Occupying 1,200 acres overlooking downtown San Diego and containing fifteen major museums, performing arts venues, lovely gardens and the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park is the largest urban cultural park in the United States. First known as "City Park,'' this sprawling resource was envisioned by civic leaders in 1868, developed in 1892, and master-planned in 1903. A citywide naming contest was held in 1910, and the park was renamed in honor of explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to sight the Pacific Ocean.
A World's Fair called the "Panama-California Exposition'' was held here in 1915-16. This was the impetus for construction of highly ornamented, flamboyant Spanish-Renaissance style buildings, which today house many of the cultural institutions along the park's famous El Prado pedestrian walkway. These include the National Historic Landmark House of Hospitality where the Balboa Park Visitors Center is located. Also established during the second year of this exposition (1916) was the world-renowned San Diego Zoo.
The San Diego Museum of Art, Southern California's oldest and largest art museum, was founded in Balboa Park in 1926. It features old European masters, American art of the 19th and 20th centuries, a huge Asian collection, and displays of contemporary and Latin American art, while presenting major art exhibitions, cultural activities and educational programs from around the world.
In 1935-36, a second World's Fair known as the "California Pacific International Exposition'' was held here. Many of the buildings at the southern end of the park around the Pan American Plaza were built for this event, adding Southwestern architecture to the mix, including early Aztec and Mexican pueblo structures as well as Art Deco and Arte Moderne styles.
For performing arts, the Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theatre was also created for the Fair in 1935. It is now flanked by two other theatrical venues: the intimate Cassius Carter Centre Stage and the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. Also located in the park is the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, which features one of the world's largest outdoor pipe organs, a holdover from the original World's Fair. The 1914 organ contains 4,530 pipes and is housed in a vaulted structure with embellished gables.
A catalog of all the attractions within Balboa Park could easily fill volumes. Its museums range from art and science to air, space, natural history and anthropology. Its stages offer a full schedule of plays, musicals, concerts, ballet and puppetry. Its lush gardens include an award-winning rose garden, the Japanese Friendship Garden, a desert garden, and the historic Botanical Building. Indeed, Balboa Park was ranked in 2003 among the 24 Best Parks in the World by the Project for Public Places for its unique blend of horticulture, art, history and culture.
There are more than a dozen places to eat in the park, from hot dog stands and coffee carts to the award-winning Prado restaurant. Also found here are special attractions, such as the 1910 Balboa Park Carousel, a half-mile-long miniature railroad, a collection of international cottages, and the area's largest arts and crafts community in the Spanish Village Art Center. And there are hiking trails marked with color coded, numbered signs to inform users of distances, difficulty and changes of route direction.
Located at 1549 El Prado, San Diego, California 92101, the Balboa Park Visitors Center is open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm. Center staff and volunteers can provide brochures, maps, audio tours, and information about the park's facilities. They serve more than half a million visitors from all over the world museum every year, directing them to exhibits, special events, recreational activities, free guided tours, gardens, transportation, dining options, and more.
The park grounds are open 24 hours a day, and admission is free of charge for all visitors, including the Botanical Building and most gardens. Museum hours vary, as do admission prices. Tuesday is Resident's Free Day, with organizations offering, on a rotating basis, free admission to local residents, active military and their families.
Balboa Park is just minutes from downtown San Diego, easily accessed via major freeways and public transportation. By car, take the I-5 South to the 10th Avenue Exit. Turn left onto A Street and continue to Park Boulevard. Turn left on Park and follow the signs to the park. The Inspiration Point parking lot is on the east side of Park. Valet parking is available weekday evenings (except Mondays) and on weekends in front of the House of Hospitality in the Plaza de Panama.