Scroll below for full photo gallery.

The problem with museums is that most of the time they suck. Or at least they aren’t worth the price of admission. $20 to see a collection of tulip vases? $40 to stand in a crowded room getting jostled trying to find the magic in the Sistine Chapel? No thanks.

Balboa Park in San Diego lists 28+ museums & attraction buildings, dozens of gardens, performing events spaces and even a zoo. That sentence stressed me out. If you go to each one individually you’ll pay the price of admission at each risking that sinking feeling that maybe it wasn’t worth it. My suggestion, Extreme Tourism. I got myself an inclusive pass that gave (almost) full run of the park with the goal of hitting at least 10 attractions in one day. There are multiple “Explorer” pass options offered by the park ranging from one day to an entire year.

Balboa Park

The appeal of maxing out on a one day museum bonanza is that you’ll never get bored or worn out in one place. Most museums have so much to see, so much to learn that after the first couple hours it all blurs together. By doing it all at once I had to make certain sacrifices that ended up enhancing the experience. First, I gave up on reading about every exhibit. That much learning takes too much time. I was there to enjoy the visuals, and if some knowledge filtered into my brain all the better. Second, I wouldn’t try to see everything. If I felt myself glazing over it was time to move on to a new exhibit or even a new building. Third, I decided to skip the art museums. Personally, they just wear me out. Finally, when in doubt I’d go outside. Balboa Park is a park after all.

Balboa ParkIn general, most of the museums open at 10 am, but check schedules. Some attractions aren’t open on certain days or have different times. I started at the San Diego Air & Space Museum at the Pan American Plaza. I watched a Delta jet fly over, walked in showed my pass got a ticket and was on my way.

A&S is awesome. Apollo 9, the Spirit of St. Louis, classic planes & even a 4D movie. They also run a rotating exhibit. Right now it is on Leonardo Da Vinci. The exhibit is awesome and also a little terrifying that guy had a pretty fucked up brain. But you can also stand in a a chamber of mirrors he designed to take a selfie of yourself taking a selfie of yourself taking a selfie.

Balboa ParkI could have spent hours at Air & Space, but I was on a mission. Out the door I hung a quick left into the Automotive Museum. Essentially, an airplane hangar filled with pretty vehicles including a Back to the Future car and Louie Mattar’s Fabulous $75,000 car that set records for endurance non-stop runs of 6,320 miles & 7,482 miles. It had a bathroom, a bar and you could change a tire without stopping. If you go say hi to Dick Murphy, the lovely guy at the information desk for me.

Extreme Tourist tip #1: Make a plan, but don’t feel bad making a detour.
Know where you plan on going ahead of time. Look at a map. Then walk from place to place, and if something spins your head check it out. A mix of big & small attractions is a good way to start. There is also an app that can guide you, and the park has free wi-fi.

Balboa ParkFrom there I headed for the museum row around El Prado passing through the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and a quick stop in the Japanese Friendship Garden first. Inside the garden I see a hummingbird who seems pretty friendly. The JFG was the only garden I encountered that you had to pay for. It was pretty and who doesn’t love a koi pond, but save your money. You can look into it from a viewing station, or just look around all the time. You’re already in a beautiful area of the park.

The Museum of Photographic Arts is showing a Minor White exhibit that is interesting but doesn’t feel groundbreaking anymore unless you really get into the history. However the youth experience exhibit featuring young, local photographers is way cool. It makes me feel a little unaccomplished, but again these kids were born with iPhone’s in their hand.

Extreme Tourist tip #2: Wear comfortable shoes.
You’ll be walking a lot. Make sure you’re comfortable.

Balboa Park
Interactive Selfie at MOPA

San Diego Historical Museum has a swell Dr. Seuss exhibit. Theodore Geisel was a pretty incredible painter, and apparently the character Yertle the Turtle was inspired by Hitler. Then there is a lot of local history displays. Bring your reading glasses to this one. You’ll get as much as you give on the history side.

Dr. Seuss “His daughter said he was 98% cat in the hat and 2 % grinch.” -Overheard from information guide.

At the Reuben H. Fleet Center be prepared for the madness of ten million children running in circles around you, but also be prepared to be a kid again. Looking at 3D models and exploring interactive cellular projects. More than a few times I saw an adult working on a science project while kids watched.

By the time I reached theNat (Natural History Museum) I thought I’d be slowing down, but exploring without feeling guilt for not seeing everything was actually pretty inspirational. Walking through the gardens between museums, looking at the beautiful buildings helps rejuvenate the mind for the next museum.

The entry to theNat has a dinosaur display that is cool. Kind of like walking through time. But the rest of the museum is kind of a bummer. Not really a lot going on here, and my pass doesn’t include the main Mayan exhibit. The highlight for me is the jaw of a Finback Whale in the basement which is so ridiculously big it makes me want to cry a bit, and thank the heavens I didn’t grow up in the age of the dinosaurs. It also makes me more terrified for my surfer friends.

Extreme Tourist tip #3: Bring Snacks. Preferably, in a fanny pack.
I’d went with fruit snacks & a Cliff Bar while walking. Plenty of places too eat & drink at Balboa. But save your snack money for a good beer at Panama 66 when you’re all done touristing. You could start and end your day at Panama 66 they serve Dark Horse coffee and local craft beer.

Balboa Park

Spanish Village community of artists was pretty sweet, but just not what I was going for that day. Then I stepped into the Casa del Prado theater where I was immediately told that they were closed. The lobby looks real nice though.

Balboa Park
Reuban H. Fleet Science Center

On to the botanical building & lily pond. Stunning architecture beautiful inside & free to go in. It’s so peaceful I want to lay down and take a nap. I also wonder how many “Don’t Touch” signs are in Balboa Park. How much money was spent on those signs? You could probably pay a few teacher salaries for sure.

There are families here in Balboa Park. And they seem to be having fun together. None of the stress and irritation you normally find at museums or amusement parks and I think walking through the park is part of that. The El Prado and Pan American Plaza are just well thought out spaces that are people friendly. It seems odd then that a highway runs through the rest of the park. Imagine a Balboa Park without the highway. Whoa. Mind blown.

Extreme Tourist tip #3: Bring a friend
But make sure they’re on the same plan for touristing. It will be frustrating if one of you wants to read every note & the other wants to just enjoy the sights.

Balboa ParkI was planning on skipping it but I veer into the Mingei International Art Museum. There are icons from all 50 states on the upper level and a walking stick it stick exhibit downstairs. This is the first place that I felt I needed to whisper into my tape recorder. It feels like a museum. But despite the collections of cat sculptures. It’s still not out of touch & feels modern and up-to-date. The walking stick carvings are incredible.

I finish with the Hall of Champions. Because after today I feel like a Champion of Touristing. I walk right in and a sign that says admission is free. The lights are dark but the exhibits are illuminated. I can smell fried foods and it makes me hungry. Time for that beer.

The takeaway from all this? Balboa Park’s Museum Circle is beautiful. The Explorer passes offer more value than single visit purchases. A lot of things are free, and if you don’t take yourself to seriously you can experience a lot of it all at once. I plan on going back soon, but just for a picnic and maybe, that nap.

Full List of Attractions Visited: 

  1. Museum of Photographic Arts
  2. SD History Center
  3. Reuban H. Fleet Science Center
  4. theNat
  5. Spanish Village Art Center
  6. Casa Del Prado
  7. Mingei International Art Institute
  8. Spreckels Organ Pavilion
  9. San Diego Automotive Museum
  10. San Diego Air And Space Museum
  11. San Diego Hall of Champions
  12. Municipal Gym
  13. Houses of Pacific Relations – Closed
  14. Alcazar Garden
  15. Botanical Building & Lily Pond
  16. Zoro Garden
  17. Palm Canyon
  18. Japanese Friendship Garden
  • Lori Woldt

    Looks like a place we should go when we visit!