Start: Cabrillo Bridge, entry at Laurel Street and Sixth Avenue.
Finish: San Diego Zoo.
Time: 2 1/2 hours, not including museum or zoo stops. If you get tired, hop on the free park tram.
Best Times: Anytime. If you want to get especially good photographs, come in the afternoon, when the sun lends a glow to the already photogenic buildings. Most museums are open until 4 or 5pm (many are closed on Mon).
Worst Times: More people (especially families) visit the park on weekends. But there is a festive -- rather than overcrowded -- spirit even then, particularly on Sunday afternoons when you can catch a free organ concert at the outdoor Spreckels Organ Pavilion at 2pm.
Established in 1868, Balboa Park is the second-oldest city park in the United States, after New York's Central Park. Much of its striking architecture was the product of the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition. The structures, which now house a variety of museums, contribute to the overall beauty of the park. But what makes Balboa Park truly unique is the extensive botanical collection, thanks largely to Kate Sessions, a horticulturist who devoted her life to transforming the barren mesas and scrub-filled canyons into the oases they are today. Originally called "City Park," it was renamed in 1910 when Mrs. Harriet Phillips won a contest, naming it in honor of the Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who in 1513 was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.
Take bus no. 3 or 120 along Fifth Avenue to Laurel Street, which leads into Balboa Park through its most dramatic entrance, the:
1. Cabrillo Bridge
It has expansive views of downtown San Diego and straddles scenic, sycamore-lined Hwy. 163 (which John F. Kennedy allegedly proclaimed as "the most beautiful highway I've ever seen," during his 1963 visit to San Diego). Built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition and patterned after a bridge in Ronda, Spain, the dramatic cantilever-style bridge has seven pseudo-arches. As you cross the bridge, to your left you'll see the yellow cars of the zoo's aerial tram and, directly ahead, the distinctive California Tower of the Museum of Man. The delightful sounds of the 100-bell Symphonic Carillon can be heard every quarter-hour. Sitting atop this San Diego landmark is a weather vane shaped like the ship in which Cabrillo sailed to California in 1542. The city skyline lies to your right.
Once you've crossed the bridge, go through the:
2. West Gate
The heart of Balboa Park is accessed through this ceremonial arch. Built for the 1915 Exposition, the gateway's two reclining figures hold flowing water jugs and represent the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The park's cornucopia of attractions lies just beyond. For now, just view the museums from the outside.
You have entered the park's major thoroughfare, El Prado -- if you're driving a car, you'll want to find a parking space and go to the:
3. San Diego Museum of Man
Architect Bertram Goodhue designed this structure, originally known as the California Building, in 1915 -- it now houses an anthropological museum. Goodhue, considered the world's foremost authority on Spanish Colonial architecture, was the master architect for the 1915-16 exposition. The exterior doubled as part of Kane's mansion in the 1941 Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane; historical figures carved on the facade include conquistador Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Spanish kings Charles I and Phillip III, and, at the very top, Father Junípero Serra.
Just beyond and up the steps to the left is the nationally acclaimed:
4. Old Globe Theatre
This is actually a three-theater complex that includes the Old Globe, an outdoor stage, and a small theater-in-the-round. The Old Globe was built for the 1935 exposition as a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre; it was meant to be demolished at the conclusion of the expo but was saved by a group of dedicated citizens. In 1978, an arsonist destroyed the theater, which was rebuilt into what you see today; if you have the opportunity to go inside, you can see the bronze bust of Shakespeare that miraculously survived the fire, battered but unbowed. In 2010, the Globe completed sweeping renovations in honor of its 75th anniversary.
Beside the theater is the:
5. Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art Sculpture Garden features works by Joan Miró and Alexander Calder, as well as a signature piece, Reclining Figure: Arch Leg, by Henry Moore. Reclining Figure was damaged by a falling tree branch several years ago, but it was seamlessly repaired and reclaimed its spot in the garden. Admission is free.
Across the street, to your right as you stroll along the Prado, is the:
6. Alcazar Garden
It was designed in 1935 by Richard Requa and W. Allen Perry. They patterned it after the gardens surrounding the Alcazar Castle in Sevilla, Spain. The garden is formally laid out and trimmed with low clipped hedges; in the center walkway are two star-shaped yellow-and-blue tile fountains. The large tree at the rear is an Indian laurel fig, planted by Kate Sessions when the park was first landscaped.
Exit to your left at the opposite end of the garden, and you'll be back on El Prado. Proceed east to the corner; on your right is the:
7. House of Charm
This is the site of the San Diego Art Institute gallery and the Mingei International Museum. The Art Institute is a nonprofit space that primarily exhibits works by local artists; the Mingei offers changing exhibitions that celebrate human creativity expressed in textiles, costumes, jewelry, toys, pottery, paintings, and sculpture.
To your left is the imposing:
8. San Diego Museum of Art
This exquisite facade was patterned after the famous university building in Salamanca, Spain. The three life-size figures over the scalloped entryway are the Spanish painters Bartolomé Murillo, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Diego Velázquez. The museum holds San Diego's most extensive collection of fine art; major touring shows are presented, as well. There's also an ongoing schedule of concerts, films, and lectures, usually themed with a current exhibition.
Across the street are the House of Hospitality and the park's:
9. Visitor Center
Pick up maps, souvenirs, and discount tickets to the museums here; the park's guided tours also depart from this location. In the central courtyard behind the visitor center is the beautiful Woman of Tehuantepec fountain sculpture by Donal Hord, as well as the attractive Prado restaurant.
Head back toward the House of Charm, passing the statue of the mounted:
10. El Cid Campeador
Created by Anna Hyatt Huntington and dedicated in 1930, this sculpture of the 11th-century Spanish hero was made from a mold of the original statue in the court of the Hispanic Society of America in New York. A third version is in Sevilla, Spain. A decidedly more modern sculpture is found outside the entrance to the Mingei Museum. Created by Niki de Saint Phalle, a French artist who made San Diego her home until her death in 2002, the colorful mosaic alligator is a favorite with kids, who love to clamber over it.
Continue to your left toward the ornamental outdoor Organ Pavilion. Before reaching the pavilion, the wooden bridge above the ravine on your right will take you into:
11. Palm Canyon
Fifty species of palm, plus magnolia trees and a Moreton Bay fig tree provide a tropical canopy here. It's secluded, so care should be exercised if you're walking solo, but you can get a good sense of its beauty by venturing only a short distance along the path. The walkway dead-ends, so you must exit from where you entered.
From the top of Palm Canyon, continue to the ornate:
12. Spreckels Organ Pavilion
Donated to San Diego by brothers John D. and Adolph B. Spreckels, the pavilion was dedicated on December 31, 1914. Famed contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink sang at the ceremony; a brass plaque honors her charity and patriotism. Free, lively recitals featuring one of the largest outdoor organs in the world (its vast structure contains 4,518 pipes) are given Sundays at 2pm, with additional concerts and events scheduled in the summer.
As you continue on, you'll see the Hall of Nations on your right, and beside it, the:
13. United Nations Building
This building also houses the United Nations International Gift Shop, a favorite for its diverse merchandise, much of it handmade around the world. You'll recognize the shop by the United States and United Nations flags out front. Check the bulletin board, or ask inside, for the park's calendar of events. If you need to rest, there's a pleasant spot with a few benches opposite the gift shop.
You will notice a cluster of small houses with red-tile roofs. They are the:
14. House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
These charming dollhouse cottages promote ethnic and cultural awareness and are open to the public on Sunday afternoons and on the fourth Tuesday of the month year-round. From March to October, there are lawn programs with folk dancing.
Take a quick peek into some of the cottages, and then keep heading south to see more of the park's museums; to your right is the notable:
15. San Diego Automotive Museum
Whether you're a gearhead into muscle cars or someone who appreciates the sculptural beauty of fine design, this museum has something for everyone. It features a changing roster of exhibits, as well as a permanent collection of fabulous wheels.
And the cylindrical:
16. San Diego Air & Space Museum
The museums in this part of the park operate in structures built for the 1935-36 Exposition. It is not necessary to walk all the way to the Air & Space Museum (located appropriately enough under the flight path to San Diego's airport), but it's one of San Diego's finest examples of Art Deco architecture. Across the parking lot on the left is the Hall of Champions Sports Museum, with another fun Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture in front.
Go back past the parking lot and the Organ Pavilion. Take a shortcut through the pavilion, exit directly opposite the stage, and follow the sidewalk to your right. Almost immediately, you'll come to the:
17. Japanese Friendship Garden
Only a small portion of this 12-acre canyon has been developed, but the part that has been incorporates beautifully serene, traditional Japanese elements. At the entrance is an attractive teahouse whose deck overlooks the entire ravine; there is a small meditation garden beside it.
18. Take a Break
Now is your chance to have a bite to eat, sip a cool drink, and review the tourist literature you picked up at the visitor center. The Tea Pavilion (tel. 619/231-0048) at the Japanese Friendship Garden serves fresh sushi, noodle soups, and Asian salads -- it also carries imported Japanese candies and beverages as well as more familiar snacks.
Return to El Prado, which becomes a pedestrian mall to the east of the El Cid sculpture. Set your sights on the fountain at the end of the broad walkway and head toward it. Stroll down the middle of El Prado to get the full benefit of the lovely buildings on either side. On weekends, you'll pass street musicians, artists, and clowns -- one of their favorite haunts is around the fountain.
The latticework building you see to the left is the:
19. Botanical Building & Lily Pond
An open-air conservatory, this delicate wood lath structure dates to the 1915-16 Exposition, and is filled with 2,100 permanent plants, plus seasonal displays. Particularly noteworthy is the collection of cycads and ferns. Admission is free, and the gardens are a cool retreat on a hot day. Directly in front is the Lily Pond.
Back on El Prado, left of the Lily Pond, you'll see the:
20. Casa de Balboa
Inside, you'll find the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Model Railroad Museum, and the San Diego History Center. Note the realistic-looking bare-breasted figures atop the Casa de Balboa. These shameless caryatids were the perfect complement to the nudist colony that temporarily sprouted as an attraction in Zoro Garden -- the canyon immediately east of the building -- during the 1935-36 Exposition.
On the other side of El Prado, on your left, note the ornate work on the:
21. Casa del Prado
While it doesn't house a museum, it's one of the best -- and most ornate -- of the El Prado buildings, featuring baroque Spanish Golden Age ornamentation.
At the end of El Prado, on either side of the fountain, are two museums particularly appealing to children; the first, on the right, is the:
22. Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
This science fun house has plenty of hands-on attractions, as well as a giant-screen IMAX theater.
To the left is the:
23. San Diego Natural History Museum
The original building that stood on this spot burned to the ground in 1925 -- hours before local firefighters were to gather there for their annual gala. A new structure, funded by the ever-generous Ellen Browning Scripps, rose in 1933. In 2001, the museum more than doubled in size with the completion of an ultramodern wing that springs from the building's north side.
In the center of the Plaza de Balboa is the high-spouting:
24. Bea Evenson Fountain
This fountain was added to the park in 1972, and was later named in honor of the woman who formed the "Committee of 100," a group dedicated to preserving the park's architecture. It spouts water almost 60 feet into the air, but what makes it truly unique is a wind regulator on top of the Natural History Museum -- as the wind increases, the fountain's water pressure is lowered so the water doesn't spray over the edges. The 200-foot-wide fountain is especially beautiful at night when it's illuminated by colored lights.
From here, use the pedestrian bridge to cross the road and visit the nearly secret:
They are tucked away on the other side of the boulevard: to your left, a Desert Garden for plants at home in an arid landscape; to your right, the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Gardens, home to 2,400 roses. The World Rose Society voted the latter as one of the top 16 rose gardens in the world. Blooms peak March through May, but there are almost always some flowers visible, except in January and February when they are pruned. After you've enjoyed the flowers and plants, return to El Prado.
Just past the Natural History Museum, take a right. Behind the museum is another voluptuous Moreton Bay fig tree, planted in 1915 for the exposition; it's now more than 62 feet tall, with a canopy 100 feet in diameter.
Straight ahead is the quiet:
26. Spanish Village Art Center
Artists work here daily from 11am to 4pm. They create jewelry, paintings, and sculptures in tile-roofed studios around a courtyard. There are restrooms here, too.
Exit at the back of the Spanish Village Art Center and take the paved, palm-lined sidewalk that will take you past the:
27. Miniature Railroad and Carousel
The tiny train makes a 3-minute loop through the eucalyptus trees, while the charming 1910 carousel offers a ride atop hand-carved wood frogs, horses, and pigs. The train and carousel are open daily in summer, weekends the rest of the year.
To the left is the entrance to the world-famous:
28. San Diego Zoo entrance
You can also retrace your steps and visit some of the tempting museums you just passed, saving the zoo for another day.
Bus tip: From here, you can walk out past the zoo parking lot to Park Boulevard; the bus stop (a brown-shingled kiosk) is on your right. The no. 7 bus will take you back to downtown San Diego.
29. Winding Down
Back on El Prado (in the House of Hospitality), the Prado Restaurant (tel. 619/557-9441) has a handsome view of the park from oversize windows and a great patio for outdoor dining. Far from your average park concession, the Prado boasts a zesty menu with colorful ethnic influences -- plus inventive margaritas and Latin cocktails. Lunch starts daily at 11:30am (Sat-Sun at 11am), and a festive (expensive) dinner menu takes over at 5pm (daily except Mon; reservations advisable). In between, a long list of tapas will satisfy any hunger pangs.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.