Diego's Balboa Park is celebrating its centennial
this year with a few special things, including the
reopening of the tower at the Museum of Man, whose
heights offer panoramic views of the park and
are few places more sublime than sunny San Diego, with its
intoxicating mix of surf-frothed beaches, trendy cafes
and, of course, Balboa Park. That 1,200-acre swath
includes 16 museums, more than a dozen gardens, multiple
theaters and the San Diego Zoo. And this year, the park is
celebrating its 100th birthday.
wasn’t supposed to be a quiet celebration. It was
supposed to be a dizzyingly fabulous, yearlong bash,
complete with parties, concerts, exhibits and a fleet of
electriquettes — reproductions of the 1915 wicker carts
that zipped around the park at a racy 3 mph. But a
dysfunctional planning committee disbanded in March 2014
after spending $2.8 million on consultant fees, leaving
city officials scrambling to come up with something
results may not match those original lavish expectations
— no electriquettes after all — but for
out-of-towners, Balboa Park has never looked better nor
been more pedestrian-friendly. That vast parking lot in
the midst of the park’s central plaza has disappeared.
Now, colorful umbrellas and chairs dot the Plaza de Panama
in a riot of turquoise, cherry red and golden yellow.
Visitors pedal fringe-topped surreys down the esplanade.
Fountains burble merrily, and buskers entertain. A
fundraising effort is on target to help the 100-year-old
Spreckels Organ Pavilion reclaim its title as the world’s
largest outdoor pipe organ. And the ornate tile tower that
tops the Museum of Man is open for tours for the first
time in 80 years.
booked our tower tour tickets ahead of time — with space
for just 12 people per 40-minute tour, these tickets are a
hot commodity — laced up our sneakers and Uber-ed our
way over to the park on a recent Saturday morning, eager
to use this historic stairclimb to work off a tasty brunch
at the Patio on Goldfinch (read more about that
a ride is key. Parking at Balboa Park has always been a
challenge; it’s even more difficult now that the
plaza-spoiling parking lot has disappeared. Sneakers or
similarly comfy shoes also are imperative. You’ll be
climbing 125 steep stairs, capped by a final tight spiral
staircase, to reach the museum tower. It’s not quite the
topmost level, but at 375 feet above sea level, the
rounded balconies of this platform offer a breathtaking
perch from which to take in the park, the Cuyamaca
Mountains and the sea.
its rococo flourishes, tiled domes and sculptures of
historic notables, this Spanish Baroque building made an
imposing entry for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition,
an expo that unexpectedly turned out to be a grand
success. On the eve of the opening of the Panama Canal,
the then-tiny coastal city had hoped to host a world’s
fair. San Diego was, after all, the first U.S. port that
ships would encounter as they steamed west through the new
Francisco quashed those dreams by winning the rights to
host the official Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
Instead of folding, San Diego leaders decided to host
their own party, anyway. They built these grand edifices,
landscaped the gardens and planted a showstopping
agricultural farm, then set those electriquettes buzzing
down the park’s wide boulevard.
Francisco’s expo closed after nine months. San Diego’s
lasted a full two years and actually became grander the
second year, when eight countries — including Brazil,
France, Germany and Russia — opened pavilions within
Balboa Park’s borders. Park guides still beam with
gratification as they tell the tale.
Balboa Park is launching its next chapter with a savviness
that is distinctly 21st century: Cars have given way to
foot traffic. Reclaimed water splashes in the grand
fountains. And when you descend from the historical tower
tour, what awaits is a hunter-gatherer-to-hipster exhibit
Oh, and happy birthday.
tours: Tickets are $16-$22.50 and include admission to the
Museum of Man, whose halls include exhibits on ancient
Egypt, anthropology, folklore and "Beerology."
Museum admission is $6-$12.50 without the tour. 1350 El
Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego; www.museumofman.org.
Organ Pavilion: The pavilion is a favorite photo op for
bridal parties and quinceaneras every day, but you’ll
want to visit at 2 p.m. on a Sunday, when the pavilion
hosts free organ concerts. 1549 El Prado;
Diego History Center: This small museum includes some
historical exhibits, a 1915 display and a Dr. Seuss
gallery. Whether the few minutes you spend here is worth
the $6-$10 admission is open to debate. 1649 El Prado;