It’s arguably North America’s greatest urban park. A magnet for outdoor fans craving exotic flora and fauna; a wandering buffet of cultural attractions that can keep anyone occupied for a week; and an oasis-like respite from busy streets that bathes all-comers in sigh-triggering tranquility.
But we’re not talking of Vancouver’s jewel-like Stanley Park or even Manhattan’s storied Central Park, traditional rivals in the battle for “top city green space.”
Gearing up for a landmark anniversary in 2015, San Diego’s magnificent Balboa Park is bigger than both its northerly competitors, has more attractions than either of them and enjoys the kind of sun-kissed southern California climate that makes T-shirt-wearing a default approach.
Yet, while San Diegans have been happily hanging here for decades, the 1,200-acre palm-fringed destination – a National Historic Landmark since 1977 – still feels like a fresh discovery to those out-of-towners who arrive here for the first time every year. If you’re planning to be one of them, here’s an immersive park primer – from irresistible must-sees to hidden-gem hotspots.
Best-accessed by car via tree-flanked Park Boulevard, Balboa has several gratis parking lots: try for a spot near the House of Hospitality Visitors Center on El Prado so you can nip in and pick-up free maps and what’s-on information – plus peruse the roster of guided tours. In the heart of the park, you’ll immediately notice the elegant Spanish Colonial Revival buildings that are Balboa’s signature visual.
In mustard yellows and sandy oranges, these handsome confections were the pavilions for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the Expo ’86-style event that’s the subject of next year’s anniversary. Marking the Panama Canal’s completion and positioning San Diego as a major nearby port, the two-year event put the city on the map by luring almost four million visitors.
But it also shaped the look and feel of the modern-day park, which had been barely touched since it was set aside by the city in 1868. Those pavilions – and others added during a second exposition in 1935 – now house more than a dozen permanent museums and cultural attractions, leading some to nickname Balboa “the Smithsonian of the West.”
This surfeit of attractions is the main reason it’s hard to know where to start during a visit. Ease in and get the lay of the land via the free, hop-on-hop-off Park Tram. It’ll give you time to mull your next step: deciding which attraction pass to buy when you return to the Visitors Center. Several options are available, including a five-museum one-day pass (US$43) and a 14-museum seven-day pass (US$53).
If you have time for an in-depth multi-day visit, consider mixing the blockbusters with some smaller attractions only the locals seem to know about.
Beneath the California Tower – a baroque edifice that marked the entrance to the 1915 expo – the Museum of Man is lined with fascinating Native American artifacts. Even more visitors head to the Natural History Museum, a menagerie of skeletal dinosaurs and taxidermied tooth and claw critters. Rounding-out the must-see triumvirate, the Air & Space Museum displays ingenious innovations from shiny biplanes to NASA spacecraft.
But I’m also a big fan of the lesser-visited Marston House, a preserved 1905 Arts and Crafts home set in idyllic landscaped grounds. In addition, the brilliant Museum of Photographic Arts combines a permanent history of photography show with changing temporary exhibitions. It’s in the same turreted Casa de Balboa building as the quirky Model Railroad Museum, home to one of the world’s largest working layouts.
Before you start thinking Balboa is more theme park than real park, though, it’s worth remembering it’s also striped with verdant green spaces and intriguing ornamental gardens. The perfect escape from busy-day tour bus crowds, these can also be great places to start your visit before the sun lures you to the shade of the museums.
Consider the sweetly fragrant Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden – a three-acre paintbox of 200 varieties and thousands of blooms – or the ever-tranquil Japanese Friendship Garden, with its gnarled bonsais and glassy-calm koi ponds. There are regular calligraphy and Japanese language classes at the latter if you fancy brushing up your skills during your visit.
Even more popular is the grand, flower-studded Alcazar Garden – patterned after the decadent formal gardens of Spain’s Seville region – and the dramatic, lily-pond-fronted Botanical Building, one of the park’s most popular camera lures. One of the world’s largest wooden lath structures, this century-old beauty is a perfumed oasis of tropical ferns and exotic flora.
But my favourite Balboa green spaces are two lesser-known spots. The evocative Desert Garden is home to more than a thousand local and international cacti and succulents, while the frond-tastic 450-tree Palm Canyon is like stepping straight into a lush jungle. And if you really want to commune with the park’s natural side, there are also 105km of hiking trails here – see the Visitors Center for suggestions.
Hanging with some of the superstars of nature is also the main appeal of Balboa’s biggest visitor attraction. Launched in year two of the 1915 expo, give yourself a full day to explore the celebrated San Diego Zoo, one of California’s top tourist destinations. Home to around 4,000 creatures, take the Skyfari gondola over the tops of the enclosures to locate your must-see critters and habitats.
The zoo covers 100 acres but rather than hoofing it the whole time once you’re back on terra-firma, take a narrated hop-on-hop-off bus ride that stops at key points around the grounds. Keep in mind that some animals are extremely popular – it’s best to arrive early in the day at the panda, koala and Komodo dragon enclosures. Personally, I most enjoyed the spine-tingling tigers and highly expressive Indonesian apes on my visit.
Finally, after a heated day of exotic animal-spotting, you’ll likely be exhausted. But you don’t have to return to your hotel for a restorative sit down. In fact, there are more than a few reasons to spend the evening here, too.
Dining-wise, you can fuel-up at park hotspots like Casa 1915, Home Plate and the sushi-serving Tea Pavilion. But when it comes to a romantic dinner, consider the charming Prado. Tucked in to the historic House of Hospitality building, aim for a courtyard seat and a leisurely evening of international fusion dishes here: tandoori duck breast recommended.
And after an indulgent dessert, take in a show.
There are free Monday night concerts at Balboa’s Spreckels Organ Pavilion – complete with one of the world’s largest pipe organs – but if you fancy a whiff of greasepaint, you’re also in luck. The Tudor-look Old Globe Theatre recalls Shakespeare’s original London auditorium, but on balmy summer nights the affiliated Lowell Davies Festival Theatre is the place to be.
From July to September, you can catch top-notch outdoor Bard productions here as the sunlight gently fades behind a nearby stand of eucalyptus trees. As the stars come out, it’ll be the perfect curtain call to your immersive Balboa Park visit.
Sidebar: Balboa’s Storied History
1868: Created and named City Park.
1892-1910: Roads, infrastructure and landscaping added.
1910: Renamed Balboa Park after Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. Rejected names: Horton Park, Miramar Park, Silver Gate Park.
1915: Hosts the Panama-California Exposition.
1916: San Diego Zoo opens.
1933: Natural History Museum opens.
1935: Hosts California Pacific International Exposition.
1935: Several ornamental gardens created, including a nudist colony for spectators (since closed).
WW2: Park buildings co-opted by Balboa Naval Hospital.
1978: Fire destroys Air & Space Museum and Old Globe Theatre. Each is relocated or rebuilt.
1983: Museum of Photographic Arts opens.
2000: Hosts Expo 2000.
2001: Museum of Natural History reopens after massive expansion.
2003: Project for Public Spaces ranks Balboa one of the world’s best parks.