Explore San Diego's Beloved Signature Gem
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?
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:
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:
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:
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:
Location: South of the Prado, west of the Science Museum
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:
Location: West of the Lily Pond, East of Plaza de Panama
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
- Dami & Dylan
- Jack & Ayelet
- Marites & Charles
Location: West of the Plaza De Panama, south of the Prado
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:
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:
Location: West of the Organ Pavillion
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:
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:
Location: West of Cabrillo Bridge/The Prado
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 high 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?
Location: Northwest corner of the park, on 7th avenue
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:
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:
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: