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San Diego’s Balboa Park for History, Culture, and a Day at The Zoo

Just minutes from downtown San Diego, Balboa Park is a massive cultural complex home to fifteen museums, performing arts venues, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. The nation’s largest urban cultural park offers 1200 acres of gardens and pathways, yet first-time visitors to San Diego may not realize the world of exploration available to visitors. Take a stroll through the El Prado pedestrian walkway for a glimpse at Spanish-Renaissance architecture, though, and you’ll soon make Balboa Park a must-repeat venue.

It’s a challenge to visit all park attractions in one day. In fact, if you’re visiting the area for a few days, plan on exploring Balboa Park at least two days to maximize your time experiencing the museums, cultural offerings, and attractions. Balboa Park’s tram is free and allows guests to hop on and off. Balboa Park is often referred to as the Smithsonian of the West and for good reason. With so much to explore, you’ll want to strategize your priorities for a first-time visit.

During my recent trip, I took time to explore the Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego Art Institute, the Automotive Museum, and theNAT—San Diego Natural History Museum. My time at theNAT included perusing biodiversity of the southern California region and inspecting dinosaur bones. The San Diego Automotive Museum has a permanent collection in addition to traveling exhibitions. During my visit, I enjoyed an extensive exhibit of local and regional emergency vehicles.

In addition to the museums, I loved strolling the grounds and seeing the beautiful architecture of The Old Globe Theater, home to Tony Award-winning productions of contemporary plays and a Shakespeare festival. The Botanical Building offers a stunning collection of more than two thousand plants, while streetside performers entertained passersby. There’s so much to enjoy during a leisurely stroll, and Balboa Park is a perfect spot for families, groups, and singles alike.

Of course one of the highlights of Balboa Park is the incomparable San Diego Zoo. This was my first time visiting what I’ve long considered a travel bucket list must. Nearly four thousand animals live here, across more than six hundred and fifty species and subspecies. You’ll find pandas, elephants, leopards, and hundreds of other all-stars throughout the park, and it’s likely you’ll spot a few babies, too.

In exploring the Zoo, it was amazing to learn of some of the programs in place—for the animals. The “Buddy System” Animal Ambassador program, for example, pairs a cheetah or wolf pup with a domestic canine pup. As the two animals play and develop a bond, the buddies develop a lifelong trust. Through this program, wolves and cheetahs learn about their social environment; if their dog pal is relaxed, the cheetah knows it’s safe to relax, as well. The animals can then adapt to new environments and participate in public educational presentations.

San Diego Zoo has comfortable walking paths, though if you tire easily or the sun is a little extra hot, you can always hop a tour bus for a guided comfortable ride throughout the property. There are plenty of dining options and gift shops, too, so rest breaks are inevitable and enjoyable. The animals offer as much entertainment as you could hope for—we happened upon a bear enjoying play time much to the joy of his audience—but there are special exhibits and tours available, as well. With an abundance of educational programs and organized activities, families can enjoy up close and personal time with animals and friendly attendants.

There really is nothing like seeing these animals firsthand. In addition to their personalities, it’s worth a visit to see San Diego Zoo animals in person and to learn about conservancy programs and other animal welfare initiatives. The Zoo website has an abundance of educational resources for pre- and post-trip curiosities, so this vacation stop can add a wonderful dose of knowledge to growing minds.

Tickets for San Diego Zoo are available on-site as well as for advance purchase at Planning ideas and tickets for Balboa Park are available online at Individual tickets are great if you’re short on time, but an Explorer Pass offers a convenient, economical way to gain access to many of the Park offerings. Passes are available for single day or weeklong visits, though locals may want to opt for the budget-friendly annual pass. Interested in multiple attractions, including the San Diego Zoo? Consider a San Diego GO Card which includes more than forty area attractions. For more trip planning ideas, visit

Photo credits: CT Shier.

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