Welcome to Balboa Park
by Leon Schwarzbaum
When someone says San Diego, images of a Navy base and Marine Corps training base come to mind for many older Americans. "Early American" historians think of Old Town, a reconstruction of early San Diego, while "urban" historians think of the Gas Lamp District where turn-of-the-century buildings have been restored.
Biologists think of the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Stephen Birch Aquarium adjacent to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Shoppers think of 14-acre Seaport Village - a dining, shopping and entertainment enclave on the waterfront. But for some, the museum/park/cultural center called Balboa Park is San Diego's main attraction.
While San Diego admits to being the second-largest city in California, it also claims to be the site of the first landing by a European on the West Coast of North America. San Diego also houses the largest city park - Balboa Park (1,158 acres)- topping New York City's Central Park (840 acres). And visitors to Balboa Park will find 15 of the city's 27 museums.
Balboa Park was the site of the Panama-California Exposition in 1915-1916. Many of the Moorish- and Spanish Renaissance-style exhibit halls were preserved and refurbished. A passport containing admission tickets to eight of the most popular museums can be purchased for about $20, making it possible to return as often as necessary to visit them all. On some Tuesdays, selected museums may be visited free of charge. Visitors are advised to call the Park Visitor Center at (619) 239-0512 in advance for dates and times. Free parking is available in the park and free trams carry visitors to the major sites.
The most prominent feature in the park is the 200-foot California Tower, which houses a 100-bell carillon that chimes every 15 minutes.
One of the most popular sites, attracting visitors of all ages, is the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center. In the center's OMNIMAX(r) theater, visitors find themselves surrounded by action, ranging from climbing Mount Everest to diving with whales. Many of the exhibits are "hands-on," offering interactive entertainment combined with education.
For automobile buffs, the Automotive Museum exhibits vintage and special interest autos and motorcycles. The Aerospace Museum offers, in addition to an awe-inspiring group of flying machines, tours of the restoration area, where historic aircraft are restored and reconstructed. And the Model Railroad Museum features four scale-model railroad layouts that recall the history of railroading in California. Operated by volunteers, many with years of railroading experience, the models fascinate visitors of all ages.
Art lovers will find The San Diego Museum of Art with its permanent collections and special exhibitions ranging from Renaissance and old masters to contemporary California art. Nearby, the Timken Museum of Art houses another magnificent collection. And a short distance away, the Mingei Museum offers exhibitions of traditional and contemporary folk art.
Other buildings house the museums of Photographic Arts, San Diego History, Hall of Champions Sports Museum, Museum of Man and Natural History.
But there's more. Visitors find the Centro Cultural de la Raza, with its resident artists and artisans, fascinating. Mexican and Chicano artists produce traditional and experimental forms of visual and performing arts. At the north end of the lily pond, a reassembled Santa Fe railroad station, now the Botanical Building, houses a collection of tropical and subtropical plants. In the center of the park, 15 cottages house groups representing 31 nationalities, holding music, dance and ethnic activities on Sundays, March through September.
And there's still more: The Spreckels Organ pavilion presents free concerts on the world's largest outdoor pipe organ, loud enough for the music to be heard in all but the remotest parts of the park. And the Japanese Friendship Garden and the Rose Garden draw crowds of visitors during blooming season.
The Center for the Performing Arts contains the Old Globe Theater, the Centre Stage and the Festival Theater, presenting contemporary and classic works throughout the year, with emphasis on the plays of Shakespeare in the summer.
The world famous San Diego Zoo deserves more than a passing comment. Housing more than 4,000 animals, many of them endangered species, the zoo provides unusual opportunities to see many of these in habitats close to those found in the wild. Free-flight aviaries with caged walks, simulated rain forests, tropical and subtropical landscaping and absence of cages permit visitors to see youngsters frolic and mature animals interact without the stress symptoms common to many zoos. An aerial tramway takes sight-seers on a half-mile ride, above the animals. Narrated bus tours, ample picnic areas and scheduled feeding times make the zoo a day outing, by itself.
Other interesting sites in the San Diego area include Cabrillo National Monument, honoring the first arrival of the explorer, Cabrillo, in 1542. Coronado Island's luxurious resort is a short drive across the Bay Bridge and Sea World is on Mission Bay, nearby.
La Jolla (pronounced La HOY-ah), while within the city limits of San Diego, has its own ambiance. A resort with a rocky coast, it nevertheless has fine beaches. Upscale shops line the main streets and restaurants catering to all tastes and pocketbooks welcome visitors from all over the world. Nationally-recognized golf and tennis tournaments are held in La Jolla, and celebrities from the entertainment, literary and sports world own or rent homes there. Walking tours are available and reservations can be made by calling (619) 453-8219.
Space prevents listing the boat rides, walking tours, plane and hot-air balloon tours, the shopping areas (Mission Valley is the premier), the sports facilities and the other cultural offerings. But the popularity of San Diego speaks for itself.