An Insider’s Favorite Spots to Visit, Chow and Explore in Balboa Park
You need to see these historic hideaways
“It’s the jewel of San Diego,” says Austin Mahn, the corporate relations coordinator at the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA). “Balboa Park is the best reflection of the city and its people. I cannot express how much I love this place.”
A longtime local, who has worked for the museum for more than 10 years, Austin has a passion for art—and the park—and talks about both with a contagious enthusiasm. So we asked him to give the classic tourist stop a fresh perspective by taking us to its hidden wonders, sharing his can’t-miss spots and letting us in on the best places to grab a bite.
1. Daniel’s Coffee
We begin our day in the vibrantly colored Spanish Village—home to Daniel’s Coffee, a Balboa Park staple for more than 16 years and a favorite among the park’s employees. Artisans who work in the surrounding studios (which Austin strongly suggests checking out) crafted the cart’s sign. “Daniel’s is the best place to start your day,” Austin shares. “It’s centrally located, near the zoo’s large parking lot, and gets you going with some delicious coffee.” Austin orders a plain cup of joe but says the peanut butter ice blended coffee is popular among the regulars. 1770 Village Place, 619-867-2360, facebook.com/danielscoffee
2. Secret Sculpture Court
From there, we head south to a small courtyard at Casa del Prado’s eastern side where statues, which once graced many of the park’s buildings, reside. Austin directs us to the life-size figures of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Francisco de Zurbarán and Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, whom he calls “the rock-star gods of Spanish artwork.” The statues and the informational plaque beside them provide park visitors with an essential introduction to the history of the architecture behind Balboa Park, Austin says. Spanish architecture, specifically that of the Prado Museum in Madrid, heavily influenced the park.
3. Botanical Building
We emerge from the sculpture court on a lawn next to the birdcage-like Botanical Building (shown on the top left of the facing page). On the way in, Austin introduces me to Balboa Park’s legendary busker—Chet Harrison—who can usually be found here playing his original compositions. People slow down to enjoy the music before heading into the Botanical Building, which is filled with birdsong, verdant greenery and tropical blooms. Austin goes to a “magical and soothing” corner along the east wall, where you can sit on a short column enshrouded by ferns and listen to the gurgling of a nearby water feature.
4. Plaza De Panama
In an effort to refresh the Plaza de Panama, the SDMA launched Art of the Open Air, which (after considerable fundraising) brought stored sculptures out into the plaza in 2016. “In a quick stroll, you are getting to see works from masters, works of amazing quality, for free,” Austin says of the bronze, painted fiberglass and aluminum sculptures that border the plaza. “There is really no other place in San Diego that can offer this.”
5. May S. Marcy Sculpture Garden and Panama 66
Across the plaza, bronze gates composed of interweaving curves frame the open-air Panama 66 entrance and the sculpture garden beyond. A display of artworks flows from the U-shaped garden off the the eatery’s patio into the restaurant. “‘Louise Nevelson’s Night Presence II’ is really phenomenal,” Austin says of the towering structure that sits amidst the tables and chairs. “It’s fascinating what happens when art becomes part of the background. You get to enjoy it from a fresh perspective.” Austin frequents the space for the art, Panama 66’s beer selection (he recommends the Insurgente “La Lupulosa” IPA), the food (he loves their Tiger!Tiger! Green Chorizo Sausage) and the live music on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. 1450 El Prado, 619-696-1966, panama66.com
6. Secret Library
Austin considers our next stop—through a side door in Panama 66—the park’s best hidden gem. The Research Library is open to all members of the SDMA (you have to make an appointment for your first visit) and contains more than 30,000 works on everything from the Italian Renaissance to Indian miniature painting. The ground-floor reading room appears untouched by time, and the subterranean basement level (which Austin describes as very Ghostbusters) contains countless books, catalogs and files. 1450 El Prado, 619-696-1959, sdmart.org/library-and-archives
7. San Diego Museum of Art
After perusing the stacks, we head next door to the SDMA and into its eclectically stocked gift shop. Then we wander the museum’s expansive galleries, with Austin pointing out favorites like “Hot Plate,” which incites conversation, and “Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber” (which incorporates a shadowing technique, making it seem like the cucumber is moving as you pass). 1450 El Prado, 619-232-7931, sdmart.org
8. Model Railroad Museum
Next, we take the eastern road out of the plaza and arrive at the Model Railroad Museum (in the Casa de Balboa). Austin says that he stumbled on it one day while wandering the park and was instantly enchanted with its Spielberg-esque appeal. The upper floor has tracks dedicated to California through the eras. The lower level houses the San Diego 3-Railers’ Toy Train Gallery, a mesmerizing fantasy layout dotted with figurines from Peanuts to Pokémon. And a courtyard just off the building contains the captivating Centennial Railway Garden, which is modeled after Balboa Park in 1915 when it was created to host the Panama-California Exposition. 1649 El Prado, 619-696-0199, sdmrm.org
9. Zoro Garden
Finally, we head over to the Zoro Butterfly Garden (located between the Fleet Science Center and the Casa de Balboa). Amusingly, this sunken stone grotto garden was once billed as a nudist colony (people paid a quarter to watch—or spy through the fence for free—nude performers), an attraction at the 1935 California-Pacific Exposition. Nowadays, the only shows it hosts are impromptu Shakespearean monologues and the dance of mating butterflies. Austin comes to relax or to start a canyon hike.