“Balboa Park, San Diego’s great…cultural and recreational asset has gone to war along with the nation,” reported a newspaper on December 12, 1941, five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some buildings on the park’s grounds were requisitioned for military use during World War II, including the one housing the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA). Paintings and other works were removed to make way for an operating room and beds for wounded soldiers when the grandiose edifice was transformed into a makeshift hospital.
After fulfilling its wartime mission, the building reverted to its original purpose as a destination for art enthusiasts. Opened to the public in 1926, the SDMA is one of the draws at Balboa Park, which packs more cultural punch in its 1,200 acres than do most entire towns.
In our first 31 months on the road, we visited 32 museums. If we had the stamina and unlimited funds for admission fees, we could have added another 17 to that tally—all at Balboa Park, dubbed the “Smithsonian of the West.” Throw in nine indoor and outdoor performing arts venues, landscaped gardens, Spanish Colonial-inspired architecture, hiking and biking trails, the San Diego Zoo, restaurants, and more, and visitors could craft a vacation entirely around the park.
Rather than take the museum-lover’s endurance test, we visited the two that beckoned to us most: the SDMA and the Timken Museum of Art, where the likes of Rembrandt’s Saint Bartholomew and seventeenth-century French tapestries can always be admired free of charge. (Admission to the SDMA is $12 per person.)
When we visited the park, Dr. Seuss’s curmudgeonly Grinch had temporarily taken over the Old Globe Theatre, a replica of the London venue of Shakespeare fame, or we would have caught a show. Instead we strolled the grounds and marveled at nature’s art—flowers blooming in winter, a strange sight to lifelong Northeasterners. Next time maybe we’ll check out some of the park’s other, more unusual offerings, like salsa and lawn bowling.