San Diego, CA
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San Diego, CA

Follow this road map to land adventure in Balboa Park.

The Game Plan

It might seem silly to plan a vacation away from the water in a destination known for its famous surf and 70 miles of white-sand beaches, but there's a lot more to San Diego than sunshine and shoreline. And most of it is located in the city's most prized jewel -- Balboa Park.

First, ditch the flip-flops and put on some good walking shoes. This is America's largest urban park. At 1,158 acres, it's loaded with attractions for everyone, including the largest concentration of museums outside the Smithsonian.

Second, don't expect to cover this expanse in a day. Ideally, you'll need a week to hit all the top attractions -- the children's theater, kid parks, train rides, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

If you're only here for a short time, you'll have to be really strategic. (And keep in mind that Tuesdays are free.) Here's our recommended game plan, with estimated visit times:

House of Hospitality,
Balboa Park, copyright
Bob Yarbrough/San Diego

Stop #1: The Visitors' Center in the House of Hospitality. This is where you'll get all the latest information on children's activities du jour and other daily happenings. It's also the place to pick up a "Passport To Balboa Park." Best of all, it's good for a full week.


Stop #2: The Zoo. Once oriented, go straight to the Zoo. It's home to lions, tigers, and more than 800 wildlife species and it's a must-see for everyone in your safari.

Low walls and moats, rather than harsh metal cages, are home to more than 4,000 animals -- including long-billed kiwis, pygmy chimps (the zoo's biggest stars), and giant pandas on loan from China.

On a time budget? Don't miss the "Ituri Forest," a four-acre simulated lush African rain forest with winding trails that take you through the most complex multi-species habitat at the zoo.

Also a must: the lounging hippos at "Hippo Beach," and the playful polar bears frolicking underwater in the "Polar Bear Plunge." For little ones, swing by the children's zoo, where the exhibits, benches, and drinking fountains are all downsized for a 4-year-old.


Stop #3: On the Way Out. After the zoo, and before hitting the museums, take the little ones for a three-minute spin on a 48-passenger mini-train that traverses four acres of Balboa Park. Or let them grab for the brass ring on an old-fashioned merry-go-round featuring antique, hand-carved animals. The five-minute ride is located next to the miniature train, across from the zoo entrance.

Stop #4: The Un-Museums. Kids might roll their eyes, but trust us, these are not your ordinary museums:

  • San Diego Natural History Museum. Start this portion of your tour at the home of creepy crawlies and other gloriously "icky" stuff. At the Desert Discovery Lab, for instance, your little ones can touch real life desert reptiles and rodents (if they dare!). The Bug Zoo, and its collection of local, exotic, and even poisonous insects, is always popular. And young explorers can climb through a mock mine tunnel glittering with gems at the Josephine L. Scripps Hall of Mineralogy.


  • Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and Space Theater. Voyage to outer space on a simulated trip to Mars or stay grounded with interactive technology exhibits, such as "Signals" -- a display featuring various transmitters of sound, including sound tubes, telegraph, lasers, and the Internet. Or experience a virtual meteor storm in the exhibit of the same name. Need to rest those tired dogs? Chill with an IMAX film in the world's first Omnimax Theater. Estimated visit time: 1-1/2 hours (40 minutes for the IMAX film, 45 minutes for exhibits).

  • San Diego Model Railroad Museum. All aboard! This is a train you won't want to miss. The world's largest operating model railroad museum boasts four giant-scale model layouts covering 24,000 square feet. Work the throttle of a 1950s Lionel Train at the Toy Train Gallery, which, by the way, is jam-packed with antique toy train cars from the 1920s to the 1950s. Estimated time: 45 minutes to 1 hour. The older your children, the longer they'll want to stay.

  • The Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater. Colorful hand puppets and marionettes come to life and mesmerize youngsters (and oldsters) of all ages. Estimated time: one-half hour.

  • San Diego Aerospace Museum. From Kitty Hawk to the World Wars, and blasting forth to the F-4 Phantom age of aeronautics, you'll see a dazzling collection of more than 65 U.S. and foreign aircraft and spacecraft. Estimated time: 2 hours.


Mingei International Musuem, Balboa Park,
copyright Bob Yarbrough/San
Diego CVB

At some point during this whirlwind tour, you'll need a break. Here are three ways to get a much-needed time-out:

  • Free tram ride. The ride starts from Balboa Park's Inspiration parking lot and makes 11 stops throughout the park. Get on and off as you like.
  • Free concert. If you're in Balboa Park on Sunday, plan to hang at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion from 2 to 3 p.m., when you'll catch tunes from a 4,445-pipe Spreckels organ.
  • Picnics. Pepper Grove Picnic Area at the north end of Balboa Drive is a great place to throw down a blanket. The kids can burn off any extra steam at the adjacent playground.


Type of trip: Educational, outdoors

Best ages: All

Ideal trip length: One week or more

Distance: Los Angeles (121 miles); Palm Springs (136 miles)

Best time to go: Fall and winter to beat the crowds

Weather: 70 degrees year-round

Lodging: Best hotel deals are October to March; May to September you'll pay top dollar.

Squirm factor: None

If You Go...

Lily Pond, Balboa Park, copyright
James Blank/San Diego CVB

Visitors' Center, House of Hospitality 1549 El Prado in Balboa Park Phone: 619-239-0512


San Diego Zoo Zoo Drive Phone: 619-234-3153


Miniature Passenger Train Opposite zoo entrance Phone: 619-239-4748.

San Diego Natural History Museum Intersection of Park Blvd. and Village Place Phone: 619-232-3821


Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and Space Theater 1875 El Prado Phone: 619-238-1233

San Diego Model Railroad Museum 1649 El Prado Phone: 619-696-0199

The Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater President's Way, next to Automotive Museum Phone: 619-685-5045

San Diego Aerospace Museum. 2001 Pan American Plaza Phone: 619-234-8291

For More Information

  • San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau
    Phone: 619-232-3101


Side Trips

Out of Africa

Haven't had your fill of wild things yet? Try the San Diego Wild Animal Park, a 2,200-acre preserve where Bengal tigers, elephants, and other exotic wild animals roam free. Animals get lethargic in the warm afternoons so plan your trip for the cooler parts of the day. A one-hour monorail ride takes you through the park. Beware: Once you're on, you can't get off until the end. 30 miles north in Escondido. Call 760-747-8702 for more information.

Then, head 30 miles south of downtown to Tijuana, Mexico. This hopping border town is filled with colorful bazaars, festive street life, and authentic Mexican restaurants. U.S. currency is accepted and you can negotiate some great bargains. Make sure, however, to buy Mexican car insurance. It's expensive, and can be purchased easily in San Ysidro just before the border. It's worth every penny, too. Those in accidents who don't have it can be charged with a felony and jailed.

The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spot: Children's Pool. 30 miles north of downtown in La Jolla, between Jenner St. and Eads Ave. This is actually a kids' beach, perfect for water-loving youngsters. A breakwall keeps waves at bay. There's also a life guard station, and live seals swim in the water and lounge on the sand. Admission: Free.

Best souvenir: Stuffed baby Panda bear

Reviewed April 2004.