Situated on the Pacific Coast and just 20 miles from the Mexican border, San Diego is California’s southernmost city and its second largest. But it’s first in many ways, including its delightful climate- mild, dry, and sunny year-round- its 70 miles of sandy coastline and natural beauty, and both its cultural and nature attractions.
No wonder locals love their town. It’s a favorite with tourists, too. Its wealth of attractions include the family-friendly big three: the San Diego Zoo, the Wild Animal Park and Sea World San Diego. And for culturally minded tourists, 15 major museums are all located in one beautiful urban park.
Balboa Park is a jewel located in the heart of the city. With museums ranging from art to history to botany, it’s the largest urban cultural park in the U.S, encompassing almost 1200 acres.
The cultural section is often known as the Smithsonian of the West because like the one in Washington, DC, it has a wealth of museums all in one place. But this Western version has the added attraction of a beautiful park with trees from around the world.
Besides its museums, Balboa Park also has eight gardens, walkways, hiking trails, plus an IMAX domed theater, a replica of the Old Globe Theater where Shakespeare plays are performed in summer, and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, with the world’s largest outdoor organ. Free organ concerts are given here year-round.
And a separate section of Balboa Park is the site of the famed San Diego Zoo.
I began my exploration of the cultural section with a guided walking tour that left from the Visitors Center.
As we walked along El Prado, a wide, palm-tree lined walkway, we admired the Spanish Colonial architecture of the buildings that house the museums.
During our tour, led by a park ranger, we also learned about the stately palm tree. They are mainly Mexican palms, but there are also Canary Island date palms and eucalyptus from Australia.
The diversity of museums was impressive. One building alone housed the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Model Railroad Museum and the San Diego History Center.
Next to the main entrance of the Museum of Natural History, our guide pointed out a huge fig tree, known as a Morton Bay fig, which is one of the largest trees in the U.S. But the tallest tree in the park is a l80 foot tall eucalyptus.
As we walked, we passed one museum after another. We saw the Botanical Garden and lily pond; the Mingei International Museum which focuses on folk art; and the San Diego Museum of Art, with its outdoor Sculpture Court Café.
Another highlight was the Old Globe Theatre, which is actually three theaters. The best known one is the Old Globe, a circular theater which looks just like the original in London. This is the scene of summer Shakespeare festivals. There’s also a larger open air theater and an arena stage. Varied plays are presented here year-round.
The theater complex is situated behind the Museum of Man, one of the park’s most striking buildings. Built in l914, it’s the tallest structure in San Diego. Its tower is crowned with a beautiful tiled dome.
There was no way to explore all this in one visit, but at least the walking tour- and then my own leisurely stroll afterwards- was a good introduction to this outstanding cultural park.
Next day, I visited the San Diego Zoo, an entirely separate entity within Balboa Park. It’s home to more than 4,000 animals, including exotic and endangered species. It’s one of only a few US zoos with giant pandas and there are other rare species as well.
Since the zoo covers a large expanse, I began with a guided bus tour. Our guide explained that the zoo is also an accredited botanical garden with 6000 different trees and plants, including oral trees from South America, papaya, numerous banana trees (gorillas eat the leaves daily) and many more.
The habitats we passed included the 7.5 acre Elephant Odyssey, where we caught glimpses of these huge animals who weigh 12,000 pounds. “They’re very smart, and they drink 30 to 50 gallons a day,” said our guide, noting that they also get a daily pedicure.
Other areas we passed included the Polar Bear Plunge, Monkey Trails, and Gorilla Tropics. Even though we didn’t have close-up views from the bus, we did catch glimpses of many creatures, including a zebra, brown bear, a camel under a tree, even a lion (with a wire boundary to protect visitors).
After the tour, like other visitors, I followed signs to re-visit a few areas and get close-up views of the animals in their habitats. They seemed entirely undisturbed by the visitors peering at them with cameras pointed.
With limited time during my San Diego visit, I covered other highlights aboard an Old Town Trolley. The guide gave excellent narration and the route covered many sites, from the San Diego Bay to Old Town, where San Diego began.
Walking was another way to enjoy specific areas like the Gaslamp Quarter, a National Historic District. Once a seedy red light district, its streets are now lined with electric versions of old-fashioned gas lamps. The formerly dilapidated buildings are now pastel-colored restored Victorian structures that house trendy shops and restaurants- even a Hard Rock Café.
My first visit to San Diego gave me convincing proof of why the locals think their city is the best. After four days sped by, I left reluctantly- and eager for a return visit to enjoy even more of its pleasures.