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An Insider’s Guide to Balboa Park

New ways to experience Balboa Park’s renowned attractions and institutions

This special section appeared in the August/September issue of San Diego Magazine.

Home to lush gardens, a diverse array of museums, and awesome animals, Balboa Park is San Diego’s crown jewel. This 1,200-acre cultural destination in the heart of the city is filled with education, recreation, art, nature, and fun. From fine art and miles of hiking trails to space-age tech, Balboa Park has something for everyone. Though its institutions have had to make some adjustments in recent months, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy beautiful Balboa Park.


Balboa Park / San Diego Museum of Art

San Diego Museum of Art

San Diego Museum of Art

The San Diego Museum of Art houses some of the world’s finest works of art. Its respected collection of more than 20,000 works—dating from 3000 BCE to the present day—includes Spanish and Italian masters, South and East Asian art, masterpieces of impressionism and postimpressionism, and modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures. The museum has been at the forefront of public arts institutions in digitizing images of its collection and creating online content for students, researchers, and all art lovers to share. Through its online options, including a YouTube channel filled with videos of lectures and symposia and an engaging social media presence that both informs and delights, the museum continues to offer avenues for entertainment and education to people all over the globe.

For those wanting to visit in person, the San Diego Museum of Art recently reopened its doors following a closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To ensure the health and well-being of its visitors, the museum operates at a reduced capacity and requires face masks, a non-invasive temperature check, and physical distancing so you can tour the art with peace of mind.

Not ready to take a look in person? Be sure to check out Virtual SDMA for videos, podcasts, and more inspired by the SDMA collections, plus activities and crafts creative kids will love; and Virtual SDMA+, which features collaborations with local arts organizations, including Art of Elan, the San Diego Shakespeare Society, and the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, who select a work of art from the collection then perform a piece in response to it.

The San Diego Museum of Art also has a smartphone app that allows patrons to tour exhibits from the comfort of their own homes. Dive deep into its featured exhibitions, save your favorites, and learn the interesting backstories behind some of the museum’s most popular pieces via app-exclusive content not available anywhere else in the museum.


Balboa Park / Fleet Science Center

Fleet Science Center

Fleet Science Center

The Fleet Science Center isn’t one of those museums where you can look but not touch. At the Fleet, you’re expected to get hands-on with interactive exhibits.

You can explore the wonderfully puzzling Mindbender Mansion, boggle your brain with optical illusions, feel the power of a massive Tesla coil, or touch a tornado. In the Eugene Heikoff and Marilyn Jacobs Heikoff Giant Dome Theater—the world’s first Imax theater—guests can see some amazing furry friends in Superpower Dogs or embark on a journey into the Great Bear Rainforest. And on the first Wednesday of the month, the Fleet’s resident astronomer hosts a live planetarium show, The Sky Tonight.

While most exhibits and programs are suitable for all ages, Kid City is just for children under six, and monthly Senior Mondays provide discounted admission to those 65 and over.


Balboa Park / Mingei International Museum

Mingei International Museum

Mingei International Museum

For over forty years, the Mingei International Museum has celebrated art of the people, and in 2021, it will open a newly designed museum for the people. A space where all are welcome, where the community can gather, and where individuals can find respite, beauty, and creative inspiration. Led by architect Jennifer Luce of San Diego architecture firm Luce et Studio, this transformed space responds to new needs, new opportunities, and new possibilities. It embraces and encourages human creativity by sharing objects of folk art, craft, and design with new areas for hands-on and virtual learning, outdoor enjoyment, performances, and an open plaza level, all free of charge.

In the interim, the museum has adapted some of its programming so patrons can explore its 25,000-item permanent collection from their computer or smartphone. Be awed by beautiful beadwork from around the world and ponder the meanings behind the intricate details, get nostalgic with the museum’s midcentury modern marvels, cozy up to its array of colorful quilts, and see the toys that have entertained children for decades. Plus, don’t miss fun, family-friendly craft ideas inspired by the museum’s works.

Coming this September, learn more about the museum and its transformation at the inaugural edition of San Diego Design Week, a five-day citywide celebration showcasing the region’s interdisciplinary design community through exhibitions, workshops, talks, and open studios, presented by Mingei International Museum and founding sponsor Intuit.


Balboa Park / San Diego Air and Space Museum

San Diego Air and Space Museum

San Diego Air & Space Museum

One of Balboa Park’s—and San Diego’s—true treasures is the San Diego Air & Space Museum, where aviation and space exploration come to life.

Experience an airworthy replica of Charles Lindbergh’s famous Spirit of St. Louis, a rare Gee Bee racer, and amazing examples of airplanes from World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. And don’t miss the museum’s special exhibit Space: Our Greatest Adventure: This interactive experience features the actual Apollo 9 command module, Gumdrop, replicas of the Mercury and Gemini space capsules, and “selfie stations” on the moon, Mars, and the International Space Station.

The Air & Space Museum has also put quite a few of its exhibits online. Virtual visitors can view nearly 300 photos and documents signed by notable aviators, learn about the Mexican Americans who helped shape the aviation industry, delve into the lives of well-known aviators before they were famous, and get a dose of cuteness with the dogs of aviation.

Balboa Park / Feature

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