treasure for archeologists and students who are still trying to understand this culture.
To become an archaeologist for an hour and go through the hieroglyphs, tablets, and mummies and learn about the history. The museum has a large collection of original mummies and artifacts.
For the kids, there is an area set aside for Egypt-themed kid-friendly activities.
The San Diego Museum of Art
You can experience this collection by geographic location.
Start with the Asian collection of paintings, ceramics, and metalwork. Learn about the beliefs and traditions of each culture through their art. Most fascinating are the Indian statues and the Persian Islamic calligraphy.
At the Arts of Africa, The Pacific, and the Native Americas, you will experience Hawaiian pendants, native American woven baskets, and a diverse collection of African art.
One of my favorite collections is the Quilts and Colors exhibit. This is a touring exhibit from the Boston Fine Arts Museum that shows the brilliant and vibrant designs that go into each hand-crafted quilts.
To see a full list of collections and to plan your visit, go to the museum’s website here.
The Prado Restaurant
This award-winning restaurant sits close to the Art Museum and the visitor center at Balboa Park. It offers both indoor and outdoor seating, but you should really try the patio. It is in a garden setting with water fountains and overlooking Japanese Friendship Gardens.
The food is expensive but very high quality. You really can’t go wrong with their large selection of salads, sandwiches, and burgers. I really enjoyed my Grilled 8oz Kobe Cheeseburger which came with seasoned fries.
Japanese Friendship Gardens
Pay the small entrance fee and step into the calm of streams, waterfalls, and exotic plants from Japan.
The main trail starts from the top viewing area with a commanding view of the whole garden. Pass through a Koi pond and a Bonzi exhibit then start descending to the valley below.
The trail gently slopes down with plenty of benches to relax on a admire the scenery.
Depending on the season you will see blooms of Cherry blossoms, Camelia, Iris,
Dwarf Pomegranate, or Crape Myrtle. See more here.
The 39 cottages represent nations from around the world and are a great way to sample international culture.
While strolling along this lively section of the park, you can visit places like India, Ukraine, Lebanon, Mexico, and Denmark, admire their art and listen to their songs.
You can find a useful color map of the park here. The map shows the museums, carousel, zoo, iconic buildings, and restaurants. It does not show the hiking trails.
Parking can be very difficult, especially on weekends and holidays. You will probably end up parking at Inspiration Point parking lot (on the east side of Park Blvd., between Presidents Way and the Balboa Park Activity Center).
Parking is always free and you can ride a free tram from the lots to any of the main destinations.
Many tours start from the visitor center which is located at the Hospitality Building on El Prado street (Close to the Museum of Art).
Some tours are free and offered by various organizations at the park. You can also purchase a one-hour audio tour from the visitor center.