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Balboa Park’s Culture

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San Diego is one of the jewels in the crown of California’s coast and ranks as its second largest city. Diverse and vibrant, San Diego is rich in history, shares a border with Tijuana, Mexico, is home to University of California San Diego, offers miles of beautiful beaches and a Mediterranean-like climate, and houses 16 military facilities. From the historic Presidio of Old Town to the Waterfront, Little Italy to the Gas Lamp Quarter, the city has been undergoing gentrification since the 80′s.

One of San Diego’s most beautiful points of interest just may be Balboa Park. With 1,200 verdant acres, fifteen museums, several performing arts venues, gardens and the world-famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park is practically a national landmark. Ranked as one of the Best Parks in the World, it is America’s largest urban cultural park, welcoming over 6 million visitors annually and where today’s perfect day takes place.

A visit to Balboa will take plenty of energy, so start your day with a hearty, toothsome breakfast at the Hash House A Go Go. You know it’s going to be special when the locals are in line for up to half an hour, but fear not, they have coffee set-up outside to tide you over while you wait. They offer huge portions and a large menu, innovatively served in skillets – it’s no surprise they are the recipient of the Best Breakfast 2007 Gold Medallion by the San Diego Restaurant Association.

After breakfast, work off some of those carbs with a brisk walk to Balboa Park. Horticulturalist Kate Sessions, christened the Mother of Balboa Park, was its first landscape architect. Ahead of her time, Sessions owned a commercial nursery. In 1892, in need of more space, she negotiated use of a 30-acre tract with the City of San Diego in exchange for planting 100 trees every year in exchange. Plantings included everything from cypress and oak to pine, pepper and eucalyptus and she made the beautiful imported jacaranda tree a familiar San Diego bloom. This was the early beginnings of Balboa’s 1200-acre arboretum. Today, Balboa Park is one of the most lushly planted urban parks in the world. Its superlatives: 15,000 trees with 350+ species, 100-foot pine and eucalyptus, 120′-wide Moreton Bay fig trees.

Continue your day by exploring the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, which is deep within the Park grounds. With its famous Giant Pandas, it is home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals representing more than 800 species. Interpreters are founts of interesting information and trivia. For example, one can tell African Elephants by their large ears shaped like the continent itself (Asian elephants have much smaller ears). The difference between apes and monkeys is that apes have no tails. Flamingos’ plumage is actually white, turning pink from their food source. Be there at opening and plan on at least a few hours.

After leaving the Zoo, meander back to through the heavily ornate and architecturally significant Spanish-Revival buildings and the El Prado, the central promenade, which was initially built to last just a year. They were to commemorate completion of the Panama Canal, celebrating the Port of San Diego as the ships’ first port-of-call after passing north through the Canal. Development started in 1911 with the Park opening on December 31, 1914. In the mid-1930′s, the Park experienced new building, playing host to the California Pacific International Exposition with new architectural influences from the Southwest and Mexican Aztec in addition to art deco and modern.

Grab a bagged lunch and enjoy it amidst the 200 varieties of roses in Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden. Then make your way to the 193 x 43-foot Botanical Building’s Lily Pond with reflecting pool entry- one of the most photographed scenes in Balboa Park- with more than 2,100 permanent plants, including collections of cycads, ferns, orchids, palms and other tropical plant species, there are seasonal blooms year round.

Afterwards head to the Japanese Friendship Garden. The Friendship Garden began as a teahouse during the Panama-California Exposition and continues that tradition today. The Zen garden, koi pond, bonsai exhibit, ceremonial gate, and a Fujidana (wisteria arbor) make one feel transported to Asia.

Juxtaposed with the Japanese Friendship Garden is the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. With one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, it comprises 4,530 pipes ranging in length from the size of a pencil to 32 feet. It is housed in an equally impressive, ornate vaulted structure; its highly embellished gables and flying buttresses are reminiscent of an elaborate, regal wedding cake.

With more than a dozen museums to choose from that all are independently managed, a great place to start is the San Diego Museum of Man. Located at the base of the 200-foot California Tower, it is the region’s only Museum devoted to anthropology as well as arts, culture and scientific achievements. Collection includes Mayan monuments, rare Egyptian tomb artifacts and Peruvian mummies. Next, visit the San Diego Natural History Museum, an active research institution, dedicated to interpreting the natural world through research and education, offering local and international exhibitions.

After a long day of exploration at one of the world’s most renowned parks its time to experience one of the many wonderful dining experiences in this seaside city. For a casual dinner, check out Kemo Sabe. It is one of nearly a dozen restaurants operated by the Cohen family of restaurateurs. Award-winning chef Deborah Scott features a very innovative menu of Pacific Rim cuisine. Save room for dessert, the potted brownie and coconut crème brulée is outrageous!

For the more romantic, checkout Jsix at the Kempinski’s Hotel Solamar; a formal and intimate dining experience. Its 21st century Moroccan décor features glass mosaic tiled pillars, Asian-influenced floral fabric fixtures, massive paned windows-it is a feast of creative, soothing art and décor. The illuminated, sleek bar makes a martini a sure-fire first course. An open kitchen features Coastal California cuisine and, while the menu is small, it makes for some hard choices. Try the Caesar Salad or Maine Lobster Risotto, followed by the peppered rib-eye with rosemary roasted potatoes, Swiss chard and truffle oil or the pan-seared striped bass with Dungeness crab and green onion risotto. The goat cheese panna cotta or caramel balsamic crème brulée with ginger snap cookies makes a crowning finish to an incredible culinary experience.

Next, find your way to a restful slumber at the Park Manor Suites. Well-positioned in the charming neighborhood of Hillcrest, it is ideally situated at the edge of Balboa Park West. This landmark hotel has an enduring history. While some of the décor is somewhat dated, it is in the midst of an ongoing facelift. Features include a kitchenette, complimentary wi-fi, and an incredible view of the city from Top of the Park restaurant. Great rates, an ideal location to Balboa and complimentary parking make this a real value.

What & Where:
Hash House A Go Go (3628 Fifth Ave; 619-298-4646)
Kemo Sabe (3958 Fifth Ave; 619-220-6802)
Jsix (616 J Street at 6th Ave; 619-531-8744)
Park Manor Suites (525 Spruce St; 619-291-0999)
Balboa Park Visitor Center (1549 El Prado; 619-239-0512)
San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Dr; 619-234-3153)
San Diego Museum of Man (1350 El Prado; 619-239-2001)
San Diego Natural History Museum (1788 El Prado; 619-232-3821)

Useful Information: Many of the museums and attractions are free. There is a Passport to Balboa Park, a multi-day admission book to 13 museums with savings of 50%. A Zoo/Passport Combo, adds a one-day deluxe admission to the San Diego Zoo. Passports may be purchased at Balboa Park Visitors Center and at participating museums.

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About the Author

Glenn M. Faria
Glenn Faria has more than 25 years’ experience in travel & tourism. His expertise in hospitality, destination marketing and development of tourism and public-private partnerships has made him a sought-after speaker and writer for industry conferences and seminars; he has spoken on more than 100 public relations panels and, as an industry spokesman, has been quoted extensively in the media. His love for hospitality and tourism began long ago and his affection for his native New England led to a career in its destination marketing. He can be reached at glenn@mpdcltd.com.

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About the Photographer

Joanne DiBona
Joanne DiBona is the Communications Manager for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau and serves as the official photographer and writer for the tourism marketing association. She is also a widely-published travel writer and photographer. She can be reached at mailto:jdibona@sdcvb.org.