Where to begin? When it comes to Balboa Park, there is no shortage of places to visit and things to see and do. It’s a veritable cultural wonderland filled with eye-popping architecture, 17 – yes, 17 – museums, lush gardens, artistic masterpieces, award-winning theater, and surprises and smiles around every corner. While it could take days to get the full Balboa Park experience, here are a few gems to whet your appetite for San Diego’s most historic cultural district.
San Diego Museum of Art
It’s hard to miss the San Diego Museum of Art as it towers over the Plaza de Panama, one of Balboa Park’s central gathering places. And it’s a good thing that it is so easy to find because you wouldn’t dare skip this trove of more than 20,000 artistic treasures from around the globe, featuring works by such household names as Matisse, O’Keefe, Dalí and Monet. Don’t miss “Portrait of a Man” by Giorgione, a mysterious yet acclaimed Italian painter. Scholars consider the painting “one of the finest Italian Renaissance portraits in the United States” and is even affectionately known as “San Diego’s Mona Lisa” due to both the painting’s brushstrokes and the subject’s enigmatic visage.
Museum of Photographic Arts
Picture this: A museum devoted to the celebration of lens-based art, which is just another way of saying art made through photography, film and video. This compact but well-curated museum is just one of three museums in the country devoted to the photographic arts and is constantly changing it up with exhibits that treat the eye and tantalize the mind. An added bonus is MOPA, as it is known, has one of the best gift shops in the park with cool, quirky finds that will delight anyone with even a passing interest in photography. Also, with a pay-what-you-wish price, a visit here doesn’t have to break the bank.
Japanese Friendship Garden
Parks and Gardens
Looking for a little tranquility to counter the hustle and bustle of daily life? Then head to the Japanese Friendship Garden to soak in its blissful botanical bounty. The garden’s winding paths are lined with cherry blossom trees, wisteria and azaleas and a calming creek runs through the center of it. Don’t miss the koi ponds, bonsai or the 12-foot bronze Kannon Bosatsu – the goddess of mercy and pets – as you explore the Japanese Friendship Garden’s lush 12-acres. In need of more zen? Hatha yoga classes are held Monday, Thursday and Saturday at 9 AM.
Museum of Us
While its mission may be lofty, which is to inspire “human connections by exploring the human experience,” the Museum of Us’s exhibits are not only easily accessible but also endlessly fascinating – not to mention varied. From the study of secrets to the examination of our relationship to pets to the evolution of monsters to the history of beer to, umm, cannibalism, there is no subject matter that is off limits. But the Museum of Us doesn’t just feed the mind, it also provides some pretty nice eye candy, too, with its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and its soaring California Tower.
San Diego Art Institute
As the only contemporary cultural arts institution in the park, the San Diego Art Institute focuses on groundbreaking work by local artists from the bi-national region that includes San Diego and northern Baja. The 9,000-square-foot space houses constantly changing exhibits with an emphasis on meshing art with technology and hosts a variety of events designed to foster community and fuel discussion. Exhibits include Afro and Latinx LGBTQ contemporary art, the lost art of letter writing and a look at constructed and deconstructed landscapes.
The Old Globe Theatre
Named and modeled after the Shakespeare’s theater in London, The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park is considered one of the finest regional theaters in the country and is a breeding ground for Broadway-bound shows. It has three different theaters that provide a range of theater experiences from feel-good musicals to avant-garde works to classics like “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and, of course, the holiday production of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” The Old Globe is also known for its Summer Shakespeare Festival. There is nothing quite like seeing some of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays – “Romeo and Juliet,“ “The Tempest“ and “Much Ado About Nothing“ to name a few – featuring seasoned Shakespearian actors in the 615-seat outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre on a warm summer night with eucalyptus trees framing the space.
San Diego History Center
If you want to discover the history not only of San Diego but also of Balboa Park, a visit to the San Diego History Center is in order. Dedicated to the told and untold history of San Diego, the Center is home to revolving exhibits that explore San Diego’s rich cultural history with hands-on exhibits. Its current main exhibit, LGBTQ+ San Diego, tells the community’s tales of struggles and triumphs. (Speaking of triumphs: San Diego has more openly gay and lesbian elected leaders than San Francisco.) Other exhibits include an examination of San Diego’s skate, punk and hip-hop culture from the 1970s through the 1990s. If you are hankering for the backstory on the park, make sure to check out the History Center’s film “Balboa Park: The Jewel of San Diego,” which airs on an hourly basis. Also, the History Center uses the pay what-you-wish model so there’s no excuse not to check it out.
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