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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.