My recent visit to Balboa Park was the culmination of a garden-themed birthday road trip from Los Angeles (that included a stop at the San Diego Botanic Garden on the drive down). Once we made it to San Diego, I was eager to check out the park based on reputation alone, not being very familiar except for passing knowledge of the iconic architecture and beautiful location. The park is actually a collection of museums, theaters, the San Diego Zoo, and a wide range of recreational areas all set atop a mesa that overlooks the city. Aside from the impeccable landscaping around the ornate buildings and walkways, there are numerous garden features spread across the park, tucked between buildings, and sprouting up throughout in unexpected places.
The land had been set aside for public recreational use since before California was part of the United States, but wasn’t formally dedicated as a park until public outcry kept it from being sold off to developers around the turn of the century. Before the city took over the upkeep of the park grounds, it allowed local businesswoman Kate Sessions to run her nursery on a portion of the property. That proved a mutually-beneficial arrangement when, in return, Sessions agreed to plant a certain number of trees and plants a year. Since then, the plantings, and in particular the trees, have matured and now help fill out the “urban forest” that makes up the park. Several giant Moreton Bay figs stake bold claim among the buildings, with their massive root systems and arching canopies, and one of the figs is said to be over 100 years old.
The park is best known for its architecture of ornate buildings in the Spanish-Renaissance style, which were intended to be the centerpiece of the entire layout. All of these iconic buildings were constructed for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal. After an elaborate overhaul for the exposition, “City Park” was renamed Balboa in honor of a European explorer. All of the buildings are fun to walk around, but the only one I went inside of was, of course, the Botanical Building. A large, glassless conservatory constructed of wooden laths, the Botanical Building houses a collection of tropical and seasonal plants, and was another addition created specifically for the exposition. I found that the architecture far upstaged the plantings inside, but it was beautiful and even a little spooky. The exterior scene of the Botanical Building reflecting into the Lotus Pond is one of the most famous sights in the park. Although it was late-fall on my visit, and therefore not exactly in full bloom, this view was still gasp-worthy.
While much of the park can be quite abuzz with tourists, I had no trouble finding some peaceful garden escapes on the outer edges of the property where, to my surprise, there were a few separate gardens to explore. I was immediately enraptured with a giant bright green tangle of Euphorbia exploding out of a green hillside on the edge of the Desert Garden. A loose planting of cactus and succulents on the hillside, overlooking the expanse of scrub brush below and with a view of mountains in the distance, this garden impresses without trying too hard. Nearby, the well-stocked Rose Garden encircles a gazebo and fountain, perfuming the air and adding a riot of colors to the pleasant setting.
Final Rating: With only a one-day visit, I am pretty sure I did not find all of the gardens that were tucked just beyond buildings or in hidden away in elusive courtyards, so I feel that I haven’t even seen half of the expansive park. Although I didn’t plan out my visit in advance, there was something pleasurable about discovering the different elements spread across the property by exploring at random—something the park invites in its design. On a future visit I will make a special effort to seek out the Spanish-influenced Alcazar Garden to check out its short boxwood hedges and colorful ceramic tile fountains, as well as the secret Balboa Park Administration Courtyard that looks like a gorgeous formal layout of colorful flowerbeds and water features. Like New York’s Central Park, Balboa offers both locals and out-of-town visitors a vibrant social space to experience museums and other cultural institutions in a gorgeous outdoor setting. FOUR BLOOM RATING