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Balboa Park:
Sunday Afternoon in the Park

a walking tour by Carol Mendel

MAP of the walking tour

Distance: Almost a mile. Time: One and a half hours.

Terms of Use

This self-guided walking tour is best on a Sunday afternoon, although it can be taken anytime. Many of the buildings on the walk date from the California-Pacific International Exposition of 1935-1936. (More information about the 1935-36 expo...)

Spreckels Organ
Spreckels Organ
Begin at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. If you are starting your walk on a Sunday afternoon at the magic hour of 2 p.m., you are just in time to sit down for an organ concert. (More information about the organ...)

The concerts last an hour, but if it is summertime, which in this case means late March through October, you will want to leave the concert early in order to see some of the folk dancing at the House of Pacific Relations.

Leave the organ pavilion from the right side, cross the main road, and follow the narrow road that bends around to the left.

Hall of Nations Building
Hall of Nations Building
In a moment you will find yourself in front of the Hall of Nations, a building done in Spanish Mission style.

Just as the El Prado walk contains a few buildings from the 1935-1936 expo, this walk contains a few buildings from the 1915-1916 exposition. (More about the 1915-1916 expo...) This is one of them, although its low, simple design has none of the elaborate ornamentation of the Spanish Colonial architecture along El Prado. During the first exposition it contained the exhibits from Utah; during the second it was used to plan that fair's extensive floral exhibits. Now it is used by an organization called the House of Pacific Relations, whose main buildings you will come to in a few minutes.

United Nations Building
United Nations Building
Now take the left fork in the road, to the United Nations Building. Notice the narrow decorative frieze under the overhang of the red tile roof. Spanish Colonial architecture contrasts extensive areas of ornamentation against plain flat walls, but this building has enough decoration that architectural historians call its style modified Spanish Colonial. It was built during the second exposition for the Christian Science Monitor exhibits. Now it houses the United Nations Association of San Diego. Inside you will find an international gift shop.

House of Pacific Relations
House of Pacific Relations
From the United Nations Building, cross the road to the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages. The architecture of these fifteen stucco cottages represents the homes of the common people during the Colonial period of Mexico. During the fair, each cottage was the headquarters of one of the participating countries. Each country furnished its cottage in its own traditional style, staffed it with people in native folk costumes, and displayed samples of its country's culture and arts. When the fair was over, this tradition was continued by a permanent organization known as the House of Pacific Relations. More than two dozen countries are represented. They are mainly European countries, but also include the Philippines, China, Israel, and the United States.

For four hours every Sunday afternoon, each cottage holds an Open House. During these hours you can visit the houses, have refreshments, and meet people who have come to San Diego from many parts of the world. The houses are furnished with native decorations, pictures, crafts and, occasionally, magazines and music. Between March and October, the countries take turns presenting native music and dancing on the lawn, all in appropriate folk costumes, in programs lasting from 30 minutes to an hour. Check the organization's website for the lawn program schedule.

Balboa Park Club
Balboa Park Club
Leave the House of Pacific Relations at the far end, between the Ukraine and Sweden cottages. To your left is the Balboa Park Club, known in 1915 as the New Mexico Building. It is an architectural replica of the State Museum of Santa Fe, whose architecture is in turn based on a mission church built in 1529 at Acoma, New Mexico. Note the irregular walls and rough beams of the pueblo style. Like most prominent buildings of the 1915 exposition, it originally was scheduled to be demolished within a few years, but later was rescued from that unhappy fate and preserved. In the 1935 exposition it became the Palace of Education.

Inside the building, the theme of education is portrayed in the large main room. On the far wall, a W.P.A. artist painted an enormous mural. In the top center stands a figure of youth, surrounded by representations of progress through the ages. Today the Balboa Park Club hosts dance groups, receptions, banquets, and parties.

Next door to the Balboa Park Club is the Palisades Building, built for the second fair. Like its more elderly neighbor, the Palisades Building features pueblo-style architecture. During the fair it housed the Woman's Palace. Now it houses Recital Hall and the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, which stages puppet shows for children.

Next you will come to the Conference Building, a 20th Century version of ancient Mayan massiveness and styling. It is now the home of the San Diego Automotive Museum, and displays a core collection of vintage vehicles, plus rotating exhibits.

Ford Building
Ford Building
At the end of Pan American Plaza, used now for parking, stands the Ford Building. This intriguing round building was designed to show off the best in modern (i.e., 1930's) industrial architecture. During the first year of the exposition, Ford Motor Company filled it with exhibits and machines showing assembly-line automobile production. During the second year of the fair, Ford presented a Palace of Transportation exhibit that displayed various kinds of roads and conveyances from all over the world.

Now the building houses the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Standing sentinel in front of the museum is an A-12 Blackbird, perhaps the most daunting reconnaissance plane ever flown. This titanium marvel was capable of Mach 3 flight at altitudes above 85,000 feet.

The Air and Space Museum contains a large collection of flying machines beginning with the first airplanes. A highlight of the collection is the only reproduction of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of Saint Louis, which was designed and built by Ryan Aircraft of San Diego. The original plane is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The Hall of Fame contains pictures and memorabilia of outstanding aerospace pioneers.

When you have finished your visit to the museum, continue your walk.The Starlight Bowl slopes down the canyon on the east side of the Aerospace Museum. Here Ford Motor Company presented free symphony orchestra concerts and other entertainment during the 1935 exposition.

On the other side of the Starlight Bowl the exposition erected a Palace of Electricity and Varied Industries. Be sure to notice the appropriate decorative pavement at the main entrance. Like the Conference Building it faces across the plaza, the concrete and stucco building is supposed to reflect Mayan architecture. Today it finds regular use as a gymnasium. Take a peek inside to see what is going on, and if you like what you see sit down and watch awhile on the spectators' bleachers.

Federal Building
Federal Building
Next door to the gym is the most handsome building on the Pan American Plaza, the Federal Building. The Mayan design of its main entrance is modeled after the Palace of the Governor, in the ancient city of Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico. The highlight of the building is the enormous ornate frieze just below the roof. The paneled triangular window above the doorway used to show a Mayan warrior and slave.

During the fair the building housed U.S. government exhibits. As one of its "attractions," the government offered to take your fingerprints. For several recent decades the building was home to the San Diego Hall of Champions, a sports museum, but that museum closed in 2017. In 2021 the Federal Building will welcome a new tenant: the Comic-Con Museum.

Until the new museum opens, pass by the Federal Building and follow the road that leads back to the Organ Pavilion. In a few minutes you will be back where your walk began.

Entrance to Japanese Friendship Garden
Entrance to Japanese Friendship Garden
A great way to relax after your walk is to have a bite to eat and then stroll through the gardens of the Japanese Friendship Garden, located beside the Organ Pavilion.

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Copyright © by Carol Mendel

Enjoy this walking tour?

Check out the others in this series

Balboa Park

Cabrillo National Monument

Downtown San Diego

The Embarcadero

La Jolla

La Playa

Mission Bay Park

Mission Beach

Old Town

Shelter Island

Sunset Cliffs

Enjoy full-color
illustrated maps?

Check out the ones below.

Some can be purchased as laminated maps, some as folded maps, some as wooden trays, and some as all three.

San Diego

Los Angeles

Palm Springs

Santa Barbara

San Francisco Bay Area

Las Vegas

Salt Lake City


Washington DC

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