Balboa Park in San Diego, California, is a 1,200-acre city park pairing open outdoor spaces with a number of museums and attractions. Seventeen museums and cultural institutions have their home at the park, some housed in the historical Spanish Renaissance-style buildings that have graced the site since 1915.
Museums at Balboa Park include the San Diego Air and Space Museum, Art Institute, Automotive Museum, Veterans Museum, Museum of Man, and Natural History Museum as well as the WorldBeat Center, Mingei International Museum, and Timken Museum of Art. The park is home to ten performing arts spaces for a variety of plays, musicals, operas, and more and is home to the San Diego Youth Symphony, Youth Ballet, and Junior Theater. Close to 20 landscaped gardens are dispersed throughout the grounds and display a variety of flora. There is a cactus garden, which dates back to 1935, the California Native Plant Garden, the EthnoBotany Children’s Peace Garden, and the Veterans Memorial Garden among others. The Botanical Building and Lily Pond is a popular attraction and features one of the world’s largest lath structures, built in 1915 and home to over 2,100 plants. Other must-see attractions at the park include the carousel, built in 1910, a rare antique miniature train, still operating today, and the San Diego Zoo. The 100-acre zoo is home to over 3,000 species of endangered and rare animals and is known worldwide for its natural habitats and lush vegetation. The park offers a variety of recreational opportunities. There is a golf course, a tennis club, a cycling velodrome, lawn-bowling, disc-golf, and a municipal gym. Five separate trailheads lead visitors to over 65 miles of hiking. The park is home to four playgrounds and three off-leash dog parks.
History: Balboa Park began in 1868 when 1,400 acres of land were set aside for use as a city park overlooking downtown San Diego. Twenty years later, Kate Sessions was the first to landscape the site when she offered the city a donation of over 100 trees and shrubs in exchange for 32 acres to use for her commercial nursery. The city devised their own master plan for park development in 1905, which included the addition of water systems and roads. In 1915 the name Balboa Park was chosen in honor of the Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. Many of the park’s structures were built for the 1915–1916 Panama-California Exposition, an event commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal. The Spanish Renaissance-style buildings are an example of one of the first times this particular highly decorated and flamboyant style of architecture was used in the United States.
Today, these structures house many of the park’s museums and programming. Landscape elements built for the 1915 expo include the Lily Pond, the Botanical Building, and the Moreton Bay fig, which today stands at over 60 feet tall. In 1916, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, a local surgeon and the zoo’s first president, established the San Diego Zoo for the second year of the expo. The San Diego Museum of Art was established in 1926, and soon after came the San Diego History Center (1928) and the San Diego Natural History Museum (1933). The second World’s Fair, the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, introduced another boom of construction at the park with the addition of the Old Globe Theater, the Spanish Village Art Center, and the 1935 Gardens. It was at this World’s Fair that Kate Sessions earned the title of “Mother of Balboa Park” for her role in the park’s development and landscaping. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, more museums and science centers were founded, and the park recovered from two devastating fires. The Japanese Friendship Garden, Mingei Museum, and San Diego Art Institute all moved to the park in the 1990s. In the 2000s the park ushered in the new millennium with Expo 2000, a nod to the park’s past two formative expositions.
Ongoing Programs and Education: The park offers a number of ways in which to explore and learn more about the park features, and the museums and other attractions within the park each have their own offerings. One-hour tours with park rangers discuss the park’s history and educate guests on the park’s botany and architecture. For a more in-depth experience of the park’s buildings, the Architectural History Tour is offered once monthly. Botanical Building tours teach about the history of the building and the famed begonia expert behind its founding. A 90-minute self-guided audio tour begins at the park’s visitor’s center. Several independent dance groups offer classes at the park, ranging from swing to waltz to samba.
1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
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