Balboa Park

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The heart of San Diego’s cultural environment, Balboa Park is an impressive 1,200 acre tract of land with a rich history. Home to several of San Diego’s most treasured attractions including the San Diego Zoo, the Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park could be a vacation destination in its own right and is a must-see during any San Diego trip.

History

The history of Balboa Park actually begins decades before California even became a state. Following a long-held Spanish practice, in 1835, the Mexican government set aside a 47,000-acre tract of land of what was then Alta California for the express purpose of public recreation. Despite the ceding of Alta California to the U.S. following the Mexican-American War, the land continued to be placed on hold for the public making it one of the oldest sites in the U.S. dedicated to public recreation.

Balboa Park was not officially created until 1868 when the San Diego board of trustees approved a resolution to set aside nine plots of land from that original 47,000 acres for a public park.  The preservation of the land was then further reinforced two years later when the California State government passed the Act to Insure the Permanency of the Park Reservation specifically designating the lands of Balboa Park to be “held in trust forever by the municipal authorities of [San Diego] for the purpose of a park.”

Once established, “City Park,” as it was then known, operated mainly as open space. Then, in 1902 a comprehensive development plan was created to develop the wild lands of the park. This led to the decision in 1909 to hold an expo to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal at the park. Through the six year-long planning for the 1915 Panama-California Expedition (world’s fair), a naming contest was held. It was decided to name the park after Vasco de Nunez de Balboa, the first European to successfully cross Central America and view the Pacific Ocean. Over the course of the next few years, the preparation for the 1915 Exposition would largely dictate the architectural style of Balboa Park. The Exposition opened on December 31, 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson pushed a telegraph button in Washington to light up the park. The resulting press brought to the city of San Diego, which only had a total population of 40,000 people at the time, is still felt in the now-famous city.

In addition to the 1915 Expo, Balboa Park also hosted the California-Pacific International Exposition of 1935-1936. Now a popular place to live and to visit, the purpose of this second world’s fair in San Diego was to revitalize the city following the Great Depression.  Under the guidance of architect Richard S. Requa, Balboa Park was reconfigured and several new buildings were constructed.

Balboa Park even served an important role in both World Wars. As San Diego is home to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet, during both wars, the park was turned over to the Department of the Navy to be used as a barracks, training area, and extension of the San Diego Naval Medical Center.

In the years since the Second World War, Balboa Park has continued to see expansion. The carillon in the California Tower was added in 1946. Then, in 1967, many of the park’s historic buildings were restored. Both the park itself as well as these building attached to the two expeditions were declared National Historic Landmarks in 1977 and entered on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, over 12 million people visit Balboa Park each year. It is now overseen by the Balboa Park Conservancy, which was founded in 2009.

Reflection of the Casa de Balboa and House of Hospitality (1)

Main Attraction

Depending on the day and one’s mood, the choices of recreation and entertainment in Balboa Park are literally endless. Going to Balboa Park and its many cultural centers is truly a vacation in itself. In addition to the famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park is home to over three dozen museums, gardens, attractions, and venues.

And then there is the park itself. A true recreational park for the residents of San Diego, Balboa Park features everything from horseshoe pits and barbeques to picnic areas, lawn bowling, and chess tables. Visitors can walk or jog on maintained trails throughout the park and children can play with the Balboa Park miniature railroad or take a ride on the carousel. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, visitors to Balboa Park may want to start at the Visitors Center located at 1549 El Prado for more complete details regarding the hours and entertainment available daily.

Why It’s a Must-See

Balboa Park is as icon among the San Diego cultural scene. Throughout its more than 150 years of history, the park has stood as a bastion to recreation, open space, and public good. Going to Balboa Park while in San Diego is not only a must, but it is a trip within itself that is sure not to disappoint.