Spanning 1,200 acres of lush, beautifully landscaped terrain, Balboa Park is known as San Diego’s “crown jewel,” offering a variety of both cultural and outdoor recreation options for kids and adults alike, not to mention a verdant respite from the bustle of the city’s increasingly metropolitan pace.
Nestled between palm trees and botanical gardens, ornate Spanish Colonial buildings house many of the park’s museums and art exhibits. Several of the buildings were constructed as part of two world fairs: the Panama-California Exposition in 1915–16, and the California-Pacific International Exposition in 1935–36.
It can take more than one day to see and enjoy each museum, garden and attraction. The Visitors Center (619.239.0512) in the House of Hospitality offers a Passport to Balboa Park, allowing admission to any of the park’s museums for one week. (Keep in mind some museums are closed on Mondays.) Deluxe packages include passes to the neighboring San Diego Zoo. Or go high-tech and let the park’s mobile app be your guide.
Arts & Culture
Performing arts abound in the park. The Old Globe Theatre routinely presents superior theatrical talent in world-renowned productions; summer features include Othello (June 22-July 27), Into the Woods (July 12-Aug. 10) and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Aug. 10-Sept. 14).
Elsewhere in the park, the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre presents whimsical puppet shows, while Spreckels Organ Pavilion houses one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, with some 4,500 pipes. Free concerts are offered Sundays at 2 p.m.
The park is also home to groups celebrating culture. The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages promotes the heritage of countries around the world by hosting open houses and weekend festivals. NeighboringWorldBeat Center uses art, music, dance and education to celebrate African and indigenous cultures, while Centro Cultural de la Raza is a multidisciplinary center dedicated to the preservation of Chicano/Latino culture.
The park has a vast array of institutions celebrating the visual arts, past and present. Known for its presentation of eclectic traveling exhibits, the San Diego Museum of Art also has a trove of Renaissance and Baroque works, plus a large Asian collection. The world-class Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) showcases compelling photography and presents films in its state-of-the-art theater. Don’t miss After Ansel Adams, a selection of original photographs by Ansel Adams (and other photographers) that capture national parks of the American West (through Sept. 28).
The Mingei International Museum is dedicated to folk art, craft and design from around the world, while the Timken Museum of Art is home to the Putnam Foundation’s renowned collection of European and Byzantine art, including exquisite Russian religious paintings.
The San Diego Art Institute’s Museum of the Living Artist presents exhibitions by contemporary local artists every four to six weeks, and the historic Spanish Village Art Center is a collection of 37 studios representing more than 200 artists working in media ranging from sculpture to blown glass; the charming courtyard setting is meant to evoke an Old World town square.
Science & History
Balboa Park’s many non-visual-art museums are a huge draw for children, but most distinguish themselves by crafting exhibitions that also appeal to adult sensibilities.
The San Diego Air and Space Museum salutes aviation with 68 original, reproduction and model airplanes and spacecraft. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center has interactive science exhibitions and an IMAX Giant Dome theater. The country’s largest multi-sports museum, the San Diego Hall of Champions has interactive displays inviting sports fans to test their athletic and broadcasting skills. From antiques to hot rods, the San Diego Automotive Museum’s collection illustrates the evolution of the automobile.
The vast San Diego Natural History Museum’s life-sized T-Rex skeleton, fossil exhibits and 3-D theater let visitors explore the natural world via exciting interactive and educational media.
Dedicated to the study of anthropology, the San Diego Museum of Manexplores cultures of the world, especially the Americas.
The largest of its kind, the Model Railroad Museum boasts scale models and interactive features for children. The San Diego History Center is for visitors of all ages, featuring interactive and engaging exhibits showcasing San Diego’s storied past. At the Veterans Museum & Memorial Center visitors will find military uniforms from World War I, the Vietnam War and the Korean War, as well as maritime paintings by local artists and other displays.
The Marston House, a Craftsman Prairie-style mansion designed in 1905 by noted architect Irving Gill, is a must for history and architecture buffs; the grounds also feature a carriage house and gardens.
Attractions & Gardens
The park’s major attraction is, of course, the San Diego Zoo, with some 4,000 rare and endangered species. Among the animal residents you’ll find the much-beloved meerkats, Asian and African elephants,monkeys, birds and more. Be sure to stop by Panda Canyon to say hello to the newest giant panda cub, born in 2012.
After visiting the zoo, try your hand at the brass ring game from your perch atop a hand-carved pony on the Balboa Park Carousel. Both kids and grown-ups are welcome on the Balboa Park Miniature Railroad, which takes a three-minute, half-mile trip through 4 acres of the park.
The park also features several gardens, a legacy left by its founding “mother,” botanist Kate Sessions. Complete with ornate fountains and colorful tiling, the Spanish-style Alcazar Garden, which abuts the Art Institute and Mingei Museum, blooms with 7,000 brilliantly colored annuals. The Japanese Friendship Garden features a Zen meditation garden and bonsai exhibit, while the sunken Zoro Garden has an interesting history: It was designed as a nudist colony during the 1935 California-Pacific International Exposition but is now a habitat for monarch, sulfur and swallowtail butterflies. Also built for the Expo, the Old Cactus Garden has succulents and other exotic plants.
With some 2,100 orchids, ferns, poinsettias and other plants, the Botanical Building is among the world’s largest lath structures; along with its gorgeous Lily Pond, it’s one of the park’s most photographed, scenic and romantic sites.
From hiking and jogging to tennis and bocce ball, you’ll find it in the park. The Balboa Park Activity Center has facilities for badminton, table tennis, volleyball and more, while the Balboa Park Municipal Golf Course offers striking views of downtown and Coronado.
At Texas and Upas streets, on the park’s northeast end, the Morley Field Sports Complex is a haven for disc golf fans and other sports nuts, boasting a pool, velodrome, archery range and bocce court. Check in here for information on the many hike and bike trails through Florida Canyon, a popular workout spot for joggers.
The nearby Balboa Tennis Club is open to the public, with 25 courts and a full-service pro shop, plus lessons and clinics.
The dapper, white-clad members of the San Diego Lawn Bowling Club, which has been around for more than 75 years, play seven days a week near the corner of Sixth Avenue and Laurel Street. Visitors are welcome to join the fun and get a free lesson.
There are also a few leash-free dog parks here, including one at Balboa Drive and El Prado, south of the Cabrillo Bridge, and another at Morley Field, northwest of the tennis courts. The park is among the most dog-friendly public recreational properties of its kind in the world. Expect to see dozens both on and off leash at every turn.
Several casual snack bars and coffee carts can be found throughout the park and inside certain museums. For a sit-down experience, try The Prado, whose lively, colorful interior and charming garden patio—not to mention hearty American cuisine, refreshing salads and exotic South American cocktails—have made it a longtime local favorite.
The Tea Pavilion at the Japanese Friendship Garden serves tea, noodles and sushi in a casual setting, while the Sculpture Court Café at the San Diego Museum of Art is a good bet for salads and sandwiches.
For the at-home gourmand, the Balboa Park Food & Wine School has classes in everything from fondue-making to sushi-rolling taught by celebrated local chefs, plus wine education. Be sure to make reservations in advance, though, as classes tend to fill up quickly.
Click HERE for a detailed map of Balboa Park.