Wandering the West
January 13, 2009
San Diego has a high opinion of itself. Its promoters boast that it is "America’s Finest City." So to go with such a fine place, it calls its main park "America’s greatest urban park" and "the Smithsonian of the West." It represents the largest cultural complex west of the Mississippi, packed with all sorts of enlightenment.
I think the boosters may actually have it right. Balboa Park is 1,200 acres of urban oasis you can go back to again and again and always find something new. It’s just minutes from downtown, on an elevated bluff, and got started as a park back in 1915 when it was built for the Panama-California Exposition.
The original buildings for the exposition were done in Spanish Renaissance style and at first glance it looks as if you’ve stepped into Madrid or Segovia. The buildings, now national historic landmarks, house a number of the park’s whopping 15 museums, eight gardens, theaters, and concert venues. It starts right where the landmark Cabrillo Bridge spans a valley with a busy freeway.
I go back again and again when I’m down there, but still haven’t seen it all. Here are the museums I can vouch for. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center has an IMAX theater and lots of hands-on displays for kids and their parents to play with. It has a motion-simulator ride called "Escape from Dinosaur Island" (great for kids) and simulated space missions they can go on. You can also take in star shows in the planetarium and, for the real thing, you can arrange nighttime tours to world famous Palomar Observatory with its 200-inch telescope in the mountains east of the city.
The Natural History Museum has its own IMAX-like giant-screen theater, and lots of cool dinosaur stuff. And if you missed the Body Worlds show at the Leonardo in Salt Lake, it opens in this museum in the spring.
The San Diego Automotive Museum has #19 in the short line of 51 Tucker automobiles built by Preston Tucker in 1948. (Francis Ford Coppola made a movie about Tucker’s attempt to challenge the big automakers, and he also has a Tucker on display at his Rubicon Vineyard in Napa Valley.) The museum has several dozen other classics spanning the age of automobiles and motorcycles, and talkative docents who know more about engines than I’ll ever need to know.
Recommended Stories For You
The San Diego Air and Space Museum has military aircraft from World War One on, and lots of space memorabilia too, including the Apollo 9 command module just as you enter.
The Museum of Man covers human history, with permanent exhibits about the Maya, ancient Egypt, human evolution, and the earliest inhabitants of San Diego.
And then there are the art museums. We were fortunate to see the Annie Leibovitz traveling photographic show on our last visit. Other notable tours are always cycling through the Timken Museum of Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts and others.
The San Diego Museum of Art has old masters including works by Rembrandt and Rubens, and works by American and Russian masters as well.
Oh, then there are theaters three separate venues including the Old Globe with its summertime slate of Shakespeare. There are also an outdoor concert shell and an indoor organ recital hall with regular concerts.
Let’s see, there’s also a model-railroad museum, a veterans’ museum, a museum of San Diego history, an art institute, ad a sports hall of fame. You’ll also find a large, ornate botanical conservatory and eight lovingly-cared-for gardens.
I’m getting exhausted just thinking about all of this. And did I mention the zoo? The San Diego Zoo occupies a corner of Balboa and it, too, is truly world famous and a subject for a whole other column another day.
Obviously, there is too much to see in a casual visit. Start your day at the Balboa Park Visitors’ Center, and decide if you want to buy a park passport to get into everything, or pick and choose and pay individual entrance fees. Each museum is run by a separate organization but the passport gets you everywhere.
Of course, all this is exhausting, but the perfect way to break up your day is lunch at the Prado Restaurant in the House of Hospitality along the El Prado pedestrian walkway. After several lunches here, I can honestly say this is one of the best restaurants I’ve ever dined at anywhere, period. The Italian- and Latin-influenced menu is prepared with California style. Food doesn’t get any better than this, fitting for "America’s Finest Urban Park."
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Downtown San Diego to Balboa Park: 5 miles
Insider tip: Go on Tuesday and some of the museums will be free. The museums rotate throughout the month so a variety will always be open at no charge on Tuesdays. Check the website for specific free days for your museums of choice.