Just outside of downtown San Diego, Balboa Park is a gem housing dozens of museums and attractions for families to explore. This architectural delight was not always the ornate park it is today, in 1915 San Diego was selected to host the Panama-California Exhibition and is responsible for the transformation of the city park. As you explore the park your family will notice the fine attention to detail placed on each doorway and paver stone, Balboa Park offers it’s visitors a great opportunity to learn about the history of the “Finest City” -San Diego!
Some travelers may be weary of taking the children to a park devoted to museums, however Balboa Park offers some great options when traveling with children. Trekaroo has explored the park and highlights the best museums to make a special day for your family!
Balboa Park with Kids: Museums to Explore
Photo Courtesy of Balboa Park
Reuben H. Fleet Space Science Center
This is a great hands-on museum for children of all ages. The museum offers opportunities for children to interact with science while learning. A great permanent exhibit to check out while at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is the biology area. This exhibit allows children to explore the inside of their body and learn how different parts interact with each other. At the end of this exhibit make a quick turn to the right and you will find the Tinker lab! Here children get hands-on guidance on how to engineer a creation they can take home with them.
Photo By Elizabeth Bickford
For the summer of 2017 an exciting exhibit is taking place called Game Masters. This exhibit is comprised of over 100 table top games. Children are invited to explore games both electronic and classic family favorites. Another great offering is the IMAX Theater where shows rotate seasonally. (As of publication, the current IMAX movie is on the national parks.) Check out the R.H. Fleet Science Center website to find movie times and pick out the best film for your family!
Photo by Elizabeth Bickford
San Diego Natural History Museum
The San Diego Natural History Museum, or The NAT, is a great place to explore and learn more about California wildlife and ecosystems. The museum is a four level interactive learning center with the main entrance level leading to a theater room, play area, and the Dinosaur Cafe. The smaller kids will love the tent and hands on toys while parents can enjoy a fresh hot coffee or a tasty snack. If you decide to visit the Special Exhibit on the lower level this is a good place to start your visit. Currently, summer of 2017 is presenting the Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit. This exhibit immerses viewers into the prehistoric world of Dinosaurs. Families have hands on experiences and interactive learning options. Upstairs are the majority of the exhibits (mostly on level three) where museum goers have the opportunity to learn about sensitive ecosystems and the history of our environment.
Photo Courtesy of The NAT
Museum of Man
The Museum of Man is located in the beautiful tower at the center of Balboa Park. Children are invited to explore the Adventure Kids in Egypt on the upper level of the museum. Kids can explore archeology and play dress up to get a first hand lesson on Egypt. For older children take the time to explore Monsters; real life and imagined creatures are represented throughout the history of Man.
For the athletic families, add on the option to make the climb to the top of the bell tower. The 125 steps lead to the breathtaking views of San Diego!
Air and Space Museum
The Air and Space Museum houses historic air and spacecraft. Be greeted by a suspended replica of the Spirit of St. Louis and learn the history of flight introduced through artifacts from the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, and Neil Armstrong. Explore the MaxFlight® and F-35 simulators to give your family the unique chance to experience exploring the sensation of flight!
Photo Courtesy of Balboa Park
In total, Balboa Park offers 17 museums for your family to explore! Someone in the group a shutterbug? Stop by the Museum of Photographic Arts – modern and classic exhibits regularly rotate through this museum. Everyone should stop by the Timken Museum of Art, here you are invited to experience a free exhibit comprised of pieces on loan or gifted to Balboa Park! Keep checking the Balboa Park website for new and exciting events.
Balboa Park with Kids: Where to Eat
The Prado is a Cohen group restaurant overlooking the Japanese Friendship Gardens offering gourmet American Cuisine. Reservation are recommended during busier times of the year and on weekends. The restaurant may be gourmet, but it has a casual feel and is extremely kid friendly! They have a great kid’s menu and offer activities to keep them occupied. For the full dining experience ask for an outdoor table, the views are great and the atmosphere is perfect for a family meal!
Photo By Elizabeth Bickford
Panama 66 offers fast service with amazing food! You get to order and grab your drinks right away and then pick a seat with a gorgeous view of the Balboa Tower. Try the Truffle and Parmesan Fries (the aioli sauce is delicious), and pair it with the Turkey and Brie Sandwich. Kids will love the Nutella and Banana Sandwich!
Flight Path Grill
Enjoy the picnic style atmosphere of the Flight Path Grill in the Air and Space Museum. The menu offers family favorites such as pizza, hot dogs, and burgers. Families will appreciate the daily deal including a hot dog, bag of chips, and a drink for $5! This Alaskan Airlines sponsored restaurant is open on the weekends and Tuesday each week.
Balboa Park offers several other dining options including snack carts, coffee carts, food trucks, and many great picnicking options. In the main center just east of the Balboa Tower there are dozens of open tables and lounge chairs available for picnickers or you can also use the lush green spaces located between all the museums.
Balboa Park with Kids: Must-See Attractions
Among the world-class museums, there are fun, kid-friendly attractions throughout the park. These activities will add a nice break into your schedule and definitely create some fantastic memories!
Balboa Park Carousel
The carousel, exquisitely decorated with hand carved animals, is over 100 years old. Children delight in the ornate structure and the carousel offers a picture perfect setting, which makes the five-minute ride worth the wait!
The mini rail is a staple stop for all locals! Whether your family is spending the day at the museums or next door at the San Diego Zoo, be sure to take the family on the Model G-16 Railroad. The 1/2 mile trip travels through four acres and kids love the hidden animal statues and delight in the tunnel!
Photo by Elizabeth Bickford
Balboa Park offers beautiful gardens throughout the grounds. The trees and gardens in Balboa park is notably made famous by Kate Session for being one of the first of its kind in a desert environment. The most iconic garden is the San Diego Botanical Building. The large structure houses 2,100 plants and families love strolling through the garden, in particular the lily pond leading up to the building. Catch a glimpse of large Koi fish and adorable bathing turtles.
Take a stroll at the Arts and Crafts Style Marston House to experience an English Garden. People of all ages enjoy the beautiful flowers and garden designed over 90 years ago! However, if you are looking to experience a true So Cal Garden, look no further than the California Native Plant Garden. Here you will find over 100 native plants where once a month locals meet up for a work party to help maintain the space. Be sure to stroll through the two-acre Japanese Friendship Garden to take in the Koi pond, a Zen Garden, and traditional Bonsai – end your walk at the Tea Pavilion for a quick bite.
Tip: To engage your children on the story of Balboa park we recommend checking out the illustrated book “The Tree Lady” by H. Joseph Hopkins. The story tells the tale of Kate Session and her passion and dream to create lush gardens in a desert environment.
Elictriguette Wicker Carts
These wicker electric carts have made their return to the park from their original debut in 1915 and are definitely a crowd pleaser. Rent your cart with a valid drivers license in front of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Museum and take the family for a ride down the main street of Balboa. Parents (& kids in their carts) enjoy steering in the open area in Plaza de Panama and parents like getting the lay of the land before making the trek across the park.
Balboa Park is surrounded by several great playgrounds offering children an opportunity to get some energy out before going into a museum. This is also a smart place to take the kids before you load them into the car, leaving you with a quiet ride back to the hotel or home. The Pepper Grove Playground is one of the largest parks and most iconic for those who frequent the area. This park offers play space for children of all ages and is located off of the main entrance to Balboa Park.
Balboa Park is rich with performing arts – live artists are playing throughout the park at any given time and the Old Globe Theater is often alive with audiences enjoying classic plays. Children will delight in the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre which performs free in the Palisades Park. Most evenings the Spreckles Organ Pavilion – home to one of the world’s largest organs – welcomes musical performances of all nature, they are often free!
San Diego Zoo
The world famous San Diego Zoo is part of the Balboa Park family – the Zoo just recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday and has been cross promoting throughout Balboa Park. The Zoo alone would take a full day’s dedication and the Trekaroo community has offered some great recommendations for that undertaking.
Balboa Park is constantly offering amazing programs, free activities, and exciting special events. For example, the International cottages offer experiences highlighting different countries from all around the world and are opened on a rotating schedule; locals will find free experiences every Tuesday throughout the park; and in Summer of 2017 Balboa Park After Dark will take place – a new way to experience the gorgeous park. The best place to learn what is happening at the park is to check out the Calendar of Events.
Whether its hands on learning, media presentations, or a stroll through nature; Balboa Park is a place your entire family will love!
Check out what other Trekaroo families are saying about Balboa Park and start planning your next visit!
Featured photo by: Shutterstock