I’ve been going to Balboa park for years but had no idea this gem of a hidden garden existed! I’ve spent days pretty much right next to it, not knowing, it was right there merely a few feet away in all it’s historical glory… patiently waiting for visitors to stop by and admire it.

This old treasure of a cactus garden was developed by “The Mother of Balboa Park” Kate Sessions in 1935 for the California Pacific International Exposition.

The intention of the California Pacific International Exposition was to promote San Diego and support it’s economy. Many of the original buildings from 1915-1916 were refurbished and readied for the exposition and many more buildings were added to the park, such as The Old Globe Theater, The Automotive Museum, the Air and Space Museum building (Originally called the Ford Building) and the Starlight Bowl. The last three listed are neighbors of the Old Cactus Garden. Both Museums are worth a visit but Starlight bowl is fighting to survive.

The California Tower (below) can easily be seen from here. The tower is a San Diego Landmark you can tour (temporarily closed currently). It was built in 1915 and features amazing details and many architectural styles such as Rococo, Gothic, Baroque and more. It is designed by Bertram Goodhue who was inspired by Spanish colonial churches and now houses the Museum of Man.

There are no signs or information in this area and not much on the official Balboa Park website. It’s also not very up-kept but that only ads to the charm of it being more hidden, forgotten and historical than the other gardens in the park.
This old stone ruin below is quite a mystery and I haven’t been able to find anything on it. It appears to be an old stone oven that has been filled with rocks and cement, but i’m sure there’s a much more interesting story to it than just that. Please let me know in the comments if you know!

This secret old garden is so lovely. If you’re in the area I’d highly recommend a visit to it.

The garden can be found right between these two buildings (below) that are located between the San Diego Automotive Museum and the International Cottages:

The Puppet Theater (above) is fun to visit. More info on shows here:

Balboa Park is very close to San Diego airport and you’ll see planes go by readying for landing all day long.

We found this little path and followed it through a bit of a wilderness area where many ‘wild’ cats appeared to live. They were very friendly though and showed us empty Tupperware that they’d like filled.

A lovely quite spot to reflect and relax

A few things…
-The garden is not in pristine condition and not very up kept. Keep that in mind when visiting.
-Parking is close by in the lot right in front of the Air and Space Museum


Balboa park was established in 1868 under the name ‘City Park’ but didn’t really start taking it’s current shape and name until much later. In 1892 ‘The Mother of Balboa Park’ Kate Sessions, offered to plant trees and plants in the park which was 1.400 acres at the time. Some of these trees still stand today. Below here is one of my most favorites. The Moreton Bay fig at Palm Canyon. It’s massive roots are not only amazing but also inspire lots of whimsical imaginations of quaint fairy homes and secret adventures… but in reality these roots mainly function as a playground and an elegant apartment complex to lots of squirrels.

Today the park is 1,200 acres which is nearly double the acreage of Central Park in New York City!
At the start of the 19th century the city installed a water system and roads and the park started taking the shape it has today. The San Diego Natural History Museum was one of the first museums built followed by 17 more: https://www.balboapark.org/explore/museums Each and everyone is worth a visit. My personal favorites are Museum of Man, San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center and the Railroad Museum (especially at Christmas time). I also really like the Air and Space museum and Museum of art. I’ll be very excited to see the new Comic Con museum when it opens.

In 1910 there was a contest to rename the park and Balboa Park officially got it’s name in honor of the first European explorer to see the Pacific ocean, Vasco Nunez de Balboa. The first fair, the Panama – California Exposition in 1915-16, introduced the area to the Spanish-Renaissance style architecture and led to the building of, amongst many other things, the Cabrillo bridge that leads into the park, Casa del Prado and the Spreckles Organ Pavilion.

The Spanish Renaissance architecture style is ornamented and very detailed. If you’re interested in such details you can easily find yourself spending a lot of time looking up at these very impressive buildings. Below is Prado Restaurant and Casa del Prado.

Below here are the entrances The Museum of Man (currently under construction) and Museum of Art

I’m at the park nearly every weekend. My favorite place for a little snack and the best blood orange tea ever, is right inside the Prado restaurant entrance you can see above. There’s a little outside cafe. The tea is not listed on the menu!

If you turn around while waiting in line here, you’ll see this guy, El Cid Campeador, a medieval knight of the Eleventh century fearlessly and victoriously raising his hand to the sky. It is said to be from the siege of Valencia in 1094. There are copies of this statue in many other cities such as Buenos Aires, New York, Seville, Valencia and San Francisco. The artist, Anna Hyatt Huntington started creating him in 1927 and he found his home here in 1930.

There are events at the park all the time. It can be anything from a marathon to cultural performances, local artist and street performers, and on this day when we went, it was the Spring Fling food truck Festival!

This is a link to upcoming events:

The botanical garden and the lily pond are probably the most photographed in the whole park and definitely a must see. The gardens are free. The Botanical building is one of the largest lath structures in the world and was built for the 1915-16 Exposition. The garden features tropical plants and palms, orchids, ferns, cycads and seasonal flowers.

Take some time to go inside.

We got to see ducklings frolicking in the pond and on the lily pods…

If you feel like you haven’t quite had your fill of flowers and gardens for the day, continue to the Japanese Friendship Garden. It is a garden expressing friendship between San Diego and it’s sister city Yokohama. It’s a beautiful experience of Japanese simplicity, serenity, culture and koi ponds. It sits on 12 acres and often offers it’s own events and festivals.

Before you leave… don’t forget to make a wish at this wishing well. It’s located between the Japanese Garden and the Prado Restaurant.

Things to know…
-Parking can be a challenge but there’s a free tram you can take around the park from some of the bigger parking lots.
-The San Diego Zoo is a part of Balboa park and was established in 1916 during the Exposition and is another absolute must see. It’s famous for it’s conservation efforts and home to many rare and endangered species. The zoo will take a whole day to visit and there will be a blog post coming on it soon!
-Both the Beatles (in 1965) and the Rolling Stones (in 1964) have played at Balboa Park.
-Check out my blog on the Rose and Desert Garden at the park.

Approximately 1600 roses of nearly 130 varieties are displayed in the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden at Balboa Park, and each year new varieties are introduced. You can get here by crossing over Park Blvd on the pedestrian bridge that is right next to the Natural History Museum and the Bea Evenson Fountain.

They are at their peak right now during April and May, but you can still go see them from early spring until December.

The Desert Garden was developed in 1976 and features around 1300 species of cactus, succulents and desert plants. It is right next to the Rose Garden. This area is often called the Cactus Garden, but the actual Cactus garden (established in 1935) is down below the International cottages and worth a visit (and another post!). The peak season for these is a bit earlier than the roses but we still saw a lot of blooms today.

These incredible cacti above here are the size of trees!

There are plenty of paths that allow you access to get around most of the plants. Both the Rose and Desert gardens are free to visit and a beautiful escape from city life.

I have been in this area for a few years now and I have never seen such vibrant colors before.

Balboa Park is a definite Must-Do when in San Diego. You could spend days here and still find new stuff to see. There are 17 museums, an amazing Zoo, and International cottages that represent 32 cultures with more being added soon. You’ll find a Botanical garden, a Japanese garden and tea house, a whole area dedicated to art, archery, food, street performers and artist, trees and plants that will awe you and of course The Old Globe theater and Prado and so much more.
Keep an eye out for more posts on Balboa Park here! I spend a lot of my free time volunteering there and absolutely love the whole area.

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