Balboa Park

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.

Get outside
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.

Culture shock
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.

Arts Venues

  • San Diego Museum of Art – With more than 20,000 objects from around the globe in their collection, the Museum of Art features everything from contemporary photography to classics from European masters. Their annual Art Alive event combines amazing floral arrangements with complimentary works of art.
  • Timken Museum of Art – Often called San Diego’s “jewel box,” this free museum is considered one of the best small collections on the West Coast. Here you can see the only Rembrandt painting on display in San Diego.
  • San Diego Art Institute – Modern art lives here. The Art Institute creates bi-national partnerships that leverages proximity to Tijuana, and explores current and sometimes difficult topics.
  • Museum of Photographic Arts – One of a few photographic museums in the country, rotating exhibitions keep the galleries fresh. MOPA has one of the best theaters in the park, and often hosts film festivals.
  • Old Globe Theatre – a re-creation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, the Old Globe is one of America’s top regional theaters, having sent more than 25 productions to Broadway.
  • Casa del Prado Theatre – This small theatre hosts performances by groups such as the San Diego Junior Theater, and San Diego Civic Youth Ballet.
  • Mingei International Museum – Currently under renovation, the Mingei celebrates creativity and culture from around the world through folk art and artifacts. The museum will re-open in 2021.
  • Spanish Village Arts Center – This beautiful Spanish courtyard features more than 200 artists’ work in 40 studios actively creating art in a variety of mediums, including pottery, glass-blowing, sculpting, painting, woodworking, and more. Many of their works are for sale.
  • Spreckels Organ Pavilion – The world’s largest outdoor organ is original to the 1915 exposition. Free concerts are every Sunday at 2 pm, with other concerts scheduled throughout the year.

Cultural, Science, and Historical Venues

  • Fleet Science Center – Home to the world’s first IMAX dome theater, the Fleet makes learning about science fun for all ages.
  • San Diego Natural History Museum – Called the Nat, this museum tells the story of San Diego’s natural past through a vast collection of exhibits and artifacts. The Nat is also active in local conservation.
  • San Diego History Center – The History Center presents engaging, family-friendly exhibitions and activities that tell the remarkable story of the San Diego region.
  • San Diego Model Railroad Museum – One of the world’s largest model railroad museums featuring layouts in multiple scales, with recreations of famous Southern California railroad icons such as the Tehachapi Loop and the Carrizo Gorge Bridge.
  • Japanese Friendship Garden – A peaceful blend of incredible gardens and small museum exhibits, the Japanese Friendship Garden is most famous for their annual Cherry Blossom Festival, featuring the largest grove of these trees in San Diego.
  • San Diego Museum of Man – Explore what it means to be human—how we interact with one another, and how we have lived over time. And take a tour of the 200-foot California Tower, featuring breathtaking views of Balboa Park and San Diego.
  •  San Diego Automotive Museum – This museum has a mix of rotating displays as well as permanent collections, including Louie Mattar’s Fabulous Car that made a trip from San Diego to New York and back without stopping!
  • San Diego Air and Space Museum – Home to California’s official moon rocks, the museum chronicles the history of manned flight. The historic Apollo 9 capsule is a visitor favorite.
  • WorldBeat Center – One of two cultural centers to be housed in former water tanks, the WorldBeat Center celebrates music, dance, and culture from around the globe.
  • Centro Cultural de la Raza – Also in a former water tank, focuses on music, artwork, and programming that highlights culture unique to the region, including Kumeyaay and Chicano culture.
  • House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
    – Travel around the world in 80 minutes! 32 “houses” welcome visitors to sample a slice of life in another country. Most weekends one of the houses presents an outdoor program, often with music, dancing, and food from a particular nation.
  • San Diego Zoo – One of the most famous zoos in the world, the San Diego Zoo features a vast collection of more than 3,500 animals. Plan a day just for visiting the zoo.
  • Comic-con Museum – Coming to Balboa Park in 2021, the Comic-con museum will be a year-round home to all things pop culture, promising both daytime and evening events and activities.

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.

  • Getting to the park – All parking in Balboa Park is free, with exception of the valet parking at the Prado restaurant. There are a number of parking lots in and around the park; the small interior lots fill up fast most days, so park at Inspiration Point on the east side of Park Boulevard. This is one of the largest lots in the park, and is serviced by a free tram that takes visitors to the center of the park where the Visitors Center is located, as well to other major destinations within. There isa large lot in front of the San Diego Zoo as well. If using rideshare, ask to be dropped off at the Prado restaurant, which is also adjacent to the Visitors Center. Public transit runs along Park Boulevard near the park’s core, as well as down 6th Avenue, on the park’s west side. While in the park there are a number of dockless bicycles and scooters for rent—a fun way of getting around!
  • Where to eat – There are a number of options in the park for a meal or a quick bite. For full service, the Prado is a favorite for Spanish-influenced cuisine, and Panama 66 has a fresh blend of seasonally crafted meals and a broad selection of craft beer and wine. Ask for a blanket and you can picnic in the adjacent sculpture garden. Many of the cultural institutions feature cafes for quick meals, snacks, and more. WorldBeat center has the only full vegetarian and vegan menu—and some of the items served are grown in their nearby garden. Daniel’s Coffee in Spanish Village is located in a beautiful and colorful courtyard, surrounded by artists’ studios. Lastly, every Friday from June through September the main El Prado walkway hosts a rotating selection of food trucks after 4 pm; in addition, several museums are open late, many with discounted admission. Check out the rooftop bar at the Nat—some of the best views in the park!
  • Where to shop – Much like food options, many of the institutions in the park have unique art and souvenir items for sale. Visitor favorites include the shop at the Museum of Photographic Arts, Bibliotique at the Museum of Art, Northstar Science Store at the Fleet Science Center, and Spanish Village Art Center where you can buy creations directly from the artists. The United Nations building near the International Cottages sells a variety of items representing many countries and cultures.
  • For the kids – Many of the museums feature family-friendly activities and exhibitions. The historic Balboa Park Carousel provides rides, and still challenges riders to grab a brass ring for a free ride. The Balboa Park Miniature Train is a 3-minute ride on a replica antique diesel locomotive. Both the carousel and the train are located near the zoo entrance.

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.

Balboa Park

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