Balboa Park Walking Tour, San Diego

Balboa Park Walking Tour (Self Guided), San Diego

Named after the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Balboa Park is one of the largest cultural parks in the United States. A renowned cultural and recreational hub, it offers a plethora of attractions and activities for visitors of all ages.

One of the prominent landmarks within the park is the California Building and Tower, which boasts stunning Spanish-Colonial Revival architecture. The tower is an iconic symbol of the park and provides breathtaking panoramic views of the city.

Alcazar Garden, situated nearby, is a meticulously landscaped garden inspired by the Alcazar Castle in Spain. It features intricate tilework and a variety of colorful flowers, making it a serene spot for a leisurely stroll.

The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages is a unique cluster of cottages representing different countries from around the world. Each cottage showcases the culture, art, and traditions of its respective nation, offering visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in a global experience.

For music enthusiasts, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion is a must-visit. It houses one of the largest outdoor pipe organs globally and hosts free concerts on Sundays. It's a wonderful place to enjoy live music in a beautiful outdoor setting.

The Japanese Friendship Garden is a tranquil oasis featuring traditional Japanese landscaping, koi ponds, and beautiful flora. It provides a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Old Globe Theatre is a renowned theater company known for its outstanding productions of Shakespearean plays and other classics. It's a cultural gem within the park, offering captivating performances year-round.

The Botanical Building & Lily Pond is a botanical paradise housing an impressive collection of exotic plants. The Lily Pond in front of the building adds to its charm and makes it a popular spot for photography.

Art enthusiasts will certainly appreciate the Spanish Village Art Center, where local artists showcase their talents through various mediums, including ceramics, painting, and jewelry.

Finally, no visit to Balboa Park is complete without a trip to the world-famous San Diego Zoo. It houses a diverse range of animals and is committed to conservation and education.

Whether you're a local or a tourist, a visit to Balboa Park is an enriching experience that should not be missed. Take this self-guided walking tour and discover a treasure trove of cultural, artistic, and natural wonders up for grabs right in the heart of San Diego!
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from Apple App Store or Google Play Store to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

Download The GPSmyCity App

Balboa Park Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Balboa Park Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » San Diego (See other walking tours in San Diego)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.7 Km or 1.1 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • California Building and Tower
  • Alcazar Garden
  • House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
  • Spreckels Organ Pavilion
  • Japanese Friendship Garden
  • Old Globe Theatre
  • Botanical Building & Lily Pond
  • Spanish Village Art Center
  • San Diego Zoo
California Building and Tower

1) California Building and Tower

The California Building and California Tower, situated in Balboa Park, San Diego, are esteemed historical edifices. They were constructed for the Panama-California Exposition held from 1915 to 1916, serving as the grand entrance to the Expo. Architect Bertram Goodhue designed both the buildings and the courtyard. On May 17, 1974, the California Building and California Tower were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The California Building, distinguished by its intricate facade and blue-and-gold dome, alongside the adjoining California Tower, stands as an iconic landmark in San Diego. Currently, they house the Museum of US. The design and ornamentation of these structures amalgamate various stylistic elements such as Gothic, Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Rococo, evoking the ambiance of a Spanish Colonial church. The dome's design drew inspiration from the dome of the Church of Santa Prisca and San Sebastián in Taxco, Mexico.

Adorning the building's facade are stone embellishments and numerous sculpted figures and busts, crafted from modeling clay and plaster. These portray significant personalities from California, England, Mexico, and Spain, including Junípero Serra, Philip III of Spain, Sebastián Vizcaíno, George Vancouver, Luís Jayme, and Carlos III of Spain, among others. The facade also showcases the United States shield and the coats of arms of California and Mexico.

The California Tower, standing at 198 feet (60 meters), opened for public tours on January 1, 2015. The Spanish design and vibrant Mexican-inspired colors make it visually captivating. The tower has three tiers, transitioning from a quadrangle to an octagon and then to a circle. Inside, a Maas-Rowe carillon, installed in 1946 and replaced in 1967, plays melodic tunes throughout the park. It chimes the Westminster Chimes every fifteen minutes and a carillonneur performs three songs at noon each day. Known as "San Diego's Icon," the tower is the city's most famous landmark, frequently photographed.
Alcazar Garden

2) Alcazar Garden

This famous garden derives its name from a famous castle that is located in Seville, Spain. It sits near the Art Institute and the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park.

The garden is well known for more than their beautiful flowers and plants. There are some stunning ornate fountains located here that are covered in Moorish tiles of yellow, green, and blue. In terms of design, it is a formal garden that is surrounded in classic boxwood hedges. The designs are typical of classic gardening design. The topiaries are beautiful here. It is planted with over 7,000 annuals that bring a cacophony of color to the location all year around. It has been set to replicate the design of the gardens that was put in place in 1935 by architect Richard Requa whospent two years designing the overall scheme.

The Alcazar Garden is open all year around. Admission is free.

Why You Should Visit:
Small but gorgeous place. The Spanish tile and water features amongst all the flowers make an excellent backdrop for pictures.

Benches in shady area dot the garden, so you can take a breather from exploring Balboa Park and its many attractions.
House of Pacific Relations International Cottages

3) House of Pacific Relations International Cottages

The International Cottages of the House of Pacific Relations, located in Balboa Park, San Diego, comprise a collection of cottages initially constructed for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. Presently, these cottages serve as residences for 33 diverse groups dedicated to fostering multicultural goodwill and understanding through educational and cultural initiatives. In cases where a group does not possess its cottage, they convene at the nearby Hall of Nations. Adjacent to the International Cottages, the United Nations Association of San Diego operates independently from the United Nations Building.

In 2021, the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages expanded its facilities by introducing new cottages representing Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Peru, India, Korea, Palestine, Turkey, and the Chamorros, who are the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands.

The park currently showcases 33 distinct cultures through the presence of 32 cottages. Furthermore, the ongoing development in the park aims to construct five additional cottages, representing nine more cultures. Before 1992, a single cottage represented Czechoslovakia, and following its partition, both cultures continue to share the same cottage.
Spreckels Organ Pavilion

4) Spreckels Organ Pavilion

The Spreckels Organ Pavilion, located in Balboa Park, San Diego, is home to the magnificent Spreckels Organ, the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. Built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, it can be found at the intersection of President's Way and Pan American Road East within the park.

The architect Harrison Albright, who had previously designed the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego, was chosen by Spreckels to design the organ pavilion. The semicircular pavilion, featuring an ornate Italian Renaissance design, was built by the F. Wurster Construction Company. In 1935, the stage size was doubled and a fountain inspired by one in Mexico City was added.

The Spreckels Organ, also known as the Austin Organs, was built in 1915 with 3,400 pipes. It had four manuals, a pedal keyboard, and a 20-horsepower blower. Many of the gilded pipes were decorative, hiding the working pipes. Today, the organ has 80 ranks and 5,017 pipes after expansions. It faces north to protect the pipes from sunlight, so the audience faces south.

Every Sunday at 2:00 pm, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion hosts free organ concerts, generously sponsored by the San Diego Parks and Recreation Department, the Spreckels Organ Society, and private donations.

In summer, the Spreckels Organ Society presents the Spreckels Summer International Organ Festival on Mondays. "Twilight in the Park" offers popular concerts on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. December Nights' celebration also happens on the Spreckels stage. Additionally, the San Diego Community Christmas Center arranges nativity scene displays in the pavilion during Christmas.
Japanese Friendship Garden

5) Japanese Friendship Garden

The Japanese Friendship Garden is one of the true gems of Balboa Park. It started as a tea house during the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, and has continued to please visitors ever since. It now covers over two acres of ground.

As you wander down its paths, you will be able to visit a Zen Garden, the exhibit house, and a real koi pond. The designs that are created in the sand are pieces of art all in themselves. The strategic placement of the rocks and plants tell a story of about how the garden creates harmony among the individual pieces. One of the best features in the garden is the bonsai exhibit. There are hundreds of examples of this classic Japanese art.

There are weekend classes covering subjects like sushi making, bonsai gardening, calligraphy, and conversational Japanese. It is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. The garden is closed on Mondays and most major holidays.
Old Globe Theatre

6) Old Globe Theatre

Located in Balboa Park in San Diego, the Old Globe stands as a distinguished professional theatre company. Each year, it presents a captivating repertoire of approximately 15 plays and musicals during the summer and winter seasons. Within the Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, the company utilizes three distinct venues: Old Globe Theatre, serving as the flagship theatre; Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, an intimate theatre-in-the-round with a capacity of 250 seats; and Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, an outdoor setting that welcomes 605 audience members. Surrounded by nature, it provides a refreshing backdrop for theatrical presentations.

Originally established in 1935, the Old Globe Theatre was designed by Richard Requa as part of the California Pacific International Exposition. Drawing inspiration from the Globe Theatre in London, England, where numerous plays by William Shakespeare were once showcased, this historic venue replicated the iconic open center design, with a protective roof covering the seating areas.

Over the years, the Old Globe has flourished into a globally renowned theatre complex, earning its reputation as an influential force among regional theaters. In recognition of its excellence, it received the esteemed Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre in 1984.
Botanical Building & Lily Pond

7) Botanical Building & Lily Pond (must see)

The Botanical Building is an historic building located in Balboa Park. Built for the 1915–16 Panama–California Exposition, it remains one of the largest lath structures in the world. The Botanical Building houses a variety of ferns, orchids, bromeliads, camelias, palms and tropical trees. They are all marked and provide a gorgeous display as many of the larger ferns and palms reach to top of the building.

In the front of the building, a large reflecting pool sparkles with elegant waterlilies and colorful koi. The setting of the Lily Pond and Lagoon with the Botanical Building in the background is one of the most photographed scenes in San Diego - it is a symbol and icon of Balboa Park. Any visit to Balboa Park is incomplete without a visit to the Lily Pond and Lagoon.
Spanish Village Art Center

8) Spanish Village Art Center

For art lovers, a stop at Spanish Village Art Center in Balboa Park is a must. Built for the second California Pacific International Exposition in 1935, these quaint buildings and colorful courtyard tells the story of life in a charming old Spanish village. After the exposition, the village re-opened as an art center by a group of dedicated artists.

Over the following six decades, local artists have continued to enhance this historical landmark by dding to its beauty with colorful concrete tiles, flowers and unique studio entryways. Today the art center is a vibrant and thriving community encompassing over 200 artists who are eager to share their love for art with visitors to the village.

Throughout the year there are numerous special events, workshops, camps and courses that showcase the latest works by local artist and encourage people of all ages to learn the beauty of art. Come here to watch, learn and shop. Admission is free, experience is priceless.
San Diego Zoo

9) San Diego Zoo (must see)

The San Diego Zoo, located in Balboa Park, is a renowned zoo that spans 100 acres (40 ha) of leased land from the City of San Diego. The zoo is operated by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, a private nonprofit conservation organization that boasts one of the largest zoological membership associations globally. With over 250,000 member households and 130,000 child memberships, the alliance represents a community of over half a million people.

Notably, the San Diego Zoo was a trailblazer in introducing the concept of open-air, cageless exhibits that authentically replicate natural animal habitats. This innovative approach has been highly successful and influential in the zoo community. For many years, the zoo housed and successfully bred giant pandas, fostering the largest giant panda population outside of China. However, in 2019, the pandas were returned to China as part of a repatriation effort.

The San Diego Zoo's popularity is evident, as it attracted over 4 million visitors in 2018, solidifying its position as the most visited zoo in the United States. Travelers from around the world often praise it as one of the finest zoos globally. In addition to the main zoo, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance also operates the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, providing visitors with even more opportunities to engage with wildlife and conservation efforts.

The zoo presents a comprehensive tour bus experience that covers 75% of the park. To provide an elevated perspective of the zoo, visitors can also enjoy the Skyfari, an overhead gondola lift. The exhibits are thoughtfully designed to showcase specific habitats and feature a diverse array of animals coexisting with native plant life.

From an African rainforest to the summertime Arctic taiga and tundra, the exhibits offer a range of immersive experiences. Additionally, the zoo boasts some of the largest free-flight aviaries in the world. Many exhibits incorporate a "natural" aesthetic, utilizing invisible wires and darkened blinds for bird viewing, while large mammals enjoy pools and open-air moats.

Why You Should Visit:
One of the best zoos (if not the best!) in the US and the world.

Book online and wear VERY comfortable walking shoes!
No coolers or straws are allowed in the park, but you can bring in food and beverages.

Walking Tours in San Diego, California

Create Your Own Walk in San Diego

Create Your Own Walk in San Diego

Creating your own self-guided walk in San Diego is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Historic Gaslamp District Walking Tour

Historic Gaslamp District Walking Tour

The Gaslamp Quarter is a lively 16½-block neighborhood in downtown San Diego, known for its nightlife, diverse entertainment and, just as importantly, historical appeal.

Back in the 1860s, the area was known as New Town, in contrast to Old Town, the original Spanish colonial settlement. After a period of decay, the neighborhood underwent redevelopment during the 1980s and 1990s, and was...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.5 Km or 0.9 Miles
Old Town Walking Tour

Old Town Walking Tour

Old Town is the oldest settled area in San Diego which claims to be the first site visited by Europeans on the West Coast of modern United States.

The Native American culture in the area, however, goes back thousands of years. Historically, this land had been a home to the Kumeyaay people who settled on the banks of the San Diego river since around 1000 AD. The first European explorer to...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.2 Km or 0.7 Miles
Embarcadero Marina Walking Tour

Embarcadero Marina Walking Tour

Adjacent to downtown San Diego and the picturesque San Diego Bay is a vibrant waterfront area. Embarcadero Marina, a testament to the region's colorful maritime heritage, houses several outstanding ship museums and is home to other notable sites. The abundance of shopping and dining options, complete with the pristine views of the city skyline, delight numerous locals and tourists and make...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.3 Km or 1.4 Miles

Useful Travel Guides for Planning Your Trip

Souvenir Shopping Guide: 14 Gifts That Say San Diego

Souvenir Shopping Guide: 14 Gifts That Say San Diego

San Diego is known for its beautiful, temperate climate, but you can’t take the weather home with you. If you want a piece of San Diego as a souvenir, it’s best to shop with the natives. Whether it is made locally or just made famous locally, following are 14 perfect gifts that capture the...