Balboa Park, San Diego things to do: 17 museums, gardens and architectural gems

As Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, "I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore". Walking along El Prado, the central avenue of San Diego's Balboa Park, I can hardly believe I'm in the US at all.

This broad pedestrian promenade is lined by graceful buildings with sand-coloured facades, featuring intricate swirls and flourishes and pillars entwined in floral carvings. Add the palm trees and ornamental ponds, and it feels as if I'm somewhere in southern Europe. Spain, to be precise.

That's no accident. San Diego was part of the Spanish Empire, and then Mexico, until it joined the US in 1850 within the new state of California. To celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, the city staged the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 and built this remarkable collection of structures to host it.

The exposition was one of the first places to showcase a new style of architecture. In a stroke of genius, New York architect Bertram Goodhue melded Spanish baroque and Spanish colonial architecture into a decorative style that became known as Spanish Colonial Revival, a style that dominates along El Prado. It was so admired that, following the exposition, the temporary structures were rebuilt to form the cultural precinct that I'm walking through today. A later exposition in 1935 added more buildings, including the Old Globe Theatre modelled on Shakespeare's London theatre.

Beauty aside, it's an impressive collection of museums, galleries and restaurants, easily walkable and an excellent place to spend a day. The 17 museums within the park include the San Diego Natural History Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Automotive Museum, San Diego Air and Space Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts and San Diego History Centre. A Comic-Con Museum to celebrate the annual pop culture convention hosted by the city will be added to the line-up in the near future.

I start at the San Diego History Centre to learn more about this once-remote US city that sits on the border with Mexico. The most interesting displays deal with the 1915 expo and the excitement caused by the opening of the Panama Canal, depicted in a period poster as "The Kiss of the Oceans". There's also an excellent retelling of the life of Vasco Nunez de Balboa – after whom the park is named – who was the first European to sight the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean.

Next stop is the Natural History Museum housed within a graceful 1933 venue that was built after the museum had migrated through various leftover expo halls. There are some excellent big skeletons scattered through the exhibition spaces, including those of dinosaurs, but the highlight for me is watching a 3D movie about whales.

I also dip into the Fleet Science Centre, a family-friendly museum allowing visitors to get hands-on with the exhibits. An IMAX theatre here presents movies about the wonders of nature. There are an overwhelming number of museums yet to explore within the park – not to mention a zoo, a carousel, a miniature train and a variety of gardens but it's time for lunch.

Of the several restaurants in the grounds, I opt for The Prado, sited on its namesake promenade. It serves excellent contemporary Californian cuisine with a dash of creativity. The highlight of my meal is the dessert, tres leches, traditionally made of sponge cake soaked in three types of milk. The Prado version is a baked pistachio meringue filled with caramel, bananas and vanilla bean ice-cream. Like Balboa Park, it's a taste of Latin America with a modern twist.

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TRIP NOTES

MORE

balboapark.org

sandiego.org

FLY

Qantas and partners fly to San Diego via Los Angeles. See qantas.com.au

San Diego can be also reached in three hours by train from LA. See amtrak.com

STAY

The Sofia Hotel has comfortable rooms in a central location. From $US132 a night. See thesofiahotel.com

La Pensione is a small hotel close to San Diego's Little Italy. From $US150 a night. See lapensionehotel.com

VISIT

While entry to Balboa Park's grounds is free, an Explorer Pass grants admission to 16 museums and is valid for one week; $US59 adult, $US32 child. A one-day version grants access to five museums for $US48 adult, $US29 child. See explorer.balboapark.org

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Visit California.

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