Hidden (and not-so-Hidden) Places in Balboa Park

San Diego’s Balboa Park contains 1,200 acres of gardens, trails, museums, restaurants, fun activities, and tucked-away local treasures.

1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
In the lower level of the Casa Del Balboa building in Balboa Park is one of the world’s largest indoor model railway displays. There are several rooms, where you can see huge displays of trains going through miniature towns and landscapes. Parts of the California railway system is recreated in miniature, including the Southern Pacific-Santa Fe Tehachapi Pass (pictured here). There are different miniature towns representing San Diego and other California cities throughout various point in history, and the railways that went through them at that time period. In another room is the toy train gallery, with four separate lines, miniature scenery, and even a train equipped with a camera in the front, so you can watch a video from the ‘train’s eye view.’ Both kids and adults will enjoy this fantastic model railroad museum.
1649 El Prado
If you’re interested in the history of San Diego, this is a great place to stop when you’re at Balboa Park. There are several galleries displaying regional art, the Kumeyaay culture (local Native people), history of the Spanish and the Japanese influence in San Diego. At the time of this writing, there’s an awesome exhibit about San Diego’s local breweries and the history of craft beer in the county. The extensive gift shop has a large selection of locally made jewelry, dozens of books about regional history, back issues of the Journal of San Diego History, toys, games and exhibition-related gifts.
1549 El Prado
Located at the edge of Balboa Park, near the San Diego Zoo, is a 4 acre miniature railroad ride geared for children. Adults are required to sit with them in the train.
2125 Park Boulevard
There are about 32 countries represented in this little section of Balboa Park, each country housed in its own cute little Spanish Colonial cottage built for the 1935 Exposition. Pictured here are the houses for China and Scotland. The little cottages sit in a horseshoe shape around a grassy area where you can have a picnic or sit on a blanket to watch the shows. Each Sunday from March through October, a different cottage features music and dancing using the costumes and serving food from that part of the world. At different times of the year, cottages have special events to showcase their culture with food and music. During other events, such as December Nights at Balboa Park, all the houses are open and serving food local to that country.
2171 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
The gift shop is in the area of the Hospitality Houses and is packed with souvenirs from Balboa Park and San Diego. You will also find a lot of handmade items from around the world, and things like camera batteries, and water bottles (it can get very warm here in the summer months). You can also purchase maps of the area and an audio walking tour of Balboa Park.
Plaza de Panama, Balboa Park, 1439 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
Devoted to folk art from around the world, the Mingei International Museum is home to some of San Diego’s most intriguing works. Depending on when you visit, you might see an exhibition on Indonesian shadow puppets made from water buffalo hide, or pre-Columbian art from the museum’s permanent collection. After you’re done looking around, head to the Collector’s Gallery, which outdoes typical museum gift shops with its assemblage of ethical items from local and international artisans. Shop for jewelry, ponchos, and woven baskets, then get your caffeine fix at Café Mingei, which serves coffee from one of San Diego’s best roasters, the WestBean.
2215 Pan American Rd E
The Japanese Friendship Garden is a beautiful Japanese garden that represents the Japanese philosophy of the universe and its elements. There’s a koi pond, a rock garden, and a little area in the back where you can see some beautiful bonsai trees.
1549 El Prado
The building housing the gorgeous botanical garden in Balboa Park is often photographed, as it sits rather picturesquely at one end of a beautiful lily pond. The structure was originally built for the 1915-16 Exposition and houses a large collection of orchids, cycads, ferns, palms and even a carnivorous plant display. Tip: This garden is free to enter.
1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
After exploring Balboa Park for a few hours, this is the place to be for a cocktail or lunch. The food is really good, and the chef has won multiple awards over the years. They’ve got great mojitos, and my new favorite drink, the caipirinha (sugar cane liquor). I really like the beet salad, which consists of different varieties of beets sprinkled with goat cheese. There’s indoor and patio seating, but who wants to sit inside on a beautiful San Diego sunny day? The outside patio overlooks part of the park and inside is filled with eclectic decor. The zoo is right next door, so when we have out of town guests, we’ll just walk over after exploring the zoo and have lunch or an early dinner. The Prado does have online reservation system and I recommend using it or calling ahead unless you are going to be here right when they open at 11 a.m. It can get crowded really quickly, especially on the weekends.
Balboa Park, San Diego, CA, USA
A 1,200-acre green space filled with museums, theaters, and gardens, Balboa Park is the center of art and culture in San Diego. It’s also one of the city’s most historic sites, built for the Panama–California exhibition in 1915. While the museums are definitely worth seeing, there are also a number of free attractions, including the photogenic Botanical Building, which houses more than 2,100 plants (including Venus flytraps); the Desert Garden, filled with succulents from around the world; and a sculpture court with works by Miró and Rodin. For one of the area’s best views, purchase a timed ticket to climb the California Tower in the Museum of Man. The ornate structure reopened to the public in 2015 after being closed for nearly 80 years and features a spiral staircase to the eighth floor, where you can catch a glimpse of the Cuyamaca Mountains, the Cabrillo Bridge, and even Mexico’s Coronado Islands.
1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
With over 7,000 images from 850 artists, the Museum of Photographic Art displays a collection of pictures depicting the transformation of photojournalism and social documentaries from the early 19th century to modern day. Boasting works from Alex Webb, Margaret Bourke-White, and Ruth Bernhard, this museum is a must see in San Diego’s art scene. So stop on by MOPA, and make sure to leave enough time to explore the rest of Balboa Park surrounding it!
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