Balboa Park San Diego: The City’s Crown Jewel

By: Caroline Tsai, a Let’s Go! researcher-writer

Balboa Park San Diego: A glimpse of the gardens at Balboa Park San Diego.
A glimpse of the gardens at Balboa Park San Diego. Photo credit: Caroline Tsai/Let’s Go!

If Los Angeles’s crown jewel of outdoor activity is Griffith Park, San Diego’s equivalent is Balboa Park. The park is a 1,200-acre space slightly north of downtown that features most of the city’s main museums. It includes the Art Museum, the Natural History Museum, and perhaps most notably, the San Diego Zoo, whose chairlift extends through the skyline over the tops of pine trees.

San Diego: Exploring Balboa Park

Balboa Park San Diego: A view of the gardens as you walk through them.
A view of the gardens as you walk through them. Photo credit: Caroline Tsai/Let’s Go!

The PlacePass tour of Balboa Park San Diego begins with the main ceremonial entrance to the park, built in 1915 for the cultural exhibition. At 1,200 acres, it’s the largest cultural park in the United States, home to 17 museums and galleries.

Even though the park is only about 100 years old, the entrance looks much older. Maybe even medieval, like something out of a brochure about Spain. It almost reminds me of the Plaza de España in Seville. With an ornate turret and walls embellished with turquoise Spanish tile, the ceremonial entrance stands several hundred feet over the tree-line of the park, a symbol of the grandeur of the exhibition. Visitors who enter here cross under an archway with symbols representing the East and West coasts, united by the creation of the Panama Canal.

Balboa Park: The California Tower

Balboa Park San Diego: The spiraling turret of the California Tower.
The spiraling turret of the California Tower. Photo credit: Caroline Tsai/Let’s Go!

The archway also features the California Tower, a spiral turret that adds even more wow factor. According to the tour guide Jennifer, guests can pay to enter the Tower and climb all 160-odd steps to the top, where you can get a great view of downtown and its relative proximity to the tower.

Despite its height, the Tower isn’t even the most impressive facet of Balboa Park for me. I’m most impressed by the range of museums that call the park home, from the Museum of Natural History to the Art Museum to the Museum of Photographic Arts, each of which feature distinct architectural looks. The almost gothic façade of the Art Museum, adorned by several figures, is juxtaposed with the Eastern look of the domed, thatched-wooden Botanical Garden. The latter almost looks like a temporary stand-in model for a more permanent building, with branches of its flora poking through the gaps in the roof and walls.

Speaking of models… Jennifer pauses the tour to tell me that we’re going to a parking lot next. My confusion must show on my face, because she laughs and leads me to the back entrance of the Museum of Model Trains. In a gated area slightly hidden by trees, there’s a model of Balboa Park in its entirety. It’s depicted the way it looked when the park opened in 1915 for the Panama Pacific Exposition: the Botanical Garden and the different museums, the fountains that spray real water, as well as a model train track running throughout.

Balboa Park San Diego: A closeup of the gorgeous flowers in Balboa Park.
A closeup of the gorgeous flowers in Balboa Park. Photo credit: Caroline Tsai/Let’s Go!

By the end of the tour, I’m wishing I had at least three more days just to explore Balboa Park on its own, let alone all of San Diego. There’s so much ground to cover, both informational (17 museums!) and physical (1,200 acres!). For now, though, it’s time for a quick passionfruit soda and grilled chicken BLT at the park’s Prado Restaurant.

Want to check out San Diego for yourself? Book a tour with PlacePass!

Curious about all things California? Read our blog post on where to take your pets in Cali.

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