Best of San Diego’s Balboa Park on its birthday

Balboa Park boasts new exhibits and colorful seating on a central plaza previously occupied by parked cars.
Balboa Park boasts new exhibits and colorful seating on a central plaza previously occupied by parked cars. San Jose Mercury News

There are few places more sublime than sunny San Diego, with its intoxicating mix of surf-frothed beaches, trendy cafes and, of course, Balboa Park. That 1,200-acre swath includes 16 museums, more than a dozen gardens, multiple theaters and the San Diego Zoo. And this year the park is celebrating its 100th birthday.

It wasn’t supposed to be a quiet celebration. It was supposed to be a dizzyingly fabulous, yearlong bash, complete with parties, concerts, exhibits and a fleet of electriquettes – reproductions of the 1915 wicker carts that zipped around the park at a racy 3 mph. But a dysfunctional planning committee disbanded in March 2014 after spending $2.8 million on consultant fees, leaving city officials scrambling to come up with something celebratory.

The results may not match those original lavish expectations – no electriquettes after all – but for out-of-towners, Balboa Park has never looked better nor been more pedestrian-friendly. That vast parking lot in the midst of the park’s central plaza has disappeared. Now, colorful umbrellas and chairs dot the Plaza de Panama in a riot of turquoise, cherry red and golden yellow. Visitors pedal fringe-topped surreys down the esplanade. Fountains burble merrily, and buskers entertain. A fundraising effort is on target to help the 100-year-old Spreckels Organ Pavilion reclaim its title as the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ. And the ornate tile tower that tops the Museum of Man is open for tours for the first time in 80 years.

We booked our tower tour tickets ahead of time – with space for just 12 people per 40-minute tour, these tickets are a hot commodity – laced up our sneakers and Uber-ed our way over to the park on a recent Saturday morning, eager to use this historic stair-climb to work off a tasty brunch at the Patio on Goldfinch.

Getting a ride is key. Parking at Balboa Park has always been a challenge; it’s even more difficult now that the plaza-spoiling parking lot has disappeared. Sneakers or similarly comfy shoes also are imperative. You’ll be climbing 125 steep stairs, capped by a final tight spiral staircase, to reach the museum tower. It’s not quite the topmost level, but at 375 feet above sea level, the rounded balconies of this platform offer a breathtaking perch from which to take in the park, the Cuyamaca Mountains and the sea.

With its rococo flourishes, tiled domes and sculptures of historic notables, this Spanish Baroque building made an imposing entry for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, an expo that unexpectedly turned out to be a grand success. On the eve of the opening of the Panama Canal, the then-tiny coastal city had hoped to host a world’s fair. San Diego was, after all, the first U.S. port that ships would encounter as they steamed west through the new canal.

San Francisco quashed those dreams by winning the rights to host the official Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Instead of folding, San Diego leaders decided to host their own party, anyway. They built these grand edifices, landscaped the gardens and planted a showstopping agricultural farm, then set those electriquettes buzzing down the park’s wide boulevard.

San Francisco’s expo closed after nine months. San Diego’s lasted a full two years and actually became grander the second year, when eight countries – including Brazil, France, Germany and Russia – opened pavilions within Balboa Park’s borders. Park guides still beam with gratification as they tell the tale.

Now Balboa Park is launching its next chapter with a savvy that is distinctly 21st century: Cars have given way to foot traffic. Reclaimed water splashes in the grand fountains. And when you descend from the historic-tower tour, what awaits is a hunter-gatherer-to-hipster exhibit on Beerology.

Cheers. Oh, and happy birthday.

If you go

  • Tower tours: Tickets are $16-$22.50 and include admission to the Museum of Man, whose halls include exhibits on ancient Egypt, anthropology, folklore and “Beerology.” Museum admission is $6-$12.50 without the tour. 1350 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego;
  • Spreckels Organ Pavilion: The pavilion is a favorite photo spot for bridal parties and quinceañeras every day, but you’ll want to visit at 2 p.m. on a Sunday, when the pavilion hosts free organ concerts. 1549 El Prado;
  • San Diego History Center: This small museum includes some history exhibits, a 1915 display and a Dr. Seuss gallery. Whether the few minutes you spend here is worth the $6-$10 admission is open to debate. 1649 El Prado;