San Diego, CA

Balboa Park is More Than the San Diego Zoo

Rene Cizio

I was looking for a place to walk for a few hours and I found Balboa Park. All I knew about it was it is where you enter the famed San Diego Zoo, but what I found was so much more intriguing.

The park has 17 museums, multiple performing arts venues, various themed gardens, shopping, restaurants, street vendors, and historical and cultural attractions. It is easily worth spending an entire day exploring all the park has to offer.

You hear all the time about the zoo and sadly, it overshadows the park, so many visitors don’t plan to spend the time they should or even know about it. The only reason I found the park was diligent searching for trails and places to walk. Otherwise, I would have thought it was just the entrance to the zoo and never visited.

HISTORY

Balboa Park is one of the oldest parks in the United States. It was reserved in 1835 and encompassed 1,200-acres of history and cultural spaces.

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Many buildings and spaces are landmarks from the 1915–16 Panama–California Exposition and 1935–36 California Pacific International Exposition. The park and many of the buildings are National Historic Landmarks and the park is on the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings tell a story of a different time, but I’m jumping ahead.

GARDENS

My interest in visiting the park was the gardens. I’d read that there were nearly 20 distinct types of gardens that you explore with excellent walking trails. It was true. Balboa Park has verdant, interesting well-maintained gardens throughout the entire large space. It seemed like every 50 feet I stumbled upon another unique garden.

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Here are a few of the gardens I saw:

  • Cactus Garden
  • Australian Garden
  • California Native Plant Garden
  • Desert Garden
  • Rose Garden
  • Lily Pond
  • Palm Canyon

Each was landscaped most pleasingly with walking trails and benches and filled with signage, so you know what you’re seeing. In each one, I felt like I was being transported to a new place. I could have stood in the rose garden all afternoon it smelled so good.

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There’s also a Botanical Building, built during the 1915 Exposition, houses various bamboo, banana trees, palms and all sorts of flowing and flowing plants. In front of the Botanical, Building is a large, long lily pond reflection pool and it’s a popular place for pictures. Is saw several young women dressed in their Quinceanera finest posing for photos throughout the park, especially at the lily pond.

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Japanese Friendship Garden is the only garden in the park that requires a separate entrance fee. It cost $12 and tickets should be bought in advance. There is a QR code for quick and easy purchase at the gate, but I was too late on a busy Saturday to get a spot, so I missed this garden.

Because the gardens are spaced all around the 1,200 acres, it’s a great way to make your way around the entire park and see all of the sites.

ARCHITECTURE

The architecture of Balboa Park is spectacular. Most of it is a blend of Spanish Baroque combined with Spanish Colonial and some updated bit, making it more of a Spanish Colonial Revival or Renaissance Style, it’s hard to say. For the most part, they’re a highly ornamented yet classic display of buildings.

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A favorite spot for taking pictures is the Cabrillo Bridge. It was built in 1915 and was the first cantilevered, multiple-arched bridge in Southern California. It’s about 1,500 feet long and almost 125 feet high.

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There are 10 outdoor performance spaces, stages and entertainment in public areas like the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, an ornate vaulted structure. It has over 5,000 pipes from huge to pencil size and it’s the biggest outdoor pipe organ in the world. There are performances each Sunday and I was lucky to witness one. Most people weren’t interested enough to stay, but most stopped for a few minutes to listen before going on to the next attraction.

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HOUSE OF PACIFIC RELATIONS INTERNATIONAL COTTAGES

One of my favorite areas was the international cottages. Thirty-four historic 1935 cottages represent different countries. Inside, they have volunteers representing the country and providing education and multicultural goodwill.

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Each small house was different and included people you could talk to, displays from the country and explanations of their history and culture and –  my favorite part – some kind of food item for sale. The United States was selling apple pie on the day I was there. But I was much more interested in the pierogi at the Poland house.

SHOPPING

There are street vendors posted at tables throughout the sprawling complex selling clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, you name it. I bought a lovely baby onesie with hand-embroidered flowers on it. I also purchased a batch of fresh-made churros that were out of this world.

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There are gift shops and various areas like the Spanish Village Art Center where you can walk among Spanish-style buildings in a colorful courtyard made to look like an old village in Spain. When I was there, they featured Spanish glass blowing and had many artists conducting demonstrations and selling their wares.  

MUSEUMS

There are 17 museums and cultural institutions around the park house in that beautiful old architecture. Because I was there to walk and see the gardens, I didn’t go in any of them, but I bet it’s worth it just to go in the buildings. A few of the museums are:

  • San Diego Natural History Museum
  • Fleet Science Center
  • Institute of Contemporary Art
  • Museum of Photographic Arts
  • San Diego Air & Space Museum
  • San Diego History Center
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There’s honestly so much more at Balboa Park that this post could be 10 times longer. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive list but rather an enticement to encourage you to visit. It’s a beautiful place.

GETTING THERE

It’s California, so plan for traffic. Once you arrive, it’s free to enter and free to park. There are plenty of spots and you won’t have to look long. Also, there are electric car charging stations and a free tram-like streetcar to take you around the park, so you don’t have to worry about parking very far away.

Find out more about visiting San Diego.

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Digital nomad, solo traveling full time. I write about travel, adventure, universal energy, and the journey through life. Pictures on Instagram @renecizio

Chicago, IL
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