Balboa Park is a cultural icon synonymous with San Diego. It’s stunning Spanish Colonial architecture can transport visitors to an earlier era of California history when Spanish explorers and missionaries shaped the landscape. Amazingly these historic buildings remain hip, modern, and engaging to the surrounding city and visitors. Families with young children gather around tables for lunch and groups of youthful friends gather in bunches to take pictures in front of the Instagram perfect setting. On any given weekend the numerous parking lots surrounding the park are packed to capacity. Balboa Park is the essence of San Diego culture and this blog post is going to give a general overview of how to get to the park and how to navigate your day.
Unless you live in the city of San Diego there is not a convenient way to access through the park through public transit so driving and parking is the easiest option for the adventuring MilMom. Our tip: go early in the day. Leave right around 9am when the work commuters are off the road during the week, and before the brunch crowd is finished breakfast on the weekend. This will allow you to avoid crowds on yours drive there and back and hopefully secure you some of the good parking spots early. When you drive to the park coming from the north almost the entire route there is freeway. The benefit of this is you have minimal driving through small roads in an unfamiliar setting. There are multiple free parking lots throughout the park–our favorite place to park is in front of the San Diego Air and Space Museum. There are usually spots available in the shade in the morning and it is easy to enter and exit the park quickly.
Visiting the Park.
Balboa Park is sometimes referred to as “The Smithsonian of the West”. If you are familiar with the collection of Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC this analogy will be clear to you. Balboa park has a total of 17 museums as well as gardens, courtyards, a theater, and other cultural sights. You can spend days, weeks, and months getting to know it all! Our advice for the MilMom: don’t try to see it all in one day! Walk around the park and take in the beautiful sights but choose one or two attractions to explore in depth per visit.
NB: many of the attractions charge admission so be prepared for that. One of our favorite free attractions is the large covered botanical gardens. They are covered with plenty of shade with beautiful palms and orchids to see inside.
The park has a free app you can download that included a map of the park and a description of all the attractions. It can help you organize your trip before you go or during your visit. If you forget to download it before you go, or decide to download it after you get to the park look for the information kiosks that double as WiFi hotspots as well as ATMs.
Where to eat.
You can pack a lunch and bring your own lunch to picnic. There are tables and chairs with umbrellas set up in the main courtyard that are available for public use. There are patches of green space in the park where you can spread a blanket but there is very little sun cover and the few shady areas of grass are often claimed early.
There are a few restaurants and coffee kiosks around the park. Did you forget to bring milk? You can ask them for a cup of whole milk or other beverage for little milk drinkers. For light and healthy snacks or grab and go lunch head over to Craveology in the entrance to the Fleet Science Center
If you want to have a sit-down lunch at the park we recommend Panama 66 in front of the Sculpture Garden. It is perfect for a groups with children. It is outside with plenty of shade and room for stroller parking. You order your food at the bar and they will bring it to your table. The restaurant welcomes dogs for MilMoms traveling with their four legged family members. The best part of this restaurant? The views. You can people watch inside the main courtyard on one side and enjoy a stunning view of the iconic tower and dome of the nearby Museum of Man
If you want to splurge and prefer table service The Prado restaurant is a beloved local institution that is a favorite for special occasions.
Additional MilMom Logistics
There are public bathrooms located throughout the park. All the bathrooms I have been in during visits have baby change tables. There is also a dedicated diaper changing station inside the Prado Museum courtyard across from the Prado restaurant.
I hope this gives you a good introduction to one of our most amazing attractions in coastal southern California. If you have not been, go soon! Plan a trip and tell us what you did and what you enjoyed. Have you been before? Share your favorite memories and tips with us. We love to hear from other MilMoms! Send us an email or DM is on Instagram.