Ever curious and hungry for adventure, Elaine Masters is a passionate traveler and digital storyteller. As founder of Tripwellgal.com she thrives on variety, from following fishing trends to cocktail culture and uncovering unsung destinations. Elaine hunts for stories, pictures, and video across the planet from her San Diego base. A scuba diving and seafood fanatic, she agrees with Helen Keller that, “Life’s an adventure or nothing.”
While Central Park in New York and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park are famous, San Diego’s Balboa Park is often overshadowed by the city’s world-famous zoo or the Prado – a graceful colonnade dotted with museums and home to the Globe Theater.
But there’s much to discover across Balboa’s 1,200 acres of rolling hills, trails, hidden gardens, museums, international cottages, and – with the blessing of a mild Mediterranean climate – outdoor festivals and performances year-round.
Here’s your guide to visiting Balboa Park, the emerald of San Diego.
This once modest city park was enhanced for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and renamed in honor of the Spanish explorer, Vasco Nunez de Balboa. It’s been winning accolades ever since. In 1977 it was declared a National Historic Landmark and District. The Park is also listed as one of the Great Places in America and ranks on the National Register of Historic Places. San Diego is rightly proud of this star attraction, and the city is in the process of improving access, with new parking and trails in the works.
The Balboa Park Calendar makes it easy to plan to attend park-wide events. However, each museum and several areas of the park organize their own special celebrations and exhibits year-round.
During park events and on weekends, parking can be tricky. On the plus side, all the lots are free and with a little patience, you can find a space as people rotate in and out. Electric car charging stations are available in lots near the Pan American Plaza, Fleet Science Center, and the Zoo, while valet parking is available in the central plaza in front of the Prado Restaurant. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to leave your car at a spot along Sixth Avenue and walk across the bridge into the park, or grab a space along Park Boulevard and just walk in.
Public transportation can make your visit less of a hassle. From downtown, take the Orange or Blue Line Trolley to City College and catch the #7 bus going to Balboa Park. There are private tour lines and trolleys that will take you there as well.
Museums and Curiosities
Art lovers can enjoy several world-class museums for free on the third Tuesday of each month. The museums rotate free admission, but the Timken Museum is always free.
Next door to the Timken, a large wooden building stands out from its Spanish style neighbors: the Balboa Park Botanical Garden is housed in the largest Lath building in the world. With the lily pond in front, it’s one of the most photographed spots in the park. Pencil a leisurely stroll through the lush greens and fountains into your itinerary.
Acres of Roses
The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden flows across a canyon ridge on the East end of the Prado walkway, just across Park Avenue. Stay safe and avoid the traffic by crossing on the foot bridge, which also gives you a drone’s eye view of the blossoms. This three-acre hillside garden is bursting with over 1,300 varieties of rose in bloom from March through December. Every year, new roses are added, so there’s always something new to see.
The Hidden Giant
Step behind the Nat (the Park’s Natural History Museum) and you’ll come face-to-face with a grand old resident of the park. The Moreton Bay Fig Tree is one of the three largest in the State of California, and was seventy-eight feet high when it was last officially measured in 1996. No doubt it’s larger now, as the tree was just a baby when it was planted as part of the Panama California Exposition in 1915.
The species is native to Australia where they grow tall and narrow in crowded forest habitats or hemmed in by buildings. San Diego is fortunate to have the giant growing ever larger in the open space of Balboa Park. Every Holiday Season during the December Nights celebration the tree is covered in lights.
Japanese Friendship Garden
Japanese gardening techniques have been adapted to San Diego’s climate over a sprawling 12-acre plot adjacent to the Organ Pavilion. Rooted in the friendship between San Diego and it’s sister city, Yokohama, the garden invites visitors to amble along winding trails next to burbling ponds. There are also monthly horticultural classes, exhibits, and festivals for green-thumbs to enjoy. Check the Park Calendar for special events; the Cherry Blossom Festival, for example, is well worth the effort of timing your visit. But if nothing else, harvest some serenity while sipping green tea in the outdoor cafe at the entrance.
Sculptures Through Time
Enter the park from the west side and stop in Sefton Plaza for a face-to-face encounter with horticulturist Kate Sessions, known as the “Mother of Balboa Park.” Her bronze likeness stands nearly six and a half feet tall. Garden plots surround her statue, filled with many of the plants she introduced. They include Matilija Poppy, Indian Hawthorne, Lily of the Nile, and Hong Kong Orchid tree.
On the northern side of Sefton Plaza, you’ll find a group of three bronze sculptures: Ephraim Morse, Alonzo Horton, and George White Marston were instrumental in the creation of the Park. Marston built a home in 1905 on the edge of what became Balboa Park. The Marston House remains one of the largest and finest examples of the Arts and Crafts movement. Tours are offered weekly, but you can stroll the gardens and patios independently as well.
El Cid Rrides Forever
Given the Spanish influence throughout the Park, it’s no surprise to find a statue of a famed Castilian knight astride his steed between the Museum of Art and the Organ Pavillion. El Cid Campeador, and not Balboa, the first European to enter the San Diego Bay and namesake of the park, towers over a green between lanes in the center of the Park. Twenty-three feet tall, he wields a spear and shield heroically. Created by Anna Hyatt Huntington, who was the first woman to create a public monument in New York City, this El Cid sculpture is one of several copies. The original is in Manhattan, with others in Seville, San Francisco, and Buenos Aires.
Not all the park’s sculptures are historical figures. A favorite local artist who is loved worldwide, Nikki St. Phalle, has several pieces indoors and out. Her Nikkigator, positioned outside the Mingei Museum, is often covered with giggling kids. Her Angel floats above the gallery staircase inside the museum as well. Both are made of her signature materials, mosaic, mirror, and marble.
Two hidden sculpture gardens offer pleasant places to admire these modern collections, or just let kids run free. The Frank F. Evenson Sculpture Court is fully fenced-in and only accessible through the Panama 66 Café. Dog friendly and open, it’s a pleasant spot for a picnic or drink from the café. Beyond that, you’ll find the May S. Marcy Sculpture, garden which can only be entered during Museum of Art hours. It overflows with nineteenth and twentieth-century sculptures.
The ‘Free the Art’ movement has drawn sculptures out of the museums and into the open across plazas and courtyards. Collections featuring great artists like Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Auguste Rodin, and Joan Miro (to name a few) can be appreciated in the changing light of day throughout the Plaza de Panama and elsewhere in the heart of the park. The exhibit is free and open to the public during park hours.
A Change of Perspective
A mosaic-laden tower rises above the San Diego Museum of Man. Now you can climb it through a staircase that was hidden from the public for nearly eighty years. Be forewarned: it’s a considerable ascent! The climb is made more rewarding as you get to glimpse the park below from narrow windows, until you finally emerge from the spiral metal staircase into the sunlight. Short of sprouting wings, this is the best view you’re likely to get of urban San Diego. Entrance is by ticket only, and forty-minute tours are available.
The largest outdoor organ in the world can be heard throughout the year in the center of Balboa Park. Set in a bandshell within the expansive Spreckles Organ Pavillion, it pulses to life for free concerts on Sunday afternoons at 2 pm from March through December. The organ was a gift from the Spreckels brothers, who offered free music long before commercial radio and movies with sound. President Woodrow Wilson touched a telegraph key in Washington to start fireworks, and more than 1,500 bulbs flashed to life in the Pavilion at the beginning of the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition.
It’s fitting that the new Spreckles Organist comes from Spain. After a year-long search, Raul Prieto Ramirez is moving from Barcelona, where he was the founder and artistic director of the Barcelona-Mataro International Organ Festival. The last San Diego civic organist and artistic director for the Spreckels Organ Society, Carol Williams, held the position for fifteen years. Ramirez will be busy playing at least forty-four Sunday concerts and overseeing the Park’s annual Summer Organ Festival.
Hopefully, Balboa Park will resonate with his talent and his tenure will last for decades.