In terms of museums and architecture, I think I found the spot that showcases the best of culture in California: Balboa Park San Diego. Visiting Downtown San Diego is definitely a must, but if you’re an arts and culture geek, Balboa Park is going to be the highlight of your visit. The park includes an impressive number of museums, several gardens, theatres, restaurants and the San Diego Zoo.
Californian History: Balboa Park San Diego
San Diego’s Balboa Park is one of the largest urban cultural park in California. The park gets its name from the Spanish maritime explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa. De Balboa’s best known achievement is crossing the Isthmu of Panama in 1513. Balboa Park hosted the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. The park also hosted the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935, when even more exposition buildings were added to the park. The buildings are now officially considered National Historic Landmarks.
California Bell Tower
The California Bell Tower is the most recognisable landmark of Balboa Park. The California Building and Bell Tower currently house the San Diego Museum of Man, a museum of anthropology. The buildings were part of the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 and give the impression of a Colonial church with Spanish and Mexican architectural elements. The buildings exhibited a display called “The Story of Man through the Ages” during the Expo, which eventually grew into the San Diego Museum of Man.
The Balboa Botanical Building
The Botanical Garden and its mirror-like Lily Pond is another one of San Diego’s iconic views. The Botanical Building was also a result of the 1915 Expo. As you may be able to see, it was partly constructed using countless strips of wood. Since it was so lush with greenery, I have to admit it was by far the prettiest spot within the park.
Timken Museum of Art
The Timken Museum of Art started its life much later in 1965, at the left-hand side of the Botanical Building. It is currently a fine art museum and the only museum in Balboa Park with free admission. Although it’s relatively small, the museum is definitely worth a visit. The museum regularly houses temporary exhibitions and has several European top pieces in its permanent collection, including a Rembrandt.
Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA)
The Museum of Photographic Arts or MOPA first opened in 1983. As you can understand, this museum was right up my alley! Specifically, the museum dedicates itself to the collection and preservation of photography. Its mission is to inspire, educate and engage the public through photography, film, and video. The museum is quite small, but tells an interesting story about the history of photography and displays a wide range of contemporary works.
Japanese Friendship Garden
The Japanese Friendship Garden or San Kei En (三景園) is a botanical expression of the friendship between San Diego and its sister city Yokohama. The garden includes koi ponds and sukiya-style buildings. We personally decided to skip a visit to the garden, mostly because it wasn’t really the right season. Nevertheless, I imagine the garden must look wonderful during the spring time.
I hope you enjoyed this little overview of some of the landmarks of Balboa Park. If you would like to explore more of my adventures in California, have a look at my posts about Downtown San Diego, Huntington Beach, and the Lake Hodges Pedestrian Bridge in Escondido. More to come!