Balboa Park, home of the San Diego Zoo and the Culture Center of San Diego
Romantic Balboa Park is a lush 1,400 acre forest of exotic trees, well-kept gardens, and a majestic lily pond, which is the most photographed site in the park. It is also the home of the San Diego Zoo. Here too is the renowned Old Globe Theatre and over a dozen outstanding must-see museums, art galleries and one of the largest planetariums in the country. San Diegans owe a vote of gratitude to the city Board of Trustees, who in 1868 set aside 1,400 acres of rambling chaparral for Balboa Park. Were it not for the far-sighted civic planners who anticipated San Diego’s great potential for growth, the city would no doubt have been without its most beautiful region, Balboa Park. A must-see attraction in Balboa Park is the San Diego Zoo (5) (619-234-3153). The 100-acre facility is an international animal experience where guests will see some of the earth’s rarest wildlife including giant pandas from China, tree kangaroos from New Guinea and river hippos from Africa. The San Diego Zoo is home to more than 4,000 animals, representing 800 species, making up a diverse collection of animals – many of which are rarely seen at other zoos.
Opening Summer 2003 is the first phase of the San Diego Zoo’s latest exhibit project – the New Heart of the Zoo. It’s going to be a swinging time in the “Absolutely Apes” orangutan and siamang exhibit. For the first time in Zoo history, these two species of apes will live together in a lush, tropical setting resembling their native region of Indonesia. The brilliant, eye-catching flamingos that have greeted Zoo guests at the front plaza for more than 50 years will also have a new lagoon.
Dozens of rare and obscure animals can be found throughout the facility alongside more familiar zoo faces – polar bears, camels, lions, tigers, pygmy chimpanzees and much more. Guests to the San Diego Zoo become immersed in lush, tropical settings called bio-climactic zones such as Tiger River, Gorilla Tropics, Ituri Forest and Owens Rainforest Aviary. In these naturalistic habitats visitors will find an array of plants and animals native to specific regions of the world. In other areas of the Zoo, guest may come face-to-face with bears, elephants, koalas and more. The San Diego Zoo is also a botanical garden with a prominent collection consisting of more than 700,000 plants. Like the Zoo’s world-class animal collection, many species of flora are rare and endangered.
The Children’s Zoo features more than 20 exhibits designed with children in mind. Low glass windows in many exhibits create easy viewing. A petting paddock allows children to interact with friendly sheep, goats and pot-bellied pigs.
The zoo, however, is only one part of Balboa Park. The rest is spread out over hundreds of acres. The part of the park that attracts the most attention is an area called El Prado. Here, nestled in beautiful gardens enhanced by majestic palm and eucalyptus trees, are most of the park’s impressive museums, galleries and other attractions, all within walking distance of each other.
A great place to begin or conclude a tour of Balboa Park is at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (11) (619-238-1233). This large 93,505 sq. ft. science center showcases over 100 “hands-on,” interactive exhibits and attractions that the whole family will enjoy. Plus, they offer several fantastic films on the world’s first IMAX® Dome Theater that surrounds visitors, creating a “you-are-there” experience. New to the Science Center is the Virtual Zone housing two different virtual reality attractions and the motion simulator ride, SciTours, where visitors take a voyage into outer space to intercept a comet headed towards Earth. The virtual reality experience, Smoke and Mirrors aimed at children and teens, is intended to increase their knowledge of the consequences of tobacco use. On the first Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. you can take a tour of the planets and stars during their planetarium shows. Five fascinating science exhibit galleries, each with a different scientific and technological theme, are popular attractions to explore. Be sure to visit ExploraZone – over thirty hands-on exhibits from San Francisco’s Exploratorium – located in the Main Exhibit Gallery. In addition to their exciting permanent collection, this wonderful museum presents major national travelling exhibitions several times a year.
The next major attraction on your self-guided tour should be the San Diego Natural History Museum (16) (619-232-3821). This fascinating museum features marvelous seasonal and permanent exhibits which focuses on the bi-national region of Southern California and the Baja California, Mexico peninsula. Learn the secret stories of rocks, fossils, plants and animals, such as the prehistoric sabertooth tiger that roamed this area millions of years ago. Don’t miss their must-see, award-winning film on Baja California and the Sea of Cortés called Ocean Oasis in the museum’s giant-screen movie theater.
Between the Natural History Museum and the zoo is the Spanish Village Art Center (3) (619-233-9050), which is one of Balboa Park’s hidden treasures. This historic landmark, built in 1935 for the California Pacific International Exposition, is the perfect place to find one-of-a-kind works of art at reasonable prices. Here, in a charming courtyard accented with colorful flowers and majestic trees, are artists at work creating, demonstrating, and displaying their beautiful creations. Surrounding the courtyard is a collection of 37 studios, galleries and guilds presenting the works of over 300 of San Diego’s finest artists and craftsmen. Various mediums are used by the many artistic creators including blown glass, ceramics, enamel, jewelry, polymer clay, paints, pottery, sculpture, wood and more. On the Pradois the Casa de Balboa. The largest operating model railroad museum in North America is on display on the lower level. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum (619-696-0199) features scaled model train exhibits, complete with bridges, tunnels and depots. Visit their new interactive Toy Train Gallery, where you can play engineer.
Also located in Casa de Balboa is the San Diego Historical Society Museum and Research Archives (14) (619-232-6203). The museum features temporary and traveling exhibits on the history of the San Diego region utilizing journals, photographs, clothing, artwork and historical artifacts. Signature events are scheduled throughout the year in celebration of the museum’s 75th anniversary.
Also be sure to visit the newly expanded Museum of Photographic Arts (14) (619-238-7559) on the west end of the Casa de Balboa building. Featured here are twelve different shows a year that present the captivating photographic and cinematic works of art by well-known and up and coming photographers world-wide.
Next door to the west is the House of Hospitality, which is home to the 400-seat Prado Restaurant and Lounge (13) (619-557-9441). Their unique menu and charming setting make it a great place to dine. Most popular is their beautiful terrace and fountain garden, which is one of San Diego’s favorite wedding locations. They also hold cooking classes and wine-tasting events. For a meal to remember, ask for their fabulous jumbo prawns. Seating is provided indoors in the courtyard room or solarium (ask for tables 204 or 301), or outdoors on the terrace (ask for tables 127 or 128), which is especially delightful on warm, summer days.
Camera buffs never tire of taking photographs of the Lily Pond (9), which is one of the most photographed sites in the park. It was built in 1915.
Just behind the Lily Pond is the Botanical Building (17), which contains over 2,500 permanent tropical plants, including an outstanding fern and orchid collection. The fine old wood lath structure is one of the largest of its kind in the world. It’s open Fri–Wed., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Admission is free.
The Timken Museum of Art (12) (619-239-5548) is considered the most critically acclaimed collection of Russian icons, European Old Masters and 18th- and 19th-century American paintings. It contains an extraordinary collection of French, Italian and Flemish paintings, including works by Rembrandt and Reubens. Admission is free .
The historic San Diego Museum of Art (10) (619-232-7931), the county’s first, largest and primary art institution, provides a rich and diverse cultural experience for more than 500,000 annual visitors. Its world-renowned collections consist of over 12,000 art pieces dating as far back as 5,000 B.C. and includes Dutch and Spanish Baroque old masters, Italian Renaissance, American art, 19th- and 20th-century European paintings and sculptures, Asian art treasures and contemporary art. You can even take a virtual tour of the museum’s collection by visiting their website online. In addition, the museum has garnered international recognition for organizing and hosting major exhibitions featuring art from throughout the world. The museum also offers a broad variety of supportive cultural programming that includes lectures, concerts and films.
While browsing through the park, you will undoubtedly hear the majestic sounds of the bells from the 198-foot California Tower ringing every fifteen minutes. The California Tower is considered to be one of the finest examples of Spanish-style architecture in the United States. The Museum of Man (7) (619-239-2001) features fascinating exhibits on human evolution, Egyptian artifacts, Kumeyaay culture and Mayan monuments. Little ones can also enjoy the Children’s Discovery Center, which allows them to experience living in ancient Egyptian times.
Tucked behind the Museum of Man is one of the country’s leading regional theater complexes and California’s oldest professional theater organization. It’s the world renowned, Tony award-winning Globe Theatres (6), and is comprised of three theaters–the Old Globe Theatre, Cassius Carter Centre and Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. Each theater is uniquely designed and continues the over 67-year tradition of offering high quality, entertaining productions, which include a great variety of classical and contemporary dramas, comedies and musicals. For performance schedule and prices, call (619-239-2255).
To appreciate the works of San Diego’s best artists, you should visit the San Diego Art Institute (8) (619-236-0011) in the House of Charm. Every four to six weeks a new exhibition is presented showcasing the contemporary works of local talented artists.
Also located in this same building is the Mingei International Museum (8) (619-239-0003). Mingei is a word used transculturally for “art of the people.” This museum features dynamic changing exhibits of traditional and contemporary folk art, craft and design from cultures throughout the world. The museum’s permanent collection consists of 14,000 objects from over 100 countries.
At the Spreckels Organ Pavilion (18) (619-702-8138) you can hear a variety of music played on the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ. This organ has 4,518 individual pipes, ranging in length from less than one quarter of an inch to over 32 feet! Free organ concerts are held every Sunday at 2 p.m. During the summer, they also have special free evening performances on Mondays at 7:30 p.m.
In the interest of park safety, mounted police patrol the park throughout the year. Patrons of the arts, as well as visitors attending evening theater performances are encouraged to park in lighted parking areas and to use the well-traveled sidewalks.
Balboa Park is the culture center of San Diego with spectacular museums and attractions, highly acclaimed theaters, and the San Diego Zoo. It epitomizes the beauty, history and heart of America’s Finest City. It’s no wonder that San Diegans never tire of visiting and revisiting this major attraction.
About the Author
Barry Berndes celebrates 35 years as San Diego's Dean of Restaurant Reviewers. He visited over 100 restaurants, went unnanounced, inspected their kitchens, paid for his own meals and wrote about his findings in the SAN DIEGAN. The SAN DIEGAN is your travel & liesure review resource for attractions, hotels and dining in America's Finest City, San Diego.