A Day in San Diego’s Balboa Park

During our anniversary weekend in San Diego, we dedicated most of our Sunday to exploring Balboa Park. We woke up early, checked out of our hotel in Little Italy, took a quick drive, and kicked off our day at the San Diego Zoo.

San Diego Zoo

It was definitely a good idea to arrive at the zoo as the gates were opening – we found tons of parking and there was no wait to enter. Our mobile San Diego Go! passes also helped – lots of money off our entry plus a speedy scan and we were in!

A very nice docent met us at the large park map just inside the entrance and recommended a couple options for exploring all of the areas we wanted to see – via bus or on foot. We were prepared to walk so we followed his advice for looping around the northern section of the park and then making a figure eight through the middle to loop around the southern side.

In addition to arriving early to beat the crowds, he applauded our beating the heat – many of the animals are more active in the morning before the sun comes out and nap times commence. If we didn’t already have food as a motivator to work our way around everything we wanted to see by lunchtime, the idea of NOT getting to see some of the animals was added inspiration!

We started our experience in Africa Rocks where among more common zoo animals like camels and elephants we also encountered capybara and tapir, klipspringer (so cute!) and colorful bee-eaters.

Our final loop was through the Lost Forest, which was replete with hippos, different kinds of monkeys, tigers, and flamingos.

The zoo was getting pretty crowded at this point and we were having to navigate around a lot of strollers and motorized scooters on the paths.

We were also getting pretty fed up with people who were stomping all over the shrubbery and banging on the glassed-in cages to try and get the animals’ attention – despite explicit signage saying not to do so. The fun was over, and so was our time at the zoo.

We grabbed lunch up the road in Old Town and then returned to spend part of our afternoon exploring the museum and garden area of Balboa Park

Balboa Park Museums and Gardens

We found parking and started making our way toward the Casa de Balboa when we both heard what sounded like church service music in the distance. As it turned out, we were partially right. What we were hearing was a pipe organ, but not just any old pipe organ.

Fun fact: the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ is located in San Diego, California!

John D. and Adolph Spreckels donated the Spreckels Organ to the City of San Diego in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition. This unique organ contains 5,000 pipes ranging in length from the size of a pencil to 32 feet and is the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world.


We headed straight for it and caught the end of the afternoon’s performance. Each Sunday during the summer at 2 p.m. – rain or shine – guest organists perform for one hour, and the concerts are free! We walked up to the stage following the performance and were so impressed with the stature of the organ and the beautiful architecture surrounding it. It ended up being Brian’s favorite part of all Balboa Park.

After visiting the organ, we spent a little while longer wandering along the Casa del Balboa and Botanical Building and lily pond. We opted out of entering any of the many museums in the park – the weather outside was too nice and the afternoon too brief!

We also skipped most of the gardens – I was originally interested in the Japanese Garden, but there was a huge line and entry fee. Instead, we enjoyed the Alcazar Garden by the Museum of Man/Us before concluding our stay.

Balboa Park has a little something for everyone, which is why it is also popular with everyone! I’d recommend choosing a couple main activities you want to do and getting to them early in the morning before the crowds arrive. And look into the San Diego Go! pass – many of the museums are included, and depending on the number of days and/or attractions you have in mind, it could be a really good deal. It was for us!

One thought on “A Day in San Diego’s Balboa Park

  1. Pingback: Things to Do in Downtown San Diego – Heather's Compass

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