by LAINEY KRAL

The Jewel of the City

You don’t have to travel far or spend a lot to make the most of upcoming winter vacations. The time off for the kids makes this the perfect time to explore one of San Diego’s most beloved destinations. Balboa Park offers a number of free year-round activities for the whole family, as well as some special events for the holiday season.

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Balboa Park December Nights
This annual tradition dates back to the first Christmas on the Prado festival in 1978, which hosted just under 3,000 visitors. Now called Balboa Park December Nights, the 38th annual event is expected to draw a joyous crowd of over 350,000. Museums will be open free in the evenings, the Botanical Building will be filled with poinsettias, and the United Nations Building will offer decorations and cards from all over the world. Performances at various venues will include a Rockette-style show from Civic Dance Arts, A Christmas Carol at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, and excerpts from The Nutcracker from San Diego Civic Youth Ballet. The festival will take place Friday, Dec. 4 from 3 to 11 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 5 from 12 to 11 p.m. Learn more at www.balboapark.org/decembernights.

Guided Tours
If you’re unfamiliar with Balboa Park, or just want an expert’s guidance to get to know the park better, one of the free guided tours might be just what you need. Local organizations of experts and park rangers offer regular tours focused on architectural history, birdwatching, park flora and fauna, general park history, and more. Find out more about specific tours at www.sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation/parks/regional/balboa/tours.shtml.

Residents Free Tuesdays
Every Tuesday of the month, a different set of Balboa Park’s acclaimed museums is open to San Diego City and County residents for free, as well as active military and dependents. Be sure to bring your ID. Learn more and check which museums are free on which Tuesdays at www.balboapark.org/visit/tuesdays.

Sunday Organ Concerts
Head to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion every Sunday at 2 p.m. for a magical hour-long concert. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the pavilion’s building, and the Spreckels Organ remains one of the largest outdoor pipe organs in the world. Check the calendar for each week’s program as well as additional special event concerts at www.spreckelsorgan.org.