Balboa Park’s Californian Soul


Imagine a February as sunny as May, and a summer as mild as springtime. An oasis of swaying palms, Italianate villas and lush gardens, dotted with museums and fountains and populated by relaxed, happy people.

This is Balboa Park, the century-old jewel at the heart of San Diego. But calling Balboa a park is like calling Amazon a retail business: With 1,200 acres, 15 museums and the country’s most famous zoo, Balboa is a world unto itself — and an ideal place for a San Diego sojourn, at any time of year.

With an average February high around 65, the San Diego winter is less than 10 degrees cooler than July. But now is a particularly good time to visit: The 10-day San Diego Jewish Film Festival starts on Feb. 7, uniting Jews in venues from beachside La Jolla — where the festival is based at the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture — to Project Bar & Grill in the stylish Hillcrest neighborhood, where short films are screened over craft brews.

Festival aside, may I suggest the deeply luxuriant exercise of ensconcing oneself in the park and more or less ignoring the surrounding metropolis. Even in a park as abundant as Balboa, such an approach runs contrary to the modern urban travel paradigm, in which we value authentic, street-level culture and serendipitous experiences.

Balboa is the opposite of all that. Steeped in the self-contained, orderly artifice of faux-Old World palaces and gardens, it’s a theme park without a theme. Yet Balboa is older than most things in San Diego, and as such, it has evolved a deeply Californian soul. And the Romanesque arches of its architectural landmarks — most of which were originally built for the 1915-’16 Panama-California Exposition — have assimilated into a West Coast landscape, cleaved by canyons and dotted with cacti at the edge of downtown.

For the visitor, Balboa Park is designed to be easy. Almost every day is at least partly sunny in San Diego, and the park terrain, while visually diverse, is mostly flat, with plenty of benches. A free, covered tram loops around the main attractions, stopping at several accessible parking lots.

And while shade can be hard to come by in the southern California desert, it is abundant under the ficus trees and conifers of Balboa Park. Within Balboa, there are actually multiple parks to explore — from the majestic Alcazar Garden, modeled after a castle in Seville, to the Botanical Building, an Art Nouveau greenhouse containing more than 2,000 ferns, orchids and other tropical flora.

There are gardens themed around deserts, native California plants and 200 varieties of roses. Most notoriously, the sunken stone grottos of the Zoro Garden were designed for a nudist colony during the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition; the only clothing-free species today are thousands of butterflies that flit over shimmering pools.

Families with children make a beeline for the San Diego Zoo, but Balboa’s museums offer something for just about anyone. California newcomers might orient themselves at the San Diego History Center, where a film about the history of Balboa Park screens daily, and a current exhibition spotlights the region’s female pioneers.

The same building also houses the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, with scale models of California’s famous locomotives. Pint-size enthusiasts can jump on a vintage mini-train outside the Zoo for a three-minute, half-mile ride; car connoisseurs should head to the Automotive Museum (which has a very popular gift shop).

Few parks can boast the kind of treasures you’ll see in the Timken Museum of Art, whose collection ranges from French tapestries to Russian icons. Highlights include Italian, Spanish, Dutch and American paintings by Murillo, Rubens, Singer Sargent and the Hudson River School.

A more modern Jewish perspective is on view through April with “Metonymies: 20th Century Works from the Sonnabend Collection,” featuring the holdings of Ileana Schapira Sonnabend, a Bucharest-born Jewish art dealer credited with popularizing midcentury American art at her Paris gallery.

Watch modern-day artists at work at the Spanish Village Arts Center, a colony within the park where dozens of painters, sculptors and glass artisans create work in open studios and tiled courtyards. You may stumble onto an artist reception or stay for a watercolor class.

Balboa’s broad pathways are usually lined with guitarists, singers and steel-drummers, giving the park the feel of an open-air party. Every Sunday afternoon, crowds spread picnic blankets in front of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion for a free organ concert — capping off yet another perfect San Diego weekend.