Think zoo and you think of San Diego. Think of San Diego and you think of the San Diego Zoo. For decades, this world-famous zoo has been attracting visitors from all over the world — and its popularity is as great as ever.
Yet many people don't realize that the San Diego Zoo is just one part of an amazing collection of fascinating attractions and museums that, together, comprise Balboa Park. While you might allow several hours for your visit to the San Diego Zoo, you could literally come back several different days to enjoy the 15 museums located on this picturesque piece of Southern California real estate.
The park has become a cultural centerpiece for a city that combines majestic seascapes with a cosmopolitan downtown — and, oh, did we mention the weather? Reputed to have the best climate in the country, San Diego boasts hundreds of blue-sky 65-to-75-degree days every year.
And so, much more often than not, the sun casts a warm glow over Balboa Park, illuminating the park's stunning combination of historic architecture and lush landscaping. Many of the park's buildings were the result of two expositions — the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. Everywhere you go in the park you are reminded of the ornate, almost palace-like designs common in the first part of the 20th Century.
While we had enjoyed many visits to the San Diego Zoo during many San Diego vacations, the focus of our most recent visit was the OTHER side of the park — the part that houses the museums, gardens and many other attractions. Our advice to anyone visiting the park is plan plenty of time for your visit. And be prepared for a little walking.
Most San Diego hotels are just a short drive from the park. Once at the park, we dropped in first to the Visitor Center — where you can buy combo passes that allow you to get in most of the museums for one flat price — and then went to the nearby Museum of Photographic Arts. Rows and rows of wall-mounted enlarged black-and-while photos were tastefully arranged just like you would expect in any exhibit of modern art. This modern art does a wonderful job of conveying many historic times from earlier in the century. Many photos seemed to be of cities and people of the 30s and 40s, including an almost unbelievable view of New York City in a 40's snow storm.
The museum features photos by some of the greatest photographers in the country but we thought some of the most fascinating photos were part of an exhibit by film star Jeff Bridges. His wife gave him a special camera shortly after they were married and this camera, in effect, creates wide angle black and white photos that are the same shape as a movie screen. Bridges apparently has taken photos on most of his movie sets, and this "behind-the-scenes" look at movie-making is not only artful, but interesting.
Next door was the Model Railroad Museum, a sure-fire hit with our four-year-old and a reminder of our own boyhood memories of driving electric Lionel trains. Our own trains had track systems pretty much confined to the bedroom floor, and our scenery amounted to a train station and a few miniature people. The Model Railroad Museum offers us all the train set we always wished we could have had — actually a series of trains and tracks that show highly detailed dioramas of the local terrain as well as that of Southwestern U.S.
It's obvious that many hundreds of hours have gone into the careful re-creation of small cities, passenger stations, switching stations, freight yards and even such things as model refineries and other industrial locations. The train systems are not located all in one room, but spread throughout a series of rooms that take the visitor through the various geographic regions. Standing somewhere in the middle of it all were the middle-aged engineers — still boys at heart, every one.
Just upstairs from the Model Railroad Museum is a remarkably good snack bar that offers deli-style sandwiches and a tantalizing assortment of fresh pastries. If an elegant sit-down meal is more to your liking, the Prado Restaurant is in the same general vicinity.
After pausing for a brief lunch at the deli, we took a brisk walk down to the southern edge of the park where we wanted to be sure and take in the Aerospace Museum. This is probably the only air museum in the country that has the added realism of being located almost directly under the flight path for a major airport. WHEN you're looking at historic aircraft displays, somehow it just seems fitting to have the building rattled every several minutes by aircraft seemingly just a couple of hundred feet overhead.
The Aerospace Museum is a jewel for anyone fascinated with airplanes. The circular building is packed full of real aircraft, all displayed logically, whether by type or by historic timeline. The museum offers a replica of the Wright Brothers' airplane and even gives visitors a chance to lay in a flight simulator to see what that flight might have been like. A progression is shown through World War I aircraft, including one display where you can view the uniform, maps, goggles and other equipment of a real World War I ace. For those interested in military weaponry, it's almost astonishing to see what they used for bombs — a small hand grenade with missile fins that they just threw out of the cockpit.
World War II and commercial aviation are covered as well, but a more recent part of aviation history is the Apollo 9 spacecraft on display at the museum — the only such craft displayed in the western United States. Moon rocks are on hand, as are examples of the space suits and other equipment used by our astronauts in the various programs that put Americans into space.
WHEN NASA's Gemini and Apollo astronauts got back down to earth, quite often their need for speed was satisfied by fast cars, and there are plenty of those on display just one building north of the Aerospace Museum — at our next stop, the Automotive Museum. Similar to the classic car shows you might find in Las Vegas or Laughlin, Nevada, this museum is a showroom packed to the rafters with historic cars produced all over the world. Altogether there are more than 80 historic cars and motorcycles and, every few months, a special display is brought in — such as the Italian cars on display during our visit.
Walking to our next museum stop, we stopped by the outdoor Spreckles Organ Pavilion, where free concerts are offered each Sunday at 2 p.m. This has provided the soundtrack, no doubt, for many San Diego vacations and it's a great place to get off your feet for a few minutes while listening to a top-rated musician demonstrating this extraordinary pipe organ. Visitors of all ages were enjoying the music.
We finished off our day with stops at the Mingei International Museum and the Natural History Museum. The Mingei offers a fine collection of contemporary folk art and, upstairs, an impressive collection of children's toys and dollhouses. The Natural History Museum is worth some extra time and, in addition to more generalized exhibits about the natural world, the museum offers special exhibits such as one the museum did on the local forest fires.
It took us the better part of the day to just scratch the surface of Balboa Park's many museums and attractions — in future trips we'll no doubt spend time at such park attractions as the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center with its IMAX theater, and the Museum of Art. And there is so much more.
Indeed, now when we think Balboa Park, we're likely to think about a whole lot more than just the San Diego Zoo — the zoo is just one part of a "wild" getaway to Balboa Park.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo are located near downtown, are easily accessible from Interstate 5 or Highway 163 and are just a few minutes drive from San Diego hotels.
WHAT: The park is home to not only the San Diego Zoo, but 15 unique museums as well as several gardens and trails. There are also a couple of theaters offering live performances, and street musicians entertain throughout the day on weekends.
WHEN: San Diego vacations are year-round, although travel packages will offer better rates during certain times of the year.
WHY: The park has something for everyone. Whether you're interested in cars, airplanes, trains, art, science or just a beautiful setting, Balboa has it. And, oh yes — it has the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
HOW: For more information on Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, call (619) 239-0512 or visit www.balboapark.org. A couple of museums are free but most vary in price between $3 and $9 for an adult. A "Best Value" pass is available that allows admission to 13 museums plus the zoo, all for $55. The pass can be used over a seven-day period. In addition, some San Diego hotels offer travel packages that include tickets to the zoo or other area attractions. For a recommended list of San Diego hotels and lodgings, click here.
RECOMMENDED LODGING: Here are some examples of lodging available in the downtown San Diego area: Holiday Inn San Diego Downtown; The Westin Horton Plaza San Diego; The US Grant; Sheraton Suites San Diego at Symphony Hall; Doubletree Golf Resort San Diego; Doubletree Hotel San Diego - Mission Valley