California travel expert Veronica Hill ( and the California Essential Guide app visits Balboa Park in San Diego in this episode of “California Travel Tips.” Called the Smithsonian of the West, Balboa Park is our nation’s largest urban cultural park. It sits on 1,200 acres of lush gardens, world-class museums and performing arts venues.

You can spend an entire day just at the San Diego Zoo, a lush landscape of botanical gardens that’s home to more than 4,000 animals and 800 species. In October, kids under 12 are free!

If you’re here for the Balboa Park museums, park at Inspiration Point off Park Boulevard and take the free trolley to the Visitor Center. From here, you can walk to most of the San Diego attractions.

Start with a morning stroll in the peaceful Japanese Friendship Garden, which is home to colorful koi and Zen gardens, then check out the park’s impressive Spanish-Renaissance revival buildings, which date back to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

The Museum of Man is housed in one of Balboa Park’s most striking buildings, just beneath the 200-foot-tall California Tower. Here you can explore the world of anthropology, ranging from impressive Mayan monuments and figurines, to one of the country’s best collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts and mummies.

Kids will enjoy the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center — which boasts more than 100 hands-on activities — and the charming San Diego Model Railroad Museum, which is the largest of its kind in the United States.

Learn about prehistoric bones and fossils in The San Diego Natural History Museum, or check out major exhibitions in the San Diego Museum of Art.

When it comes time to eat, there are 11 eateries throughout the park. Enjoy signature cocktails and gourmet fare at the full-service Balboa Park Prado Restaurant, or nibble on sushi and soba noodles in the Tea Pavilion.

During the summer, you can enjoy free organ concerts at Spreckels Organ Pavilion — a tradition since 1915. The park’s historic Old Globe Theatre, founded in 1935, serves up everything from Broadway productions to a summer Shakespeare Festival.

For the best bang for your buck, buy the “Stay for the Day” pass, which allows access to five attractions (excluding the zoo). The 7-day Passport is a Balboa Park Museum Pass that offers admission to 14 museums. San Diego residents can enjoy Balboa Park Free Tuesdays, which allows free admission to select museums on Tuesdays.

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