The world’s greatest cities have great variety, but are uniformly anchored by a large urban, public park. New York has its Central Park, Washington its National Mall, London its Hyde Park (among many), Paris its Bois de Boulogne. Not to be outdone by these much admired green spaces, San Diego boasts one of its own.
Balboa Park, located 2 miles northeast of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, is a 1,200-acre (490 hectare) square of gardens, promenades, native vegetation, and green belts. But this is not just a large expanse of undeveloped space: Balboa Park also features 15 museums, a sports stadium, two theaters, an amphitheater, and the San Diego Zoo, one of the most famous and acclaimed zoos in the world. It is, in short, a destination unto itself.
Balboa Park was born in 1835, out of the long Spanish tradition of designating communal recreational land within its settlements. It wasn’t Spain’s authorities that set aside this tract, however—it was Mexico, eager after its 1822 independence to survey and develop its hard-won territory. And it did not become an official park until 1870, by which time San Diego had become part of the U.S. state of California. (It was the second city in the United States, in fact, after New York, to dedicate a large urban park.)
Then called “City Park,” it was only lightly cultivated before 1909—when San Diego began preparing to host a 1915 World’s Fair (known as the Panama-California Exposition). The park was renamed after Spanish navigator Vasco Núñez de Balboa—the first European to see the Pacific Ocean—and completely refitted by landscapers, architects, and engineers to the basic form that it still holds today. (Several of the current buildings and other developments, including the Zoo, were designed and built for the 1915 expo.) Another round of development came with another exposition, the California Pacific International Expo of 1935—however, both of them were followed in short order by the U.S. Navy commandeering the park for the durations of both World Wars.
The museums started moving into the park in the 1960s, in tandem with restoration and preservation efforts to maintain the historic buildings. Once established, the institutions in the park also added new structures and improvements to the existing ones. By 1999, Balboa Park was substantially as it is today. In 2015, it celebrated a massive centennial gala, reaffirming its place as a pillar of San Diego’s cultural life.
There is no grand entrance to Balboa Park, no Marble Arch or Brandenburg Gate. In fact, there is no one entrance: The park is open on every side, and dozens of street intersections meet its edge. However, if you’re on your way to the park from the Hilton (i.e., south), you will most likely enter on Park Boulevard; the announcement of your arrival is simply an overpass over Interstate 5, and there you are on the park’s Central Mesa.
Balboa Park is divided into three mesas, with canyons separating them. Central Mesa (a raised land with a flat top, also called tableland) is the largest and, as you might guess, centralmost of the three. Most of East Mesa is occupied either by undeveloped green belt or by Morley Field, an expansive athletic complex that features ball fields, tennis and bocce courts, fitness and hiking trails, a pool, and a full 18-hole golf course. The western Sixth Avenue Mesa is a narrow swath (about two city blocks wide) that’s mostly open green space, though a playground, a dog park, and chess and bridge club facilities line sixth avenue. For intrepid out-of-towners, Central Mesa is where the action is.
Immediately adjacent (to the west) of Park Boulevard is Pan American Plaza—the buildings in which were built not for the 1915 exposition but the 1935 one. The anchor is the Ford Building, the once the exhibition hall for the Ford Motor Company and now the home of the San Diego Air & Space Museum. It features dozens of air and spacecraft, from a mockup of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter to an Apollo command module, along with interactive learning exhibits for children and the International Air & Space Hall of Fame.
Next to Air & Space is the San Diego Automotive Museum, dedicated to the history of automobiles and motorcycles. Perhaps the pride and joy of the museum (and its permanent centerpiece) is the exhibit called “Louis Mattar’s Fabulous Car”: a 1947 Cadillac that Mattar fit with domestic facilities—like a small kitchen and bathroom!—in the backseat. However, the museum’s primary exhibit rotates three times a year. While ICA is in San Diego, the current exhibit will be “First Responders,” a display of emergency and rescue vehicles from over the years.
North of the Pan American Plaza is the Plaza de Panama, which is the site of the original 1915 exposition. On the west side of the plaza stands the San Diego Museum of Man. This is one museum that was originally conceived and executed very close to its current concept and execution: In 1915 it was “The Story of Man Through the Ages.” Today it is an anthropological museum devoted to telling that same story, from pre-Columbian cultures and Ancient Egypt forward. The building itself (The California Building) is also something of a tourist destination, especially since its elaborate 200-foot tower has recently been opened to the public after an 80-year closure.
The other most prominent of the Plaza de Panama museums is the San Diego Museum of Art, which was actually built in 1926 but designed to match the 1915 structures. Its collection of art is as wide-ranging in time and culture as is the Museum of Man, with some sculptures dating all the way back to 5,000 BC. The jewel is its collection of paintings from the early Spanish Baroque era, with a 1632 (Saint James the Lesser) by Jusepe de Ribera as one of its most recent high-profile acquisitions.
This is the tip of the iceberg for museum lovers: There are over a dozen more in San Diego, including four more art museums and institutions showcasing Natural History, model railroads, and Latino American culture.
Like many such urban parks, Balboa Park features an outdoor band shell and concert arena; this one is the Italian Renaissance Spreckels Organ Pavilion, dedicated on New Year’s Eve 1914 by the heir to the Spreckels sugar fortune. The pavilion seats 2,500 and hosts music of all varieties. However, much of it is programmed to employ the original 1914 organ (with a massive 5,017 pipes) around which the pavilion was designed.
The Old Globe Theatre, one of the 1935 structures, is a life-size replica of the Globe Theater of London, in which Shakespeare worked in his time. (Hence the “Old” in its name; the San Diego theater was called the Old Globe from the moment it opened.) One might expect this venue to specialize in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries (as the current Globe in London does); however, it actually includes productions from all periods and traditions. In fact, while ICA is in San Diego, the Globe will host two widely different plays: Moliere’s 1673 French comedy The Imaginary Invalid and the West Coast premiere of the 2014 off-Broadway The Old Man and the Old Moon.
Other venues in the park include the Starlight Theatre and Bowl, a small 1936 amphitheater; the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater (as you might imagine, for children); and the Casa del Prado, a large complex that actually hosts several performing arts (youth) ensembles: among them, the San Diego Youth Symphony, Junior Theater, and Civic Youth Ballet.
There are nearly 20 individual gardens in Balboa Park. The most famous, and picturesque, is easily the Botanical Garden. Housed in one of the largest lath buildings in the world, inside are over 2,100 species of plants. Tropical plants, such as orchids, cycads, and palms, are a particular strength of the botanical garden—as are its carnivorous plants, such as venus flytraps. There is even a section called the Touch and Smell garden that encourages interacting with the plants on display. Outside of the garden is a decorative lily pond as well.
Another famous garden is the Japanese Friendship Garden, originally designed as ambience for the popular Japanese teahouse that stood during the 1915 exposition. It was redeveloped in 1991 as a cultural link with Yokohama, San Diego’s sister city in Japan, and includes such features as a bonsai exhibit, wisteria arbor, koi pond, and a Zen garden for meditation.
Perhaps the most widely visited garden in the park, however, is the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden. Named after one of the city’s most generous patronesses , the garden spans three acres and contains over 1600 roses in more than 130 varieties, with new varieties introduced every year so that the garden can serve as a demonstration of the most popular new commercial trends for rose gardeners. And best of all, the Rose Garden’s blooms usually peak in May—just in time for the ICA Conference.
SAN DIEGO ZOO
While the above lists a few of the most prominent and popular attractions in Balboa Park, there is one that undoubtedly outshines all of them. The San Diego Zoo is the tenth largest zoo in the world, and one of the most acclaimed. The latter comes primarily because the San Diego Zoo revolutionized animal exhibitions, eliminating cages and instead creating open-air displays that mimic the animals’ natural habitats.
It is also a leader in worldwide animal conservation and preservation: It breeds animals in captivity for the purpose of eventual release into the wild.
By far, the most popular exhibit at the San Diego Zoo is Panda Trek. Outside of their native China, the zoo is the most successful breeder of giant pandas in the world: Six cubs have been born and survived to maturity since 1996, when the mother, Bai Yun, arrived. Bai Yun still resides there along with her mate Gao Gao and their youngest male Xiao Li Wu.
Monkey Trails comes next on the list of favorite zoo exhibitions. Primarily, the monkeys in the San Diego Zoo are Old World African monkeys, especially mangabeys and mandrills. However, orangutans are much remarked on for their playfulness—and their tendency to approach the observation area and do some observing of their own. In addition to monkeys, however, Monkey Trails offers showcases of other jungle animals, including pygmy hippos, slender-snouted crocodiles, and pancake tortoises.
Three polar bears—Kalluk, Chinook, and Tatqiq—live in the area known as Polar Bear Plunge. Visitors can observe them above ground in a recreation of their tundra habitat, or in the 490,000-liter pool (which features a glass wall to create an underwater viewing area). (The polar bears, too, are known for their friendliness.) That tundra environment also provides a home for the zoo’s caribou, Arctic foxes, and long-tailed ducks.
This list could be endless. There’s a fairly new Australian Outback area, which includes a koala colony as well as other marsupials (like wombats and kookaburras); two aviaries; a large Elephant Odyssey; and Tiger River, where Malayan tigers live. There’s also a children’s zoo, and guided tours available by bus and by aerial tram.
There is much more to Balboa Park, this incredible oasis of nature, recreation, and other manmade attractions, in the city of San Diego. But you’ll need to find them yourself.