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Spotlight: Balboa Park

Spotlight: Balboa Park vca_maps_sandiego_2
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Larger than New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Millennium Park combined, San Diego’s Balboa Park comprises 1,200 acres of urban green space with 16 museums, 65 miles of trails, and of course, the internationally renowned San Diego Zoo. Dating back to the early 19th century, Balboa is one of the oldest public parks in the nation.

Luckily for visitors, much of the early architecture has been impeccably preserved, including the iconic California Tower. The ornate structure, which was constructed in celebration of the Panama Canal, reopened in 2016, allowing anyone to climb to the top of its 125 steps and enjoy one of the best views in town.

With a mix of native plants and carefully cultivated gardens, Balboa Park is a horticultural marvel. The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden alone has more than 130 varieties of roses. The Japanese Friendship Garden offers stark elegance and a lovely koi pond, while Palm Canyon shades visitors in a dense, jungle-like atmosphere created by more than 450 trees.

Museums abound—local favorites include the San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Culture reigns supreme too: The Old Globe Theatre hosts its famed Shakespeare Festival each summer. Outdoor film screenings, plays, and concerts are hosted in the park year-round.

All this, plus one of the world’s finest zoos. Over 3,700 animals from 660 species are showcased at the San Diego Zoo. Don’t miss the koala bears, orangutans, or the hugely popular giant panda exhibit. Check the Balboa Park website for special events, and for ticketing deals bundling zoo and museum visits.

Read on to learn how to explore this park in full—from gardens and restaurants to tucked-away hikes.

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Museums in Balboa Park

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Museums in Balboa Park
Heighten your love of art, natural history, and even model railroads

It’s known as the Smithsonian of the West for a reason: Balboa Park has a wide range of fascinating institutions, with specialties that will appeal to almost any kind of curious mind.

The San Diego Museum of Art is only one of Balboa Park’s many fine art museums, but as the largest and oldest, it’s a good place to start. The collection features pieces from 5,000 B.C. to present day, all housed behind an intricate facade designed to mimic a Spanish cathedral. The free-admission Timken Museum of Art offers a similar range of pieces in a smaller space. In the Museum of Photographic Arts, visitors can gaze on the more than 24,000 pictures in the permanent collection, or head to Mingei International Museum, which celebrates beauty in ordinary objects like textiles and bowls.

Those curious about engineering will appreciate the handful of park museums dedicated to how stuff works. The San Diego Air & Space Museum houses an impressive number of original and replica aircraft—Apollo 9, Wright Glider, and Super Marine Spitfire, to name a few—which help visitors understand the wonder of flight. Gearheads should check out the San Diego Automotive Museum, which has a 1947 Cadillac that still holds the record for driving from San Diego to New York and back—without stopping. For a better understanding of the physics behind machines, head to the Fleet Science Center for interactive exhibits that are good for kids (and adults) of all ages, while kids and train spotters will also love the Model Railroad Museum. Some kids would argue, too, that the park’s 1910 Herschell-Spillman Carousel, near the Activity Center, is a museum in itself.

Two more can’t-miss stops include the San Diego Natural History Museum, which allows visitors to channel their inner archaeologist with dinosaur skeletons and mastodon bones. The truly unique San Diego Museum of Man focuses on one of earth’s most peculiar creatures with rotating exhibits on animal cohabitation, cannibalism, and the invention of mythical beasts.

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Courtesy of Fleet Science Center

Fleet Science Center & Planetarium

Fleet Science Center & Planetarium
Learn about science and stars in Balboa Park

Located in San Diego’s Balboa Park, the Fleet Science Center combines serious learning with hands-on fun. The center is part-museum and part-theater/planetarium, both of which offer immersive experiences tailored to explorers of every age. With a motto of “please touch,” the Fleet Science Center uses tactical techniques to help visitors better understand our world and how it works.

When the center’s Giant Dome Theater opened in 1973, it was the first IMAX Dome (or OMNIMAX) in the world. Today, the theater continues to transport viewers with films about nature, technology, and more. For a special experience, head to the Fleet Science Center on the first Wednesday of every month for The Sky Tonight show and listen to astronomers as they lead you through a journey to infinity and beyond.

The museum features a mix of roughly a dozen permanent and visiting exhibitions. The permanent areas include “Nano,” which breaks down the field of nanoscience from the visible to the unseen, and “Kid City,” a play-place dedicated to children age 5 and under, complete with firetruck and ball wall. Each exhibit challenges children (and adults) to master difficult concepts like electricity and the power of air flow by balancing power grids and creating miniature tornados.

Browse the North Star Gift Shop for quirky, science-themed souvenirs and books, while hungry future-astronauts can try the outer space ice-cream sandwiches. For a more down-to-earth option, the museum's attached café Craveology serves fresh options like kale salad, yogurt parfaits, and turkey lasagna. 

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Gabriele Maltinti

Tours at Balboa Park

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Tours at Balboa Park
Take these guided and self-guided experiences—on wheels or by foot

The history of Balboa Park stretches all the way back to 1835, so it’s little wonder that some nutty stuff has gone down within its 1,200 acres. Did you know, for instance, that Zoro Garden was once the site of a nudist colony, or that in the 1980s, orangutans escaped from the San Diego Zoo a total of nine times? A number of tours offered within the park highlight the park’s fun tidbits while also giving visitors a closer connection to San Diego’s fascinating park.

For an excellent overview, start at the Balboa Park Visitors Center. Ninety-minute, self-guided audio tours are available for purchase (both adult and children’s versions), while free ranger-lead walking tours embark from the center every Sunday. The park also hosts specialized tours focusing on specific areas of interests. There’s an Architectural Heritage Tour, held on the first Friday of each month, which highlights the way the park introduced the Spanish Colonial Revival style to Southern California. Garden fans, meanwhile, can enjoy a 45-minute Botanical Tour every third Friday. A number of Offshoot Tours held on Saturdays specifically address park history, palms, desert vegetation, and more.

If you want to get a workout along the way, try the 3.2-mile trail run offered by City Running Tours (which includes an after-dark option on Saturday), or stop by Wheel Fun Rentals to grab a bike and a detailed map filled with facts as part of the company’s self-guided bike tour. If you prefer a sweat-free experience, do Wheel Fun’s Segway tour, or take a seat and enjoy the view with San Diego Trolley Tours, which stops at various museums along the loop.

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Craig Schwartz/The Old Globe

Live Shows in Balboa Park

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Live Shows in Balboa Park
Enjoy world-class theater, dance, and music in the park

All the world’s a stage at Balboa Park, where you can enjoy just about every sort of theater—from puppet shows to people-watching. The various stages within the park spotlight acting, dance, and song, while cultural programs create the opportunity to study the performing arts yourself.

The park’s oldest and most famous venue, The Old Globe Theatre, was created in 1935 in the image of (and named after) the famous London landmark. In the years since, The Old Globe has produced more than 20 original plays that ended up on Broadway or Off-Broadway—and in 1984 the company won a Tony Award for best regional theater. Today, the legend lives on with 15 plays a year on the main stage, as well as smaller performances on the two auxiliary stages. From November through December every year, the must-see Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! transforms the theatre into a holiday wonderland.

Enjoy charmingly old-fashioned fun at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, which is the oldest continuously running puppetry venue in the United States. The 234-seat theater shows short adaptations of classic tales like “Princess and the Pea” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” Kids will love the puppet meet-and-greet and the gift shop filled with marionettes. In a separate celebration of an oft-forgotten art, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion—the world’s largest outdoor organ—holds free outdoor concerts every Sunday afternoon. The venue also hosts various musical acts as part of the Summer Nights series.  

In the spirit of community education, Balboa Park cultivates a number of children’s and continuing education in the arts programs. Civic Dance Arts, San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, San Diego Junior Theatre, and San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory all call Balboa home. Check their respective performance schedules to see the best of the city’s young talent with very affordable admissions.

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Dining in Balboa Park

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Dining in Balboa Park
Enjoy a high-end dinner in the park or sample some of the city’s best craft beers

When it comes to dining while at Balboa Park, forget everything you know about “park food.” In fact, some of San Diego’s most exciting restaurants can be found inside this massive urban green space.

The courtyard in the heart of the park, for instance, is not only the center point for many of the park’s museums, but it also offers a romantic backdrop for Balboa’s very best food. Panama 66 pours a rotating tap of 20-plus San Diego brews along with locally sourced salads and sandwiches. The open dining room, tucked inside a sculpture garden, hosts live music every Wednesday night. If you’re after high-end food and service, head to Prado at Balboa Park where you can enjoy whimsical Spanish decor, inventive cocktails, and creative entrées—think pan-seared duck breast with quinoa fried rice and tangerine gastrique.

Balboa Park’s museums and gardens keep the food charmingly on-theme. Hungry animal watchers can climb the steps to Albert’s Restaurant at the San Diego Zoo for a treetop meal next to a private waterfall. Enjoy a tea service—the loose-leaf menu is massive—with your noodle soup at the bamboo Tea Pavilion inside the Japanese Friendship Garden. The Flight Path Grill, housed in the San Diego Air & Space Museum, keeps the meals simple—pizza and salads—but the real attraction is the buzz of engines swooping low on their way to San Diego International Airport, just a few short miles west.

As you plan your visit, keep an eye out for special food-themed events. Depending on the season, you might find a row of food trucks on the Plaza de Panama. Every Friday in the summer (and for a week during the holidays), more than a dozen trucks serving everything from wood-fired pizza to boba tea make for a pop-up food court. On Sunday afternoons between March and October, stroll the lawn among the little houses at the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages and you can nosh on a variety of international tidbits from Austria to Peru, Turkey, and Korea.

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Free Things to do at Balboa Park

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Free Things to do at Balboa Park
Hike an otherworldly trail, watch cycling races, or sample world cultures

One of the very best things about Balboa Park is that it’s free to enter. With grounds open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you can always walk right in. Once inside, some exhibits, museums, and attractions do require a fee, but there are still plenty of things to do in the Jewel of San Diego without spending a dime. 

An incredible 65 miles of trails snake through the park, and there’s no charge for hiking or running. For a short-but-memorable hike, try Palm Canyon. The trail starts at a raised boardwalk accessible from the Mingei Museum and dips into a lush palm forest with a prehistoric feel. The Sixth and Upas Trail Gateway is the perfect place to start a longer trip. Maps and markings clearly outline loops that range from 1.5 to 6.6 miles long, which take explorers through oak-shaded paths. 

While most of Balboa’s museums charge some kind of admission, there are a few notable exceptions. Don’t miss, for instance, the Timken Museum of Art, which is home to a wide array of masterpieces, from Rembrandt to John Singleton Copley. The Botanical Building is also free: Relax among the ferns and orchids, and see if you can find the turtle in the lily pond outside.

For some quirky fun, check out a night of races at the Velodrome to watch local cyclists jamming at breakneck speeds around the steeply banked track. Events are free and normally held every Tuesday and Friday nights from April through September, but check the website for details. The Spreckels Organ Pavilion also hosts a Twilight in the Park summer concert series, with free organ concerts every Sunday year-round. Nearby, weekend afternoons are prime time to explore the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages—a collection of little houses, each dedicated to one nation’s culture. Its open houses and lawn programs (which welcome donations, but charge no admission) feature live music, cultural displays, and culinary samples.

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Events in Balboa Park

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Events in Balboa Park
Celebrate the seasons at the park’s annual events, from the Haunted Trail to Chinese New Year

Balboa Park’s calendar is filled with festivals, tours, concerts, and special events nearly every weekend of the year—and some events are worth building a whole trip around.

Holidays are huge in San Diego’s emerald gem. December Nights, held the first weekend of the month, features special performances and light displays, unique shopping in the Starlight Winter Marketplace, and free admission to any museum. Balboa Park also goes big for Halloween: The Haunted Trail challenges the courage of hikers with a mile of terrifying sights, while kid-friendly Halloween Family Day has carnival games, craft projects, and a rooftop pumpkin drop from the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

San Diego has a rich history of supporting diverse cultures, which is on full display in May during Balboa’s annual Ethnic Food Fair. Held at the International Cottages, representatives from nearly 40 countries set up shop to serve up local delicacies along with song and dance on the main stage. In February, the Chinese New Year Festival celebrates with a lion dance, calligraphy lessons, steamed dumplings, and milk tea. Each March, the Japanese Friendship Garden welcomes spring with the Cherry Blossom Festival, when visitors flock to the gardens to see the pink blooms in all their glory, while enjoying cultural performances and sake tastings.

The heart of June’s San Diego LGBTQ Pride weekend is the two-day festival in Balboa Park. Often cited as the largest civic event in the city, more than 200,000 participants enjoy live music, delicious food, and an inclusive community.

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Balboa Park Botanical Building and Gardens

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Balboa Park Botanical Building and Gardens
Pockets of roses, cacti, koi ponds, and even spider flowers blanket the park

There’s a reason why Balboa Park’s stunning Botanical Building graces countless Instagram posts. Constructed with slats to allow for the proper sunlight and air circulation for plants, this soaring lath house was built for the 1915–16 Panama-California Exposition and is one of the largest of its kind in the world, flawlessly framed by a flower-trimmed lily pond. With its distinctive blend of architecture and flora, this is easily one of the most photographed spots in all of Balboa Park.

But this dramatic building—located on the El Prado walkway, next to the Timken Museum of Art—is more than just a pretty face. Step inside the jungle-y interior (no entry fee required) to walk beneath towering tree ferns and a Technicolor display of exotic orchids and other showy blooms. The indoor collection includes some 2,100 tropical plants permanently on show, and seasonal flower displays—like special Easter lily shows in spring—add even more eye-popping beauty to the scene. Be sure to check out the ferns, cycads, and palms, as well as a “scratch-and-sniff garden.”

But you’ll want to head outdoors, of course, to explore Balboa’s many lovely gardens. The Old Cactus Garden, Desert Garden, and the California Native Plant Garden all showcase succulents, cacti, and other drought-resistant plants that typically flower from January through March. With more than 1,600 blooms, the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden is the sweetest smelling spot in the park, especially in spring.

If you’re looking for a more international experience, check out the Alcazar Garden (patterned after Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain) where manicured flower beds and box hedges meet at mosaic turquoise fountains. On the other side of the world, but just a few hundred yards away, the Australian Garden invites visitors to explore flora, including eucalyptus and spider flowers. The Japanese Friendship Garden offers an austere beauty coupled with Sukia Style structures, stone arrangements, and koi ponds.

Kids will love the EthnoBotany Children’s Peace Gardens, where nearly every plant is edible. Learn about organic herbs, fruit trees, and vegetables, and visit the Monarch Way Station to watch the lovely creatures flit by. The Zoro Garden, next to the Fleet Science Center, is also home to a number of butterfly species. Every May, the Zoro hosts an Annual Butterfly Release where hundreds of Painted Ladies take flight.

Insider tip: The Botanical Building offers free admission, but be sure to plan your visit right: It’s open every day of the week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Thursdays.

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Courtesy of San Diego Zoo

Spotlight: San Diego Zoo

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See rare and endangered species

Visiting this expansive zoo in San Diego’s Balboa Park is more than a chance to see animals from all over the world: it’s a chance to see one of...