The beautiful Balboa Park gardens are located right in the heart of San Diego, so they are very convenient to visit. The Balboa Park complex, with its many gardens and museums, should definitely feature on your itinerary for America’s Finest City, even if you are just visiting for the day or for the weekend.
You will find over a dozen themed gardens in Balboa Park, from the Alcazar Garden, reminiscent of its namesake in Seville, to the Zoro Garden, swarming with butterflies in season. Plus, Balboa Park features the beautiful (and historic) Botanical Building, and a significant botanical collection in the San Diego Zoo.
Considering a visit to the gardens at Balboa Park? Read on to find out what to expect, plus tips for visiting!
the Balboa Park Gardens
With its incredible collection of plants, Balboa Park’s garden complex is one of the best botanical gardens in California. So if you love plants and gardening, or you are a nature photography enthusiast, you will definitely enjoy spending a few hours in the gardens at Balboa Park!
Balboa Park’s gardens are also great places to visit with young kids! They will love the koi and the little bridges and stepping stones in the Japanese Friendship Garden, and the ducks in the pond at the Botanical Building.
The first trees in the gardens at Balboa Park were planted in 1892 by Kate Sessions, a local botanist and horticulturalist, who was given the title of “Mother of Balboa Park” for her efforts in beautifying the park. Some of the trees planted by her still flourish in the gardens here. Extensive landscaping was done prior to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, to get the gardens looking like they do today.
When you visit Balboa Park, don’t forget to stop and admire the Moreton Bay fig tree near the Natural History Museum. The park’s signature horticultural specimen is an impressive 60 feet tall and 120 feet wide.
Here, then, are the Balboa Park gardens you must visit:
Balboa Park Japanese Friendship Garden
Laid out over two levels on a 12-acre plot, the Japanese Friendship Garden at Balboa Park showcases Japanese garden techniques and elements, adapted to the climate in San Diego. The garden represents the friendship between San Diego and its sister city in Japan, Yokohama. Hence its name!
The only garden in the complex that has an entrance fee (other than the San Diego Zoo, of course), the Japanese Friendship Garden features architectural elements, water features, statuary, and plants in a serene setting.
In spring, magnolias, cherry blossom trees, and wisteria put on a magnificent show. In summer, star jasmine, camellia, and gardenia offer both beauty and fragrance. Azaleas and other Asian flowering trees and shrubs offer color all through the year.
Two sculptures in the Japanese Garden are particularly gorgeous, so don’t miss them when you visit! In the lower garden, look for the large bronze Kannon Bosatsu, originally made in the year 1735 by Takumi Obata, an acclaimed Japanese artist.
The Kannon Bosatsu statue was previously installed in a Japanese garden in Mississippi, and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In pieces, the statue was purchased and donated to the Japanese Friendship Garden, where it was painstakingly restored and installed in its current spot.
On the upper level, you’ll find an impressive statue of Kongorikishi, one of two guardians of Buddha. Traditionally the pair of warrior statues is found guarding the entrance to Buddhist temples. Also on the upper level, admire the koi pond (the fish are large and gorgeously colored!), the bonsai exhibit, and the wisteria arbor, which must look spectacular when in bloom.
On the lower level, admire the little stream with stepping stones and little bridges, and the mossy waterfall. The entire garden is a joy to wander, or to sit and enjoy the beauty.
For current hours and fees, visit the garden website.
Allow one to two hours.
Balboa Park Botanical BuildinG
The Botanical Building and Lily Pond are among the most popular Balboa Park attractions, and the beautiful lath building, reflected in the lily pond and lagoon, makes for arresting photographs. The greenhouse is one of the largest lath buildings on the planet.
Built for the 1914-15 Panama-California Exposition, the Botanical Building houses over 2,000 plants, with orchids, ferns, cycads, and other tropicals. Palm trees soar up to the roof of the structure, and moss clings to the walls. When we visited, many orchids were in bloom, providing a bright contrast to the many shades of green.
The walkway along the water outside is a nice place to stroll. Watch ducks frolic in the water, and admire the pretty pink lilies and lotuses floating on the surface. If you are lucky, you may even see tiny ducklings at the pond! We saw a row of seven or eight really tiny ducklings scamper after their mom when we visited.
The Botanical Building is located on the El Prado walkway and is free to visit. It is generally open from Friday to Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and closed Thursdays and on holidays. Docent-led tours are sometimes offered, and if one is scheduled for the day you visit, join it to learn about the building’s fascinating history and about the plants it houses.
Allow about 45 minutes to one hour.
San Diego Zoo Botanical Garden
The botanical collection in San Diego Zoo is so impressive that the American Association of Museums has accorded it the status of a botanical garden. With over 4,500 species from all over the world, the San Diego Zoo is a must-visit for plant lovers.
You can do a self-guided tour of the major collections, which include cycads, orchids, and bamboo. And there are four themed gardens to tour. Plus, the zoo is heavily planted throughout. Some plants serve as for food for the animals, others serve as a natural backdrop. The collection includes some endangered plant species.
If you visit in the spring or summer, definitely visit the Fern canyon, where you can admire the colorful canopy of purple, yellow, and red, created by the blooming of jacarandas, Australian flame trees, and Brazilian fern trees. The fern collection is impressive as well, and you may also see ginger plants in flower.
The Hawaiian Native Plant Garden helps preserve some of the rare and endangered species found in the Hawaiian isles. Look for the Cabbage on a Stick plant, an endangered species native to the cliffs of Kauai.
The San Diego Zoo is generally open every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Arrive early; the zoo tends to get crowded from late morning to early afternoon. Download a PDF map (or an app) ahead of time to help find your way around.
Allow a full day at the San Diego Zoo. Entrance is expensive and there is a lot to see and do. Book tickets for the San Diego Zoo!
Alcazar Garden in balboa Park
The Alcazar Garden in Balboa Park is patterned after the gardens of the Alcazar of Seville. While nowhere near as extensive or as ornate as the Seville Alcazar gardens, the San Diego Alcazar Garden nonetheless is a pleasant place to wander.
The warm ochre walls provide the perfect backdrop for colorful bougainvillea. The pergola is stunning when in bloom, and a shady walkway in summer. Admire the ornate fountains and the Spanish tiles in blue, yellow, and green. The beautiful tiled fountains did remind me of Seville!
Formal hedges hold colorful plantings of annuals, such as snapdragons, that are a riot of color in season. With the Spanish-themed California Tower rising up behind, the Alcazar Garden is a picturesque spot indeed!
The Alcazar Garden is free to enter and is always open. It is located next to the Mingei International Museum.
Allow about 30-45 minutes.
Desert Garden in Balboa Park
The Desert Garden in Balboa Park isn’t huge: it is about 2.5 acres, and holds a little over 1,000 desert plants, many of them mature specimens that look like magnificent natural sculptures. A walkway meanders through the specimens, so you can stop and take closer looks at the plants that interest you.
With succulents and drought-resistant plants from all over the world, the Balboa Park Desert Garden makes for a great stroll. If you visit between January and March, you will see many of the plants in bloom. We saw some yuccas that had thrown up colossal sprays of white flowers.
The Desert Garden is free to enter and is always open. To get to the Desert Garden, walk the El Prado walkway all the way to the Natural History Museum, where you will see a path to the pedestrian bridge across the road. Cross over the road and you will find the Desert Garden on the other side.
Allow about 30-45 minutes.
Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden
The Rose Garden in Balboa Park is laid out over about 3 acres, and arranged in formal beds in circles around a central shaded seating area. The arrangement makes it easy to walk around and admire specific varieties up close and smell the blooms as well.
There are several dozen varieties of roses in the garden, which is in bloom between March and November. The showiest bloom occurs in March and April, so if you enjoy gardens and plan to visit San Diego in the spring, definitely plan on stopping by this rose garden.
The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden has won several awards. If you are a rose lover with a home garden, the Balboa Park Rose Garden is a great place to check out varieties you are considering for your own garden.
The Balboa Park Rose Garden is free to enter and is open all day. To get to the Rose Garden, walk the El Prado walkway all the way to the Natural History Museum, where you will see a path to the pedestrian bridge across the road. Cross over the road and you will find the Rose Garden on the other side, right next to the Desert Garden.
Allow about 45 minutes if you visit during bloom time, more if you are a rose enthusiast!
Zoro Garden in Balboa Park
The Zoro Garden has a gorgeous location: it is laid out in a sunken grotto, with lots of stone adding warmth and texture. A walkway helps you explore and look for the colorful butterflies that inhabit the garden.
Plantings in the garden have been carefully chosen to support butterflies both in their larva stage and in their adult butterfly stage. Butterfly bush with its fragrant flower clusters, lantana with its bright colors and strong fragrance, and verbena, all known for their butterfly-attracting properties, can be found in the Zoro Garden.
Look for brightly-colored monarch butterflies in the garden, as well as painted lady, sulfur, swallowtail and other types of butterflies. This garden is best in the summer months, when the plants and vines are in bloom.
The Zoro Garden in Balboa Park is free to enter and open all day. The garden is located between the San Diego History Center and the Fleet Science Center.
Allow about 30-45 minutes.
Other Balboa Park Gardens to Visit
The Casa del Rey Moro Garden has some Moorish elements: a wishing well in the garden is a favorite spot for Instagrammers. Located next to the House of Hospitality, the garden is free to enter and open all day.
The Australian Garden is located in Gold Gulch Canyon, near the parking lot for the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. It features several mature Australian species like acacias and eucalyptus. It is free and open all day.
The Palm Canyon, a tropical oasis with more than 450 palms, is located in the Pan American Plaza opposite the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. It is free and open all day. The original set of Mexican palms in the garden are from the beginning of the 20th century. Also admire the old mature Moreton Bay fig trees, also planted in the 1930s.
Tips for Visiting the Balboa Park Gardens
Arrive early or late
The Japanese Garden and the Botanical Building are popular Balboa Park attractions. From mid morning to early afternoon, top attractions in Balboa Park tend to get crowded. To tour them without as many people, arrive early or late in the day. The same applies for the San Diego Zoo.
Visit in the spring or summer for blooms
To see the blooming gardens at their best, time your visit for spring or summer. The Rose Garden at Balboa Park, the Alcazar Garden with its plantings of annuals, the Japanese Garden, and the Zoro Garden all look their best during bloom seasons.
Allow enough time
The San Diego Zoo takes up a lot of time, so plan on allocating the better part of a day to explore the exhibits at the zoo, both flora and fauna. Downloading the app or map will make navigation easier. The Zoo website also has brochures for the different gardens that you can download and use as guides when you tour.
The Japanese Garden has places where you can sit for a while and appreciate the serenity. So does the Rose Garden. We love taking a “green break” in our sightseeing days by sitting down awhile to enjoy the gardens we visit.
The suggested time we have listed above against each garden is at the low end of the spectrum. If you visit during bloom season and you enjoy plants, you will want to spend longer.
Book tickets for the San Diego Zoo ahead of time
Long lines at the ticket windows of the San Diego Zoo tend to be the norm. Save yourself some time by purchasing your zoo tickets ahead of time.
Wear comfortable walking shoes
You’ll doing a fair amount of walking in Balboa Park, and in the San Diego Zoo. The Balboa Park gardens are spread out over the complex. The Japanese Garden is housed over two levels, so there is some uphill walking involved on the return trip. Wear comfortable walking shoes or sneakers.
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