Obviously it’s possible to visit Balboa Park without spending any money since it is a public space. Many San Diegans visit on a daily basis walking their dog, bicycling or jogging along its many paths. One can bring a picnic, take a free walking tour of the gardens and architectural features, or enjoy a musical concert at the Organ Pavilion without ever spending a dime. But a trip to Balboa Park without taking in at least a few of its paid cultural attractions is to miss out on a key component of its specialness.

First some background info. There are more than 85 cultural institutions with offices or programs in Balboa Park. Most of the City’s museums are located here as well as several major theater and dance groups—and of course the world-famous San Diego Zoo. By city charter, these organizations must be non-profit to carry on their activities in the Park. The city owns all of the buildings and oversees agreements with the organizations to manage the facilities. Other than having the buildings provided (which of course is not insignificant), and receiving funding from hotel and motel taxes, which represents only a small part of their budget, the organizations must pay their own way. Gone are the days of major subsidies from government for museums and other cultural institutions in San Diego.

Therefore, as in most cities in the United States, it is necessary for the institutions to charge admission to support their operation. Admission prices in Balboa Park vary from museum to museum. Some of the smaller institutions charge only $5 or $6, while the larger ones charge as much as $9-12 for regular adult admission.

Passport to Balboa Park/Best of Balboa Park combo tickets

In 1986, the museums that charge admission created the Passport to Balboa Park, making it easier and less expensive to visit several museums on one visit to the Park. Pay one price and a one-time visit to nearly all of the museums is included. (Usually the Passport admission includes a museum’s permanent collection; there may be an additional charge to see a traveling exhibit).

A Passport is valid for one week from date of purchase. If you can’t extend your visit to the Park, purchasing a Passport may still make financial sense. A visit to four of the largest museums can total several dollars more than the cost of a Passport. So even if you don’t get to all of the museums, you’ll still save money. Even better, there is now a Passport/Zoo combo called “Best of Balboa Park,” which can also be used over the course of seven days. It includes the “Best Value” admission package at the Zoo and admission to almost all the museums in the heart of the Park for around $60 for adults; $33 for kids…

Free Tuesdays

If you happen to visit on one of the first four Tuesdays of the month, take advantage of another program designed to make Balboa Park’s attractions more affordable. As part of the museums’ financial arrangements with the City of San Diego, they open their doors to the public, free of charge, one day a month. Many museums now restrict Free Tuesday to San Diego County residents and active-duty military only. Check at the Visitor Center for current policy. A pretty consistent schedule has evolved over the years, taking place on the same day each month. These have come to be known as Free Tuesdays…

The above information is commonly known, but do you know which Balboa Park attractions are always free? How about Founder’s Day at the Zoo, Museum Month, Balboa Park December Nights? There are many other ways to save money and enjoy the bounty of Balboa Park! Discover Balboa Park has great tips for locals and visitors alike—a real help in these trying economic times.

(excerpted from Discover Balboa Park, 2nd Edition, Chapeter 4, pages 73-80 © Ridgway Park Publishing)