San Diego’s Balboa Park is home to numerous attractions for visitors and those who are lucky enough to live here. In addition to the world famous San Diego Zoo there are several museums and art galleries, the Old Globe theater, beautiful gardens and more:
San Diego’s City Park was founded in 1868 on a 1,400 acre mostly scrub brush tract. San Diego’s small population, 39,000 people, and economy resulted in only about 100 of those acres being improved with plantings by 1909. San Diego’s decision in 1909 to hold a Panama-California Exposition in 1915 helped spur the local economy and real estate market. The exposition, built on Vizcaino Mesa in Balboa Park, resulted in one of the most complete collections of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the United States.
In 1910 the “City Park” name was replaced with “Balboa Park”—after Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa who crossed Panama to discover the Pacific Ocean—to closer associate the park with the planned 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
A number of buildings including the California Building and Quadrangle, the Administration Building, the Botanical Building, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and the New Mexico Building remain in the park from the 1915–1916 Panama-California Exposition.
A second exposition—The California Pacific Exposition San Diego 1935-1936—celebrated the completion of the Metropolitan Water District Aqueduct from the Colorado River and other federal projects. Structures built for the second exposition that remain today include the Federal, General Exhibits, California State, Entertainment, Education, Christian Science and Ford Buildings and the Ford Bowl.
Katherine Olivia (Kate) Sessions—“The Mother of Balboa Park” — leased land in what was then called “City Park” in 1892 for a nursery. For this privilege, she was to plant one hundred trees a year in the park and furnish three hundred more for planting throughout the city.
Balboa Park organizations offer free Tuesday admission on a rotating basis. Balboa Park offers 65 miles of hiking and biking trails. Everyone should find something they enjoy doing or seeing in Balboa Park:
House of Hospitality
The Visitors Center in the House of Hospitality is a good place to begin a visit to San Diego’s Balboa Park.
The House of Hospitality was built by the City of San Diego for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. The two story Spanish Colonial style building at 1549 El Prado was torn down and reconstructed in 1995–97 to meet current earthquake safety standards.
The Visitors Center is where you can pick up maps for the free tram.
This is also the place to pick up your San Diego Zoo tickets if you have purchased the Go San Diego Card. The card also provides free admission to a number of museums in Balboa park, The Japanese Friendship Garden and many other attractions and tours in and around San Diego.
In 1921 the Auditorium Society — changed to ‘House of Hospitality Association’ in 1936 — was formed to oversee operation and maintenance of the building as trustees for the City of San Diego. The U.S. Navy occupied the House of Hospitality and many other park buildings as temporary additions to Balboa Naval Hospital during both World Wars.
The House also served as a nurses’ dormitory During World War II. In addition to the Visitor Center there is a restaurant in this building. A free park train transports Balboa Park visitors between parking lots and buildings and makes one of its stops in front of the House of Hospitality.
Plaza De Balboa
Plaza de Balboa at the end of El Prado features the Bea Evenson Fountain.
The fountain is named in honor of Mrs. Frank (Bea) Evenson, the organizer of the “Committee of 100” formed in 1967 to preserve and protect the Spanish Colonial architecture in Balboa Park.
San Diego Natural History Museum
The San Diego Natural History Museum is visible beyond the Evenson Fountain in the photo above. The photo on the right was taken from the steps of the Casa de Balboa building which houses the Museum of Photographic Arts and the Model Railroad Museum.
The San Diego Natural History Museum has a giant-screen film, Ocean Oasis, which takes visitors on a journey through Baja California and the Sea of Cortés.
There are also traveling exhibitions and regional displays of the museum’s 7.5 million specimen scientific collection in the disciplines of paleontology, mineralogy, botany, entomology, marine invertebrates, herpetology, ornithology, and mammalogy along with many educational programs including classes, lectures, nature walks, teacher workshops, and a loan library.
Casa del Prado
The Casa Del Prado building, next door to the Natural History Museum, was originally built for the 1915 Exposition and called the Varied Industries and Food Products Building. After many years, name changes and various uses the original building was torn down and reconstructed in 1971. It was given its new name and a separate building to the north — shown in the photo on the left — was named the Casa Del Prado Theater.
A 102 by 79-foot open-air patio — photo on right — connects the two buildings and along with a second 112 by 84-foot patio set inside the south building provides open space for people to gather and offers a secondary avenue for people heading elsewhere.
The Botanical Building, was built for the 1915 Panama California Exposition.
A 193- by 43-foot reflecting pool just south of the Botanical building contains water lilies, lotus, goldfish and koi.
More information about the Botanical Building including a 360° interior panorama and photographs of orchids on display in the building.
San Diego Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art at 1450 El Prado in Balboa Park occupies the site of the fine arts building for the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition in Balboa Park
The Museum of Art was established in 1922 when a local business and civic leader, Appleton S. Bridges, agreed to fund the construction of a permanent structure.
The SDMA has collections of Italian Renaissance, Dutch and Spanish Old Masters, Asian art, south Asian paintings, and examples of American art, nineteenth-century European paintings, twentieth-century paintings and sculpture, and a Contemporary California Art gallery.