The Cultural Heart Of San Diego
The Cultural Heart Of San Diego
Steeped in history, San Diego’s Balboa Park is an urban oasis like no other. This rectangular 1,200 acre parcel is smack-dab in the middle of the city, making it a convenient stop for tourists and locals alike. And what a stop it is—17 museums, theaters, performing arts organizations, recreational facilities, outdoor activities, the San Diego Zoo, and more—all fall within the boundaries of this special place. No wonder it is one of the most visited, and among the highest rated, places to visit in Southern California. And like a fine wine, Balboa Park has become better with age.
Founded for the future
In the mid-1800s, San Diego city leaders recognized a need to set aside public space for future generations. In 1868 the park was officially founded under the name City Park, and at that time it was nothing more than scrub brush-covered mesas and canyons on the outskirts of what was then downtown. In the early 1900s, news spread about a canal being dug across Panama, which would allow European travelers to reach San Diego in great numbers. A plan was hatched to hold a Panama-California Exposition in 1915, welcoming travelers through the canal as the first port of call in California. In honor of the exposition, City Park was renamed Balboa Park, chosen for Spanish-born Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the explorer famous for crossing Panama and being the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. The Exposition was a huge success, and drew over 2 million people to a town of less than fifty thousand residents! Buildings left over from the exposition were repurposed, as well as several animals that were on display; these animals would be the start of the world famous San Diego Zoo.
In 1935, a second expo called the California Pacific International Exposition resulted in another wave of visitors, as well as new buildings and developed areas in the park. After World War II, the City of San Diego determined the best use for the structures was to create a hub for the city’s art and culture organizations, and formally designated the use. Today, several of the buildings from the 1915 exposition are still standing, as are structures from the 1935 exposition. Others were recreated with the same architectural flair as the originals, making Balboa Park a fantastic architectural and historical treasure. Still a city owned and maintained park, Balboa Park is also a registered National Landmark, and a California Cultural District.
Although development of the park has happened for more than 100 years, much of the park is still open space. In addition to 65 miles of hiking trails that crisscross Balboa Park, there are a host of recreational options in each main area.
East Mesa is a large area dedicated to outdoor activity. There are two traditional golf courses in Balboa Park; a full course and an executive 9-hole course. Foot golf can be played on the executive course, and there is a full 18-hole disc golf course on East Mesa. There are picnic areas and playgrounds, two dog parks, athletic fields, plus the Bud Kearns public pool and the Balboa Tennis Club. Not to be forgotten are the bocce ball courts and one of Southern California’s only velodromes for bicycle racing.
Central Mesa is largely dedicated to the cultural institutions, however there are playgrounds and picnic areas, a third dog park, plus many gardens and trails to explore, including the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden featuring over 1,600 individual plants and 130 varieties; Alcazar Garden, a re-creation of a traditional Spanish garden; and Palm Canyon, a scenic walk among many varieties of palm trees. The historic botanical building and reflecting pond is the single-most photographed location in San Diego; the building is original to the 1915 exposition and is one of the world’s largest wood lath structures. Also on Central Mesa is the Rube Powell archery range, featuring a trail-style shoot-and-walk archery course.
West Mesa features lawn bowling courts (which is very different than bocce), as well as horseshoe pits, more picnic and playground areas, and a popular jogging loop around Marston Point. The expansive grass areas along 6th Avenue are always active with casual sports players, as well as sunbathers.
Balboa Park is not just beautiful on the outside. Venture inside a museum or attraction and you will be immersed in bold, exciting new experiences. You will also engage with passionate people who are experts in their field—their knowledge incredible and their excitement infectious. No other place outside of the National Mall can boast such a diversity of cultural experiences in one place.
Cultural, Science, and Historical Venues
Know before you go
When visiting Balboa Park, it is often the little details that can make your visit a great one. Here are a few tips you can use when planning your excursion.
Explorer Pass – If you are looking to spend quality time exploring the various museums in Balboa Park, consider a Balboa Park Explorer Pass. Operated as a collaborative program, the pass comes in one-day and multi-day options, as well as multi-day with the San Diego Zoo. Explorer Passes are a significant discount over purchasing admission at individual museums, and the revenue supports the nonprofit venues you visit.
Special Events – There are a number of great events in the park each year. The largest by far is December Nights, a 2-night holiday celebration that draws well over 300,000 people who enjoy food, drink, rides, and free museum admission against a backdrop of beautiful holiday lighting throughout the park’s core. On Friday nights during the summer live music, food trucks, late hours and discounted admission at popular museums provide great entertainment when the sun goes down. San Diego Pride Festival in July makes use of West Mesa with a stage and activities; Earth Day, Halloween Family Day, and other events are family-friendly. For adults only, the Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, and the San Diego Zoo host themed cocktail events during the year.
For over 100 years Balboa Park has represented the best of San Diego, for Europeans who first passed through the Panama Canal in 1915, and for the millions of visitors the park now receives each year. No other venue can match the combination of fun, active outdoor experiences with the depth and breadth of cultural and historical exhibitions, events, and activities. For a deeper look at the park’s history, as well as current events, maps, and more, visit balboapark.org.