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Merely minutes from bustling downtown San Diego, tucked between concrete office buildings and posh hotels, lies a hidden oasis: Balboa Park. Spanning 1,200-plus acres, this beautiful botanic paradise is the city’s epicenter of art and culture, with 17 diverse museums, cultural landmarks, architectural wonders, award-winning performing arts venues, and the internationally recognized San Diego Zoo. Balboa Park also draws droves of outdoor enthusiasts seeking to explore the lush gardens, enjoy a leisurely picnic on the sprawling lawns, meander through the maze of scenic pathways, and play a round of golf. There truly is something for everyone in this breathtaking expanse, making it one of North America’s most iconic urban parks and a must-see site on any trip to San Diego.
Balboa Park boasts a rich and fascinating history, too. In 1868, local leaders decided to set aside over 1,000 acres of shrub-covered land to create a one-of-a-kind park that could serve as the backdrop for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Named for the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the first European to cross Central America and see the Pacific Ocean, the park was completed in 1910 and then commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal five years later. While the park was originally constructed for this prestigious event, it continues to serve as a gathering place for San Diego residents and visitors alike, allowing them to see the city’s past and future simultaneously.
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The history is reflected in the stunning Spanish Colonial Revival buildings—whose ornamental styles were the first of their kind in the United States—thought-provoking exhibits and installations, and unique cultural events held throughout the year. (It’s no wonder the park has been declared a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Landmark District and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.) While Balboa Park has maintained its history, it has also evolved over the years, welcoming improved landscaping and additional structures such as the Old Globe Theatre, International Cottages, and Spanish Village.
Balboa Park museums include the Fleet Science Center, San Diego Natural History Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, and San Diego Air and Space Museum. Many people also purchase tickets to climb the California Tower in the Museum of Man, which offers one of the best views in San Diego. The ornate structure reopened to the public in 2015 after being closed for nearly 80 years and features a spiral staircase to the eighth floor, where you can see the Cuyamaca Mountains, the Cabrillo Bridge, and even Mexico’s Coronado Islands.
There are also several free attractions such as the photogenic Botanical Building, which houses 2,100-plus plants; the Desert Garden, filled with succulents from across the globe; and a sculpture court with works by Joan Miró and Auguste Rodin.
If you plan to visit more than one or two of the many attractions here, consider purchasing a Balboa Park Explorer Pass. If you're looking for an even better deal, you can download a Balboa Park guide to your iPhone, take a free tour, or get free entrance on Tuesdays (free admission is on a rotating basis, with two to five locations participating each week).
There truly are countless things to do in Balboa Park, so whether you’re an art aficionado, nature lover, or science geek, you can find something to love within its striking expanse. Here’s a glimpse into the urban oasis.
Alejandra is the managing editor of California.com. She's a California native based in the Bay Area and enjoys writing about all things food and travel related. Her work can also be seen in Diablo, T…
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