When you think San Diego, the first thing to come to mind might not be deep-rooted history. Of course everyone knows about the beautiful beaches, fun nightlife, and flawless sunsets, but San Diego also has an interesting past that will bring out the history buff in everyone. One of the most historic areas is Balboa Park. If history isn’t your bag, then the architecture and gardens are certain to impress. It helps to know what to look for, so here is our guide to exploring Balboa Park.
A Brief History
If you aren’t looking for a history, feel free to skip this. My feelings will only be a little hurt. The park has existed since 1868 (then called “City Park”) when city leaders sectioned off 1400 acres of land. Thanks to efforts in the late 1890s by Kate Sessions (aka “The Mother of Balboa Park”) the park developed into a horticultural mecca. She planted loads of trees, birds of paradise, and palms to make the park more tropical. The park earned the name “Balboa Park” thanks to a 1915 Panama-California exposition. Citizens of San Diego at the time took great interest in the name. The park’s commissioners named it after Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the first man to spot the Pacific Ocean while exploring Panama.
Many of the Spanish-style buildings seen today were built for this 1915 exposition celebrating the opening of the canal, so really we have the Panama Canal to thank for this wonderful park. Throughout the years, the park would continue to grow. Of course, the opening of the San Diego Zoo in 1916 was a huge step forward for the park. The ’30s were also a significant time in the park’s history as it became home to the Old Globe theatre, Zoro Gardens, and played host to two World’s Fairs. During WWII, the Navy made use of Balboa Park as an extension of the Balboa Naval Hospital.
Balboa Park continues to grow today, but has a firm commitment to honoring the history of this park. In 1977, the park was declared a National Historic Landmark. There truly is something for everyone here, so let us show you some of our favorite spots!
Many of the buildings in Balboa Park have been standing since the park’s inception. The architects used the Spanish-Renaissance style to celebrate the partnership between Panama and the United States. This was really the first time anyone used this style in the States, and it quickly became a very popular to build homes this way.
The buildings were designed to house beautiful pieces of artwork, but throughout the years have become some of the most gorgeous parts of the park itself. There are more architectural features than just this flamboyant style too. The Botanical Garden itself is an architectural feat, being one of the largest structures of its kind. There’s also the elaborate Spreckels Organ Pavilion which was designed for huge outdoor concerts.
The gardens contained in Balboa Park are probably my favorite spots to consistently visit. No matter what time of year you visit the Balboa Park gardens, you can find loads of flowers in bloom. One of the most unique gardens is the Cactus Garden. The garden is another brainchild of Kate Sessions and has been growing since 1935. It contains succulent and cacti unique to California. More recently, exotic plants from Africa and Australia have been included.
The Botanical Garden is another area that you shouldn’t miss. The lily pond and Botanical Garden building are some of the most Instagram-able spots in all of San Diego. Inside this 100-year-old wooden structure, there are over 2000 species of plants. It’s an excellent place to enjoy the shade and learn about plants from around the world.
Other favorite gardens are the Alcazar Garden and the Rose Garden, both of which you can get detailed information on by hooking up with a fun tour!
There are 17 museums within the park. Some museums cover history, some flight and space travel, some art. One thing is for sure, if you have an interest it is likely represented within the park. There is a lot of ground to cover, so your best bet is doing a bit of research to see what interests you. Or you could always ask a local!
Some of our favorites are the San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center, and the Mingei International Museum. If you have younger kids along with you, you should definitely put the San Diego Model Railroad Museum and San Diego Air & Space Museum on the list as well.
How to Explore
The City of San Diego is working towards a goal of having no access for cars in Balboa Park, and they are most of the way there. You could definitely walk through the park if you have a fair amount of time to meander. If you need to be a little more economical with your visit, try taking a tour to hit the hot spots.
That’s what we love about exploring Balboa Park! Check out the rest of our blog for San Diego lifestyle and tourism tips! Cheers!
Author: Scott Nickley
Scott Nickley is a writer, actor, cyclist, runner, and cafe loiterer living in Los Angeles. You can find his work on the Fly Rides website and find him in the flesh following all cycling laws in your nearest bike lane.