Now, you may have visited Balboa Park one time or a thousand times, but we’re here to tell you there's a lot you don't know about Balboa park!
In Season 2, episode one of All In San Diego, we talked with Bonnie from Fam Diego, and she shares so many things to explore at Balboa park. We guarantee you're not going to know about a lot of this stuff.
From hidden gardens to a strange cat community to something you could actually check out and bring home from Balboa Park that's going to absolutely blow your mind, Bonnie has the best tips (she also shares where there used to be a bunch of nude people walking around!)!
Click here for the episode page, or read on for all the tips!
Here are 15 amazing things to see and do in Balboa Park, plus some bonus tips on where to park and what to eat (and a few Balboa Park secrets!):
Palm Canyon is one of our favorite places now to go. It is right next to the Oregon pavilion and it's kind of tucked away. Not a lot of people know about it. To find it, look for the bathrooms across from the Oregon pavilion and then look for a wooden deck. You’ll go through these trees and over a bridge and down some steps you'll find it's the Palm Canyon. It's a really super short and easy hike for kids – it will probably take you 15-20 minutes and little kids can do it.
Japanese Friendship Garden
When you go through the gates at the Japanese Friendship Garden, it feels like you're in a different world. It’s a really beautifully landscaped pathway that zigzags all the way down through the Canyon.
And along your way, they have all these beautiful cherry blossom trees, and beautiful Japanese sculptures. They also have these really cool, bamboo water fountains that fill up, and then when they fill up, the weight of the water releases the bamboo and then it empties out and then it pops back up and then it fills back up again.
There’s a big koi fish pond that my kids love to just stop and watch all the koi fish swimming around, and there's a big waterfall at the very bottom. Also, there are lots of fun bridges for kids to run across over the river.
Train Ride in Balboa Park
This is a cute little ride on little mini train and it takes you about five minutes. It kind of loops all around these little tracks, and they've got these really cute animal sculptures, like tigers and gorillas.
To find it, go just North of the Spanish Village - kind of on your way to the zoo. It's kind of by the carousel where you can see the railroad tracks, but to get starting point, you walk around. You'll see the starting point and you buy your tickets and you board the train there. And it's
Carousel in Balboa Park
Speaking of the carousel, that’s a fun thing to do at Balboa Park. It was recently restored and reopened.
Junior Ranger Badge Program
A fun activity to do with kids is the Junior Ranger Badge Program. You get a sheet of trivia questions for a bigger kids or a bingo sheet for little kids. You can download them and take them to the park or you can also get them from the visitors center.
Then you just go around the park and answer the questions or find the pictures on the bingo card, and it takes you everywhere! It took us several hours over several return visits to finish.
And then when you're done, you take them to the visitor center and they'll give your kids a cute little ranger patch.
Balboa Park Gardens
Balboa Park has over 13 gardens and are all free except for the Japanese French garden. So, if you look on Balboa Park's website, you can find all the gardens and you can just make a day of it and just find all the gardens.
One such garden is really off the beaten path and I didn't even know it was there! It's called the old cactus garden, and it's down on the lower part of Volvo park, where the automotive museum is located.
This old cactus garden was designed and laid out by Keith Sessions and it's really cute. It's a phenomenal place. And, and even more secret spot tip about that is that there's a bunch of wild cats that run around back there! My kids are cat crazy and they love to go check on the cats. There is a dedicated team of volunteers, people who work at Balboa Park, they come feed the cats, they take the cats to the vet when they need treatment, and they adopt the cats out, but otherwise they just let these cats run around this little cactus garden.
The International Cottages are a bunch of historic 1935 Exposition cottages, that house 34 groups to promote multicultural goodwill and understanding through educational and cultural programs. Usually on the weekends, they're open noon to five, and then on Sundays, one of the houses hosts an open house at 2:00 PM. They showcase their food, their music, their dancing, their arts and crafts.
California Tower Climb
At the museum of man, there is the California Tower and you can climb all the way up to the, not the very top, but one of the, the highest points and the views are amazing inside the tower. You'll see the electronic carillon where every hour there's the bells chime. When you're on this tower climb, there's the submission box, and so you can submit song requests and once in a while, they'll pick out a song request and play it over the, the California tower.
Dog Parks in Balboa Park
There are a couple of dog parks in Balboa Park where you can take your pup. There's one called Nate's point and it's across the Cabrio bridge. So, it's more towards six Avenue, the far West side of Balboa Park.
And there's a dog park all the way on the opposite side of the far East side, there's one called the Grape Street dog park.
The observation deck opened May 2021. There is big Morton Bay fig tree behind the natural history museum. Over time, kids and people have been climbing on these big tree roots and climbing up the tree and it's kind of been deteriorating, so they put a big fence around it.
Then they just build this observation deck and fully fence all the way around, and it's really nice. You can get up close to see it and there's cute little log benches that they used wood from trees that have fallen down in Balboa Park, they cut them into the benches for the decking.
Panama 66 is a restaurant next to the San Diego Museum of Art. They have outdoor patio dining, really good beer and their food is really good.
Also, there’s a secret spot behind that is the secret sculpture garden. The sculpture garden in this really small grassy area with these arts sculptures. And you don't even have to go through Panama 66. There's kind of a side hallway that you can walk down and go into the garden and just, it's really quiet spot and I'll leave a lot of people are there. Kids can run around a little bit. And it's a fun, quiet place to just sit and chill and relax for a little bit. While you're waiting for your food or your drinks to come at Panama 66, you can walk through the sculpture garden until your food is ready.
Zoro Garden / Butterfly Garden
Every year, the Zoro Garden hosts a butterfly release so that you can go and sign up and you get a butterfly and you can release it in the butterfly garden.
Not so family-friendly secret, but it used to be a nudist colony history!
Balboa Park has a whole trail system. You can check them out on their webpage. There's so many hiking trails to explore and gardens. But if you just park and show up and walk around, you can just wander around and you can find so many things to do. Just go around the buildings and that you wouldn't normally walk around and you'll find something totally amazing and brand new.
More Secrets of Balboa Park
The natural history museum has a really cool animal loan program. They have a whole storage room full of all their taxidermy animals and you can check them out to take home! They normally use them for teachers and educators, but anybody can sign up. We signed up for one year, just our family. There's a $25, one time fee or $75 for the year. And I think you get a certain number of animals a month, like two or three animals a month, you can take home and you can choose.
They have huge cougars and big egrets, big birds, all kinds of animals, snakes, insects.
Where to Park
I do like to park in front of the Natural History Museum in front of the Spanish village. There's usually always a ton of parking right there, so that's a really good spot. The other spot is behind the Spreckels Oregon pavilion. There's always a lot of good spots there and that's right next to the bathrooms too, so that's a good.
Where to Eat
Daniel's Coffee Cart (Spanish Village)
I always stop at Daniel’s Coffee Cart. They have good coffees, smoothies for the kids, some muffins. So that's a good spot. The bathrooms are also right next to it!
Cafe in the Park
Cafe in the Park is located in the Casa del Balboa building, above the model train museum. They have good breakfast foods, good lunch foods for lots of great kids options, healthy snacks, healthy treats.
Tea Pavilion at the Japanese Friendship Garden
Next door to the Japanese Friendship Garden is the tea pavilion and that's one of my favorite secret spots for food. They have over 50 kinds of teas, and you can get them iced or hot. They have miso soup, sesame seaweed salads, mochi, Japanese rice candy, poky sticks, and all kinds of Japanese snacks and treats in there. It’s kind of a little secret cultural spot and it's really great.
Check out the whole episode here!