top of page

Your Ultimate Guide for Taking Kids to Balboa Park: Must-See & Secret Spots, Free, Deals, Fun & Eats

Our MASTER PLAYLIST has all the fun places for kids to play in San Diego! Search by:


(coming soon)

Your ultimate guide for taking kids to Balboa Park, what to see, what's free, what to do, eat and where to play


Balboa Park is huge and it's no wonder that locals sometimes don't even know where to start. I've been there hundreds of times with and without kids, so I'll break it all down for you and fill you in on everything Balboa Park has to offer.

I'll spill about all the world-class museums (with fun kids play centers!), theaters & puppet shows, playgrounds & sports to where to eat & drink your way around, those ultra secret spots that not even some locals know about and how to get the best deals.

Plan as much or as little as you want, sometimes it's fun just to walk around and see where you end up. But if you time your visit right, you can get in on free admission (or avoid the large crowd days, you're welcome ;).





Dog Parks






Food & Drink

-Coffee Spots


* This guide is a work in progess because there's so much information to share. What I have so far will get you started, but I'll be coming back here to add more, so keep checking back for updates. (last updated 4/24/22)

And let me know if you have anything else to add.



(coming soon)

[back to TOP]



  • 7 Bridges Walking Tour

  • California Tower Climb

  • Carousel

  • Junior Friends Patch Program

  • Hikes & Walks

  • International Cottage Days

  • Mini Train Ride

7 Bridges Tour

Click for details

California Tower Climb

You can actually climb up that tower you hear bells ringing out of at noon. You only go up to the 4th floor level (so not all the way to the top), but you've never seen views of Balboa Park like this before. It's accessed from inside the Museum of Us, where you'll buy your advanced timed tickets and meet your tour guide.

🕰 Get there early! If you're late and miss it, you don't get a refund.

👟 Wear sneakers for all the steps you'll climb and you're only allowed to bring a camera, no bags. You'll get a free locker to stash your stuff.

👧🏻 This is only available to ages 6+, you're not allowed to carry or give piggy back rides to kids. All kids must independently walk up the stairs on their own.

👉 TIP: When you're done, grab dinner & a cold beer at Panama 66 nearby. You can walk around the hidden sculpture garden while you wait for your food.


🎠 This is just behind Spanish Village, north of The Nat with a large parking lot nearby.

🕰 It's only open on weekends, school breaks, holidays and summer time.

💳 They do take cards or cash (I think it's $4/ticket) to ride either the carousel and/or the cute little butterfly merry-go-round ride.

👉 Play The Brass Ring Game: If you don't have to stand next to your kids and they're independent to ride, adults and teens can sit on the outside horses and play the Brass Ring game! They start this after a few circles around. Look for the worker sitting on top of the ladder, rolling out the rings for you to grab. They only roll out one brass ring per ride and if you're lucky you'll get a free ticket to ride again. You can toss all the other rings into the clown's mouth as you spin around. You'll see what I mean when you're there.

🚻 The nearest bathrooms are inside Spanish Village, just past Daniel's Coffee (you'll have to walk around towards the mini train on the Zoo side).

Junior Friends Patch Program

Stop at the Visitor's Center inside the House of Hospitality (near The Prado Restaurant) to ask for your Junior Friends Program Activity Page. Or, you can download this from home before you go. Older kids will get a Scavenger Hunt and have to answer questions. Younger kids will get a Bingo Sheet and will have to cross off the pictures as they find them.

🥇 Once you're done, return the completed sheets to the Visitor Center and you'll get your park patches!

👉 This will take you all over Balboa Park and don't worry if you don't finish this in one visit. It took us 3 visits to finish ours.

Hikes & Walks

There are lots of hikes and walks all around Balboa Park and they even have their own color-coded trail map system. Click the link for the details, but some of the best walks for kids are around the gardens detailed below. Those are usually shorter, faster and closer to most of Balboa Park, but you still get that sense of being in nature.

International Cottage Days

These are across from the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and they're a collection of cute little cottages and each is occupied and represented by different countries throughout the world. Each cottage/country rotates on Sundays to show off their culture through dances, music & food. It's usually every Sunday from 2-4, but sometimes they're open during other celebrations and events at Balboa Park throughout the year. If you have an affiliation to one of those countries, ask them about joining!

👻 We LOVE coming here on Balboa Park's Halloween Day because each house is open, offering delicious food & drinks and giving out candy. It's a fun and safe place for kids to walk around and knock on everyone's door.

Mini Train Ride

🚂 This is a really fun little ride-on miniature train that has about 10 cars linked up. A conductor rides in the front and gives you a 7 minute ride around a loop trail that goes through their man-made jungle with cute jungle animal statues. You'll finish by going through the wishing tunnel (make a wish as you go through!). You'll find this just around from the carousel noted above, on the Zoo side and just before the back entrance into Spanish Village.

🕰 It's only open on weekends, school breaks, holidays and summer time.

💳 They do take cards or cash (click the link for prices, it's cheap, but I forget what it costs off hand. I'll update when I find out.)

🚻 The nearest bathrooms are inside Spanish Village, just a quick walk past Daniel's Coffee.

[back to ACTIVITIES] [back to TOP]



Free Resident Days

Every Tuesday, local San Diego residents and active duty military get FREE admission to museums! The selected museums rotate so 3-4 of them are free on their scheduled Tuesday of the month. Click the link to see the rotating museum schedule. You must show proof of ID or utility the link for other types of accepted proof.

Explorer Pass

This is a membership pass that will get you into all of the museums at Balboa Park (the only exception is currently the new Comi-Con museum still requires separate admission). You can pay for an annual pass ($229/family + 4 kids, other options for individuals too).

But...most people don't know you can actually just buy this for 7 consecutive days ($67/adult, $43/youth) or even a one-day pass that's good for any 4 venues ($56/adult, $35/youth).

Money Saving Tip: Keep in mind that kids under 3 are usually admitted for free into museums anyway (kids 6 and under are free at the Japanese Friendship Garden), so depending on how many kids you have and their ages, you may only need an individual pass.

[back to TOP]



[back to TOP]



All except one of these gardens are FREE to walk through, around and enjoy! You'll find a little bit of peace and tranquility here during your day exploring Balboa Park. Most of these gardens make for wonderful picnic spots, so if you can plan your day to find one of these for a lunch or snack break to let the kids relax and wind down in between your museum hopping.

16 Gardens of Balboa Park

1. Alcazar Garden

2. Australian Garden

3. Botanical Building & Lily Pond

4. California Native Plant Garden

This is a very small garden that I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to find it, unless you happen to be playing or exploring nearby already. This is not in the central part of Balboa Park, so you'll have to drive over to it. It's near Morley Field where you'll find the tennis courts, swimming pool, dog park and Nature Exploration Play Area area.

🚻 No bathrooms are nearby, you'll have to drive or walk over to the swimming pool. I don't remember where other bathrooms are nearby. I'll update when I find out.

🅿️ The best entrance is to park near the Morley Field Dog Park; there's a quick turn-off into a parking lot...when you leave the central part of Balboa Park, drive east on Morley Field Dr. and just after you cross Florida Dr., look for the small turn into a parking lot. If you reach Upas St. you've gone too far. When you turn into this parking lot, take a sharp right and drive down into the lower parking lot. Park here and look for the garden along the eastern side/tennis court side of the parking lot.

5. Casa del Rey Moro Garden

One of the most beautiful settings at Balboa Park, you'll find this simple garden just below The Prado Restaurant. It's a small water well with a fountain and beautiful plants, so there's not a lot to see but it will give you a quiet moment of peace and calm here during your day.

👶🏻 Stroller-friendly

🚻 Bathrooms nearby, behind The Prado courtyard

☕️ Stop at Prado Perk for your cuppa!

6. Desert Garden

This is across Park Blvd. near the Fleet Science Center; take the pedestrian bridge over and turn left (right to the rose garden). This is a short paved flat trail that meanders through desert plantings and landscape.

👶🏻 This is stroller friendly.

⚠️ Don't let kiddos wander too far, you'll have to watch out for those poky cactus plants!

🚻 No bathrooms nearby, you'll have to go at the Fleet or The Nat, back across the bridge.

7. EthnoBotany Children's Peace Garden

This is near the Cultural de la Raza Building, south of the Fleet Science Center keep walking to the end of the Pepper Grove Playground, cross the grassy field and you'll find this. It's a very short and sometimes run-down garden. From my visit, there wasn't must to see here, but hopefully they'll tend to it this Spring and bring it back.

🚻 Bathrooms are very close by, but I can't guarantee you'll want to use them. Look for the bathrooms near the parking lot just past Pepper Grove Playground or head up to the Fleet to use the ones inside (you don't have to pay admission to use the bathrooms, walk left of the ticket window).

8. Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve

Just across Park Blvd. from the Fleet Science Center (take the pedestrian bridge over) you'll find this switch-back trail.

👶🏻 Not stroller-friendly

🚻 No bathrooms nearby, you'll have to go at the Fleet or The Nat, back across the bridge.

⚠️ Sometimes there are homeless that use this trail, but all the times I've been on it alone with my kids I've never seen any homeless on it. But keep that in mind because other parents have told me they don't come here.

9. Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

This rose garden is across the street from the Fleet Science Center; you'll have to cross Park Blvd. using the overhead pedestrian bridge and turn right (left to the Desert Garden). There's a beautiful large circular rose-covered concrete trellis with roses of all kinds planted all around. They're clipped back during part of the year so you may not see them in bloom, but if you do you're in for a treat!

👶🏻 Stroller-friendly

🚻 No bathrooms nearby, you'll have to go at the Fleet or The Nat, back across the bridge.

10. Japanese Friendship Garden

This is the only garden that has a paid admission, unless you come here on their free resident day. Kids 6 and under are free, so it's still a great deal if you've got littles. (I personally try to avoid the free resident days because they're usually crowded, so if you can swing it, pay for admission and you'll have a more relaxing experience.) This garden has gorgeous landscaping with one flat packed gravel trail that zig zags its way from top to the bottom of the canyon. It's wide enough for 2-3 people at once & for strollers to easily pass by.

Kids will love jumping across the stones in the stream, watching the koi fish and running around. You'll find a gift shop and snacks at the bottom.

👶🏻 All-terrain strollers are fine here!

🚻 Bathrooms are at the top and bottom of the trail.

🍵 🍱 Outside the main entrance is the Tea Pavilion with a full menu of hot (salmon teriyaki, noodles) & cold foods, snacks (wasabi peas), treats (mochi ice cream) and over 50 kinds of tea hot or cold! This is one of my favorite places to eat in all of Balboa Park!

11. Kate O. Sessions Cactus Garden

This is another often overlooked garden that most people walk right by and don't even know it exists! It's down by the Air & Space and Auto Museum, just north walk past the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater and turn left, go down the stairs and you'll find a short trail loop of beautiful and very peaceful (except for the 163 Freeway noise) cactus garden. This was planted by none other than Kate Sessions herself!

🥪 You'll also find a few picnic tables and old outdoor fireplace in disarray, but it adds to the character. Enjoy a short walk, a quiet picnic spot and then go catch a short puppet show right next door.

👶🏻 Stroller-friendly if you come around the north side (not between the puppet theater).

🚻 The nearest bathrooms are by the Spreckels Organ Pavilion across the street.

⚠️ Watch your kids carefully so they don't touch the sharp cactus plants!

12. Marston House Garden

Over by the 6th Ave. Playground and just north of the Trees for Health Garden, you'll find this historic homestead. It's available for tours, but the beautiful grounds are always open to walk through. You might see some of the gardeners working, feel free to stop and chat with them if they're feeling friendly, they may tell you some stories.

🚻 The nearest bathroom is at the nearby 6th Ave. Playground.

13. Palm Canyon

Most people walk right by this one because the walkway disappears into the trees. Just east of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion across the street you'll see the bathrooms and a wooden walkway that will lead you to the top of the stair case Walk down the stairs for a very quick 5-10 minute walk through the canyon. Walk up the sides of the canyon using the wooden beams mounded into the dirt, or turn around and walk back up the stairs.

👶🏻 No strollers on this one.

🚻 Bonus is the bathrooms & parking lot are nearby!

14. Trees For Health Garden

This is over by the 6th Ave. Playground and is quick, but fascinating educational walk to learn about medicinal trees. This one is perfect for kids because it's a very short walk and then you can head over to the playground.

👶🏻 Stroller-friendly

🚻 Bathrooms nearby the 6th Ave. Playground.

15. Veterans Memorial Garden

16. Zoro Garden

This is often an overlooked spot right in the middle of the park! It's between the Fleet Science Center and the Casa de Balboa building. You have to peek through the trees and down into this sunken garden. It's always shaded and a perfect spot to let the kids run around and have a snack or a picnic.

🦋 This is a pollinator garden for butterflies with some beautiful and unique flowers. Sometimes they have an annual butterfly release here in the Spring.

👶🏻 Sorry, I can't remember if this is stroller-friendly...I want to say there are stairs to get down here. There's a flat paved steep pathway, but I'm pretty sure there are steps halfway down...I could be wrong. I'll update when I find out for sure.

🚻 Bathrooms nearby, inside The Fleet, The Nat or in the courtyard by The Prado Restaurant.

BONUS: The Secret Cat Garden

🐈‍ (behind #11...shhh) There are a few wild cats that live here and are taken care of by local employees on their own time before and after work and on their breaks. They're organized to each take turns feeding them every day, but they don't leave food out for very long so as not to attract other wild animals, so they usually stick around for about 20 minutes while the cats eat. Some cats need medical attention and they have a donation fund they use for vet bills, getting the cats spayed & neutered and vaccines, etc. They try to adopt the cats out if they can. There's a group online for more info, but I'm not sure what it is right now. I'll update this when I find out.

[back to GARDENS] [back to TOP]



[back to MUSEUMS] [back to TOP]



There are SIX playgrounds at Balboa Park! Did you know that?! It's okay, most people don't even know about any. They're not in the main part of Balboa Park where the museums and restaurants are, so you'll have to kind of leave the central part to find them.

5 of these I'd recommend driving to actually because they're quite far for littles to walk. Only the Pepper Grove Playground behind the Fleet Science Center is doable for kids to walk or for parents to push the stroller over to.

1. 6th Ave.

This is on the far west side of Balboa Park, walk (or drive!) across the Cabrillo Bridge and head north a little ways. I'd recommend driving, unless your kids are comfy in a stroller. There's lots of street parking nearby and a bathroom too.

👶🏻 Stroller-friendly

🚻 Bathrooms nearby

📍 3201 Sixth Ave, San Diego, CA 92101

2. Bird Park near Cedar

Small playground but effective playground, best for littles.

🚙 This is on the far east side of Balboa Park, you'll have to drive here because it's all the way near Southpark.

👶🏻 Stroller-friendly

🚻 No bathrooms here

📍 1612 28th St, San Diego, CA 92102

3. Bird Park at Upas

Small playground but effective playground, best for littles.

🚙 This is on the far east side of Balboa Park, you'll have to drive here because it's all the way near Southpark.

👶🏻 Stroller-friendly

🚻 No bathrooms here

📍 2705 Upas St., San Diego, CA 92104

4. Nature Exploration at Morley Field

This is really play area filled with only natural elements like large boulders to jump across, logs to walk on, sliced log "pizza" and palm fronds for building forts.

🚶🏻‍♀️ Walk to the end of the parking lot and you'll see a trail that goes behind the tennis courts. Walk 1/2 way past the tennis courts and you'll the Nature Exploration Play Area on the right.

🚻 If you keep walking, you'll pass the tennis courts, you'll come out behind the Bud Kearns Memorial Swimming Pool (where the nearest bathrooms are, if they're open!) and behind this is the Morley Field Playground. You can also park near the swimming pool & tennis courts, walk behind them and take the same trail 1/2 way behind the tennis courts.

👶🏻 All-terrain strollers will do well here

🚙 It's best to drive over here and it's a little tricky to find. The best entrance is to park near the Morley Field Dog Park; there's a quick turn-off into a parking lot...when you leave the central part of Balboa Park, drive east on Morley Field Dr. and just after you cross Florida Dr., look for the small turn into a parking lot. If you reach Upas St. you've gone too far. When you turn into this parking lot, take a sharp right and drive down into the lower parking lot. Park here.

📍 2221 Morley Field Dr, San Diego, CA 92104

5. Pepper Grove Playground

This is a large playground with several different play areas and lots of seating for parents. It's right behind the Fleet Science Center parking lot. Bring a picnic for the large grassy area.

👶🏻 Stroller-friendly

🚻 Bathrooms are near the parking lot and another one near the Centro Cultural de la Raza Building, but I'd avoid this bathroom if at all possible.

📍 Park Blvd. + Space Theater Way, San Diego, CA 92108

6. Morley Field Playground

This is an out-dated and small, but good playground best for littles. It's directly behind the Bud Kearns Memorial Swimming Pool. Park in front of the pool or tennis courts and walk back. The nearest bathrooms are inside the pool, if it's open. See above for how to get to the nearby Nature Exploration Play Area.

👶🏻 Stroller-friendly, you may have to wheel it over grass or walk along the outside border or parking lot to catch the paved pathway instead of walking directly over.

🚻 Bathrooms are inside the swimming pool if it's open. I don't remember where other bathrooms are nearby. I'll update when I find out.

📍 2229 Morley Field Dr, San Diego, CA 92104

[back to PLAYGROUNDS] [back to TOP]



[back to SPORTS] [back to TOP]



[back to THEATERS] [back to TOP]





[back to FOOD & DRINK] [back to TOP]




[back to MASTER PLAYLIST - coming soon]

bottom of page