Looking back I’m sure if we approached the park through another entrance I would have had a different first impression. But we must have zigged when we should have zagged on the GPS directions as we drove to and entered Balboa Park through the “back” door, so to speak. However, once we parked near the museums and walked just a little bit toward the main area of the park I was in awe of its beauty. What transpired was a goofy, romantic afternoon. Here is How to Enjoy an Afternoon at The Prado in Balboa Park, in San Diego California.
Balboa Park has become one of my unexpected favorite areas of San Diego, California. It’s conveniently located in the downtown area not too far from the airport. Yet whether you’re nearby or not it’s worth the trip to spend an afternoon here. So what to do, what to do?
We parked near the Air & Space Museum (I don’t necessarily recommend parking there – perhaps try parking closer to Alcazar Garden or Casa de Balboa) and walked towards El Prado pedestrian walkway through the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. It’s an outdoor pavilion that contains the largest pipe organ in the world, dating back to its donation in 1914, just months before the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. You can spot the architecture just north of the area from the pavilion and I must admit it pulls you toward it!
It’s easy to love the Spanish-Renaissance style architecture that lines El Prado. We walked from the Organ Pavilion towards the Balboa Park Visitors Center (pictured above, the first image of the post). There are really beautiful sculpture mosaics in this area too that are totally worthy of an IG or Snapchat story! We enjoyed taking goofy photos near vibrant bougainvillea flowers as well, right in front of the outdoor colonnade of the Museum of Photographic Arts.
We walked over to the Botanical Building. It took us about 15-20 minutes to walk around this tropical oasis, home to orchids, palm trees and more. Truly, the building alone is impressive – it’s one of the largest wooden lath structures in the world. We enjoyed snapping photos around the premises after, capturing things like surrounding fountains and its famous Lily Pond reflecting pool, one of the most photographed areas of the park.
We worked up quite an appetite after the Botanical Building visit so we headed over to the nearby Sculpture Garden for a quick peek (with a spectacular view of the California Tower) before indulging in a snack next door. We decided to take a break at Panama 66 and ordered two adult beverages and a cheese plate. What was delivered to our al fresco table was the most attractive cheese plate I’ve ever seen!!! We thoroughly enjoyed sitting at our table, people watching and enjoying the beautiful San Diego weather; I felt like we were in Europe! We spotted a couple who traveled to the restaurant via an old electric wicker cart. “What IS that cute thing?!” I asked my partner aloud. I immediately starting to Google it, clued in to this novelty from an informative advertisement on the side. Which led to our next stop…
We rented an electric wicker cart for 30 minutes. I was in stitches over this one! They move relatively slowly but there I was YouTubing “Indiana Jones” music to add a soundtrack to our Balboa Park crusade! It was a blast.
We headed over to the Alcazar Garden afterwards to enjoy the views from its paths and beautiful flowers. I couldn’t get enough of those beautiful poppies!!! We continued to walk towards the Museum of Man area, whose courtyard offers views of The Old Globe Theatre (a smaller version of Shakespeare’s original in England) and the California Tower (truth be told it’s such a landmark at nearly 200 feet tall – you can see it from several areas of the park). Even though the park was slightly busy this area was pleasantly sparse and we practically had it to ourselves. We continued west on El Prado, over Cabrillo Bridge, to take in the views “from above” Highway 163.
We navigated all the way east in the park to continue our afternoon in Balboa Park at the Desert Garden and Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, which are next to one another and are both beautiful! I was in love with the prickly plants and my curiosity piqued at every turn of the dirt path. The rose garden is truly beautiful as well with unique varieties of flowers.
To finish our incredibly enjoyable afternoon in Balboa Park, we headed to the Spanish Village Art Center. We were so lucky to be there in spring when the trees had stunning purple blossoms on them. They coincidentally matched the colors of the village and I loved that the stone pathway was pained in various colors. This charming little artist center was built in the mid 1930’s in the style of…you guessed it…an old Spanish village!
The park is 1,200 acres so you may find you barely touched the surface on your first visit – but it’s all the more reason to go back.
- Find a free printable color, including parking locations, map here.
- All parking at Balboa Park is free. I recommend parking near El Prado.
- The park is also accessible by public bus lines – Routes 120, 7 and Rapid 215.
- Free concerts are held at the Sprecks Organ Pavilion every Sunday at 2pm for one hour, rain or shine.
Looking for more to do in the San Diego area? Check out My 12 Favorite Spots around San Diego California including the adjacent San Diego Zoo that was built in 1916, and my First-Timer’s Guide on the Department of Wandering.
What activity would you partake in first?