Balboa Park Botanical Building

Judi Travel CaricatureAre you stressed out from holiday shopping, the pandemic that seems to never end, or just life itself? Come join me on a walk through Balboa Park. I’m excited to share a recap from the Balboa Park Highlights with Beverage Tour my sister N and I experienced during our vacation to San Diego this past October. It was one of my favorite days in Southern California. Balboa Park  is a cultural jewel of the city and deserves all its glory.

Our small group walking tour was an AirBnb Experience where you are guided by a local expert. It was a great way to explore and learn about the history of Balboa’s 1200 acres. We covered two miles in two hours and it was well worth the $37 per person.

Experiencing the cultural treasures of Balboa Park

“Balboa Park is one of the more popular places for visitors to explore, but many rush from one thing to the next,” said our guide Jenn. “We’re going to slow down and dive deep into the nooks and crannies of the park, discovering architectural details, delightful gardens, and cultural treasures most guests pass by.”

Balboa Park where the highway cuts through

When the highway was built it cut through Balboa Park

Meeting the founders of Balboa Park

We started at the western end. Jenn introduced us to the founders whose statues welcome visitors. Ephraim W. Morse and Alonzo E. Horton developed the public park in the 1800s and George W. Marston funded the landscaping. Kate Sessions, a scientist and horticulturist, came to San Diego in the late 1880s and established a nursery in the park. Since San Diego gets very little water, she brought trees from Africa, Mexico, Asia, and South America. There are 75 varieties of trees in the park.

Kate Sessions statue in Ballboa Park

Our tour guide Jenn spoke about Kate Sessions, a scientist, horticulturist and nursery woman, known as the “Mother of Balboa Park”

Besides the greenery, there are 3 different dog parks and 100 acres of the park are home to the San Diego Zoo. The Zoo came out of the exhibition of 1915. It is a private organization on public land. “If you had to replace everything in it, you would spend more on replacing the plants than the animals,” declared Jenn.

Making a grand entrance

We crossed over the Cabrillo Bridge, entering the grand archway as VIPs did at the beginning of the Panama-California Exposition. “Are you transformed?” asked Jenn. We admired the magical courtyard with its Spanish and Mexican architecture  “The founders went to Spain and Mexico and copied the designs,” commented Jenn. It was interesting to learn that San Diego was originally part of Mexico until Americans won it back during the 1848 Mexican American War.

The grand archway at Balboa Park

The grand archway of Balboa Park commemorates the opening of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s

Further along was Alcazar Garden, a quiet space that I thought would make a nice place for outdoor meditation. The beautiful plants and flowers in Alcazar are maintained by volunteer stewards. Walking in the opposite direction brought us to The Old Globe. “The Tony Award-winning theater was built during the 1935 Exhibition,” said Jenn. The Old Globe puts on a wide variety of musicals, dramas, and children’s theater throughout the year.

Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park

Today an outdoor theater has been added to the Old Globe Theater in the park

Zigzagging along El Prado

We zigzagged our way along the El Prado, taking in the beauty of the famous pedestrian walkway. Most of the arts organizations are housed along El Prado. In its center is Plaza de Panama surrounded by a few of the park’s 16 museums including The Folk Art Museum, The San Diego Museum of Art, and the Timken Museum of Art. The Japanese Friendship Garden is nearby too.

Museum in Balboa Park

Balboa Park’s museums are housed in Spanish Renaissance-style buildings

At times I felt like I was being transported back to Spain with the Spanish Renaissance-style buildings. It brought back fond memories of my trip several years ago when I visited the Prado Museum in Madrid.

The Prado Restaurant and Visitors’ Center are in the Plaza as well. And I can attest that Jenn is correct when she says that the best bathrooms in the park can be found in the Prado Restaurant. Hint: The restrooms are located in the Spanish-style courtyard near the Gift Shop so you don’t have to be a restaurant guest to use them.

Fountain in Balboa Park

This beautiful fountain with Spanish tiles is right near the Prado restaurant

Jenn took time to point out the open-air Spreckels Organ Pavilion on the far side of the Plaza. In it sits the world’s largest pipe organ in a fully outdoor venue. “Every Sunday at 2:00 p.m. they have a concert. You can catch up on the concerts online,” said Jenn.

Reflecting at the Botanical Building and its pond

Deeper into the park was the Botanical Building, which contains more than 2,100 permanent tropical plants. In front of the Botanical sits the iconic reflection pond. “The pond became a physical therapy pool when the Navy took over the park during World War II,” remarked Jenn. Interestingly, today the Navy is San Diego’s largest employer.

Balboa Park Botanic building with pond

Balboa Park’s Botanical Building pond is an iconic image of San Diego

Viewing (and buying) local art at Spanish Village Art Center

OMG, one of the best parts of the tour was visiting the Spanish Village Art Center. It was time to take a break, have a complimentary beverage from Daniel’s Coffee Cart (my latte was very good) and enjoy about 10 minutes to graze the Village’s art studios.

“We’re San Diego’s hidden secret,” said artist Gail Woods. “People who come here come back. It’s been around since the 1930s.” There are 37 art studios in the Village. You have to be a San Diego resident to have a studio or exhibit. Art ranges from paintings to sculpture, jewelry makers, clay artists, printmakers photographers and more diverse crafts people. BTW, I noticed quite a few of the artists were retired baby boomers who decided to pursue their artistic passions post retirement.

Spanish Village Art Studios

Spanish Village looks like a charming old village in Spain with quaint bulidings and colorful sidewalks

Ooh, ooh, ooh, I love handcrafted art that is local to an area. l was literally in heaven. “We’re definitely coming back here after our tour,” I said to N. “I am so going to support these artists.” (P.S. We did go back to the Village and spent about an hour of quality time in various studios. N bought a few beautiful glass blown vases and I supported one jewelry designer in a BIG way after falling in love with a brass and gold ring with black diamonds. It suited my middle finger perfectly. Life is too short not to buy the ring that fits I said to myself. And so I did!) (P.S.S. When in San Diego I highly recommend visiting the Spanish Village Art Center even if you don’t have time to tour the park.)

More gardens and a fountain

We were almost at the end of our tour and we hadn’t even reached the Desert or Rose Gardens. It became clear that one morning, or even one day, is not enough time to see all of Balboa Park (and that’s not including the Zoo). “We’ll just have to plan another vacation to San Diego,” I said to N.

Balboa Park Fountain

Everyone takes pictures in front of Balboa Park Fountain

Before walking back down El Prado, we stopped at the fountain on the east end of the park and the Zoro Garden. “The fountain goes up and down based on the wind,” said Jenn. “When the wind goes up the fountain goes down.”  As for the Zoro, Jenn mentioned that during the 1935 Exhibition, a visitor could pay to go to the nudist colony in the Zoro. Can you imagine?

Almost back to where we began, Jenn said her goodbyes and encouraged us to continue to explore all the park has to offer. “Balboa Park makes San Diego a world class city,” said Jenn. For sure, the founders were truly visionaries.