fun to do kids balboa park san diego california   Travel for Kids
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San Diego - Balboa Park

Balboa Park
It's hard to imagine, but in the early 19th century, Balboa Park was a dry mesa, covered with sagebrush. In 1868, over a thousand acres of land were set aside for a public park. The horticulturist Kate Sessions planted exotic trees and bushes from all over the world. In 1915, the Spanish colonial-style buildings were built for the Panama-California Exposition. Balboa Park has lush gardens and flowering plants, a world-famous zoo, museums, organ concerts and puppet shows any day of the week, it's always fun for kids.
Kid at the the San Diego Zoo
  San Diego ZooThe Zoo is a "must do" and you can easily spend the entire day here. There's over 100 acres, so a popular option is take a bus ride around the zoo. Be sure to see the giant pandas (on loan from China), the koala colony, and Komodo dragons, and sun bears. A personal favorite is the "Polar Bear Plunge" where you can watch big shaggy polar bears playing in the water. Little kids will enjoy Children's Zoo – pet the animals and visit the animal nursery. Take in the sea lion or birds of prey shows. Audio tours are available in English, Spanish, French, Japanese and German.
travel tools san diego zoo tickets

Standing in ticket lines for hours in the summer heat is enough to make anyone cranky, especially the kids. (During the holidays and summer season, the lines can stretch for some distance.) Order tickets online one week or more before you visit, and you can bypass the long ticket lines and head right in to the San Diego Zoo:

San Diego Zoo tickets

Miniature Train – This pint-sized train, located to the south of the main entrance to the Zoo, is just a delight for the toddler set. The ride is short but the experience is sweet.

    Carousel – Your little ones will enjoy a ride on this old fashioned carousel, in operation since 1922. If you get the brass ring, you get a free ride.
Museum of Natural History
  Museum of Natural History – Get a great introduction to the San Diego region in the "Ocean Oasis," a wide screen movie about the Baja California desert and Sea of Cortes. Other exhibits focus on rocks, plants, animals and the landscape of Southern California and Baja California, from Pleistocene era fossils to regional habitats, from the the coast, mountains, desert, Colorado River delta, to the Gulf of California.
Ruben H. Fleet Science Center – The Science Center features a space theater with IMAX films (click here for the schedule). The younger set will enjoy the Little Learner's Lab (kids 2-6) with puppets and soft blocks. Bigger kids can head over to the interactive exhibit galleries, "Contraptions A to Z" – 26 mechanical contraptions to play on, "Meteor Storm," a virtual reality experience, or "Impact!" a simulation ride into the future.
Pepper Grove Playground – South of the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center is a large kid's playground and picnic area.
Model Railway Museum – This model railway museum has long been a favorite with kids in San Diego. The train layouts highlight the American Southwest. Watch the model trains as they puff through the mountains in the Tehachapi Pass, chug over the Goat Canyon trestle high above the Carrizo Gorge, or stop at the San Diego Santa Fe train depot at the turn the century.
Mingei International Museum – The Mingei museum features traditional and contemporary folk art. There is a wonderful collection of paper kites from India. Don't miss the "Artes de Mexico," folk art with toys, masks and colorful ceramic scenes, a glimpse of life in Mexico, San Diego's next-door neighbor.
Museum of Man
San Diego Museum of Man – Get a taste of other cultures around the world. As you come in, you can't miss the extraordinary 26 ft high Maya stele from Quirigua in Guatemala. Upstairs, find out about the Kumeyaay, the native Americans that lived in San Diego county, -- what they ate, what kinds of dolls they played with, what kinds of games they played. The Ancient Egypt and Mummies exhibit is fascinating, plus an excellent Children's Discovery Center, with hands-on Egyptian activities for little kids. Also at the museum, you can watch how tortillas are made, and weaving demonstrations (Wednesday to Sunday).
      Listen to the bells chiming in the California Tower, next to the Museum of Man. It will always remind you of Balboa Park.

Palm Canyon – Take a run down Palm Canyon, a walkway lined with huge fan palm trees. Cool and shady on a hot day, and there are benches to relax.

Spreckels Organ Pavilion – Since 1914, outdoor performances of the big (over 4,000 pipes) Spreckels organ have entertained families with rousing marches and other popular tunes. Free organ concerts are held year round, Sunday afternoons 2:00-3:00 pm, and in the summer Monday evenings, 7:30-9:00.
International Cottages (House of Pacific Relations) – Each week, a different country from Europe, Middle East and South America hosts folk dancing, music and typical food. Homey and delightful. Houses are open Sundays, Noon - 4:00pm.
San Diego Automotive Museum
San Diego Automotive Museum – California is a center of car culture, and the Automotive Museum is a wonderful place to see the history of cars in their "natural habitat." Check out the horseless carriages, big cars of the Fifties, one-of-a-kind motorcycles, " muscle cars," and "art cars." Kids can see what family cars were like before seat belts – the VW bus, a 1952 Nash with foldout beds, a 1937 "woody" station wagon, the first economical family car, the 1914 Model T Ford.
Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater – There's always puppet shows happening here, presented by a wide variety of puppeteers from around the world. You might see marionettes, shadow puppets or hand puppets. Shows are (Summer) Wed. - Sun. 11:00am, 1:00pm, 2:30pm, (Winter) Wed. - Fri. 10:00am &11:30am, Sat. and Sun. 11:00am, 1:00pm & 2:30pm, . Call for tickets, (619) 685-5990 or click here for the schedule.
San Diego Aerospace Museum
San Diego Aerospace Museum – Follow the history of aviation, starting with hot air balloons and the Wright brothers, to W.W.I planes, 20's and 30's barnstorming planes, W.W.II Spitfires and Hellcats, to state-of-the-art jets – MIGs and Skyhawk jets, and the Blackbird spy plane, out into space with the Apollo space capsules and models of the Mars Rover. Toddlers will enjoy a section with planes to climb on, knobs to push and pull. Don't miss the full-size replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. Tip: Free with a Go San Diego Card

Gardens – The temperate climate in San Diego is a bonanza for gardens – with a little water, almost anything will grow here. Spend some time just rambling through these very different gardens:

Alcazar Garden
    Alcazar Garden – You'll feel like you're at the Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain. Any time of year, the garden is planted with bright colored plants, and you'll want to dip your fingers in the star-shaped blue tiled fountain in the center.
    Editor's note: When I was a kid, this was my favorite garden in Balboa Park.
      Zoro Garden – This is a butterfly garden, planted with milkweed, sunflower and passion vines for butterfly larvae, and nectar plans for the adult butterflies. Look for monarch, sulfur and swallowtail butterflies!
Botanical Building
    Botanical Building and Lotus Pond – In the arboretum, step into a lush tropical rainforest. In front of the Botanical Building, the Lily Pond is endlessly fascinating, the peaceful reflections in the water and blooming water lilies.
  Desert Garden – If you can't Anza Borrego Desert east of San Diego, this is a good substitute. The desert garden is planted with succulents and plants that need little water from deserts all over the world.
Ride the Balboa Park Tram – Balboa Park is big place. Hop on the free red tram to ride around the park. The Park Tram goes in a loop from Inspiration Point where you can park, to the Aerospace Museum (Pan American Plaza), to the main Plaza de Panama, right by the Visitor's Center. (You can't miss the dramatic statue of El Cid on horseback).
kids books san diego zoo animals
Little Panda - kids books San Diego zoo  
Little Panda
Joanne Ryder

Adorable story of Hua Mei, the panda born at the San Diego Zoo. Irresistible photos of Hua Mei taking her first steps, playing in the water, munching on bamboo, rolling on the ground with her mama panda. (Picture book)


A Pair of Polar Bears
Joanne Ryder

True story of two little furry Alaskan polar bears who come to live at the San Diego Zoo – swimming and splashing in their own pool, rolling in the dirt (they change from white bears to brown bears), sliding in their own snowy playground. (Picture book)


A Pair of Polar Bears san diego zoo childrens books
Baby Koala toddlers books san diego zoo  
Baby Koala (San Diego Zoo Animal Library)
Patricia A. Pingry

Toddlers can get their fingers all over this charming board book, full of fun facts about cute baby koalas, illustrated with charming photos from the San Diego Zoo.
(Board book)


Baby Chimpanzee (San Diego Zoo Animal Library)
Patricia A. Pingry

Who can resist a huggable baby chimpanzee, sitting in his mama's lap? Little kids will have fun with this board book, filled with facts about baby chimps. Photos from the San Diego Zoo.
(Board book)

Also Baby Tiger, Baby Elephant, Baby Lion, and Baby Giraffe at the San Diego Zoo.


Baby Chimpanzee san diego zoo board books
(More children's books on other San Diego pages)