San Diego’s 17 Balboa Park Museums

Where else can you find 17 museums – and a world-famous zoo – within a short walk and many, many tourist attractions? Balboa Park is a unique and fantastic cultural playground. Located in the heart of San Diego, this amazing piece of urban property is home to gorgeous gardens, performing arts venues, 15 major museums, and the San Diego Zoo.

There was no way we were going to be able to visit all of the 17 museums in San Diego’s Balboa Park even if we stayed another few days. But we managed a blitz tour in one overlong afternoon.

As an introduction, let’s start with the non-museum stuff first. Parking. San Diego’s a big city and, though it’s a car-oriented town, there’s not always room for all the cars. So, be prepared to hoof it a bit when you go to Balboa Park. Sure there’s a big inviting street and the beautiful Cabrillo Bridge across. The bridge was built for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. It’s a multiple-arched cantilever structure, the first such bridge in California. The bridge leads to very, very limited parking. Don’t disappoint yourself. Park on the west end of the Cabrillo Bridge. And don’t plan to take the free trolley. A city employee told us that the economic situation had made the city cut the service back to every half hour. And the stops aren’t very convenient.

It’s a pleasant walk across the bridge. Go under the arch of the West Gate, the first structure of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Look for discounts on Balboa Park museums

What about the tickets? Each museum has its own regime but, for example, in February. Macy’s, yep the department store of which there’s a giant one in nearby Fashion Valley Mall, was sponsoring a “half-off every museum in San Diego County” pass, available at any Macy’s store. Discounts on tickets and “free days” are sure to be available. Check at the Balboa Park Web Site.

On the walk up to El Prado, the main street of the park, you may encounter fiddler Wayne Webster playing his signature reels and jigs of western Ireland. He was playing “Last House in Connaught” for us and catching coins and bills from passing tourists in his open violin case. There was a juggler. There were the animal rescue league people displaying exotic birds on their arms.

Following Wayne’s sprightly tunes, we headed to the Museum of Photographic Arts for the current show, “Streetwise: Masters of 60’s Photography.” It included photos from such important photographers as Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. But this show won’t last long. It’s best to check the Balboa Park calendar.

13 Places to eat and find peace amid ferns & flowers of the Botanical Building

If you get museum overload and need a place to recharge your batteries, Balboa Park offers 13 restaurants, cafes, and snack carts.

After refreshment takes advantage of an outdoor interlude in the Botanical Building. Built for the 1915 Exposition, along with the adjacent Lily Pond, the historic building is one of the largest redwood lath structures in the world. The Botanical Building plantings include more than 2,100 permanent plants, featuring fascinating collections of cycads, ferns, orchids, other tropical plants, and palms. A nice feature: admission to the Botanical Building is free.

World-class art at  San Diego Museum of Art

Next stop: The San Diego Museum of Art. We were lucky to run into docent Judy Earle who billed herself, I must say modestly, as a retired San Diego high school art teacher. We opted not to see any of the museum’s permanent collection but rather “Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman,” a traveling show of 12 paintings gathered from museums as far away as the National Gallery and the Tate in London.

Earle took us to Gainsborough’s “Portrait of the Artist’s Daughters.” She told us, “Gainsborough painted what he saw. He didn’t sugarcoat his subjects.” She added that Gainsborough painted his daughters in the attire and manners of the audience he most wanted to attract for his portrait painting, the English upper class. The Gainsborough show is up ’til May 1, 2011. But, never fear, there’s sure to be something to please in the museum’s nationally renowned permanent collection which includes Spanish and Italian old masters, South Asian paintings, and 19th- and 20th-century American paintings and sculptures.

By the end of the excellent tour of the Gainsborough show by docent Earle we were truly “museumed out.”

Cap off your visit to Balboa Park with San Diego’s Zoo’s Giant Pandas

There was another stop to make not quite close by. But we had to leave that to another day. It was to be a visit to the world-famed San Diego Zoo. It is billed as one of the world’s largest zoos with more than 4,000 animals of more than 800 species. It claims more than a half-million members. It’s also one of the few zoos to have Giant Pandas. Admission is pricey: one-day tickets are $40 for adults and $30 for children. But the pandas alone make it worth the money.

The zoo conforms to San Diego’s valleys and hillsides. The terrain lends to the creation of the eight different habitats found in every continent in the world. San Diego’s steep hillsides were used to build aviaries several stories so high that you would hardly be aware that you were in an enclosed space.

The Giant Pandas, on loan from China, seemed indifferent to the long line of tourists parading in front of them. These endangered animals are pampered and catered to. In fact, 40 varieties of bamboo are propagated on the grounds of the zoo to provide for their appetites. They have successfully produced offspring, the mark of successful zoo management. The offspring are returned to China to replenish the population of pandas there.


Admission: FREE (most institutions charge admission on an individual basis, but the park and the Botanical Building, outdoor gardens, and some additional attractions are free.)

Admission to the various institutions ranges from $2 to $12, but there is a passport available for $55 which grants access to 13 of the 15 museums. Very much worth the price.

Hours: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily (with expanded hours in the summer)

Address: 1549 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, California, 92101.
Phone: (619) 239-0512

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