San Diego For Free – Balboa Park Botanical Building

A weekly column dedicated to sharing the best sights and activities in San Diego at the best price – free!  We have a great city and you don’t need to break the bank to experience it.

Neighborhood & Address: Balboa Park; 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

Best For: Gardeners, Visitors of all ages

Hours: 10am – 4pm daily, closed Thursdays and holidays

Free Hours: 10am – 4pm daily, closed Thursdays and holidays


The lily ponds in Balboa Park have grabbed local headlines lately thanks to a water gun fight gone haywire, but if you’ve seen the news on that incident you may have noticed the large wooden lath structure in the background of video and photos.  This building is the Balboa Park Botanical Building and is always free to visitors.

Inside the Botanical Building is a wide array of plants and the humid air and smell is intensely relaxing.  If you’ve been inside of a greenhouse or conservatory before try to recall the deep, lush scent and feel of air where there is abundant plant growth and you’ll be in the right frame of mind for a visit.  If you haven’t been to a such a place before, here’s your chance to do it for free.

Most of the plants in the Botanical Building are labelled with the plant species and location of origin so a visit is educational in addition to being relaxing.  There is also a section of the building where hands-on interaction is encouraged – the Touch and Smell Garden.  This area features herbs and other plants with distinct smells that children and adults will both enjoy.

Outside of the Botanical Building is a nice lawn, with shade for warm days, that is popular for picnics or taking a rest on the grass.  The lily ponds are also fun to look at, with the large koi being a highlight.

If you’re planning a visit to the Botanical Building and want to make it a full plant extravaganza you may want to coordinate with one of the plant shows that take place in the building and patio directly east of the building, in the Casa Del Prado Theater Courtyard.

One upcoming show is the California Native Plant Society (San Diego chapter) Native Plant Sale on Saturday, October 13, from 11:00 – 15:00.  The plant shows are a great opportunity to talk with local gardeners and plant enthusiasts and typically include a room featuring notable or prize-winning specimens and talks or information on topics related to plants and gardening in San Diego.  The San Diego Floral Association also has a thorough calendar listing of other upcoming shows, workshops, and meetings in this space for the horticulturally inclined which can be found here.

Balboa Park is often referred to as the ‘Crown Jewel’ of San Diego and the Botanical Building is a part of it that visitors and locals may not be aware of but is well worth a visit.

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John P. Anderson

John was an accountant in a former life and now devotes his time to child-rearing, reading, writing, and working to ensure that San Diego is truly America's Finest City. Interested in environmental issues, John enjoys connecting with others that want to improve the health of our world and community. You can find John at or on Twitter (@j_p_a_). Comments, suggestions, wisdom, and complaints are enthusiastically welcomed.


  1. avatarjudi says

    Good article, John. I heard that the Cygnet Theater in Old Town will be offering a play during the holidays that will be free to the public. Don’t know if that is true, but worth while checking it out.

    • avatarJohn Anderson says

      Thanks for the heads up Judi. I couldn’t find anything on the Cygnet website but I’ll keep an eye out closer to the holidays and write it up if there is a production going on.