24 Hours in San Diego on a Budget

Balboa Park in San Diego offers one-of-a-kind free attractions for families

By Carmen Kaethler, publisher of Macaroni Kid Winnipeg December 10, 2019

Sometimes all we have is 24 hours somewhere when we are away on a vacation. But a limited time frame doesn’t mean that you can’t find your family fun — especially with a little planning.

This September we had the opportunity to extend our vacation in California by one day, so we jumped at the chance to explore San Diego. We were able to book a room at the beautiful Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel, which is situated right on the bay and within walking distance to Petco Park and the Gaslamp Quarter. When your timeline is limited, it is very important to get a hotel in a location that allows you to make the most of your short stay!

The Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel.

One added bonus we weren't expecting: Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel provides an absolutely beautiful view of the bay from its rooms. You could just enjoy a good part of the 24 hours in San Diego sitting in your room watching the ships go by -- the view is that good!

The view from our hotel room.

With our base point established all that was left was planning how to spend our 24 hours in San Diego!

Visiting Balboa Park on a budget

Our adventure started early on a Sunday. We arrived late-morning at the hotel for an early check-in and the hotel staff were incredibly accommodating. We were traveling with a lot of luggage and we obviously didn’t want to cart it around the city, so their bell service stored all of our bags — assuring us that they would deliver them to our room when it became available. This left us hands-free to explore the city.

We wanted to check out the popular Balboa Park, which is one of the most visited places in San Diego. The park is only seven minutes away from the hotel by vehicle and a 35 minute walk if you are feeling energetic. While it is the home to the renowned San Diego Zoo, along with the San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center, and other large museum attractions, we decided to focus our time on a lot of the FREE things Balboa Park has to offer.

Our top five recommendations for free things to do at Balboa Park:

  • The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages: These 1935 Exposition cottages feature 34 groups promoting multicultural goodwill and understanding through educational and cultural programs, with open houses every weekend and lawn programs March through October.
  • Spreckels Organ Pavilion: John D. and Adolph Spreckels donated the Spreckels Organ, to the City of San Diego in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition. This unique organ contains more than 5,000 pipes ranging in length from the size of a pencil to 32 feet and is the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. Since 1917, San Diego has had a civic organist, who performs free weekly Sunday concerts. 
  • Visit the gardensThere are more than a dozen gardens in Balboa Park, each unique and beautiful. You can sit in the shade of a century-old tree, or relax on a bench watching butterflies. You'll find sweet-smelling roses, towering trees, acres of grass, prickly cacti with beautiful blooms, brightly-colored water lilies and lotus blossoms, and outstanding orchids -- all thanks to San Diego's climate.

At the Spanish Village Art Center.

  • The Spanish Village Art CenterThese quaint buildings and colorful courtyard were originally built in 1935 for the second California Pacific International Exposition and depict a charming old village in Spain. In 1937, the Village was reopened as an art destination by a group of dedicated artists, who have continued to preserve and enhance this historical landmark by adding to its beauty with colorful concrete tiles, flowers, and unique studio entryways. Today the Village continues to be a thriving community of over 200 local artisans. Watch daily demonstrations in studios, on the colorful courtyard, and visit the onsite glass blowing facility. 

The Balboa Park Carousel in 1915.

  • Balboa Park Carousel: OK, well this isn't free. But at just $3 per ride, or $10 for a group of four, it's low-cost makes it a can't-miss attraction in Balboa Park. This 1910, all-original Herschell-Spillman carousel has been delighting generations of San Diegans and visitors since its permanent arrival in Balboa Park in 1922. Friends of Balboa Park acquired this wonderful icon of the park in 2017.

Insider tips on Balboa Park

We reached out to a local for even more details about Balboa Park. Here are six helpful tips:

  1. Bring lunch and a blanket, or eat at a cafe or restaurant. 
  2. Organizations typically open at 10 am and close at 5 pm across the park. 
  3. Parking is free, but sometimes tough if you head to the park's core; it may be easier to park on the East side of Park Blvd at Inspiration Point (near Veterans Museum). 
  4. There is a free tram that can take you to the park's core, or Uber in, and have the driver drop you at The Prado restaurant. That is the same location of the visitors center and in the heart of the park.
  5. Don't miss the free park ranger tours at 11 am on Sundays at Balboa Park. The tours are a great way to learn about the park's fascinating history. Less budget-conscious? Check out Balboa Park's kids Itinerary for more great ideas of museums and stops around the park.

Hotel perks

We headed back to the Hilton San Diego Bayfront to check into our room and rest before exploring the bayfront for the evening. Aside from the amazing view, we discovered another Hilton accommodation — the television connected to the internet with access to streaming services like Netflix. I love this kind of perk — especially now that I have two young children. This might seem like a small thing, but it's conveniences like this that make a world of difference to moms and dads. Being able to log into my Netflix account and start up one of my kids’ favorite episodes to get a few moments of quiet while I unpack and plan my next steps is priceless.

Another perk that was important to me as a mom: The hotel pool! A hotel stay is NEVER complete for our family without a stop at the pool. In fact, I’ve become the mom that will ONLY book a hotel if it has a pool so that I don’t need to listen to disappointed kids for the entire stay. The Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel’s pool is one not to miss. It is located outside facing the waterfront, so as you and the kids splash in the water, you can appreciate the view of ships passing by.

Being on the west coast and right on the bayfront, we couldn’t pass up watching the sunset over the water right outside of the hotel before we headed over to the Gaslamp Quarter to grab dinner. We ended our evening walking the bayfront.

We didn’t need to check out until 11 a.m., so we explored the hotel’s amenities starting with breakfast at their signature restaurant Vela, which has a beautiful buffet to choose from, along with additional made-to-order menu options. 

This was an incredibly relaxing stay for us. The hotel was conveniently located to all the sites we wanted to check out, so we weren’t eating up a lot of our short time traveling, and the amenities and service we were provided from check-in to check-out allowed our short stay to be stress-free. We will definitely be returning here the next time I hit the west coast -- and hopefully we'll have more than 24 hours to explore.

The author received complimentary accommodations to facilitate this review. All opinions are her own. Photos by author except for the photo at the Spanish Village Art Center, taken by  Natalia Castro, publisher of Macaroni Kid NW Las Vegas & Summerlin; and the photo of the Balboa Park Carousel, provided by Friends of Balboa Park.