If you have limited time in San Diego, and you’re planning on spending some of it at the zoo, you’ll be pleased to discover that there’s plenty more to see nearby. Balboa Park, which includes the zoo, also offers lush grounds, from gardens to forests, fountains to playgrounds, and sweeping architecture from Spanish Colonial Revival to mid-century Modern. It also includes 17 museums filled with everything from dinosaurs to space travel, science to the study of humankind, photographs to old masters, and automobiles to orchids.
The view of the Botanical Building with the Lily Pond and Lagoon in the foreground is one of the most photographed scenes in Balboa Park and a “must-see” destination in San Diego. Built for the 1915-16 Exposition, along with the adjacent Lily Pond and Lagoon, the historic building is one of the largest lath structures in the world. The Botanical Building plantings include more than 2,100 permanent plants, featuring fascinating collections of cycads, ferns, orchids, other tropical plants, and palms. The Botanical Building also presents some of the Park’s vibrant seasonal flower displays.
The California Tower, the soaring, intricately detailed, portion of the California Building, is an icon of San Diego and can be seen from miles around. The building houses the San Diego Museum of Man. Specializing in cultural anthropology, the Museum of Man explores the human experience from multicultural perspectives to spark dialogue, self-reflection, and human connections. During your visit, you’ll explore a variety of unique, interactive exhibits that cover a vast range of human history and culture.
The Japanese Friendship Garden is an expression of friendship between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama. It illustrates two cultures and creates an immersive experience in Japanese culture. The Garden's design is based on centuries-old Japanese techniques adapted to San Diego's climate and florae and seeks to foster a relationship between humans and nature, providing a respite attuned to Japanese simplicity, serenity, and aestheticism.
The stunning Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden displays approximately 1,600 roses of more than 130 varieties on a three-acre site full of fragrance, color, and beauty. The garden is in bloom from March through December, with the roses usually at their peak in April and May. New varieties are introduced each year in order to display some of the latest plants available in the commercial market. In addition to enjoying the beauty of the garden, it is a great place to evaluate roses for planting in private gardens. The Balboa Park Rose Garden Corps, a group of about 45 volunteers, helps to maintain the garden. If you visit the garden on a Tuesday or Thursday morning, you may see them at work. This garden is recognized as outstanding by several renowned organizations: Named an Outstanding Rose Garden in the U.S.A. by All-America Rose Selections in 1978; Received an Award of Excellence in 2003 from the World Federation of Rose Societies; in 2014 was named to the Great Rosarians of the World Hall of Fame.
Explore the natural history of Southern California—from past to present—at the San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT). From rattlesnakes and flesh-eating beetles to dinosaurs and fossils to a pendulum that proves the earth is spinning, there’s something for everyone at theNAT. Visitors will be impressed by the unique, interactive exhibitions that span across five floors. The museum features a giant-screen theater with daily showings of 2D and 3D films, as well as rotating exhibitions that bring nature to life.
Discover San Diego’s coveted secret for art lovers at Spanish Village Art Center. Located between the Zoo and theNAT, these quaint buildings and colorful courtyard were originally built in 1935. They depicted a charming old village in Spain for the second California Pacific International Exposition. In 1937, the Village reopened as an art destination by a group of dedicated artists. During World War II the U.S. Army used the village for temporary barracks, and in 1947 it was reclaimed and restored by the artists. Over the last 60+ years, San Diego artists have continued to preserve and enhance this historical landmark by adding to its beauty with colorful concrete tiles, flowers and unique studio entryways. Today the Village continues to be a thriving community of over 200 local artisans who share their talent and the love of all things art with you. Independently juried local painters, sculptors, metalsmiths, jewelry designers, clay artists, gourd artists, photographers, printmakers, fiber artists, basket makers, mixed-media artists, glass artists, enamel artists and many many more await you. Watch daily demonstrations in studios, on the colorful courtyard and visit the onsite glass blowing facility.
Science, space and aviation history all unfold at the San Diego Air & Space Museum - California’s Official Air and Space Museum. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum houses a collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft from all over the world, including a flight-worthy replica of Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis”, the actual Apollo 9 Command Module, and the only real GPS satellite on display in the world. View artifacts from the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Wally Schirra, and other aviation and space pioneers! The Museum also offers interactive exhibits including flight simulators, the Kid’s Aviation Action Hangar, a 3D/4D movie theater, plus dynamic, hands-on and ever-changing traveling exhibitions.
At the science center, you can explore and investigate more than 100 interactive exhibits that pique your curiosity and become immersed in an IMAX film adventure that shows the wonders of the planet—and beyond—in the Eugene Heikoff and Marilyn Jacobs Heikoff Giant Dome Theater. The Fleet Science Center connects people of all ages to the possibilities and power of science to create a better future.
John D. and Adolph Spreckels donated the Spreckels Organ to the City of San Diego in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition. This unique organ contains more than 5,000 pipes ranging in length from the size of a pencil to 32 feet and is the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. The Spreckels Organ is housed in an ornate vaulted structure with highly embellished gables. Since 1917, San Diego has had a civic organist, who performs free weekly Sunday concerts.
Plans are underway to capture the excitement and magic of Comic-Con in a year-round attraction located in San Diego’s historic Balboa Park. The Comic-Con Museum will encourage an appreciation of comics and related popular arts through exhibits, programs, and events drawn from across the Comic-Con universe.
Looking for an elegant sit-down meal? Or a quick snack between destinations? Choices abound throughout Balboa Park. Sip specialty coffee and teas in the Plaza de Panama under an umbrella. Sample soups, salads, burgers, and sandwiches, for a sit-down lunch. Savor sangria or custom sodas with your appetizers in the afternoon, on the patio overlooking the Casa del Rey Moro garden. Nibble on a noodle bowl and watch the people stroll by along the Esplanade.
The Prado, an award-winning, full-service restaurant located in the House of Hospitality, offers charming indoor and outdoor dining. The unique décor blends the historical aspects of the House of Hospitality and whimsical accessories inspired by the Park museum collections. The diverse cuisine includes an array of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and imaginative entrées. The lounge combines a lighter menu with a wide variety of margaritas, sangria, beer, wine, and other beverages. Reservations are accepted and recommended.
Located in the courtyard of the House of Hospitality across from the Balboa Park Visitors center, Prado Perk is the perfect stop for coffee, teas, and pastries. The coffee cart offers a selection of coffee, espresso, and lattes with coffee locally roasted by Café Moto. Hot and iced teas are also available as well as mini-milks for the kids. Try a variety of delicious pastries baked daily by The Prado or keep it simple with a chobani yogurt and bottled water.
Balboa Park began as 1400 acres of land set aside in 1868 by San Diego civic leaders. Known then as “City Park,” the first steps in the park's beautification were made in 1892, largely due to the contributions of botanist Kate Sessions. Sessions offered to plant 100 trees a year within the Park as well as donate trees and shrubs around San Diego in exchange for 32 acres of land within the Park boundaries. Several popular species, including the birds of paradise, queen palm and poinsettia were introduced into the Park’s horticulture because of Sessions’ early efforts. In fact, many of her original trees are alive and visible today.
The 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal and provided a major impetus for the creation of the Park as it appears today—the first of two Expositions that created many of the cultural institutions as well as the stunning architecture in the Park. Most of the arts organizations along Balboa Park's famous El Prado pedestrian walkway are housed in Spanish-Renaissance style buildings constructed for the 1915 Exposition. It was one of the first times that this highly ornamented, flamboyant architectural style had ever been used in the United States.
San Diego was set to play host to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, and “City Park” was a less-than-memorable or distinctive name for such an internationally prestigious event. In 1910, after months of discussion and great public interest, the Park Commissioners decided on the name Balboa Park, chosen in honor of Spanish-born Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the first European to spot the Pacific Ocean while on exploration in Panama.
Text and cover image courtesy of Balboa Park.