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Balboa Park is one of the most widely photographed destinations in San Diego, and for good reason: It's simply stunning!
Created in 1868, this 1,200 acre, lushly landscaped beauty, with its art and cultural institutions and green-space, is the largest urban cultural park in the United States and often referred to as the "Smithsonian of the West."
Many of the park's cultural institutions were created for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal. Many of the buildings were constructed in stunning Spanish-Renaissance architecture, and stand out as one of the first times this highly ornamental style had been used in the United States, and is now characteristic of most of the arts organizations housed along Balboa Park's famous El Prado pedestrian walkway.
Twenty years later, the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition added more cultural institutions and lush landscaping. The buildings surrounding the Pan American Plaza were created at this time, and present a fascinating architectural history of the Southwest, from earlier Aztec influences through Mexican pueblo style, to art deco and art moderne.
Today, the park’s rich cultural legacy presents elegant photographic opportunities and memorable experiences for all.
Pick up coffee and a scone at Prado Perk in the courtyard of the national historic landmark House of Hospitality, a magnificent example of Spanish-Renaissance architecture.
The delightful courtyard and fountain with its beautiful centerpiece, Woman of Tehuantepec, was created by acclaimed San Diego sculptor, Donal Hord, and represents one of the most photographed sites in the Park. There is a free self-guided House of Hospitality history tour on the second level of the building.
The Visitors Center located in this building is open daily from 9:30 AM - 4:30 PM, and closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Pick up a bi-monthly Balboa Park Guide to What's New that lists all Park exhibits and performances and provides a map (also available in Spanish.) You can also purchase one of the Balboa Park Explorer Passes to save on admission to the park's museums.
A Balboa Park Audio Walking Tour provides the curious with an excellent overview of the Park, museums, architecture and gardens. It takes approximately 1 hour 30 minutes. While exploring, be sure to check out what's playing at The Old Globe Theatre. The internationally acclaimed, Tony® Award-winning Old Globe, one of the most renowned regional theatres in the country, has stood as San Diego's flagship arts institution for more than 70 years. The Old Globe produces a year-round season of 15 plays and musicals on its three stages, including its highly regarded Shakespeare festival. Ask about backstage tours available on Saturdays.
Follow the Prado to the San Diego Museum of Art and have lunch at Panama 66. As the region's oldest and largest art museum, the San Diego Museum of Art's renowned holdings include a fine selection of European old masters, 19th and 20th century American art, an encyclopedic Asian collection and growing collections of contemporary and Latin American art.
Walk next door for free admission to the Botanical Building (one of the largest lath structures in the world) with its year-round collection of more than 2,100 permanent plants. The enchanting view of the Botanical Building with the Lily Pond in the foreground is one of the most photographed scenes in Balboa Park and a "must-see" destination in San Diego.
Next door, the Timken Museum of Art is considered one of the great small museums in the world as it houses a world-class collection of European old master paintings, American paintings, and Russian icons. Artists represented include Rembrandt, Rubens and John Singleton Copley.
Before your performance at the Old Globe, enjoy dinner at The Prado Restaurant in the House of Hospitality. Enjoy the show!
Stop for a quick bite at Craveology at the Fleet Science Center (The Fleet). Here you’ll find southern California's only IMAX® Dome Theater and 100+ hands-on science exhibits for all ages. Watch immersive giant-screen films and amazing planetarium shows, and experience seven galleries of fun, interactive exhibits.
Walk across the Park Boulevard pedestrian bridge and take a stroll through the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden and the Desert Garden. An enchanted setting for wedding ceremonies in the Park, the stunning Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden displays approximately 2,500 roses of nearly 200 varieties on a three-acre site planted in a labyrinth formation. The garden is in bloom from March through December, with the roses usually at their peak in April and May. The Desert Garden contains more than 1,300 plants, including succulents and drought-resistant plants from around the world, within its 2.5 acres. The peak blooming period is January through March.
Walk back over the bridge and check out the Plaza de Balboa and the Bea Evenson fountain, and then look back along El Prado for a spectacular view. Early morning provides an incredible photo opportunity. Next, head to the San Diego Natural History Museum. Founded by a handful of citizen-naturalists in 1874, it’s the second oldest scientific institution in Southern California and an active research institution.
Behind the Natural History Museum, you’ll discover the Spanish Village Art Center. Grab lunch at the Village Grill before heading over to Spanish Village to interact with more than 40 local artists in their studios.
The extensive Park landscaping has earned it the moniker "Garden Fair." The Park's landmark tree is the Moreton Bay Fig, north of the Natural History Museum. This beautiful towering tree, planted before 1915, stands more than 60 feet tall with a spread of 120 feet.
Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego History Center, and San Diego Model Railroad Museum (the world's largest operating model railroad museum), all located in the Casa de Balboa building along the Prado.
Check your Balboa Park Guide to What’s New for evening events, which may include an outdoor movie or special performance. A short distance from the Park you’ll find a diverse selection of restaurants to wind down after your day in San Diego's cultural gem.
Grab breakfast at Jimmy Carter's Mexican Café, a local favorite and close to the Park.
Start the day with a walk through Alcazar Garden and take the iconic shot of the California Tower of the San Diego Museum of Man. The California Tower and dome (which houses the San Diego Museum of Man), the 1,500 ft. long Cabrillo Bridge, and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion were built for the 1915 Exposition and represent some of the few remaining structures designed for the original fair.
Across the Prado in the House of Charm, visit San Diego Art Institute and the Mingei International Museum (Museum of the People).
The Nikigator, the fun mosaic alligator outside the Mingei Museum, is by renowned French sculptor, painter, stage designer, and filmmaker Niki de Saint Phalle. You can find many of her creations throughout San Diego, including the San Diego Hall of Champions in Balboa Park and Queen Califia's Magical Circle in Kit Carson Park in Escondido.
Lunch at the Japanese Friendship Garden's Tea Pavilion before strolling through the tranquil garden. Next, check out the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, one of the world's largest outdoor pipe organs, with regular Sunday and seasonal concerts. Then venture over to the International Cottages which are free and open every Sunday noon to 4:00 PM.
Over at the Pan American Plaza area, you’ll find the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the San Diego Automotive Museum and San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum. One of Balboa Park's hidden gardens, the Old Cactus Garden, can be found behind the Balboa Park Club, just north of the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre. It was planted in 1935 by Kate Sessions, who was known as the "Mother of Balboa Park," as she was responsible for most of the original landscaping throughout the Park. Round out your visit with the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center, WorldBeat Center and Centro Cultural de la Raza.
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