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Balboa Park, San Diego

Planning a trip to San Diego? Besides the beautiful beaches and boutiques, spend a day exploring one of the areas most impressive destinations! It’s a pretty wild city park with a lot of amazing stuff to see and do!

El Prado theater, san diego
El Prado theater, balboa park

Balboa park is one of the most impressive and lush city parks in the U.S. With more than 16 museums, performing arts venues, scenic gardens and trails, it is a place where culture, nature and science all come together.

Most of the main features of the park were built for two expositions. the 1915-16 panama-california exposition and the 1935-36 california pacific international exposition. centrally located in the park is the El Prado pedestrian walkway. Most of the park’s arts organizations are housed on either side in Spanish renaissance-style buildings constructed for the first exposition.

museums

If you like museums, it’ll be hard to pick one, or you can get a 55.00 pass for 4. Here’s a few top picks:

San Diego Museum of art
the San Diego museum af art

San Diego Mineral and Gem Society

Admission to the San Diego Mineral and Gem Societies’ museum is  FREE! Their aim is to help people gain a better understanding and appreciation of minerals, gems, fossils and the lapidary arts. The museum is located in the San Diego Mineral & Gem Society building adjacent to the Spanish Village Art Center in the Park. The museum features many fine mineral, gem, lapidary and fossil specimens from around the world.  The collection has been assembled over the last 75 years through purchases and donations.

San Diego Natural History Museum

 Explore the natural history of Southern California—from past to present—at the San Diego Natural History Museum. From rattlesnakes and flesh-eating beetles, to dinosaurs and fossils, to historic archives and art, there’s something for every type of nature nerd here at the home of one the oldest biological research centers in the region.

Centro Cultural de la Raza

This cultural arts center is dedicated to creating, promoting, preserving and educating about Chicano, Mexican, Indigenous and Latino art and culture. Housed in a former water tower and painted with colorful murals, Centro features rotating exhibits and performances with theater, dance, music, and film and video.

San Diego Museum of Us

Housed in the historic California Building with its iconic California Tower, the Museum of Us has been educating and entertaining visitors from around the world for more than 100 years. The museum offers a variety of unique, interactive exhibits that cover a vast range of human history and culture from beer to cannibalism to monsters to secrets.

A new Comic-Con Museum is scheduled to open in the former Hall of Champions sometime in 2022. 

the museum of us, balboa park, San Diego
the Museum of us building

gardens

The unusual vegetation in the Desert Garden is super cool! The Desert Garden was established at its Park Blvd. location in 1976. It contains more than 1,300 plants, including succulents and drought-resistant plants from around the world, within its 2.5 acres.

Botanical gardens San Diego
the Botanical buildings gardens offer free admission

The peak blooming period is January through March; however, these plants are interesting at any time of year because of their unusual shapes

trails

A nice but quick little escape is the palm canyon trail, a surprisingly lush trail right behind El Prado. Palm Canyon is a tropical oasis, containing more than 450 palms (58 species) within its 2 acres. A true hidden spot in Balboa Park, the winding paths take the visitor into a shady, lush canyon. The original group of Mexican fan palms, date back to 1912. In 2001, the California Conservation Corps restored the historic trail that connected Palm Canyon to the Old Cactus Garden.

Florida canyon native plant preserve – This canyon gives the visitor a glimpse of the original landscape of Balboa Park. The 150 acres of Coastal Sage Scrub provide an important habitat for native wildlife, and Park Rangers are currently conducting an exotic plant removal project to return the Canyon to more of its original state. The Florida Canyon area is scattered with several hiking trails to check out too!

more interesting attractions..

zoro gardens – One of the most interesting installments during the 1935 California-Pacific Exposition, was the zora gardens that featured a live nudist colony. Located in a sunken stone grotto garden off of El Prado. The grotto is still there, but unfortunately, the only nature you’ll see these days are butterflies. Zora gardens is now a full on butterfly garden containing both the larvae and nectar plants needed for the complete life cycle of butterflies. Miniature indentations built into rocks collect small pools of water for the monarch, sulfur, and swallowtail butterflies that can be seen among the colorful perennials and majestic ficus trees that surround the garden.  Larvae plants include milkweed, foxglove, sunflower, monkey flower, and California Lilac. 

The Moreton Bay Fig tree

There’s an enormous fig tree with tentacle-like roots. It’s one of the largest fig trees in California and pretty cool to see. The Moreton Bay Fig tree is located right behind the natural history museum. It is the largest Ficus macrophylla in the park, and one of the three largest Moreton Bay Fig trees in the state of California. It was planted as a small tree in a garden of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and, with more than a century of growth, has become a magnificent giant. The tree was officially measured in 1996 at 78 feet high, with a crown width of 123 feet and a trunk girth of 486 inches!

fig tree, balboa park
Base of the Moreton fig tree

Ficus macrophylla is a native of east Australia. When it is grown in an open area where it can spread, the Moreton Bay Fig may become as much as 150 feet wide; but crowded in its natural forest habitat—or near buildings in an urban setting—it tends to grow tall and narrow. Several other specimens of this species, as well as 32 other kinds of fig trees, are planted in Balboa Park.

spend a day in the park!

The park is one of the biggest attractions in San Diego, and can get busy. If you can get there early enough before the museums open at 10am, there should be plenty of parking and less crowds. It’s pretty relaxing to walk around El Prado around the Spanish renaissance buildings and gardens. 

plan a picnic then go on a hike, there’s a lot to do!

In the evening you can visit kindred in south park or check out things in the north park area.

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