Balboa Park & Hillcrest
San Diego's most beloved green space, Balboa Park is a massive urban park in the heart of the city just north of Downtown San Diego. Within the park's canyons and hills lie beautiful open spaces, lush gardens and vegetation, the renowned San Diego Zoo, the historic Old Globe Theatre, and numerous museums. Hillcrest, a neighborhood just to the northwest of Balboa Park, is a dense urban community that has undergone a lot of gentrification and is home to many locally-owned businesses and most of San Diego's gay nightlife. Bankers Hill to the south of Hillcrest is considerably quieter but home to several popular bars and restaurants.
Being in the heart of the city, Balboa Park and Hillcrest are accessible by a number of major streets. Park Boulevard runs north-south through the park and the eastern edge of Hillcrest, connecting to Downtown to the south. 5th and 6th Avenues also provide a direct connection to the area, where one can continue north to Hillcrest or into Balboa Park via Laurel Street/El Prado over the Cabrillo Bridge. Laurel Street continues west towards the San Diego International Airport. Washington Street and University Avenue provide the major connection through Hillcrest, connecting to neighborhoods east and west.
SR-163 runs north-south through the neighborhood, connecting Hillcrest to Downtown to the south and Mission Valley to the north. However, there is no direct connection into Balboa Park from SR-163.
Parking can be very congested however, parking is available if you look in the right places. Parking lots are found throughout Balboa Park. There are two large parking lots in the park. One is for the San Diego Zoo and one is at Inspiration Point (on the east side of Park Boulevard north of Presidents Way), which is served by a free tram which connects the lot to many of the museums in Balboa Park. The tram runs 9AM-6PM daily, with extended hours during the summer. On-street metered parking is also available and can be paid for with coins, and many meters also accept credit or debit cards.
The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) operates buses in San Diego, which can be a good way to avoid parking hassles. The MTS has a couple of lines which directly serve Balboa Park, the Route 7 and the Rapid 215, both frequent services which run along Park Boulevard and connect Balboa to Downtown to the south and Mid-City neighborhoods to the northeast (note that the 215 only stops at the Naval Medical Center and Zoo Place within Balboa Park). Hillcrest is quite well connected, with a few frequent routes running south to Downtown along the western edge of Balboa Park (3, 11, 120) and a couple connecting Hillcrest to neighborhoods east and west (1, 10).
Most of Balboa Park's museums offer free admission one Tuesday per month[dead link] to residents of San Diego County and to active-duty military and dependents.
- 1 Marston House, 3525 7th Ave (off of 6th Ave and Upas), ☏ +1 619-297-9327. Tours every half hour F-M 10AM-4PM. Operated by the San Diego Historical Society, this historic residence is open for guided tours. $15 adults, $12 seniors/students, $7 children, free for children under 6.
- 2 Spruce Street Bridge, in south Hillcrest at the end of Spruce Street, west of First Avenue. Something of a neighborhood secret, this steel-cable suspension footbridge dates back to the 1910s, and connects to a nearby residential neighborhood. There's not a whole lot to it really, but it is very scenic as you walk right through the treetops on the sides of the canyon.
- 3 San Diego History Center, 1649 El Prado (in Casa de Balboa), ☏ +1 619-232-6203, fax: +1 619 232-6297. Daily 10AM-5PM. This museum has a large collection of artifacts and exhibits showcasing the history of the city. If you don't want to pay to enter the museum itself, you can just walk into the building (which contains three separate museums) and look at some historical photographs on the walls of the atrium. $10 adults, $8 students/seniors/military, $6 ages 6-17, free for ages 5 and under.
- 4 San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum, 2131 Pan American Plaza, ☏ +1 619-234-2544. Daily 10AM-4:30PM. This massive museum covers all sport-related things in the city, with large exhibits on the history of baseball and football in San Diego and special exhibits for the local athletic heroes. $8 adults, $5 ages 3-17, free for children under 3.
- 5 San Diego Model Railroad Museum, 1649 El Prado (in Casa de Balboa), ☏ +1 619-696-0199. Tu-F 11AM-4PM, Sa Su 11AM-5PM. If you have kids or know a train buff, a visit to this fantastic museum should be high on your list. Just like the name suggests, this institution is dedicated to model railroading, with some of the largest model railroad layouts in the world. There are also some interactive exhibits and displays on the history of railroads in San Diego. $10 adults, $7 seniors (65+), $5 military, $4.50 students, $2 children (6-14) free for ages 5 and under.
- 6 Veterans Museum & Memorial Center, 2115 Park Blvd, ☏ +1 619-239-2300, fax: +1 619 239-7445. Tu-Sa 10AM-4PM. Situated in the Old Navy Chapel, this museum contains artifacts and memorabilia honoring the men and women of the Armed Forces, Coast Guard, and Wartime Merchant Marine. $5 adults, $4 veterans/seniors, $2 students, free for active military/children 12 and under.
- 7 Centro Cultural de la Raza, 2125 Park Blvd, ☏ +1 619-235-6135, fax: +1 619 595-0034. Tu-Su noon-4PM. A cultural arts center dedicated to promoting Chicano, Mexican, Indigenous and Latino art and culture. The gallery showcases rotating exhibits and performances regularly take place here. Free; donations accepted.
- 8 Mingei International Museum, 1439 El Prado, ☏ +1 619-239-0003. Tu-Su 10AM-5PM. A large folk art museum which is instantly recognizable from the outside by the large colorful mosaic sculptures out front, which are a delight for kids to climb on. $10 adults, $7 seniors/youth ages 6-17/students/military, free for children under 6.
- 9 Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado (in Casa de Balboa), ☏ +1 619-238-7559. Tu-Su 10AM–5PM (open Thursdays until 9PM). Dedicated to the art and history of photographic arts, with works from famous photographers such as Ansel Adams. The museum also holds changing exhibitions and a theater that plays art and cult films. $8 adults, $7 seniors/veterans, $6 students, free for children under 12/active military (theater admission separate).
- 10 San Diego Art Institute, 1439 El Prado, ☏ +1 619-236-0011. Tu-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su noon-4PM. A large gallery with changing exhibitions of San Diego artists. $5 adults, $3 seniors/military/students, free for children under 12.
- 11 San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, ☏ +1 619-232-7931. Th-Sa, M-Tu 10AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM (closed Wednesdays). The largest art museum in the region, with European, contemporary, and Latin American art, 19th and 20th century American art, and an Asian collection. There are also changing exhibitions, featuring show major art shows. $12 adults, $9 seniors/military, $8 students, $4.50 children, free for children 6 and under.
- 12 Timken Museum of Art, 1500 El Prado, ☏ +1 619-239-5548. Tu-Sa 10AM-4:30PM, Su noon-4:30PM. A small art museum with collections of lesser-known pieces from famous European old masters, American, and Russian painters. Free.
Science and technology museums
- 13 Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, 1875 El Prado, ☏ +1 619-238-1233. M-Th 10AM-5PM, F-Su 10AM-6PM. This popular science museum is filled with dozens of interactive exhibits of interest to children, young adults and grown-ups too. There's also an IMAX theater in the building, one of the world's first. $20 adults, $18 seniors, $17 children, free for children under 3 (theater admission separate).
- 14 San Diego Air and Space Museum, 2001 Pan American Plaza, ☏ +1 619-234-8291. Daily 10AM-4PM (open until 5PM in the summer). You may notice the museum as you fly into San Diego - the circular building is centered around a navy PBY flying boat and features exhibits detailing the history of manned flight, from the first planes to space travel, with lots of full-scale models of aerodynamic craft. Among the highlights is an exhibit on San Diego native Charles Lindberg, whose famous flight on his Spirit of St. Louis began in San Diego. $18 adults, $15 seniors/students/veterans, $9 children, free for children 2 and under/active military.
- 15 San Diego Automotive Museum, 2080 Pan American Plaza, ☏ +1 619-231-2886. Daily 10AM-5PM. This splendid museum showcases some of the finest, rarest, and most famous cars in the world. $9 adults, $6 seniors/military/students, $4 children, free for children under 6.
- 16 San Diego Museum of US, 1350 El Prado, ☏ +1 619-239-2001. Su-W 10AM-5PM, Th-Sa 10AM-8:30PM. It's beneath the majestic California Tower near the Cabrillo Bridge. The Museum of Man is an institution devoted entirely to anthropology. The museum's permanent collection includes exhibits on the Mayan, ancient Egypt, the Kumeyaay Indians of San Diego County, Human Evolution, and the Human Life Cycle, with some incredible displays such as mummies, ancient artifacts from prehistoric cultures, and replicas of ancient monuments. $12.50 adults, $10 seniors/military, $8 students, $6 children, free for children under 3.
- 17 San Diego Natural History Museum, 1788 El Prado, ☏ +1 619-232-3821. Daily 10AM-5PM. Like any natural history museum, this one has a lot of big dinosaur skeletons. Exhibits on the local ecology and geology are also prevalent throughout the museum, as well as a massive Foucault pendulum in the entrance hall. There are also many changing exhibitions and a giant-screen theater. $19 adults, $17 seniors/students/military, $14 youth 7-17, $11 children 3-6, free for children 2 and under.
San Diego Zoo
18 San Diego Zoo, 2920 Zoo Dr (off of Park Blvd at Zoo Place), ☏ +1 619-231-1515. 9AM–5PM (extended hours in the summer). An absolutely enormous and world-renowned zoological institution, the San Diego Zoo showcases more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals, including many exotic animals from all over the world, such as apes, hippos, polar bears, tigers, bears, lions, elephants, koalas, kangaroos, zebras, reptiles, hundreds of species of birds, and a whole lot of species of animals that are less well-known. The San Diego Zoo also has one of the largest populations of giant pandas outside of Asia. $71/adult, $61/child, free for children under 3 (includes Guided Bus Tour and Bus/Aerial Tram rides; multi-park passes including admission to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and Sea World are also available).
The many expansive and well-designed exhibits throughout the park provide a natural setting for the zoo's animals, with the exhibits generally divided up by continent; the major areas are Discovery Outpost (where you'll find most of the reptiles and a children's petting zoo), Lost Forest (with several large bird aviaries, most of the apes, Tiger Trail, Hippo Trail, and African rain forest animals), Northern Frontier (arctic animals, including polar bears), Panda Canyon, Asian Passage, Outback (Australian animals), and Urban Jungle and Elephant Odyssey (which together hold animals of the African savanna). The terrain of the park, with plateaus, steep canyons, and wide flat areas, creates an expansive setting with many hidden corners and less-beaten paths.
The zoo is so large that you really need to devote several hours—if not a whole day—to seeing it all. Visiting in the winter will mean fewer crowds and cooler weather, but visiting in the summer has the benefit of extended hours. Buses provide a way to get around the zoo. A special guided bus tour using double-decker buses takes you around much of the zoo without stopping, while the Kangaroo Buses (both double and single-decker) allow you to get on and off in different parts of the zoo. In addition, the Skyfari aerial tram provides a quick shortcut to get from one side of the zoo clear out to the other, providing magnificent views of the zoo. If you decide to walk around, moving walkways make traversing some of the steeper sections easier.
- Balboa Park's many gardens provide a scenic and quiet escape from the bustle of the city or a relaxing break between museum visits. Many of the gardens follow specific themes, with desert species, flowers, native species, a Moorish garden, a rose garden, and a Japanese garden. The highlight of Balboa's botanical collection is the 1 Botanical Building, a historic structure which contains an adjacent lily pond and numerous species of ferns, orchids, palms, and other tropical plants. (The Botanical Building was closed for renovation in January 2022, and is projected to reopen in late 2023 or early 2024.)
- Near the entrance of the San Diego Zoo, the 2 Balboa Park Carousel and the 3 Balboa Park Miniature Railroad provide an entertaining diversion for kids. Each charges $2 per ride per person. The 4 Spanish Village Art Center, a historic landmark built for an exposition in the 1930s, is a community home to many artists and art studios.
- There are many hiking and biking trails through Balboa Park. One of the most popular running/walking trails is a 5.5-mile route that’s compatible with all fitness levels and starts and ends at C Street and 6th Avenue in Downtown and heads north, running past bridges, canyons, creeks, flower-covered hillsides, and gardens. There is also a 0.41-mile Balboa Park bike path which begins at Upas Street and Seventh Avenue, near the northwest corner of Balboa Park. The level of difficulty is well above average here as there are several steep descends, sharp turns, and a bridge that crosses highway 163. In several areas, bicyclists must dismount and walk, for safety.
- 5 Hillcrest Cinemas, 3965 5th Ave (in the Village Hillcrest complex), ☏ +1 619-819-0236. Part of the Landmark Theaters chain, this theater showcases many independent and foreign films.
- 6 Old Globe Theatre, ☏ +1 619-234-5623. The original theater, designed to copy Shakespeare's theatre in London, was built in 1935 for the California Pacific International Exposition in only 32 days and featured shortened versions of Shakespeare plays. In 1941, the U.S. Navy ordered the Old Globe to remove equipment and records for a period of 24 hours -- the Navy had acquired Balboa Park for use during World War II. By the summer of 1947, the federal government returned the park to the City of San Diego. In 1978 the theatre was destroyed by fire; a rebuilt theatre opened in 1982. The area hosts three stages including the Old Globe itself, the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, and an outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theater. You will usually have to purchase tickets in advance.
- 7 Starlight Bowl, ☏ +1 619-232-7827. The Bowl is home to the San Diego Civic Light Opera Association, which puts on plenty of live performances through the summer. Since 1946, Starlight Theatre has presented live musical theatre under the stars each summer in beautiful Balboa Park.
- 8 Spreckels Organ Pavilion, ☏ +1 619-702-8138. Home to one of the world's largest outdoor pipe organs, the Spreckels Pavilion holds a number of free - yes, free of charge - concerts throughout the year.
- 9 San Diego Junior Theatre, Casa de Prado, ☏ +1 619-239-1311. One of the oldest youth theater programs in the country, the Junior Theatre holds many live performances.
- 10 Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, ☏ +1 619-544-9203. A popular venue for renowned puppeteers, with an indoor theater holding many performances during the year. A favorite for children.
- San Diego's St. Patrick's Day Parade takes place each March in Hillcrest, with the parade running along 6th Avenue on the west side of Balboa Park, followed up by an Irish festival with traditional music, food, and a Celtic village.
- The San Diego LGBT Pride Parade and festival takes place during Pride Weekend each July in Hillcrest, with a music festival, a block party, a rally, and a major parade running down University and 6th Avenues.
- Cityfest is a huge street festival that takes place every August in Hillcrest, with lots of arts, crafts, food and entertainment.
- December Nights takes places in Balboa Park the first weekend of each December and is a celebration of the holiday season, with plenty of food, crafts, and entertainment at the park's various museums, which are free of charge during the event. The park is decked out in spectacular light displays, which remain up for the remainder of the holiday season.
Most of the museums in Balboa Park contain gift shops specializing in merchandise and items specific to that museum, like art shops at the art museums, science toys at the science museums, zoo stuff at the zoo, etc. There's also a general gift shop at the Balboa Park Visitors Center in the House of Hospitality, where you can purchase postcards and the like. In addition, the Spanish Village Art Center contains a number of art studios where you can purchase arts and crafts directly from the artist.
The Thursday Club, in Balboa Park, is one of the largest antique markets in the city and is held annually, usually sometime in March. Crowds start lining up for this event early in the morning, and bargains galore can always be found at this very well attended event.
- 1 Blue Stocking Books & Bindery, 3817 5th Ave (between University and Robinson), ☏ +1 619-296-1424. F-M 11AM-9:30PM, Tu Th 11AM-7PM. An excellent independent bookstore specializing in rare and out-of-print books.
- 2 Footnote Books, 1627 University Ave (One block west of Park Blvd on the south side of University Ave), ☏ +1 619-294-8455. M W-Sa 10:30AM-8PM, Su 11AM-5PM, Tu closed. Premium out-of-print books and ephemera.
Expect food to be overpriced(or very expensive) in Balboa Park. Most food options in the park revolve around museum cafes, as there aren't many stand-alone restaurants in the park. You can find a cafe in the Casa de Balboa building, the House of Hospitality, the Natural History Museum, the Science Center, the Old Globe Theater, the Sports Museum, and the Museum of Art. There is a tea pavilion at the Japanese Friendship garden, just south of the House of Hospitality. There are also snack carts around Balboa Park. The San Diego Zoo also provides a number of eating options.
- 1 The Prado, 1549 El Prado (in the House of Hospitality), ☏ +1 619-557-9441. Lunch M-F 11:30AM-3PM, Sa Sun 11AM-3PM. Dinner Tu-Su from 5PM onward. Just about the only full-service restaurant in Balboa Park (save for a couple of places in the zoo), The Prado has a diverse menu with appetizers, salads, soups, seafood, pastas, and sandwiches. $11-40.
Hillcrest, on the other hand, has numerous fine restaurants:
- 2 Ichiban, 1449 University Ave (at Richmond St), ☏ +1 619-299-7203. M-F 11AM-9:30PM, Sa noon-9:30PM, Su noon-9PM. Good Japanese food. $6-8 (Sushi/sushi rolls $3-8).
- 3 Khyber Pass, 523 University Ave, ☏ +1 619-294-7579. Daily 11:30AM-10PM. A mix of Afghan, Turkish, and Indian dishes served by a friendly staff. Lamb, beef, chicken, and vegetarian/vegan dishes. It'son University Avenue among many other restaurants. Street parking only. $13-30.
- 4 Sushi Deli, 228 Washington Street. A local favorite, this place serves amazingly cheap and delicious sushi and other Japanese food. They don't take reservations, so wait for your table at their bar.
- 1 Nunu's Cocktail Lounge, 3537 5th Avenue, ☏ +1 619-295-2878. Daily 6AM-2AM. Neo-hip dive bar.
- 2 The Wine Lover, 3968 5th Ave, ☏ +1 619-294-9200. A lovely wine bar with a wide selection of wines and some light meals.
- 1 Inn at the Park (Park Manor Suites), 525 Spruce St, ☏ +1 619-291-0999. Check-in: 3PM, check-out: noon. Formerly known as Park Manor Suites, this hotel is on the western edge of Balboa Park. Rooms feature nice beds, duvets, kitchenettes and free Wi-Fi. Two on-site restaurants, Inn at the Park and Top of the Park and live entertainment. ~$200.
- 1 San Diego Public Library Mission Hills Branch, 925 W. Washington St, ☏ +1 619-692-4910. M Th F 9:30AM-6PM, Tu W 11:30AM-8PM, Sa 9:30AM-3PM, Su closed. Free WiFi available.
|Balboa Park, San Diego, California|
|Balboa Park, San Diego, California|