Explore San Diego's Beloved Signature Gem

With tips from someone who's photographed every nook and cranny!

Balboa Park has been one of San Diego’s most popular tourism sights for years. Over a hundred, in fact. In the late 19th century, over 1200 acres of parkland underwent a transformation into gardens and groves, followed shortly by the 1915 Panama-California Expo (essentially a world fair), in which most of the historic Spanish-style buildings were built, to be used for the exposition. Additional buildings were constructed for the California Pacific expo in 1935.

Now used to house museums, clubs, event spaces, and all manner of interesting cultural affairs, these charming structures maintain a sense of the past and celebrate culture and history. Surrounded by the most darling of gardens, fountains, and inspiration, it’s no wonder that Balboa Park is such a popular choice for sessions… one of San Diego’s most popular choices, in fact!

Since it’s so large and expansive, I thought that it might be helpful for me to build a post so you can scout the locations in the comfort of your own home, so that you can get a feel for your options and let me know what areas speak to you most. While I don’t recommend over-planning or committing to an exact session location schedule, I do think it can help to lay out your priorities and lend a little clarity to identifying the kind of experience that would feel most fun for you.

This list is by no means complete as the park is enormous and offers about a zillion more interesting nooks and crannies, but I think this lays out the most worthy points to prioritize from and build a loose plan. So, let’s have a look!

So, what suits you best?

Let's have a delightful shared adventure!
The Desert Garden

Location: East of Park Blvd

01.The Desert Garden

This is a favorite area of mine, admittedly because I love deserts and cactus and succulents. It’s a little less manicured and more rustic-feeling from a lot of the park, despite only being just a hop across the street from the main drag (the Prado, where the most density of museums and gardens are centered around). It has a core path that meanders fairly close to Park Blvd for a couple of blocks through trees and unique plants. It has a whole bunch of nooks and crannies… I could easily shoot here the whole session and have no shortage of unique spots.

Here are a few fun sessions that at least partially feature this area:

The Spanish Village Art Center

Location: North of the Natural History Museum

02.The Spanish Village Art Center

This spot is for color-lovers. Its signature feature is all the vibrant painted tile and colorful tiny adobe-style shops. It’s essentially an artisan square, with a focus on painting, drawing, pottery, and jewelry, largely. It’s pretty adorable and feels a little like a miniature open-air neighborhood. Very artsy and playful vibes here. Historically they have been a bit sensitive to photoshoots during business hours, so we normally schedule shoots here for after the businesses close.

Some great sessions we shot in this part of the park:

The Botanical Building

Location: North of the Prado

03.The Botanical Building

A charming and historic structure, it’s somewhat small but mighty. It’s a plant-lover’s paradise if you live for greenery. It’s not somewhere we’d spend a whole session, due to its limited size and that it attracts crowds, but it’s dense with regional foliage and flowers. We’re fond of the scratch-and-sniff section, but you’re sure to find greenery that speaks to your unique preferences.

Here are a few sessions that feature the interior of the building:

The Lily Pond

Location: South of the Botanical Building

04.The Lily Pond

This is probably one of the most quintessentially ‘Balboa Park’ shots you can get—the head of the Lily Pond, with the Botanical Building in the background. It’s an in-demand location for people shooting sessions but also for tourists, of which there are many, so prepare to have to wait in a lineup to ‘get the shot’, especially on a weekend.

Here are a few examples of this lovely spot in action:

Zoro Garden

Location: South of the Prado, west of the Science Museum

05.Zoro Garden

This little-known nook might be Balboa’s best-kept secret. Every client I’ve ever taken here has been surprised it exists, but realizes they’ve walked by it often. The north end has manicured shrubs and stonework against the paths that lead into it, the central area is large and open-air, and the south end has two large fig trees with exposed roots. Informally called the butterfly garden, but seeing butterflies depends on the time of year. Random: it used to be a nudist colony, once upon a time in San Diego’s history.

Check out a few sessions we’ve shot in this spot:

Timkin Museum

Location: West of the Lily Pond, East of Plaza de Panama

06.Timkin Museum

Not only a totally free art museum (score), but the exterior is a fun backdrop for photos because it’s one of very few NON-Spanish-style buildings in the park. It’s a unique midcentury marbled building that has some interesting architecture and ironwork. It also has this gorgeous giant door/window mural artwork I love. I dig it as a backdrop for couples that love variety or midcentury style.

Check out some couples that loved shooting here:

Plaza De Panama

Location: Heart of the Prado, south of Museum of Art

07.Plaza De Panama

This is essentially the central square of Balbo Park. It has a large central fountain and a view of the historic Museum of Art along the north and west (where Panama 66 is), as well as a great view of the Museum of Us (formerly of Man) dome and the California Tower (pretty much the most ‘signature’ Balboa sight). The architecture that surrounds it is classically Spanish-style, and the walk down the Prado (the main walking street of the park) leads here. If we shoot in the park at all, it’s highly likely we’ll pass through this area.

Here are a few examples of this area in sessions:

Panama 66 & The Sculpture Garden

Location: West of the Plaza De Panama, North of the Prado

08.Panama 66 & The Sculpture Garden

This spot requires dropping a little cash on a beer or a bite to eat, but ain’t nothing wrong with treating yourself to something yummy during a session! Panama 66 is a charming and award-winning open-air brewpub situated in the courtyard of the SD Museum of Art. They serve great beer and wine and recently started offering cocktails as well. They make for a great and affordable choice for yumminess and a session pit-stop and offer access to the museum’s lovely sculpture garden with a view of the California Tower and Museum of Us (formerly of Man) behind it. If you lean anxious about photography, it might be a good start to a session! We don’t recommend this on the weekend, though, too busy.

Loveliness we’ve captured here:

Spreckels Organ Pavillion

Location: South of the Prado and Plaza de Panama

09.Spreckels Organ Pavillion

Welcome to the world’s largest outdoor instrument! This classical and architectural part of Balboa Park features grand architectural details, columns, and a central organ (whose pipes are most frequently hidden behind a giant garage door). It’s a signature SD sight, and a lot of fun to explore, especially if you’re visiting on a Sunday afternoon when they’re hosting an organ concert. Be warned—it’s a popular spot for photos, so there may be a lineup to get on stage and snag a photo.

Scope out some sessions from here below:

Japanese Friendship Garden

Location: This is right next to Spreckels Organ Pavillion, and is nestled into the valley south of the Prado.

10.Japanese Friendship Garden

One of Balboa Park’s true gems, this is quite a dazzling and very classically Japanese Garden. Such a zen and quite experience of traditional Japanese architecture, and includes a tea room and giant gate, a koi pond, and lots of other loveliness. It occupies a relatively sizable part of the park, however compared to many other Japanese gardens, it might be considered small. In my opinion, the best time of year to experience it is February/March, if you love the cherry blossom blooms. They get pretty magical! Please note, this requires both an entry fee for all parties, and a special paid permit for shooting portraits.

Some darling experiences we had here:

Alcazar garden

Location: West of the Plaza De Panama, south of the Prado

11.Alcazar garden

If classical European gardens are your jam, then this place is perfect for you. It’s a very orderly and traditional Spanish-style garden. Structured square-off shrubbery surrounding flower beds are aligned beside tiny fountains, columns, and an excellent view of the California Tower. This is a darling backdrop for tiny elopements.

Some of our sessions and events here:

Palm Canyon, Bridge & Trail

Location: South of Alcazar Garden, West of Spreckels Organ Pavillion

12.Palm Canyon, Bridge & Trail

This area is a little bit hidden behind a grove of fig trees, so many people walk by without ever noticing it. A small wooden bride and staircase leads to the trail that sits below the rest of the park. It’s a much more rustic and unpolished super short trail, right in the heart of the park, there’s a darling little wooden bridge covered by trees that leads to a staircase, leading down to the trail. Lots of tree cover and a bit off-the-beaten-path, it’s usually quieter than most of the park’s common areas. The bridge, however, is busier than most places, because it’s in view of the most in-demand trees in the park—the twin figs with the exposed roots. Getting to these roots requires a bit of mellow climbing, so may not be appropriate for fancy shoes/garb. It’s popular so expect to need to wait your turn in line.

Some examples of this very popular spot:

International Houses 

Location: West of the Organ Pavillion

13.International Houses 

Welcome to cottage country. They’re understated but darling, a bunch of tiny little Spanish-style cottages that are each run by a different nation’s local club. They normally open every Sunday afternoon and offer food and drink of their countries to visitors. It’s a cute little charming spot in the park, lower-key than the grandiose areas and fancier architecture. This is a great spot if you’re looking for quiet and privacy in the park, and has a relaxed feel. Unless it’s Sunday afternoon—then we’d better steer clear.

Here are a couple of shoots we’ve done in this area:

Museum of Us & the Cabrillo Bridge

Location: West of Plaza De Panama, east of Cabrillo Bridge

14.Museum of Us & the Cabrillo Bridge

Formerly called the Museum of Man until 2020, this structure, paired with the California Tower, is one of the most recognizable sights in the park, and when it comes to tourism, is one of the most quintessentially San Diego features. While shooting inside of most museums in the park isn’t an option, the exterior of this space features a gorgeous classic Spanish courtyard and memorable architecture, doorways, and colonnades. If you have only enough time for a quick pit stop in the park, and would like a dose of a bunch of different things, this area can do a good job of offering a lot of variety.

Here are a couple of sample shoots in this spot:

Redwood Circle

Location: West of Cabrillo Bridge/The Prado

15.Redwood Circle

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Sadly, this area’s trees all suffered from an infestation and were cut down, so this is no longer foresty or tree-filled. Wahhhhhh. There are some smaller cool gnarly trees aroud here, however it’s very different now. I’m keeping this in my list for now, in the hopes that perhaps they’ve planted some new trees and we’ll get new life soon.]

This side of the park along 6th avenue borders Bankers Hill. It’s usually less dense with people, because it’s less dense with structures. Redwood Circle is a bit off-the-beaten-path, and so few people are aware of it.  This little nook is kind of a big grassy plain surrounded by trees, redwoods of the smaller variety. There are some little-known trails off of here where from the right angle, you’d think you were in a huge, green forest… almost kinda nearly pulling off a Pacific Northwest vibe. This foresty area is on a hillside without manicured paths, so avoid heels. It’s probably my favorite ‘secret’ location for clients who are looking for a less southern CA feeling.

Wanna check out the vibe of this spot?

Marston House

Location: Northwest corner of the park, on 7th avenue

16.Marston House

This is the most north-west point of the park and is seldom trafficked by people. The building is kinda tucked away since it’s technically on 7th ave, so not on a main road. It’s a historic craftsman property that was later converted to a museum and the surrounding gardens have so much old brick and charm. It feels very classical and charming in more of an Oxford old libraries way, so it rather contrasts the Spanish style of the rest of the park. Because they operate as a museum during daytimes, it’s best to shoot here only after business hours.

Some examples of what we’ve shot here:

Architecture of the Prado

Location: All along the Prado, walking west from Park Blvd

17.Architecture of the Prado

From the House of Hospitality to the Casa De Balboa to the infamous collonades that line the Prado… if you love Spanish architecture, simply wandering around these halls, buildings, and courtyards can be absolutely lovely. The detail of every nook and every cranny is a wonder. This is most frequently part of our adventures in Balboa Park, since walking the Prado is often necessary to get from point-to-point, so it’s a great place for pit-stops. It’s also San Diego’s best choice if we end up with a rare rainy day, but still want to have an adventure without getting too wet.

Some examples from this area:

The Rose Garden

Location: East of Park Blvd, south of the Desert Garden

18.The Rose Garden

This one is a bit lower on my list, as it’s fairly small and further away from the core stretch of Balboa Park sights. That said, it’s just south of the desert garden and across the bridge, so it’s not difficult to access. April/May is peak bloom time, outside of that it can be a bit hit and miss for if the garden is lively and vibrant or not. It’s a circular formation and does offer a central covered arbor for shade that’s quite charming. Good for a short pit-stop, but not for an extended full session.

Shoots that happened here:

What if Balboa Park doesn't feel like the right fit?

If you love nature, but nothing in this list particularly struck your fancy (and you’re not married to the idea of Balboa Park), there are worthy alternatives that may be less crowded with tourists and are more rustic places to find unmanicured greenery. We love shooting in lesser-known parts of San Diego! If you want more wide-open spaces, tree cover, and untouched nature, we’ve got plenty of suggestions. Stay tuned for our upcoming post about rustic San Diego session locations!