San Diego is one of the jewels in the crown of California’s coast and ranks as its second largest city. Diverse and vibrant, San Diego is rich in history, shares a border with Tijuana, Mexico, is home to University of California San Diego, offers miles of beautiful beaches and a Mediterranean-like climate, and houses 16 military facilities. From the historic Presidio of Old Town to the Waterfront, Little Italy to the Gas Lamp Quarter, the city has been undergoing gentrification since the 80’s.
One of San Diego’s most beautiful points of interest just may be Balboa Park. With 1,200 verdant acres, fifteen museums, several performing arts venues, gardens and the world-famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park is practically a national landmark. Ranked as one of the Best Parks in the World, it is America’s largest urban cultural park, welcoming over 6 million visitors annually and where today’s perfect day takes place.
A visit to Balboa will take plenty of energy, so start your day with a hearty, toothsome breakfast at the Hash House A Go Go. You know it’s going to be special when the locals are in line for up to half an hour, but fear not, they have coffee set-up outside to tide you over while you wait. They offer huge portions and a large menu, innovatively served in skillets – it’s no surprise they are the recipient of the Best Breakfast 2007 Gold Medallion by the San Diego Restaurant Association.
After breakfast, work off some of those carbs with a brisk walk to Balboa Park. Horticulturalist Kate Sessions, christened the Mother of Balboa Park, was its first landscape architect. Ahead of her time, Sessions owned a commercial nursery. In 1892, in need of more space, she negotiated use of a 30-acre tract with the City of San Diego in exchange for planting 100 trees every year in exchange. Plantings included everything from cypress and oak to pine, pepper and eucalyptus and she made the beautiful imported jacaranda tree a familiar San Diego bloom. This was the early beginnings of Balboa’s 1200-acre arboretum. Today, Balboa Park is one of the most lushly planted urban parks in the world. Its superlatives: 15,000 trees with 350+ species, 100-foot pine and eucalyptus, 120′-wide Moreton Bay fig trees.
Continue your day by exploring the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, which is deep within the Park grounds. With its famous Giant Pandas, it is home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals representing more than 800 species. Interpreters are founts of interesting information and trivia. For example, one can tell African Elephants by their large ears shaped like the continent itself (Asian elephants have much smaller ears). The difference between apes and monkeys is that apes have no tails. Flamingos’ plumage is actually white, turning pink from their food source. Be there at opening and plan on at least a few hours.
After leaving the Zoo, meander back to through the heavily ornate and architecturally significant Spanish-Revival buildings and the El Prado, the central promenade, which was initially built to last just a year. They were to commemorate completion of the Panama Canal, celebrating the Port of San Diego as the ships’ first port-of-call after passing north through the Canal. Development started in 1911 with the Park opening on December 31, 1914. In the mid-1930’s, the Park experienced new building, playing host to the California Pacific International Exposition with new architectural influences from the Southwest and Mexican Aztec in addition to art deco and modern.
Grab a bagged lunch and enjoy it amidst the 200 varieties of roses in Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden. Then make your way to the 193 x 43-foot Botanical Building’s Lily Pond with reflecting pool entry- one of the most photographed scenes in Balboa Park- with more than 2,100 permanent plants, including collections of cycads, ferns, orchids, palms and other tropical plant species, there are seasonal blooms year round.
Afterwards head to the Japanese Friendship Garden. The Friendship Garden began as a teahouse during the Panama-California Exposition and continues that tradition today. The Zen garden, koi pond, bonsai exhibit, ceremonial gate, and a Fujidana (wisteria arbor) make one feel transported to Asia.
Juxtaposed with the Japanese Friendship Garden is the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. With one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, it comprises 4,530 pipes ranging in length from the size of a pencil to 32 feet. It is housed in an equally impressive, ornate vaulted structure; its highly embellished gables and flying buttresses are reminiscent of an elaborate, regal wedding cake.
With more than a dozen museums to choose from that all are independently managed, a great place to start is the San Diego Museum of Man. Located at the base of the 200-foot California Tower, it is the region’s only Museum devoted to anthropology as well as arts, culture and scientific achievements. Collection includes Mayan monuments, rare Egyptian tomb artifacts and Peruvian mummies. Next, visit the San Diego Natural History Museum, an active research institution, dedicated to interpreting the natural world through research and education, offering local and international exhibitions.
After a long day of exploration at one of the world’s most renowned parks its time to experience one of the many wonderful dining experiences in this seaside city. For a casual dinner, check out XX It is one of nearly a dozen restaurants operated by the Cohen family of restaurateurs. Award-winning chef Deborah Scott features a very innovative menu of Pacific Rim cuisine. Save room for dessert, the potted brownie and coconut crème brulée is outrageous!
For the more romantic, checkout Jsix at the Kempinski’s Hotel Solamar; a formal and intimate dining experience. Its 21st century Moroccan décor features glass mosaic tiled pillars, Asian-influenced floral fabric fixtures, massive paned windows-it is a feast of creative, soothing art and décor. The illuminated, sleek bar makes a martini a sure-fire first course. An open kitchen features Coastal California cuisine and, while the menu is small, it makes for some hard choices. Try the Caesar Salad or Maine Lobster Risotto, followed by the peppered rib-eye with rosemary roasted potatoes, Swiss chard and truffle oil or the pan-seared striped bass with Dungeness crab and green onion risotto. The goat cheese panna cotta or caramel balsamic crème brulée with ginger snap cookies makes a crowning finish to an incredible culinary experience.
Next, find your way to a restful slumber at the Park Manor Suites. Well-positioned in the charming neighborhood of Hillcrest, it is ideally situated at the edge of Balboa Park West. This landmark hotel has an enduring history. While some of the décor is somewhat dated, it is in the midst of an ongoing facelift. Features include a kitchenette, complimentary wi-fi, and an incredible view of the city from Top of the Park restaurant. Great rates, an ideal location to Balboa and complimentary parking make this a real value.
What & Where:
Hash House A Go Go (3628 Fifth Ave; 619-298-4646)
Jsix (616 J Street at 6th Ave; 619-531-8744)
Park Manor Suites (525 Spruce St; 619-291-0999) Park Manor Suites are NOW Inn at the Park
Balboa Park Visitor Center (1549 El Prado; 619-239-0512)
San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Dr; 619-234-3153)
San Diego Museum of Man (1350 El Prado; 619-239-2001)
San Diego Natural History Museum (1788 El Prado; 619-232-3821)
Useful Information: Many of the museums and attractions are free. There is a Passport to Balboa Park, a multi-day admission book to 13 museums with savings of 50%. A Zoo/Passport Combo, adds a one-day deluxe admission to the San Diego Zoo. Passports may be purchased at Balboa Park Visitors Center and at participating museums.
There is no place like historic Balboa Park to find a full day of affordable family entertainment. Located in scenic downtown San Diego and home of the famous San Diego Zoo, this museum-studded park is the jewel in San Diego’s crown.
Take advantage of the wealth of museums where one can find culture and education immersed in fun settings that allow children’s imaginations to run free. Whether they are into cars and planes, animals, dinosaurs, space, dancing or singing- this is a can’t miss outing.
Start your day with breakfast at the XX between the Museum of Photographic Arts and the Museum of San Diego History. The Café is located west of the large fountain in front of the Science Center near the central plaza.
Afterwards, take a few hours to explore the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. This epic museum contains two stories of hands-on exhibits and experiments featuring topics like electricity, aging and space travel.
Next, let your children run free in the Center’s scientific playground; they can play and learn for hours. But make sure you reign them in for a breathtaking IMAX movie in the unique Dome Theater; its circular shape and giant screen surround you with both image and sound. Shows run all day and they are guaranteed to fascinate your little ones with titles like Sea Monsters and Dinosaurs Alive. (You can buy a combo ticket to use the hands-on gallery and to see an Imax movie).
Catch lunch at Galileo’s Café which is tucked away at the west end of the museum lobby. This convenient eatery offers healthy sandwiches, salads, pizza and pasta.
After lunch take head to one of the many other museums. The Natural History Museum is the most kid-friendly since robotic dinosaur skeletons and wildlife panoramas abound. Kids will also love the San Diego Air and Space Museum shaped like a huge aircraft hangar and filled with real airplanes.
The San Diego Automotive Museum features vintage cars.
If you still have energy after museum-hopping head to The Prado for dinner. Located inside the House of Hospitality- a beautiful Spanish-style building- the restaurant specializes in Spanish offerings like adobo-braised pork osso buco and sangria as well as international choices like tempura ahi and kids favorites like four-cheese ravioli.
After dinner walk to the northern end of El Prado where you will find The San Diego Junior Theatre. All plays feature the acting and singing of children ages 8 to 18 and most shows are suitable for ages 3 and up.
Balboa Park offers so many options it is sure to appeal to the whole family and will sure to be an adventure to remember forever.
What & Where:
Balboa Park Visitors Center (1549 El Prado; 619-239-0512)
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (1875 El Prado; 619-238-1233)
San Diego Natural History Museum (1788 El Prado; 619-232-3821)
San Diego Air & Space Museum (2001 Pan American Plaza; 619-234-8291)
San Diego Automotive Museum (2080 Pan American Plaza; 619-231-2886)
San Diego Model Railroad Museum (1649 El Prado; 619-696-0199)
The Prado (1549 El Prado; 619-557-9441)
San Diego Junior Theatre (1650 El Prado, Suite 208, Casa Del Prado; 619-239-8355)
Helpful Hints: If all these museums interest you there is a Passport to Balboa Park that costs $35 and provides admission to 13 Park attractions. Or for more deals take advantage of Free Tuesdays http://www.balboapark.org/calendar/detail.php?EventID=370
The best time to come to the Science Center is on weekends or on weekdays after 1 p.m. The best day for kids is the first Tuesday of every month, when the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center hands-on exhibit is free.
For almost guaranteed parking at the southern end of Park Boulevard you will find a large lot on President’s Way. If you are driving from the 163 exit, make the first right after turning left onto Park Boulevard. If you are driving south from the direction of the Zoo, turn left onto President’s Way; you will see it right after the Naval Medical Center. This free parking lot is huge and often empty, and though it is far walk from the museums it will save you a lot of time and hassles.