San Diego’s Balboa Park is one of those special places that is beloved by tourists and locals alike. It’s the nation’s largest urban cultural park and offers something for just about everyone, as we discovered after several visits.
The land for Balboa Park came from parcels of land that were originally designated by King Carlos III of Spain as “commercial land held for people, in common, for pasturage or for recreational purposes” when this area was part of Spanish California in the late 1700’s. It was then established as a 1,400-acre parcel called City Park in 1868 and in 1910 it was renamed Balboa Park after the Spanish explorer.
Further development of the park took place as part of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal.
Additional buildings and landscaping were added to prepare for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.
Today the park is home to 17 museums; from art to natural history to air & space to sports, 19 gardens, performing arts and cultural venues, recreation centers, trails, and more. And the park is also home to the fabulous San Diego Zoo.
You will definitely need a map to plan your visit, one is available here. You may also pick up a park map and listing of all of the venues at the Visitor Center, as well as a map and description of all of the gardens. Parking can be tricky, but there is tram service between the Inspiration Point parking lot (on the east side of Park Blvd between Presidents Way and the Balboa Park Activity Center) and the Visitor Center.
The museum fees run between $5 and $12, with one free museum, the Timken Museum of Art. There are multi-venue and multi-day deals available, listed here.
Our visits only touched the tip of the iceberg, and frankly the more times we visited the park the more we wanted to return.
A wonderful feature of Balboa Park is that it’s very dog friendly. Most of the gardens, with the exception of the Japanese Gardens allow dogs, or you may take your dog to any of three dog parks located there. Alas, no doggies are allowed inside the museums.
So of course we took Angel to Balboa Park for an introductory walk and orientation and a visit to one of the dog parks. There is lots of beautiful Old Spanish architecture throughout and you can walk to your heart’s content. For those that prefer not to walk, there is a tram from the Visitor Center to the museums and attractions, check the tram schedule here.
On another visit we went to the Spanish Village Art Center which houses artists in 37 working studios. There are some very interesting arts and crafts and we found a Tiki God treasure for Island Girl’s Tiki Bar.
We visited on a weekend to see a puppet show at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater and listen to the Spreckels Organ Concert. Our new friends Dennis and Jeanette spent the day with us.
Okay we aren’t big organ fans but seeing the world’s largest pipe organ is pretty cool. And we had a brief listen.
The puppet show was a marionette show – “The Princess and the Pea”, very much oriented for the kiddos and those of us who are sometimes pretenders. The show changes monthly and has different kinds of puppets throughout the year.
Somewhere along the way Dennis was replaced by a zany guy pretending to be Dennis and hilarity ensued.
We visited a small sculpture garden, the lily pond, and the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, where “32 groups promote multicultural goodwill and understanding through educational and cultural programs”.
One of those is the House of Puerto Rico, which focused on War Veterans from Puerto Rico. And they also are offering cooking courses 🙂
Every Sunday one house offers a lawn program, which usually includes food, music, and dancing. The lawn program was at the House of Iran so we got to listen to traditional Iranian music and watch traditional dancing. The food smelled great but there was a big line 🙁 Then the party cranked up with a DJ. A great day with friends and four very different experiences at the park.
Another day we visited the Museum of Photographic Arts, as well as the Timken Museum of Art, considered one of the great small art museums of the world. Their collection includes works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Fragonard, Bierstadt, and others. And it’s free!
And we also visited two of the gardens. The Inez Parker Memorial Rose Garden was spectacular, with over 120 varieties of roses. And most of them were in bloom, our timing was perfect to see lots of beautiful roses. We also enjoyed the many wonderful scents.
The last place we visited was Desert Garden, with approximately 1,400 plants, mainly cacti, aloes and agaves from around the world.
So, with 15 museums and 17 gardens left to visit, not to mention more performances and the San Diego Zoo, I guess we’ll have to come back next year.
San Diego is a great city with so much to offer. We didn’t spend a lot of time in Balboa Park but did wander around. Beautiful grounds. I hope everyone realizes this is in San Diego.
We added San Diego, thanks for the feedback.
I love San Diego….there just never seems to be enough time to explore everything. Hector’s photos are a joy!
I know, there’s so much to do! Thanks!
You spotted the elusive SnagBird!
Say WHAT? !
What a great place… I think I will add that to my bucket list.
Pictures are awesome as usual Hector. It looked like a
lovely day. : )
Thanks! Sending itinerary soon!
Balboa Park is so exciting! I loved spending time there and always found new places to see, Thanks for the tour and the pics!
Thanks, we’ll be back!
We go to Balboa Park every time we visit SD. It is one of my very favorite places in the area. Your photos are just stunning! 🙂
We really liked Balboa Park. When we were in the area October 2012 we planned on just stopping by the park on our way somewhere else but ended up spending over 8 hours and left wishing we had another day or two to explore. What a gem! Your pictures are beautiful.
Thank you so much!
Looks like you got to experience quite a bit of the huge park. And how fun that you hung out with Dennis and Jeanette! The rose and cactus gardens were my favorite when we visited. Love all the photos!!!!
We’re glad that we got to see so much of the park. And we just love Dennis and Jeanette. I look forward to seeing more. Thanks!
Photography is stunning and WoW as always. I love Balboa Park and there is so much to capture but I think you got them all, or almost all!
Thanks. There’s much more we didn’t see, but we’ll be back.
Absolutely amazing! What a neat trip “we” had!!! (I mean you, with me tagging along!) Thanks so much, as always, for sharing your journey! Especially loved the rose photos with you guys enjoying their pretty scent!! : )
Thanks, Rebecca. Smelling the roses was wonderful!