Image source: Balboa Park
Balboa Park Highlights
Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s greatest treasures and offers tourists and locals alike an eyeful of beautiful architecture, serene gardens, mind-opening museums and, of course, the world-famous San Diego Zoo. No trip to San Diego would be complete without a few hours spent strolling through this historic landmark.
Balboa Park spans 1,200 acres just north of Downtown San Diego. The park was formally established in 1835, making it the country’s second dedicated city park (after New York’s Central Park). Balboa offers visitors wide, open walking paths surrounded by gardens and ornate buildings constructed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. The park includes over a dozen different museums as well as restaurants, theaters, shops, a cultural center and even a carousel! It’s most famous attraction, however, continues to be the San Diego Zoo.
Balboa Park got its name from the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa and was declared a national historic landmark in 1977. The park is also notable for hosting the 1915 – 16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition.
The San Diego Zoo
Balboa Park’s best-known attraction is the San Diego Zoo, which houses over 4,000 animals of more than 800 species. The zoo spans over 100 acres and is known for its expansive open-air exhibits that include different animal species in a re-creation of their natural environment.
The San Diego Zoo is very walkable, but there are also guided bus tours that cover 75% of the park, a gondola lift and a Skyfari. The zoo is broken up into a variety of exhibits, including:
• Monkey Trails
• Polar Bear Plunge
• Absolutely Apes
• Elephant Odyssey
• Tiger River
The San Diego Zoo’s most famous exhibit is the Panda Trek, where visitors can see the zoo’s four pandas, including Xiao Liwu, who was born at the San Diego Zoo on July 29, 2012. Other popular animals to look out for include elephants, cheetahs, apes, camels, polar bears, lions, tigers, giraffes, dolphins, penguins, gorillas, snakes, armadillos, spiders, hippos, flamencos, and many, many more.
The San Diego Zoo is a must-see for animal lovers or those bringing their children to San Diego for the first time.
Museums of Balboa Park
Balboa Park also hosts over a dozen unique museums, all within walking distance of each other. The entrance fees are very reasonable, allowing visitors to visit multiple museums over the course of a day or weekend.
One of the most popular museums of the park is the San Diego Museum of Art, which showcases a large and varied collection with an emphasis on Spanish art. The museum’s collections include pieces as old as 5,000 BC all the way up to modern classics. The museum includes works by El Greco, Ruben, Gustav Klimt, Zurbaran Cotan, Giorgione, Veronese, Canaletto and many other artistic masters.
The San Diego Museum of Man is another popular attraction for park visitors. This anthropological museum explores the human experience through a variety of exhibits. Its collections include replicas of Mayan monuments, the skulls of early hominids, Egyptian artifacts and more. For more history, stop by the San Diego Natural History Museum, which includes exhibits of dinosaur fossils, a history of California, botany, mineralogy and more.
Other popular museums in Balboa Park include the San Diego Air & Space Museum, San Diego Automotive Museum, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and the Museum of Photographic Arts
Gardens of Balboa Park
When you walk down the wide, cobbled paths of Balboa Park, you will notice many different gardens along the way, including a peaceful Japanese Friendship Garden, a California Native Plant Garden, a Desert Garden, an Alcazr Garden and even a Cactus Garden.
The park also includes the Botanical Building, built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition. Today, the Botanical Building still contains a thriving menagerie of plants from all over the world.
Entertainment in Balboa Park
Balboa Park also includes several entertainment venues which regularly put on shows for tourists and locals. The Old Globe Theater is a professional theater located in the park that puts on 15 plays a year, including many Shakespearian plays.
Spreckels Organ Pavilion is a beautiful outdoor theater in the park built in 1925 for the Panama-California Exposition. The Pavilion includes one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs. The Spreckels Organ Pavilion regularly hosts free organ concerts as well as choral, instrumental and dance performances.
Perhaps the most stunning entertainment venue in Balboa Park is the Starlight Bowl, a large outdoor amphitheater that seats 4,300. The Starlight Bowl was built for the California Pacific International Exposition. One odd quirk of the amphitheater is that it is located directly under the landing path of the San Diego International Airport. During any given performance, planes will regularly fly in just above the performance space. The actors are well-trained to freeze in place until the plane passes. Unfortunately, the Civic Light Opera which used the Starlight Bowl filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and there have been no performances since.
Balboa Park is a true gem in San Diego and well worth visiting.