Balboa Park picture
Balboa Park
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Key Info

1549 El Prado

Price & Hours

Free
24/7 daily

Details

Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Free Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
4.8scorecard
  • 5.0Value
  • 4.5Facilities
  • 4.5Atmosphere

Home to the renowned San Diego Zoo. this 1,200-acre park is the city's cultural hub. Located in downtown San Diego (about 2 miles north of the city center), Balboa Park is a great place for a stroll, bike ride or picnic. Wander around the park's many gardens while admiring the intricate Spanish-Renaissance architecture that permeates the grounds (the best examples are the California Building and the House of Hospitality). The Botanical Building is a great starting point in Balboa Park. The building is one of the most photographed places in Balboa Park and is one of the largest lath structures in the world. But don't just look at it. The famous botanical building features more than 2,100 permanent plants, including striking collections of tropical plants and orchids. The park also features a cactus garden, rose garden, a Japanese-style garden as well as a palm tree canyon, among many others.

But if you find yourself growing antsy just walking around and smelling the roses, there are plenty of attractions located here (many of them free). Take in a show at the Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theatre, visit the Spreckels Organ Pavilion to see one of the world's largest outdoor pipe organs, or the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater if you got the kiddos in tow. Museums are just as aplenty, with enough to suit all types of interests. Art lovers will enjoy the San Diego Museum of Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts and Mingei International Museum while science enthusiasts will enjoy the Fleet Science Center and the Museum of Man. If you're traveling as a family, take some time to check out the San Diego Air and Space Museum or the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the world's largest operating model railroad museum. There's also an automotive museum and the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum, dedicated entirely to San Diego's sports history.

Recent visitors loved their time at Balboa Park. Regular travelers to San Diego mention that they make it a point to visit the attraction while they're in the city. Newcomers were positively overwhelmed with all of the great things to do here and delighted in exploring the beautiful grounds. Because there is so much to do, visitors suggest allotting an entire day to visit the site, or pick what you want to do before you go. Either way, make sure to bring some comfy walking shoes. Some recommended that if you have time, dine alfresco at the luxurious, Spanish-style Prado Restaurant. Travelers also enjoyed the picturesque Spanish Village, the pastel-colored cobblestone plaza filled with 37 separate art studios and galleries. The only downside for some visitors is that during peak hours, parking is hard to come by, so come early.

The park is open every day of the year. Admission to the general grounds is free, but several individual attractions charge fees. If you're looking to save a little coin, consider purchasing the Multi-Day Explorer/Zoo Combo ($103 for adults and $68 for kids) – which offers entry into all the museums and zoo for seven days –  or the One-Day Explorer pass for $48, which covers any five museums found here (excluding the zoo). Parking here is free, but if you don't have your own set of wheels, you can easily get to the park via bus: Route Nos. 7 and 120 and Rapid 215 (all of which pick up at Broadway downtown) stop at the park. For details, visit the Balboa Park website.

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Mission Beach and Pacific Beach
Coronado Beach
Type
Time to Spend
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#2 Mission Beach and Pacific Beach

Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are one giant, connected shoreline in San Diego. While not as pristine as Coronado Beach, the area is just as popular thanks to all the nearby attractions and amenities. This miles-long stretch of sand fits the SoCal stereotype to a T: throngs of surfers and bikini-clad sunbathers crowd the shores every summer, while the nearby boardwalk is usually packed with inline skaters and bicyclists. The beach is a popular spot in San Diego for surfing as well, offering swells both high and low, perfect for beginners and seasoned surfers (there are numerous water sports equipment rental shops strewn around the neighborhood). Belmont Park, which acts as the border between the two beaches, is a beachfront amusement park featuring arcades and numerous rides, including the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster – a more than 100-year-old National Historic Landmark. When lunchtime rolls around, head to one of the many beachside eateries that flank the boardwalk or Mission Boulevard (the area's main thoroughfare), or have a picnic at Bonita Cove, the bayfront park located across the street from Belmont Park.

The difference between the two is discernible. While they both share the same boardwalk, sand and ocean, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach share key differences. Mission Beach, which begins at Belmont Park going south, is the calmer of the two. The boardwalk has more homes than hotels and far fewer amenities than Pacific Beach, making it good for families or those seeking a more relaxed beach experience. Pacific Beach, which starts north of Belmont Park, is much more lively. Mission Boulevard, the main thoroughfare, is lined with restaurants, surf shops, retail stores, hotels and bars. The further you go up Mission Boulevard the further you go into the belly of the beast that is Pacific Beach. Next to the Gaslamp Quarter, Pacific Beach is the best place for nightlife in San Diego, known for getting particularly rowdy. Aside from Mission Boulevard, you can find a heavy concentration of bars and nightlife options on Garnet Avenue and Grand Avenue. If you don't want to experience this side of Pacific Beach, take a walk along Crystal Pier or stick to the beach north of this pier. 

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John Bahu/Courtesy of SanDiego.org
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