Every Tuesday, select museums at Balboa Park are free to San Diego residents (check the Park website for the calendar to see which ones are free when). The first Tuesday of the month, two of the most popular museums are free, The NAT and Reuben H. Fleet. While Baby Belle absolutely loves the science center, it’s a much smaller museum and it can get very crowded on the free days, so we usually go to The NAT. Despite it being crowded, the museum is so enormous, it doesn’t dampen the experience (but be prepared for it to be on the busy side).
We always start our day at The Backyard. It’s a small room meant just for toddlers. There’s tons to explore in here: a pebble walkway that makes noise when you step on them, things to climb in and onto, blocks, books, dinosaurs. And there’s comfy seats with pillows and phone chargers for parents to relax as the kiddos play. We head here first because it can fill up and then you’d have to wait to come inside. Toddlers (at least mine) are not keen to wait in line, so we strategically avoid it if we can.
Note: the two pics above are from a previous trip. This particular trip was an especially busy day in the backyard and we didn’t stay as long as normal) .
After The Backyard, we poked around the gift shop and picked up a little bucket of dinosaurs. Since admission is free, I try to support the museum by picking up trinkets every so often. Baby Belle obviously doesn’t mind at all.
Since it was a busy day, we headed up to the top floors first. These are always the least busy (the second floor is the “hot spot” so I keep an eye on the crowds from other floors to see when a good time to go there will be) but still have some really fun spots. Unfortunately, the 4th floor was closed for an exhibit installment but it sounds like a great one so I’ll try to catch it next month. But Baby Belle loves the 3rd floor.
Aside from the froggies (one of her favorites) and mama’s favorite photo wall, there’s a small section at the back when you go up a short set of stairs. It has giant bean bags and books and it’s always pretty quiet. We usually hang out here and have a snack and read a book or two. On this trip, Baby Belle wanted to study some maps. Hey, whatever makes her happy.
The second floor was still busy (they had about 9 field trip groups roaming around) so we popped into the exhibit for formerly displayed items that are brought out to enjoy again. We didn’t stay too long because while I was busy admiring this beautiful geode, Baby Belle was trying to eat it because she thought it was candy. #toddlermomlife
The 2nd floor was still too crowded so we ventured to the lower level. It is very, very small and there was just about nothing (and no one) down there, but she loved running around and going up and down the flight of stairs. I found another cool wall (someone once told me it’s a “very bloggery thing to do” to pose in front of cool walls, so this explains why I’m drawn to them) but Baby Belle was in no mood for photos. That meant one thing: lunchtime.
Normally I just pack Baby Belle some food and grab lunch for myself on the way home, but this time we decided to eat at the cafe on the first floor. It was a small set of options but we chose a sandwich for me and mac & cheese for Baby Belle. The sandwich was on the small side and didn’t come with a side of chips or fries or anything, making it not a great value for the cost, but it did taste great. The mac was a decent portion and also delicious. Baby Belle approved (she really has yet to meet a mac & cheese she doesn’t like, just like her mama). It’s just a good thing we had packed snacks or I’d have still been pretty hungry.
Packed food is allowed, so we will probably go that route next time. Especially because there is this little fella strategically placed in plain sight. Baby Belle wouldn’t stop crying for ice cream, ice cream, ice cream. It’s only about $2.50 for most varieties so it’s the best bargain at the cafe, but Baby Belle had a cold and I didn’t want to give her any. Luckily they have free WiFi throughout the museum so I popped on Toy Story to distract her and tried to rush through lunch before she remembered how badly she wanted ice cream.
The 2nd floor was still pretty busy but naptime was coming upon us so we braved it anyway. Baby Belle is not a fan of crowds so she just plopped herself on this bench and watched an educational film for a few minutes. It’s a rare moment that she’s sitting still so I cherished it while I could. Soon enough, she was up and running and climbing into exhibits (it’s not exactly high security blocking museum goers from the actual displays and this kid loves to climb).
These pics are from a previous visit because I didn’t have the luxury to pose her or take pictures on this one. Even though there is so much to do on this level (tons of little play areas and so many exhibits, the dinosaurs, and so many interactive displays) and it’s her absolute favorite, it was just too crowded that day. Now, this is an anomaly and that’s why I used some photos from another visit to show that it’s usually very easy to get through the entire museum without any trouble. We just happened to come on a huge field trip day and that really impacted the crowd level. But even busy and without pictures, Baby Belle had a fantastic time, as always. Every trip, she has new words, knows new things and learns something new. This time, she surprised me with, “Mommy, that’s a big shark. He’s scary!” (Which is accurate on all counts and impressed the hell outta me that she could formulate two full, coherent, accurate sentences!)
I had to get home to work and to pick up Bubba from school so I bribed her out of the museum by telling her she could climb the stairs. I needed to let her get some leftover energy from lunch out before we left so it was a win-win for me. And for her. This kid LOVES stairs. I swear, she could spend a whole day just going up and down stairs. And hugging poles, apparently. She was particularly fond of this one.
Before we even hit the freeway (which is maybe a mile from the museum), Baby Belle is out like a light. Getting her to sleep can be a study in begging, bribing and prayer, so this is just the icing on the cake of a perfect morning. It’s not an easy feat to get in exploring, learning, a ton of movement, sensory play, reading, climbing and quality time and for FREE, but the first Tuesday of every month, the NAT makes it happen for us. You really can’t go wrong with any Tuesday and a free museum, but this one is our favorite.