Balboa Park is the Southland's Smithsonian. With its variety and abundance of museums, art galleries and theaters, San Diego's famed park is the largest cultural complex outside of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Covering 1,074 acres in the heart of town, Balboa Park also boasts one of the world's great zoos. You'll enjoy gardens, restaurants, recreation facilities and special events, too.
It takes at least a day to become acquainted with all that the park has to offer. Plan more time if you intend to tour the dozen museums and art galleries. In the evening, plays are performed on the park's stages that include the Old Globe Theater.
Up-to-Date Guide Map
The best way to become acquainted with the park and plan your visit is with a copy of the guide map that's updated bimonthly and available free at the Balboa Park Information Center. You'll find it in the center of the park in the House of Hospitality.
Get to Balboa Park from Los Angeles by driving south on Interstate 5 to San Diego and the Sassafras Street/San Diego Airport exit. At Laurel Street turn left, go under the freeway and up the hill to 6th Street and the park, where Laurel Street becomes El Prado.
Continue to Plaza de Panama to park for the Hospitality House that's along El Prado, the promenade. It was the main thoroughfare of the Panama-California Exposition, an international fair held in 1915-16 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.
That's when the park was named Balboa, although the land had been set aside for a city park as far back as 1868. The fair also brought the construction of Spanish colonial exhibit halls that remain fanciful symbols of the park.
Continuing restoration has kept the elaborate edifices in good repair, although some had to be rebuilt after being destroyed by fire. Next to the House of Hospitality is Casa de Balboa that was reopened a few years ago after a fire, as home to five museums.
One of them is the Hall of Champions that celebrates San Diego athletes who became well known in sports, including boxer Archie Moore and swimmer Florence Chadwick. Adjacent is the Museum of Photographic Arts, one of the first worldwide to honor still photography, cinema and video.
Also in Casa de Balboa, trains go around the Model Railroad Museum, and you can watch paintings being restored at the Art Conservation Center.
At the east end of El Prado is an especially popular attraction, the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center. It combines astronomy shows with Omnimax films projected onto the dome above you, plus hands-on exhibits that fascinate all ages.
Across the promenade visitors learn about the animals, plants and geology of the Southland in the San Diego Natural History Museum. An adult favorite is nearby, the Botanical Building that's filled with tropical and subtropical plants.
Old Masters, Icons
On the same side of El Prado you'll see the Timken Art Gallery featuring the Old Masters of Europe, 19th-Century American paintings and a collection of early Russian icons.
Steps away is the San Diego Museum of Art, also known for a collection of Old Masters. Its other treats are Asian artworks, traveling exhibitions and a sculpture garden with an outdoor cafe.
Just west is Balboa Park's complex of theater stages, known collectively as the Simon Edison Center for the Performing Arts. Productions that have just gotten under way (and play through March 8): "The Incredibly Famous Willy Rivers" in the Old Globe Theater and "Orphans" on the Cassius Carter Center Stage.
Beneath a park landmark, the 200-foot California Tower, you'll find the San Diego Museum of Man with outstanding American Indian artifacts and other exhibits of the peoples of the Western Americas.
Across El Prado is another well-preserved building of the 1915-16 fair, the House of Charm. It's home for the San Diego Art Institute, where the works of area artists are displayed and sold.
Lunch and Dinner
On the other side of the Plaza de Panama, back in the House of Hospitality, you'll find food and drink in the popular Cafe Del Rey Moro. Lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch are served in Spanish-style dining rooms and garden terraces. Box lunches for picnics in the park can be ordered, too. Phone: (619) 234-8511.
South of El Prado is another complex of buildings built for a later international fair, the 1935-36 California-Pacific Exposition.
On your way to the Pan-American Plaza by foot or car you'll pass the renovated Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Concerts are given Sundays at 2 p.m. (except February) on an outdoor organ, the world's largest with 3,400 pipes.
Also on Sunday afternoons open house is held on the lawn at the House of Pacific Relations, a complex of cottages representing various nations.
Beyond, in a tall Art Deco building, is the Aerospace Historical Center with a hall of fame of famous flyers and a museum of aircraft and space vehicles. Dominating the entry hall is a replica of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.
To the north of El Prado park visitors are delighted by the renowned San Diego Zoo and its collection of 3,200 animals. A pleasant way to view them is aboard a double-deck bus on a 40-minute guided tour. Animal shows also are presented throughout the day. Winter hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The zoo charges admission, as do some of the museums in Balboa Park. On the first Tuesday of each month, entry to all park attractions is free except for the zoo and theaters.
To save money you can buy a "Passport to Balboa Park" for $8 that offers admission to as many as four museums. Get the pass at any participating museum or the information center in the House of Hospitality. Call (619) 239-0512 for other information. The center is open daily, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
Return to Los Angeles by rejoining Interstate 5 north.
Round trip from Los Angeles for the pleasures of Balboa Park in San Diego is 254 miles.