Balboa Park: Where arts and culture collide

Koi ponds, organ concerts, historical museums, and a vast array of European Spanish architecture can all be found in one location: Balboa Park, San Diego.

Defined as “a landscape of arts and culture,” Balboa Park is just that – a 1,200-acre urban cultural park in downtown of California’s revered beach city.

Larger than New York’s 843-acre Central Park, Balboa Park is home to 15 major museums, 65 miles of hiking and biking trails, lush gardens, and restaurants featuring worldwide cuisine.

Built in 1868 out of plots of land acquired by the U.S. after the Mexican-American War, the park was named after Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a Spanish maritime explorer who is considered the first to cross the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean in 1513.

The park hosted the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and was later enlarged for the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935, according to the National Park Service, which led to some of the finest Spanish-Baroque Revival structures calling the park home.

Through the heart of Balboa Park runs El Prado – a long and wide promenade made up of stone pavers that guide visitors to the park’s museums, theaters, and gardens.

Most of the buildings lining the strip simulate the architecture of the Spanish Colonial Revival. Rich detail, delicate arches and European and Spanish patrons can be found adorning the building walls.

Along the boulevard you will find the San Diego Museum of Art, housing a collection of nationally-renowned Spanish and Italian old masters, South Asian paintings and 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculptures.

Art enthusiasts, students, and inspired individuals can be found gathered around the museum’s pieces at all times during business hours. Major exhibitions showcasing artwork from around the world are regularly featured throughout the year, as well.

The San Diego Air & Space Museum reveals all secrets pertaining to science, space and aviation. Regarded as California’s Official Air and Space Museum, it is home to a flyable replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 9 Command Module and houses the third largest aviation library and archives in the U.S.

The San Diego Natural History Museum focuses on the biodiversity of Southern California’s region and features two exhibitions year-round: Fossil Mysteries – an interactive exploration detailing the Earth’s evolution, extinction of species (including dinosaurs), and ecology – and Skulls – a showcase of over 200 specimens from around the world ranging from a big-horned sheep to a tiny Western, black-headed snake.

Also along El Prado is the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, home to the only IMAX® Dome Theater in Southern California; the San Diego Museum of Man; the Reflection Pond; the Bea Evenson Fountain; and the Botanical Building, just to name a few.

Veering off the path of El Prado lie many more attractions; from the 104-year-old, hand-carved Balboa Park Carousel to the Organ Pavilion, where free concerts are open to the public every Sunday at 2 p.m. on the second-largest outdoor organ in the world (4,518 pipes comprising 73 ranks).

The Spanish Village is a quaint subset of Balboa Park that houses a community of over 250 artists from the San Diego area. Working studios are set up around the village and blue, yellow and red flagstone tiles guide you throughout the galleries and live, musical performances on weekends. Seasonal blooms, glass blowers, and jewelry designers can all be found under the Spanish-tile roofed buildings.

The Old Globe Theater is the sixth largest regional theater in the country, producing 15 productions year-round of classic, contemporary and new works, and calls Balboa Park home. Its three stages have sent over 20 productions to Broadway since 1987 and the Tony Award is only one of its multiple recognitions.

The park is home to another popular attraction – the San Diego Zoo. Founded in 1916, the zoo has been an icon for nearly 100 years and is home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals representing over 800 species from around the world.

Open 365 days of the year, guests can experience exotic animals in their natural habitat – from one- or two-humped camels, slithering anacondas, poised pink flamingos to bathing elephants. The zoo’s newest exhibit Koalafornia features well-known Aussie animals from wombats to kookaburras, and of course, koalas.

Balboa Park is a paradise for artists, architects, photographers, and all those who simply enjoy being surrounded by beauty. With a park as large as this, it will take you more than one, two, or even three visits to experience everything Balboa Park has to offer.

Balboa Park is located at 1549 El Prado, San Diego, California, 92101. For more information, visit www.balboapark.org.

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