San Diego's crown jewel is Balboa Park, a 1,174-acre city-owned playground and the largest urban cultural park in the nation. The park was established in 1868 in the heart of the city, bordered by downtown to the southwest and fringed by the early communities of Hillcrest and Golden Hill to the north and east. Originally called City Park, the name was eventually changed to commemorate the Spanish explorer Balboa. Tree plantings started in the late 19th century, while the initial buildings were created to host the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition; another expo in 1935-36 brought additional developments.
The park's most distinctive features are its mature landscaping, the architectural beauty of the Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings lining El Prado (the park's east-west pedestrian thoroughfare), and the engaging and diverse museums contained within it. You'll also find eight different gardens, walkways, 4.5 miles of hiking trails in Florida Canyon, an ornate pavilion with one of the world's largest outdoor organs, an IMAX domed theater, the acclaimed Old Globe Theatre, and the San Diego Zoo.
The park is divided into three distinct sections, separated by Hwy. 163 and Florida Canyon. The narrow western wing of the park consists of largely grassy open areas that parallel Sixth Avenue -- it's a good place for picnics, strolling, sunning, and dog-walking; the only museum in this section is the Marston House. The eastern section is devoid of cultural attractions, but has the Balboa Park Municipal Golf Course. The central portion of the park, between Hwy. 163 and Florida Drive, contains the zoo and all of the museums.
If you really want to visit the zoo and a few of the park's museums, don't try to tackle it all in the same day. Allow at least 3 hours to tour the zoo; the amount of time you spend in the 15 major museums will vary depending on your personal interests. Check out the walking tour that takes in most of the park's highlights. There are informal restaurants serving sandwiches and snacks throughout the park -- for breakfast, Tobey's 19th Hole at the municipal golf course is a find; try lunch at the Japanese Friendship Garden's Tea Pavilion or in the San Diego Museum of Art's sculpture garden. The Prado Restaurant is also a San Diego favorite for lunch or dinner.
There are two primary road entrances into the heart of the park. The most distinctive is from Sixth Avenue and Laurel Street: Laurel turns into El Prado as it traverses the beautiful Cabrillo Bridge across Hwy. 163. You can also enter via Presidents Way from Park Boulevard. Major parking areas are at Inspiration Point just east of Park Boulevard at Presidents Way; in front of the zoo; and along Presidents Way between the Aerospace Museum and Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Other lots, though more centrally located, are small and in high demand, especially on weekends.
Public bus no. 7 runs along Park Boulevard; for the west side of the park, nos. 1, 3, and 120 run along Fourth and Fifth avenues (except for the Marston House, all museums are closer to Park Blvd.). Free tram transportation within the park runs daily from 8:30am to 6pm, with extended hours in summer months. The red trolley trams originate at the Inspiration Point parking lot to circuit the park, arriving every 8 to 10 minutes and stopping at designated pickup areas. Stop by the Balboa Park Visitors Center, in the House of Hospitality (tel. 619/239-0512; www.balboapark.org), to learn about walking and museum tours, or to pick up a brochure about the gardens of the park. The visitors center is open daily, 9:30am to 4:30pm, with extended summer hours. Note: Some museums are closed on Mondays.
Balboa Park Money-Savers -- If you plan to visit more than three of the park's museums, buy the Passport to Balboa Park -- it allows entrance to 14 museums and attractions, and is valid for 1 week. It's $45 for adults, $24 for children 3 to 12. If you plan to spend a day at the zoo and return for the museums another day, buy the Zoo/Passport combo, which provides one ticket to the zoo and admission to the museums for $75 adults, $39 children. The Stay-for-the-Day pass gives you 1-day access to 5 museums for $35 (adults only). Passports can be purchased at any participating attraction (but not the zoo), at the visitor center, or online at www.balboapark.org. Note: Passports may not cover admission to special exhibitions.
All About Balboa Park Guided Tours
Guided tours of the park cater to a wide variety of interests, from historical to horticultural (most tours start from the visitor center, tel. 619/239-0512; www.balboapark.org). There are free rotating tours on Saturdays at 10am that highlight either the palm trees and vegetation or park history; park rangers lead free 1-hour tours focusing on the park's history, architecture, and botanical resources every Tuesday and Sunday at 1pm. Rangers also conduct trail walks through the park on the second Wednesday of the month. The Committee of 100 (tel. 619/795-9362; www.c100.org), an organization dedicated to preserving the park's Spanish Colonial architecture, offers a free exploration of the historic structures on the first Wednesday of the month at 9:30am. A self-guided audio tour is also available at the visitor center costing $5 for adults; $4 for seniors, students, and military; and $3 for children 3 to 11.
The 90-minute Old Globe Theatre Tour visits the three performance venues and backstage areas on most Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30am; the tour costs $5 for adults and $3 for seniors and students (tel. 619/231-1941; www.theoldglobe.org). Plant Day at the San Diego Zoo is held the third Friday of each month and features self-guided and guided horticultural tours and activities. The orchid house is open to the public 10am to 2pm on Plant Day, as well as for Orchid Odyssey on the first Sundays of March, June, September, and December (zoo admission required; call tel. 619/231-1515 for more details or go to www.sandiegozoo.org).