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American Way staff

Spanning 1,200 acres, Balboa Park ranks as North America's largest urban cultural park. Established in 1868, it houses the San Diego Zoo plus 17 museums and cultural centers, including the Museum of Man and the Museum of Art, as well as so many ornate, Spanish-Colonial Revival-style architectural landmarks that the park has been dubbed the Smithsonian of the West. But there's more than museums and elephants to see. 

Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

This stunning three-acre garden boasts 1,600 roses in more than 130 varieties, and each year the volunteers who maintain it plant new kinds. Peak season is April and May, but fragrant and colorful roses — including hybrid teas, old roses and floribundas — can be seen blooming anytime from March through December. 

 

Balboa Park Carousel

This delightful carousel features dragons and giraffes and frogs in tuxedos alongside the traditional neighing stallions. Built in 1910 in New York, it was shipped to Los Angeles and then traveled to Coronado before coming to live in Balboa Park in 1922. It still runs on its original General Electric motor, and the five-minute rides (US$3 each) are measured the way they were a century ago: with an egg timer.

 

The Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Every Sunday at 2 p.m., the Spreckels Organ Society puts on a free concert for the community — a performance on the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. The colossal instrument — which has 5,017 pipes in 80 ranks — debuted at the Panama-California International Exposition in 1914, and since then, its music has been entertaining people at the Pavilion from all corners of the world. Can't make it on a Sunday? You'll still want to simply stop by to see it in person. It's majestic. 

 

Palm Canyon

Spread across two acres, Palm Canyon contains more than 450 palms — the first were planted by Kate Sessions, "the mother of Balboa Park," in 1912 — making this space feel like a tropical island more than a city park. A postcard-perfect wooden footbridge cuts through the oasis, and a trail connects the lush canyon to the Old Cactus Garden, which is also worth a visit. 

 

Trees for Health Garden

This three-acre garden is home to more than 75 medicinal trees and shrubs, from ginko to white yerba santa. It began in 1993 as a project by the San Diego Herb Club to identify useful trees in the park, and now the garden is used to educate the public about how plants can be used for healing. The 5 Flavors Tour highlights how a plant's taste indicates how it will affect the body.

 

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