San Diego's civic treasure: beautiful, varied Balboa Park

The Botanical Building in San Diego's Balboa Park was the world's largest wood-lath structure when constructed in 1915.    Richard Moreno/ Nevada appeal

The Botanical Building in San Diego's Balboa Park was the world's largest wood-lath structure when constructed in 1915. Richard Moreno/ Nevada appeal

One of my favorite things to do when visiting San Diego, in addition to checking out the zoo, is exploring Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre complex of museums, gardens, theaters and shops minutes from the city's downtown.

Balboa Park traces its roots to the beginning of San Diego. In 1868, the city set aside a 1,400-acres for a public park. In 1892, horticulturist Kate O. Sessions was given 30 acres in City Park, as it was then known, to develop a private nursery. In return, Sessions planted 100 trees a year in the park.

By the early 20th century, the city had developed a master plan and levied taxes to begin development of the park. In 1910, a contest was held to rename City Park, and the winning entry was Balboa Park, to honor explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.

The first important development in the park was the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition held there. A number of Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings were erected to house the exhibits.

In the 1920s and '30s, additional structures, influenced by the expo's Spanish-themed buildings, were added to house the San Diego Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum.

In 1935, the park hosted the California-Pacific International Exposition, which incorporated a Southwest-Indian pueblo design into its buildings. This combination of architectural styles is what gives the park its distinctive design and appearance today.

the park today

Balboa Park is home to more than 85 cultural and recreational organizations and encompasses 15 museums; numerous performing arts venues, such as the Old Globe Theater; and the famous San Diego Zoo.

With so much to choose from, it's impossible to take in all the park has to offer during a single visit. Should you want to try, there is discount admission book, "Passport to Balboa Park," available for $30 and good for a whole week.

During my most recent trip to the park, I let my children select where we would visit. The result was a cross section of the attractions, including the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Spanish Village Art Center and the Botanical Building.

Our first stop, the Fleet Science Center, is home to the world's first IMAX Dome Theater and more than 100 interactive science exhibits. At the IMAX Theater, we caught an eye-boggling film about traveling the length of the Nile River on rafts and kayaks - quite exciting.

The exhibits were a mixture of motion simulators, pendulums, illusions, wheels, telescopes, pulleys, mirrors, kaleidoscopes and other science-related devices designed to keep you entertained while teaching you something.

The Model Railroad Museum is the world's largest operating model railroad museum, containing four massive scale and model railroad layouts duplicating the trains of the Southwest. It's a treat for all the big, little boys (like me) who never outgrew playing with trains.

The Museum of Art is filled with the works of dozens of famous European artists and 19th and 20th century American painters as well as Asian, Latin American and contemporary art.

Properly inspired by the classics, we headed to the Spanish Village, a collection of art studios housed in structures built for the 1935-36 California-Pacific Expo. The buildings re-create an old Spanish town square, with more than 50 artists working on site to create works using various media for sale.

One of the most impressive of the park's historic structures is the Botanical Building. Measuring 250 feet long by 75 feet wide and 60 feet tall, this massive greenhouse was the largest wood-lath structure in the world when it was built for the Panama-California Expo.

Inside, nearly every patch of dirt contains some kind of plant - more than 2,000 permanent tropical species, palm trees and seasonal flower species in all. Leading to the building is a 193-by-43-foot lily pond filled with exotic water lilies and other plants.

Of course, on this visit we only hit a few of the dozens of places in the park.

We never made it to the Japanese Friendship Garden, the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Museum of San Diego History, the San Diego Aerospace Museum, the San Diego Natural History Museum or the San Diego Museum of Man.

Nor did we get to the zoo, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, The Timken Museum of Art or the San Diego Hall of Champions.

They'll just have to wait until next time.

• Richard Moreno is the author of "Backyard Travels in Northern Nevada" and "The Roadside History of Nevada."

If you go

What: Balboa Park

Where: El Prado Avenue, directly east of the downtown San Diego

Call: (619) 239-0512

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