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    Visit to Balboa Park: zoo, fairytale gardens and museums in the green heart of San Diego

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    Lluis Enric Mayans

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    Going to San Diego without entering Balboa Park would be like visiting New York without looking at Central Park. The gigantic city park represents one of the souls of the diverse Californian city: here art, architecture, craftsmanship and entertainment are concentrated, which flank and intersect with the numerous gardens that compose it. Although we are talking about a park, due to its breadth and richness of museums and monuments we could also define it as one of the city districts, like Gaslamp or Old Town.

    In every season of the year, Balboa Park turns out to be one a must during a visit to San Diego, whatever your style of visiting a city. It is difficult to remain indifferent to the beauty of the gardens, so varied as to satisfy every taste, but the park is not limited to a series of green areas. Museums ranging from natural history to aerospace engineering, from toy trains to anthropology through to contemporary art, also offer visitors the cultural aspect. And let's remember that the largest zoo in the world is also located here!


    • Where is it and how to get there
    • A bit of history
    • What to see in Balboa Park
      • Balboa Park Museums
      • Balboa Park Gardens
      • Spanish Village Art Center
      • Other monuments and attractions of Balboa Park
      • The San Diego Zoo
    • Tour in Balboa Park
    • Events in Balboa Park
    • Where to eat in Balboa Park
    • Where to sleep near Balboa Park

    Where is it and how to get there

    Just open the city map to realize the size of the park and it is not difficult to find a way to achieve it, both by car and by public transport. Almost completely rectangular in shape, it is bordered to the north by Upas St, to the east by 28th St, to the west by Sixth Avenue and to the south it reaches the arch of the San Diego Fwy.

    It is possible to enter the park from countless streets, but my advice is to take it as a reference point Park Boulevard, the road that cuts the park in half from north to south, in the middle of which you will find a large parking lot. You will be a few steps from the information office, where you can find a map of the park and easily walk to each attraction. A special case is that of the zoo: refer to Zoo Dr. to reach the dedicated parking lot.

    The most direct public transport is thebus n.7: get off at the Park Blvd & Village Pl stop and in a few minutes walk you will be at the information center.

    A bit of history

    San Diego is one of the oldest parks in the United States. Created in 1868, it was also built thanks to the waters of the Colorado River, which made it possible to make this originally semi-desert area green.

    The park owes its name to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a Spanish explorer who in 1513 was the first to see the Pacific Ocean crossing the Central American isthmus, understanding that Columbus could never reach the Indies, as the American continent separated the two oceans. It is no coincidence that in 1915 and 1916 it hosted the Panama-California Exposition, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal.

    Throughout the twentieth century, the park was the site of major events, including international ones. Today it is a privileged place for numerous events of various kinds, confirming itself as one of the liveliest squares in the city of San Diego.

    What to see in Balboa Park

    As I mentioned, the park is divided by Park Boulevard. The whole area east of the boulevard is occupied by golf courses and areas dedicated to various sports and recreational activities, including a circuit for remote controlled cars. The interesting half for a visitor is the western half and that's what I'm going to focus on in this article. This whole area is in turn divided in half, from east to west, by The Prado: a long, mostly pedestrianized street, overlooked by many of the park's points of interest.

    You will find that Balboa Park can be visited without spending a penny, but that many museums or attractions have a fee. If you intend to visit more than one it might be worth doing the day pass (or the multi-day pass). On this page you will find the details.

    Balboa Park Museums

    The buildings that we find in Balboa Park were not all built together, but they arose over time, in many cases thanks to the numerous events that have found their place in the park. With some exceptions - such as the space museum - architectural styles adopted are mainly two: the colonial one and a Spanish revival, which is very reminiscent of the Andalusian palaces.

    Most of the buildings now house museums or exhibitions, which vary considerably by genre and theme. Given the large number of proposals offered by this boundless park, but assuming that you will not spend more than a day there, I will devote a paragraph to the most interesting museums, instead grouping the smaller or less relevant ones for a visitor going to Balboa Park for the first time. Let's go and discover them in more detail.

    House of Hospitality and Casa del Balboa

    The most photographed buildings in the park are undoubtedly there House of Hospitality and House of the Balboa. Or rather, to be more precise, the portico that connects them stands out among all the photos of the park and which, being placed at the end of the rectangular pond where the colored carp swim, gives the idea of ​​a Moorish courtyard, taking up the style of the gardens inside the Alhambra in Granada.

    The two buildings, in Spanish Renaissance style, are both worth considering. There House of Hospitality it houses a restaurant but above all the Visitor Center. Here you can find any information about the park and its museums, as well as a well-stocked souvenir shop. It is also the starting point of the two free weekly guided tours.

    La Balboa's house, used by the Navy during the two world wars as a barracks and hospital, today it contains a bar and three different museums.

    • History Center Museum. This museum tells about San Diego with objects and photographs. It is a way to learn about the city and its history. There is no entrance fee, but a donation of at least $ 5 is suggested. It is open every day from 10am to 17pm, but it may be closed during the year as it also hosts private events. On this page you can check the updated timetables.
    • Museum of Photographic Arts. Gallery dedicated to contemporary photography, but also home to photography and cinema festivals. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 to 17 and there is no entrance ticket, only a free donation.
    • Model Railroad Museum. Fans of trains and railways cannot fail to be fascinated by this place. It is the largest indoor exhibition of miniature trains in the entire United States. In addition to the permanent exhibition, themed events are also held here throughout the year and there is a bookshop dedicated to the world of railways. The museum is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 to 16, Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 17. The ticket price is $ 12,50. Children under 3 get in for free, children ages 4 to 11 pay $ 6. Other reduced tickets are for those over 65 ($ 9) and for students up to 18 ($ 7,50). You can check the updated prices and special events on the official website.

    Meadow House

    With its Spanish colonial architecture, the Casa del Prado building is probably the most beautiful in the park. Built in 1915, on the occasion of the Panama-California Exposition, it's not really a museum but a building used for various activities. Some rooms are home to arts and youth organizations, as well as the City Symphony Orchestra and the San Diego Botanical Garden Foundation and Library. Other rooms, used for shows, meetings and events, are rented and can therefore host public or private events depending on the moment.

    If the facade is already one of the most attractive things in the park, it is worth entering the inner courtyard, as long as it is accessible. In fact, this too is rented for weddings, receptions and private events. Especially on the weekends of the summer, therefore, you may find it closed. Under the portico there are numerous statues of kings, conquerors and missionaries. Thanks to the explanatory signs you will be able to know a little of the history of this land.

    Behind the Casa del Prado, but connected to it, is the Prado Theater House, a full-fledged theater, with a facade in the same style as the main building. On this page you can find the shows that take place there.

    I musei d'arte del Balboa Park

    Balboa Park contains five dedicated to figurative art, each with its own characteristics.

    • San Diego Museum of Art. It is the main art museum in the park. It houses works ranging from Asian art to German expressionism. In addition to the permanent exhibition, numerous temporary exhibitions are held there, which you can discover on the official website.
      The museum is open from 10 to 17 on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; from 10 to 20 on Fridays; from 12 to 17 on Sundays. The ticket price is $ 15 ($ 10 for over 65s and $ 8 for students).
    • San Diego Art Institute. This contemporary art center aims to empower local artists by promoting Southern California artistic innovation.
      The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 12pm to 17pm. There is no admission ticket but a donation is welcome.
    • Timken Museum of Art. Both American and European pictorial art make up the collection, flanked by themed temporary exhibitions, which alternate throughout the year. On the official page you can find the updated temporary exhibitions. Admission is free and free guided tours are also available upon reservation. The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 to 16.30, Sunday from 12 to 16.30.
    • Mingei International Museum. Over 26 thousand objects from all over the world, made by artists and craftsmen, make up this collection that makes everyday objects artistic. The museum is temporarily closed for restoration work. It will reopen at the end of 2020.
    • Museum of Man. It is undoubtedly the most extravagant museum in the city. From the history of ancient cultures to the more disturbing aspects of the tribes that populate the planet, this series of exhibits placed in a building that shows itself on the outside as a church can leave a visitor amazed or baffled. The ticket costs $ 13 (free for children up to 5 years old). It is open every day from 10 to 17.

    San Diego Natural History Museum

    The natural history museum is among the most suitable to visit if you are traveling with children. From fossils to dinosaur reconstructions, from the most extravagant plants to insects, the museum tells the story of the plant and animal world in both static and interactive ways. Each year there are also exhibitions dedicated to specific themes.

    The museum is open every day from 10am to 17pm. The ticket price is $ 19,95. Discounts are available for over 62s and students ($ 16,95) and for children aged 3-17 ($ 11,95). Children under 3 do not pay.

    Info on tickets for the San Diego Natural History Museum

    Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

    Another museum great for those traveling with children it is this exhibition center that aims to raise awareness of how the power of science can positively influence the creation of a better future. Interactive and engaging exhibits allow visitors to improvise as scientists. The continuous evolution of the center also makes it constantly updated and renewed.

    Connected to the museum there is also the Imax cinema room, where you can immerse yourself in a gigantic screen to literally enter the movie you are watching. Viewing a film is included in the museum ticket.

    The museum is open from Sunday to Thursday from 10 to 17, on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 to 18. The ticket price is $ 21,95. Discounts are available for those over 65 ($ 19,95) and under 12s ($ 18,95). Children under 3 do not pay.

    Automotive Museum e Air and Space Museum

    If you love means of transport, in addition to the aforementioned exhibition of miniature trains, in Balboa Park there are two museums dedicated respectively to cars and flying vehicles: from airplanes to spaceships.

    • Automotive Museum. Here is told the story of the vehicles on wheels that have followed one another from the invention of the engine to today. It is based heavily on displays that show images and has the characteristic that every three months they are changed to represent different eras. The museum is open every day from 10am to 17pm. The ticket costs $ 12 ($ 6 for children up to 15, $ 8 for students and over 64s).
    • Air and Space Museum. Aviation and space exploration are the themes on which this museum focuses. Planes and spacecraft, partly real and partly models, keep the visitor with the nose up during the whole visit. The museum is open every day from 10 to 16.30. Tickets cost $ 19,95 ($ 16,95 for students and over 65s, $ 10,95 for children ages 3 to 11).

    Balboa Park Gardens

    If among the many museums and buildings to see in Balboa Park you will surely find some of your interest, the great value of the San Diego park lies in its numerous and expansive gardens, each with its own characteristic. Most of them can be easily visited by everyone. For some, a short trek is necessary, but almost all of them can be considered easily accessible.

    If you don't have time to see all the gardens, I strongly advise you not to miss either the Botanical Garden, the Alcazar Garden or the Rose and Cactus Gardens. If you have the option to pay for the ticket, enter the Japanese Friendship Garden as well.

    Japanese friendship garden

    It's the only paid garden in the park, but that shouldn't hold back a visit. Born representing the twinning between San Diego and Yokohama, makes the visitor feel in a real Japanese garden.

    The driveway passes through bamboo groves, runs along a stream and two ponds with colorful carp and ends at Tea Pavillon, a Japanese-style pavilion where you can sip different types of tea and taste Asian cuisine. From bonsai to larger trees, everything is taken care of in the smallest detail, in perfect Japanese style.

    The garden is open every day from 10am to 19pm in summer (March-October) and from 10am to 18pm in winter (November-February). The ticket costs $ 12. There is a reduced ticket ($ 10) for students and over $ 65. Children under the age of 6 enter for free.

    Botanical Garden

    The large greenhouse in front of the small lake overlooking El Prado, it is one of the most photographed spots in the park, but if it can already be appreciated from the outside, it is really worth entering it. You are immersed in a rainforest, among over 2100 tropical plants, ferns and fragrant orchid flowers.

    Stroll in the tranquility of the greenhouse it is definitely more relaxing than the chaos of tourists who usually flock around the pond to photograph themselves with the colors of the water lilies, water lilies and large carp. The lawn next to the greenhouse is instead the most suitable place to rest in the shade on hot summer days, lying down a little on the grass.

    Rose and Cactus Gardens

    At the end of El Prado, overcoming Park Blvd., there are two gardens which are connected to each other and are very interesting.

    Il Rose Garden it is a set of flower beds crossed by tiled paths, where you can admire hundreds of roses of every breed and color. In the center of the garden there is a small pavilion covered with wisteria, under which it is possible to stop and sit in the shade.

    Il Cactus Garden o Desert Garden it is one of the most characteristic gardens in Balboa Park. Walking along sandy paths you immerse yourself in a desert environment among huge cacti and plants typical of both the desert and the African savannah.

    In another area of ​​the park, reachable via a path that branches off from the Pan American Road, there is another similar garden: the 1935 Old Cactus Garden. This garden always dedicated to desert plants is older than the previous one and smaller, but it has its own charm and is worth a stroll.

    Alcazar Garden and Casa del Rey Moro Garden

    In the park we find two Spanish-style gardens. L'Alcazar Garden it is inspired by the gardens of the Alcazar of Seville and those who have been to Andalusia will immediately notice the characteristics that bring back to the Moorish gardens. Low box hedges border the flower beds in which 7 seasonal plants are planted. The walkways are interrupted by fountains decorated with turquoise, yellow and green tiles.

    Il House of the Moorish King Garden it is inspired by the Moorish gardens of Ronda and consists of a central square with a fountain and the garden area that develops all around. It is accessed from the back of the House of Hospitality. It is not always accessible as it is often rented out for private events.

    Other gardens of Balboa Park

    Palm canyon
    Palm canyon
    Ficus centenary
    Ficus centenary

    In addition to the aforementioned gardens, the park also offers other gardens or green areas with particular characteristics.

    • Zoro Garden. This is a kind of pit that was designed for the 1935 exhibition as a nudist colony. Yes, a garden where a group of nudists spent their time, visible from above as in a zoo, during the period of the exhibition. For two years an Indiana nudist colony spent its days here playing, reading, cooking. In truth, it appears that they were rarely completely naked, but used minimal underwear. Today it is a breeding area for butterflies, of which many cocoons and chrysalises can be seen attached to rocks and trees. The roots of the gigantic ficus, which envelop rocks and walls, are one of the most striking things in the garden.
    • Palm canyon. It feels like diving into a tropical oasis as you descend into this short but impressive canyon with over 450 palms of 58 different species, as well as ficus, eucalyptus and other majestic trees.
    • Australian garden. Located in the Gold Gulch Canyon, this still-to-be-defined garden was born in 1976 with a donation from Australia of many plants native to their country. The study of new pedestrian paths in this area is currently underway.
    • Ficus centenari. In the park there are two ficus trees, of two different subspecies, particularly interesting for their age and therefore their size. The first is located behind the greenhouse of the botanical garden and is clearly identifiable by its height. The second, even more impressive, is not far away, in the Village Place. It has now been fenced off to protect its roots. Planted in 1915, it is now so large that it cannot be overlooked.

    Spanish Village Art Center

    Entering the doors of the Spanish Village Art Center you will find yourself in the most colorful area of ​​the park: a large square with pastel colored tiles full of stalls selling handicrafts. All around, small shops and artisan shops where you can see the masters at work. Do not miss the glass blowers who make curious objects in colored blown glass.

    Other monuments and attractions of Balboa Park

    By now you will have understood that Balboa Park is a concentrate of attractions. If some require a more detailed visit such as the aforementioned museums, there are also points of interest not to be missed and for which a few minutes are enough.

    • Speckels Organ Pavillon. If you see some sort of open-air theater, you may not immediately guess what it really is. It is a large organ (the pipes are covered when not in use) used regularly for concerts and whose music spreads throughout much of the park. The stage in front is also used for theatrical or dance performances.
    • Raza Cultural Center. It is an artistic-cultural center that aims to promote and preserve Latin American art and culture. Depending on when you go here, you can find different exhibitions, or come across theatrical, musical or dancing performances.
    • Worldbeat cultural center. A former water cistern has been converted into this cultural center with fully painted walls. Inside today cultural, artistic and recreational events and activities take place.
    • Veteran museum. It is not difficult to guess what this museum is about, dedicated to veterans who fought in the various wars that have seen the United States as protagonists. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 16pm. Tickets cost $ 5 ($ 4 for over 65s, $ 2 for students, free for children 12 and under).
    • Marston House Museum & Gardens. Built by George W. Marston in 1905, this house and its huge garden have been a city museum since 1987. It is of interest to fans of early 10th century architecture. The museum is open from Friday to Sunday, from 17am to 15pm. It can only be accessed via guided tour for the price of $ 7 ($ 6 for children aged 12 to 12, $ 65 for over XNUMXs and students).
    • House of Pacific Relations. As you walk through the park, you may come across a series of houses, each with a different flag. It is a consortium created for multicultural promotion and cultural and educational programs. 32 different cultures are represented here. These cottages are open Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to 17pm and often host events, especially during the big holiday periods.
    • Miniature Railroad. A stone's throw from the entrance to the zoo, children are all attracted to the train - small yes, but on which you can travel - which moves in a circuit between palm trees and eucalyptus trees, entering a tunnel and whistling like a real train.

    The San Diego Zoo

    One of San Diego's most famous attractions is its zoo, located in the north area of ​​Balboa Park. Don't expect suffering animals locked up in small cages: here large natural environments are recreated to give each animal freedom of movement and ensure its good health.

    In the dedicated article you can find all the information about the zoo.

    Info on admission tickets to the San Diego Zoo

    Tour in Balboa Park

    Every week they are available two free guided tours about an hour, which depart from the Visitor Center, where you can find every detail and be updated in case these times are changed. Tuesday at 11 the tour is carried out by a park operator, Sunday at 11 by a ranger.

    Alternatively, you can rely on a organized tour. Here are three:

    • Balboa Park Private Tour: Perfect tour for those who want to enjoy all the wonders of Balboa Park with a local private guide.
    • Balboa Park Private Segway Tour: Two-hour guided tour in the famous means of transport.
    • Balboa Park Small Group Walking Tour: This is always a guided tour but you will be placed together with other tourists in small groups.

    All tours available for Balboa Park

    Events in Balboa Park

    Depending on what time of year you are in San Diego, you may be lucky enough to visit Balboa Park for an event or demonstration. Festivals and initiatives are frequent who choose the park as a location, but there are some specific events that are repeated annually.

    • Cherry Blossom Festival. The March, the Japanese Friendship Garden is colored by one of the things that Japan is famous for: cherry blossom. In addition to admiring the trees in bloom, it is the best time to taste typical Japanese food in this fairytale setting.
    • Earth Fair. The fair dedicated to the Earth and the environment takes place in the month of April and fills the park with artisan stalls, stands offering international food and activities for children.
    • December Nights. If you are in San Diego on the first weekend of December don't miss an evening tour of Balboa Park. Dancers, singers and street performers perform in various areas of the park in a festival of music and lights.

    Where to eat in Balboa Park

    The park offers several alternatives to stop and eat, even if on fine days the most pleasant thing is undoubtedly that of a nice picnic on one of the many green meadows.

    The park restaurant is the The Prado at Balboa Park, which has tables both indoors and on the outdoor terrace facing the Casa del Rey Moro Garden. It serves American cuisine, prices are medium to high and is closed on Mondays. For something cheaper you can opt for the Craveology: the restaurant located inside the Fleet Science Center Museum. Here the atmosphere is decidedly more casual and you can find pizzas, sandwiches and salads. Adjacent to the San Diego Museum of Art is another affordable restaurant, the Panamanian 66.

    Il Daniel’s Coffee instead, it is a bar inside the Spanish Village Art Center, ideal for a short break with a drink. Another bar, along El Prado, is the Cafè in the park, also suitable for a short stop while visiting the park.

    Where to sleep near Balboa Park

    Balboa Park is one of the most beautiful areas in San Diego and it is a great idea to stay overnight near the park to be able to visit it more easily. In our article on where to sleep in San Diego you will find a section dedicated to the neighborhood surrounding the park.

    Our tips for sleeping in San Diego

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