BALBOA PARK, San Diego: Best in the U.S.

by Louis Bignami

When Balboa "discovered" the Pacific Ocean for Spain, he certainly never envisioned a namesake park, let alone such a wonderful example of urban landscape design. For San Diego's Balboa Park could be the best urban park in the world.

Situated in the park, the San Diego Zoo tops zoo expert's lists. The park's incredible selection of museums, exhibits, theaters and cultural activities attracts hordes of locals and foreign visitors. Darwinian "survival of the fittest" enters here too. With so many outdoor options available year-round in balmy weather, the park must offer something special to lure locals and visitors from beach and bay.

Even without special seasonal attractions, you could take a week to see everything. Your tastes doubtless differ from ours too. So we offer a short rundown on each activity class so you can route your visit to suit the time you have to invest.

Flora and Fauna

While life "is a beach" on the coast, in Balboa Park it is exhibitions of fauna and flora centered on the San Diego Zoo. First time visitors should consider a double-decker bus orientation tour, or try the Skyfari for an overview of the park that's carefully situated to take advantage of its setting. After obligatory visits to the koalas and pygmy chimps, and a look at the scheduled pandas, you can return to the exhibits that tempt you most.

For example, we especially enjoy the super collection of apes, monkeys and lesser known simians, the wonderful birds and rare "hand painted" Mhorr gazelles. I like to walk and look, then sit and watch to rest the feet. Kids have their special zoo, too. If you tire, take the small fry to the Butterfly Rides, classic carousel or miniature Super Chief train ride by the zoo entrance. You might try the pedicabs from the zoo to the lot or opt for a carriage ride as well.

With so many animal exhibits it's difficult, but worthwhile, to save time for the flora. Some zoo trees and many park plants are outstanding examples of their species. Garden buffs enjoy the Alcazar Garden, Lily Pond, Cactus and Zoro Gardens. There is a memorial rose garden as well. Check park maps carefully to find other attractions.
If it rains consider the Natural History Museum. It is extremely strong on local and Southwestern ecology. The "hands on" video learning center and weekend nature walks and films can save a washed out day when you can't visit the zoo.

Arts and Crafts

Museums easily fill rainy days. Given the spectacular scenery and, until the recent population explosion of smog makers, the clear air, strong support for San Diego art museums should be no surprise. Since my wife and I are professional photographers, we first visit the Museum of Photographic Arts when major exhibitions grace the walls. The usual mix of lectures, workshops and films more than repay the admission. On weekends afternoon group tours offer a bonus.

The Timken Art Gallery is the "best of show" for Balboa Park's art offerings. It's small, but the paintings by masters such as Bruegel and Rembrandt are outstanding. Skip the Russian icons, and head for the San Diego Museum of Art's larger, if more eclectic collections if you don't favor gilt. Italian Renaissance and Spanish Baroque, the strong points of the collection, aren't my cup of tea. So I check the Asian art and French Impressionists before it's tea time at the Sculpture Garden Cafe.

There is more art too. The San Diego Art Institute features work of local artists of varied merit and, now and then, professional shows. We find more lively artists, and skilled artisans, at the Spanish Village Arts and Crafts Center. At various times we watched potters and stained glass experts here. It is the spot for an afternoon break.

Science and Technology

The Spirit of St. Louis was built in San Diego, and a replica hangs in the AeroSpace Historical Center, one of several park museums which reflect the importance of science and technology in San Diego. The San Diego Aerospace Museum holds a dandy collection of historical aircraft and war birds such as Spitfires, and a Mig-15. The AeroSpace Hall of Fame is part of the package. It's a bargain if you can keep aviation buffs out of the gift shop!

You get into the Rueben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center on the same ticket. If you can, hit the first show at 9:45 before crowds gather. The dome-screen and 152 speakers redefine "surrounded by sound." If you don't arrive early, and miss the cut for seats, you can easily spend time between shows in the "hands on" exhibits. Don't bring teenagers here in the morning. You may not get them away from the exhibits!!

A few hundred yards away, the San Diego Automotive Museum delights Ford and other automobile marque buffs. Local Ford dealers contributed $150,000, so there are lots of Fords on hand. Other interesting vehicles include early examples of RVs.

Trains, even models, always get my attention. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum has 21,000 square feet of O, HO and N scale model railway that replicate San Diego and nearby tracks. Children find the 22-foot tall railroad semaphore outside the Museum a wonder even before it moves, its gears turn, flags wave and lights flash. This is well worth the five minute wait.

History and Culture

San Diego certainly reflects its long, multicultural heritage in its other museums. Centro Cultural de la Raza runs to colorful Mexican, Indian and Chicano exhibits. The murals are worth a look. The House of Pacific Relations huddles in a collection of small cottages; each reflects a different nation. On Sunday afternoons all sorts of ethnic diversions -- bagpipes and dim sum, for example -- vary in quality and taste. It, like the nearby United Nations Building and shop are worth a look if you are in the area with time to spare.

The Museum of San Diego History and San Diego Hall of Champions suit locals interested in the minutiae of the area's history. Try the San Diego Museum of Man instead. Baskets, pottery and jewelry rank with the best art in town. Weaving and tortilla making exhibits are first rate. So is the gift shop, with some of the best values in the park.

Fuel Stops

After a good pair of walking shoes, food to fuel your wanderings is a prime need. Food in the park and at the zoo varies. Creative Croissants, in the AeroSpace buildings, gets full marks for light lunches. The Sculpture Garden Cafe runs to even lighter items. My wife calls these "ladies lunches." The Chocolate Lily Express Cafe runs to Italian coffee house specialties.

Casa del Rey Moro decor seems more delightful than the food, but they do sell decent box lunches. We haven't tried dinner, with the Epicurean delights of San Diego proper just outside the park. Pizza and hot dogs at concession stands, and food at the zoo, did not impress on our last visit. A trip to a local deli and brown bagging seem a fine choice on any budget!

Theater & Music

Theater and music can treat your ears, and rest your feet, after a long Balboa Park Day. The Old Globe Theatre deserves its Tony Award. Three separate stages, the "you can hear a pin drop" Old Globe, the small Cassius Carter Centre Stage and the outdoor, and usually balmy, Lowell Davies Festival Theater mix Shakespeare and classics with more modern works. Shakespeare in the Old Globe offers a taste of England. Since most performances are in the evenings, a visit to the Old Globe won't clog your schedule. My wife notes, "Bundling under a blanket at the Lowell Davies Theatre suits romantics." Last trip we enjoyed John Goodman of Rosanne fame, as Falstaff in a unique joining of both parts of Henry IV. It was decent, but outclassed by the Shakespearean specialists. It probably takes time to get used to the odd airliner overhead and the odder seal chatter from the zoo towards dusk.

The Starlight Bowl runs summer musicals at 8 p.m. from June through September. With 4,324 seats, you might need binoculars if you do not book up front. You miss some theater nuances in the spectacular open-air setting. Generally frisky casts that, with only 10 performances per show, have not lost their verve offer good value.

Children enjoy two special offerings. The Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater in Balboa Park offer weekly weekend shows of hand, rod and marionette puppets. The San Diego Guild of Puppetry is one of the best in the world, and it's cheap! Just $5.00 for kids; $3.00 for adults. The San Diego Junior Theater offers five stage shows in the Casa del Prado Theatre as part of their year-round learning and performance program for eight to 18 year old youth. Lots of verve here, and not as many fluffed lines as you might expect. A must for families with budding thespians!

Everyone enjoys monster pipe organs, and they don't come any bigger outdoors than in the Spreckles Organ Pavilion. If you schedule your lunch break at 2 p.m. on Sundays you can listen to spectacular organ performances. Some are almost as ornately embellished as the Pavilion.

Balboa Park isn't limited to culture buffs. Families spread picnics under the trees. Soccer, rugby and baseball games ebb and flow. Hikers, joggers, bikers and runners whip along park paths. More sedentary visitors fly kites and model airplanes. Balboa Park greets a variety of visitors and refreshes their recollection of art and the outdoors.

Information Numbers (all 619 Area Code)

  • Balboa Park General Information Number or times and days 544-9023
  • Bus Information --from Inter-Museum Promotion Council.Inc. 233-3004
  • AeroSpace Historical Center 234-8291
  • Centro Cultural de la Raza 235-6135
  • House of Pacific Relations 466-7654
  • Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater in Balboa Park 685-5045
  • Museum of Photographic Arts 239-5262
  • Museum of San Diego History 232-6203
  • Natural History Museum 232-3821
  • Old Globe Theatre 235-2250
  • Rueben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center 238-1233
  • San Diego Art Institute 234-5946
  • San Diego Automotive Museum 231-2886
  • San Diego Hall of Champions 234-2544
  • San Diego Junior Theater 239-1311
  • San Diego Model Railroad Museum 696-0199
  • San Diego Museum of Art 232-7931
  • San Diego Museum of Man 239-2001
  • San Diego Zoo 234-3153
  • Spanish Village Arts and Crafts Center  235-6809