Balboa Park: San Diego’s cultural heart

Balboa Park, San Diego, California

Even in the most densely urban centers of the world, you can always find a lush green oasis that makes you forget there’s a city beyond the velvety grassy laws and rustling oaks or eucalyptus.  Or in the case of San Diego’s Balboa Park, the waving palms.

When I first vacationed here, I was about five or six years old.  The only thing I cared about Balboa Park then was that world-famous zoo – and yes, Sea World (pre-non-PC days).  Most first-graders don’t really dig or want to go to an art or natural museum or botanic gardens, at least those from the 1970s.

Now that I’m middle-aged grownup, I wished I could’ve spent a little more time here.  Even when I’ve been here three times before, it never seems to be enough.  As I mentioned in the last entry, I finally managed to get to Petco Park in my never-ending quest to visit every Major League Baseball park in the country. But that was at the tail end of my trip.

An abbreviated San Diego quest

Right before the ASTA Convention started, I rented a car for a day to explore the town.  I had grand plans to head to La Jolla, Balboa Park, Mission Bay and Pacific Beach, Coronado, Mission San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter and even Tijuana.  Mind you, I only had the car for a day.

Museum of Man, Balboa Park, San Diego, California
Would you see this exhibit on cannibalism the Museum of Man? Not me…

Obviously, I only could do about a third of all those things.  The most outstanding of them was Balboa Park, where even there I simply walked around at twilight.  Only the Museum of Man, with a morbid but fascinating special exhibition on cannibalism, was still open.  The art museum was closed, as was the Japanese friendship garden.  But it was a great experience just to stroll on a late summer evening, with several hundred locals who listened to live music, relaxed and just enjoyed the atmosphere.

Balboa Park, San Diego
A Spanish-style fountain in a central plaza at Balboa Park
Beautiful Balboa Park

The park spreads out over 1,200 acres, just slightly north of downtown.  It features fifteen museums, five performing arts theaters and eight gardens, plus plenty of greenery.  I spent my time in El Prado walkway and Pan American Plaza, which visitors could mistake for an old Spanish-style plaza with elaborately carved Renaissance facades on the buildings and the wide brick-paved sidewalks.  A beautiful tiled fountain provided the focal point for this heart of the park.

Balboa Park, San Diego
Visitors enjoying a canopy bike ride at Balboa Park

Much of this ornate display resulted from San Diego’s hosting two international expositions, one in 1915 (to celebrate the Panama Canal opening) and the other in 1935 (to lift the local economy out the Great Depression).  It’s therefore not surprising that it seems like every landmark here has dressed up in its Sunday best.

Balboa Park, San Diego
The San Diego Art Museum’s dome
The performing arts on display

After parking the rental, I first came across the outdoor Spreckels Organ theater, a fan-shaped amphitheater that houses one of the largest pipe organs in the world.  Concerts are on Sundays and free to the public.

Balboa Park, San Diego, Sprenkels Organ theater
The Spreckels Organ theater, Balboa Park

Another notable building is the Old Globe, where outstanding productions featuring A-list actors like Kevin Spacey have premiered.  It’s also hosted a long-running Shakespeare festival.

Balboa Park, San Diego
The famous Old Globe Theater

Just like with many things involving travel, all the things I missed seeing in Balboa Park this time out means I have a legitimate reason to return to San Diego later.


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