Everything You Need to Know about Balboa Park

Everything You Need to Know about Balboa Park

Balboa Park is San Diego’s crown jewel, amassing $356.4 million in revenue each year and drawing almost 30 million annual visitors. We explore the Balboa Park attractions that bring tourists to San Diego year after year.

Balboa Park is bigger than Central Park.

The park covers 1,200 lushly planted acres, featuring gardens, trails, and a variety of recreational attractions. Alcazar Garden, inspired by the Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain, provides seasonal bursts of color. Palm Canyon is the perfect spot to take an afternoon stroll beneath 58 different species of palm tree.

The Japanese Friendship Garden celebrates the friendship between San Diego and its Japanese sister city, Yokohama. Created using centuries-old Japanese techniques, the garden is a relaxing retreat from the hustle and bustle of Downtown San Diego, with its serene koi ponds and water features. The Japanese Friendship Garden hosts numerous festivals and educational programs throughout the year, deepening visitor appreciation of Japanese culture.

The park opened in 1868.

The area originally known as City Park looked very different from Balboa Park as we know it today. This area of Downtown San Diego was scrubland when it was set aside for public use by civic leaders. Landscaping and development did not start until the late 1800s.

The first steps to beautify the park were largely financed by Kate Sessions. She pledged to plant 100 trees in the park in return for a plot of land within the park to establish a commercial nursery.

Image by Mity | Flickr

Ms. Sessions introduced then-rare botanical species to Balboa Park, such as birds of paradise, poinsettia, and queen palms. Many of the trees she planted are still alive today, and for this reason, she is sometimes nicknamed the “Mother of Balboa Park.”

Officials renamed the park in 1910.

In the early 20th century, city leaders staged a competition to come up with a new name for the park. The name Balboa honors the 16th century Spanish conquistador, Vasco Nunez de Balboa. He was the first European explorer to view the Pacific Ocean after crossing the Isthmus of Panama, paving the way for future Spanish exploration along the West Coast of America.

Balboa Park is home to 17 museums.

With almost 20 museums focusing on everything from Spanish colonial history to space travel, the park has plenty to keep visitors of all ages entertained. Balboa Park incorporates some of San Diego’s most important museums:

The Mingei International Museum focuses on historic and contemporary folk art, crafts, and design, with exhibits collected from across the globe, spanning thousands of years of history.

The San Diego Air and Space Museum houses an irreplaceable collection of aeronautical exhibits, including the actual Apollo 9 command module.

The San Diego Museum of Man focuses on cultural anthropology and has something for everyone, with interactive exhibits covering a huge range of topics, from beer-making to cannibalism.

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum draws enthusiasts from around California and beyond. It is the largest functioning model railroad museum in the world and was founded to preserve the history of California’s railroads and the hobby of model railroading.

Marston House Museum occupies the converted home of merchant George W. Marston, a renowned civic leader. Marston was affectionately called the “Father of Balboa Park.” His home dates back to 1905 and is one of the finest examples of Arts & Crafts architecture in California.

Recently, Balboa Park officials unveiled plans for a new Comic Con Museum to bring the magic of sci-fi, fantasy, and popular culture to San Diego on a permanent basis. Development of the 1935 Federal Building is already underway, and curators intend the building to serve as a traditional museum by day and a community venue for fans by night. 

San Diego Zoo lies within Balboa Park.

Occupying 100 acres of Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo is home to over 650 rare and endangered species, housing more than 3,500 animals in total. The zoo’s botanical collection features more than 700,000 exotic plants. Zoo highlights include the Skyfari Aerial Tram, its polar bears, and, of course, the world-famous giant pandas.

Image by chrisinphilly5448 | Flickr

The world’s leading artists perform at Balboa Park.

From classical music to rock ‘n’ roll, Balboa Park hosts some of the world’s most celebrated musical performers.

Throughout the 20th century, the Organ Pavilion, Russ Auditorium, and Starlight Bowl have presented unforgettable performances by the New York Philharmonic as well as a catalogue of Broadway musicals, including Stars Over the Pacific, The Music Man, and The California Story.

The 1960s marked a shift in musical tastes, from big band to rock ‘n’ roll. Over the next 20 years, Balboa Park hosted leading acts like Elton John, Bob Dylan, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones.

Today, Balboa Park stages a comprehensive calendar of musical events. Its Twilight Summer Concerts are a particular hit with locals. From Dixieland jazz to big band swing to salsa, these performances cover a diverse range of musical genres.

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