Balboa Park, San Diego.

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a massive urban park in San Diego, southern California, in the United States. The park measures nearly 5 square kilometers and is full of various green spaces, natural landscapes, culture centres, and recreational areas. There is something for everyone here, making it extremely popular with both local San Diegans, tourists and visitors alike.


Balboa Park at twilight
San Diego's Balboa Park at twilight.

The beginnings of Balboa Park date back to 1868, when the land was first set aside by city officials. It then remained as it was, in its natural and unmanicured state for roughly 20 years. It was still very much a designated park, but there was little to no cultivation until 1892. At this time, Kate Sessions presented an offer to plant 100 trees per year in the park grounds, as well as donate other shrubs and trees for use in the San Diego area, in exchange for acquiring a portion of the land to be used as a commercial nursery. This partnership brought a number of new plant species to the park, including birds of paradise, queen palm, and poinsettia. Her early efforts in cultivating the park earned Sessions the unofficial title of ‘Mother of Balboa Park,’ although at the time of her partnership, the park was simply known as ‘City Park’.

The park experienced another increase in cultivation between 1903 and 1910, when careful planting increased, irrigation systems were installed, and roads were laid. This was the true beginning of the park as it is today. In light of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, which was to be hosted at the park, the city decided to rename the area. After several other popular suggestions the name ‘Balboa’ was chosen as a nod to Panama. The name honours Spanish-born explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean while on an exploration in Panama.

Green Spaces And Gardens

Rose garden in Balboa Park
Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden inside Balboa Park.

Balboa Park is wonderful for having a mixture of natural green spaces, curated gardens, and outdoor leisure areas. The Florida Canyon trails are a series of walking and light hiking trails through the natural canyon, while manicured lawns in the north and west offer places to relax in the sun, practice yoga, or have a picnic with friends. There are also a large number of gardens, from the outdoor and free, to paid entry greenhouses. Some of these curated plant areas include the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, Veterans Memorial Garden, Marston House Garden, the California Native Plant Garden, the The Botanical Building and Lily Pond -  prominently in the centre of the park this is a popular place for photo ops due to the impressive architecture which sets a beautiful backdrop to the pond -, the Alcazar garden, and the Japanese Friendship garden.


San Diego air and space museum
San Diego Air and Space Museum. Editorial credit: Sherry V Smith /

While Balboa park has an abundance of gardens and plant areas, it is also equally full of cultural attractions, rec centers, and activity centers. Some of the most popular are the Museum of Us, which features rotating unusual natural-history style exhibits like beerology or an exhibit about cannibalism around the world, Museum of Photographic Arts, the Air and Space Museum, the Fleet Science Center, and several others.

San Diego Zoo

San Diego zoo
Visitors at the San Diego Zoo. Editorial credit: LMspencer /

The largest attraction in the park is none other than the world famous San Diego Zoo. The zoo takes up about 0.5 square kilometers of land in the park, and is home to roughly 660 different species and subspecies of animals, as well as more than 700,000 plants. The zoo is renowned around the world as being one of the best and most impressive zoos. Its carefully curated animal exhibits and habitats show off a variety of animals from all over the world, from koalas to polar bears, giraffes to big cats. 

From amazing and extensive gardens, to canyon paths, museums and a full-fledged zoo, Balboa park truly has something for everyone. Get a sweat on in Morley Field’s Sports Complex, or take in some culture at one of the many museums. Whether spending a few hours in the sun, or making a day of visiting the attractions, Balboa Park is well worth a visit for tourists and locals alike.


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