Beyond the San Diego Zoo: three Balboa Park museums you’ve overlooked

Over 20 museums and family attractions await kids at Balboa Park in San Diego, but I bet you’ve only heard of a few of them, the famous San Diego Zoo most likely one of them. While families need days to see them all (and hours to see some), the following three Balboa Park museums for kids you’ve overlooked include:

Museum of Man:

Museum of Man

Before touring the Museum of Man, I didn’t have a clear concept of what this museum contains. Since many families might feel the same, here’s my unofficial take: the Museum of Man is one part archeology museum and one part natural history museum. Plus, it has an excellent (though small) children’s section off the upper floor. This set of rooms have space with marketplaces and household items for kids to play in and dress up with.

museum of man

The main floor of the museum currently houses an exhibit on ancient Mayans, and upstairs is space for a primate exhibit, plus a wing on ancient Egypt, complete with mummies and naturally preserved remains (parents are warned at the door). A temporary exhibit space is across the street; at the time of my visit, it housed a fascinating–though not for kids–exhibit on the history of torture.

The museum is smaller than most, but what exhibits it does have are very well done.

Museum of Photographic Arts:

Sometimes, kids will rebel against a traditional art museum, but love photography galleries. If this might be the case with your children, consider a stop at the Museum of Photographic Arts. We loved that the manageable galleries showcased only a handful of photographers, and that each introduced the artist and his or her take on the subject. There’s a great social photography experiment with abandoned or discarded instant photo prints stretching across one wall, and at the time of our visit, a wonderful exhibit by San Diego’s kids showcased what youth in the city deem ‘their San Diego’. You can tour the museum in just about an hour.

Museum of Art:

We love a museum with lots of family free days and art activities, and the San Diego Museum of Art has both. When you enter, look for the kids activity books just past the front desk; kids can go on a scavenger hunt around the museum, which makes their visit instantly more fun.

A kids’ art studio is located downstairs across from the stairwell, staffed most days by artists who help kids make creations of their own. Upstairs, collections of European and American art from realists to impressionists reign, with Baroque among the most prominent. Like the other museums on this list, the Museum of Art is not overwhelmingly large by any means, and can be toured by most families in under one hour.

If you have more time:

Botanical building

The San Diego Air and Space Museum is a solid pick for a half-day excursion, and the San Diego Natural History Museum is the place to be with animal-loving kids.

Have just a few extra minutes?

A great place to head before catching a cab or trolley, or for a picnic lunch is the free Botanical Building and lily ponds. Located adjacent to the Museum of Art, this building is open to the Southern California air and a welcome escape from the bustle of the museums.

Getting around:
Park the car and forget about it! Once in the park, access everything via the free tram. Balboa Park’s tram system operates daily 8:30 am to 6 pm. The second stop is the Visitor’s Center, a good starting point to head out on foot.

How to get to Balboa Park:
Driving, park in Inspiration Point lot. As an alternative to hunting down parking, consider getting to the park via the Old Town Trolley tour. You’ll want to plan to spend the whole day hopping on and off this sightseeing trolley to get your money’s worth, but it’s time well-spent in parts of the city you’ll want to visit anyway.