Twelve-hundred-acre (485-hectare) Balboa Park (www.balboapark.org), located just northeast of downtown, is San Diego’s pride. Established in 1868 and largely developed for two expositions—the 1915-16 Panama-California and the 1935-36 California Pacific International—it remains a thriving component of the city, with museums, gardens, unique shopping, and the San Diego Zoo at its heart.
Start your tour at Sixth Avenue and Laurel Streets, the western entrance of the park; Laurel turns into El Prado, the park’s east-west access. Heading east, El Prado crosses the (1) Cabrillo Bridge, a cantilever span with seven arches, constructed in 1914. The first person to drive across was then-Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. To your right down the canyon is the downtown skyline. When the bridge was built San Diego’s population was about 57,000 and almost none of the buildings you see today existed; most of the surrounding landscape was barren, and the process of planting trees had only just begun.
Ahead, the graceful, ornately tiled (2) California Building and Bell Tower (1350 El Prado) at the end of the bridge was designed by Bertram Goodhue, an authority on Spanish Colonial style and principal architect for the first Exposition. Swiftly becoming an iconic marketing hook for the city, the structure stood in as Kane’s mansion in Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. The California Building houses the anthropological San Diego Museum of Man (www.museumofman.org), exhibiting Egyptian mummies and artifacts and Mayan and Native American heritage.
Just past on the left is the (3) Old Globe Theater (1363 Old Globe Way; www.theoldglobe.org), a replica of Shakespeare’s Stratford theater. It was built in 1935, rebuilt after a fire in 1978, and remains California’s oldest professional theater company—Shakespeare plays are performed in summer in the outdoor venue next door. On the opposite side of El Prado is the (4) House of Charm (1439 El Prado), which includes the fine Mingei International Museum (www.mingei.org), with rotating exhibits celebrating “art of the people.”
El Prado opens into the (5) Plaza de Panama, the park’s axis. To the north (left) is the (6) San Diego Museum of Art (1450 El Prado; www.sdmart.org), the city’s preeminent art collection and a facility for blockbuster shows. To its right is the (7) Timken Museum (1500 El Prado; www.timkenmuseum.org), a repository for a small but notable horde of 19th-century American and European old masters; admission is free. The Timken’s architecture was controversial—an element of modernism that was harshly received by park purists when it debuted in 1965.
Immediately after passing the Timken you’ll spot a lily pond, and just behind is one of the world’s largest wood lath structures, (8) the Botanical Building (1550 El Prado). Continue east along the north side of El Prado, now a pedestrian mall en route to a fountain at its east end. To the left of the fountain lies the (9) San Diego Natural History Museum (1788 El Prado; www.sdnhm.org), designed by architect William Templeton Johnson in 1933 just before the second Expo. Its monumental facade and entrance is surprisingly at odds with the dreamy character of the other buildings along El Prado (mostly built for the first Expo). Opposite the museum is the (10) Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (1875 El Prado; www.rhfleet.org), constructed in 1972 and featuring science exhibits popular with kids and an Imax Dome Theater.
Return to El Prado, heading west to the Plaza de Panorama, passing the (11) Casa del Balboa (1649 El Prado) on your left. Here lies the Museum of San Diego History (www.sandiegohistory.org), the Museum of Photographic Arts (www.mopa.org) and, in the basement, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum (www.sdmrm.org), America’s largest such museum. At the end is the (12) House of Hospitality (1549 El Prado) and Prado Restaurant, the park’s only full-service dining room. Preeminent local sculptor Donal Hord crafted the delicate fountain in the courtyard, “Woman of Tehuantepec.”
At the (5) Plaza turn left on Pan American Road and head for the (13) Spreckels Organ Pavilion (2211 Pan American Road East), the last of the noteworthy structures from the first Expo. The 2,000-seat outdoor performance venue houses the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world, a 4,518-pipe extravaganza, with free concerts Sunday at 2 p.m.
South of the Organ Pavilion a mesa was developed for the second Expo, with architecture overseen by Richard Requa, who traveled extensively to research the pueblos and native landscapes of the American Southwest as inspiration. Requa designed the cottages of the (14) House of Pacific Relations (2191 Pan American Place; www.sdhpr.org), a series of 17 humble, charming bungalows dedicated to the culture and traditions of 28 countries; open on Sundays.
Just south a large parking area known as the (15) Pan American Plaza is flanked by—from right to left—the Palace of Education (2150 Pan American Road West), with a 1935 mural, "The Progress of Man" by Belle Baranceanu (proclaimed by Eleanor Roosevelt as “one of the best she’d ever seen”); the Palisades Building (2130 Pan American Road West), home to the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater (www.balboaparkpuppets.com); the San Diego Automotive Museum (2080 Pan American Plaza; www.sdautomuseum.org), with rotating exhibits of historic and unique vehicles; the Ford Building (2001 Pan American Plaza), an excellent example of Streamline Moderne architecture that now holds the San Diego Aerospace Museum (www.sandiegoairandspace.org) (located almost directly in the flight path for Lindbergh Field!); the Starlight Bowl (2005 Pan American Plaza); and the Municipal Gym (2111 Pan American Plaza).
A free red trolley tram circuits the park every ten minutes from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; take one to shuttle you back to your starting point at Sixth and Laurel.
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