Fun in Balboa Park, San Diego for Kids of All Ages
In 2015, Balboa Park in San Diego celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the Panama-California International Exposition, which created many of the park’s iconic structures and vistas, and this year promises to bring more new and exciting attractions to the park. Centrally located near downtown and several wonderful Hilton hotel options, Balboa Park is one of the largest urban parks in the country and a gigantic playground for kids and adults alike. Chock full of museums, theaters, art galleries, sports activities, and of course the world famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park could occupy several days of your vacation. Even as locals, our family loves to visit here often, and the kids have favorite spots to explore.
To make the most of your time in Balboa Park while visiting San Diego, choose from Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa, Hilton Bayfront, Hilton Gaslamp Quarter, Hilton Mission Valley or Hilton San Diego Airport. All five of these properties are a very close drive to Balboa Park via shuttle, taxi or your own car. Once on site, you can walk to everything and enjoy the scenery in between.
Here’s a quick list of fun things to do in Balboa Park, San Diego, organized by age group.
Exploring Balboa Park with Little Kids
Antique Carousel and Miniature Railroad
Our kids loved to ride the historic 1910 Balboa Park Carousel, complete with fanciful animals and a chance to grab the brass ring. Very nearby, the Miniature Railroad gives rides to kids and adults on a track through wooded grounds and a fun tunnel.
Botanical Building and Lily Pond
One of the most photographed places in San Diego, the Lily Pond and the Botanical Building right behind it are family favorites for us. Look closely in the pond to catch a glimpse of turtles, koi and maybe a group of baby ducklings. Inside the building (free admission) stop to smell the orchids, some with fragrances like chocolate or oranges. The carnivorous plants are also some of our favorites. Venus fly traps, pitcher plants and others devour insects and little fingers (kidding!).
Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater
With performances almost daily, the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater is a Balboa Park institution. They stage professional performances of old-time favorites and new original works, often bringing the puppets out to meet the audience after the show.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
The largest in the world, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum features several complete setups of model trains, landscapes, towns and other exhibitions. In action, these train sets are really something to behold and bring back memories of when I was a kid with my old Lionel train set.
Fun Things to do in Balboa Park with Older Kids
Japanese Friendship Garden
Recently more than doubled in size, the Japanese Friendship Garden is both peaceful and beautiful as it meanders through the park and down into the canyon. Waterfalls, cherry blossoms, bonsai and koi ponds are great places to escape the crowds. You can even sample authentic tastes from Japan while sipping traditional green tea.
Air & Space Museum
Huge aircraft, jets and space modules are on display at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. You can even sit in some of the aircraft and imagine flying. The museum displays an impressive and very large collection of experiences including flight simulators, interactive displays and a hilarious group of flight attendant uniforms through the decades. You can spend hours in this museum alone.
San Diego Junior Theater
Featuring kids performing on stage in first-class productions, the Junior Theater occupies an incredibly beautiful theater building whose design dates back to Balboa Park’s founding. Performances are always top-notch, and the theater has launched the career of many Broadway and Hollywood stars. They also offer day camps in case you feel like dropping off the kids and having some alone time!
Natural History Museum
With robotic dinosaurs, prehistoric sharks and rows and rows of insects and reptiles, the collections at The Nat are entertaining and fun for kids of all ages. We’ve spent hours and hours wandering the exhibits here, and there is always something new to see and learn about, like King Tut or the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Balboa Park Attractions that Tweens and Teens Will Enjoy
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
Home to an enormous IMAX screen that shows giant-format films like Journey Into Space or Cousteau’s Secret Ocean, The Fleet also offers an awesome 360° planetarium show. This museum has just enough “gross and wow” to woo those difficult teens. Check here for show times.
Museum of Man
Home to the California Tower, famous for the picturesque views of Balboa Park you can see by climbing to its top levels, the Museum of Man recently reopened the tower for visitors after 80 years. Exhibits trace the evolution of our species and tell interesting stories about how humans survived through the ages. Our kids were fascinated (and horrified) by the Instruments of Torture exhibit.
Tracing their roots back to Balboa Park’s World Exposition in 1935, the International Cottages represent 33 different countries. Each cottage offers examples of that country’s culture, history and foods. The cottages take turns hosting festivals on the lawns between them, including the food, music and dancing of that country’s history. Delicious and fun!
Oh, and there’s this little place called the San Diego Zoo located in Balboa Park as well. But that deserves a whole day in and of itself, and another, more detailed blog post devoted to all the best things to spy there. So stay tuned!
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