With 348 museums, San Diego is firmly positioned as the fourth museum city in the USA and thus it is not surprising to find many cultural activities in San Diego. Seeing this, I simply had to have a look and make my stay a very culture-centric one.
Having a received a museum pass by the city of San Diego itself, I made it may mission to see as many as I possibly could and Balboa Park became my new go-to place – and it should be yours too, the next time you are in town.
San Diego Museums as the Green Heart
Balboa Park is a little north of Downtown but so worth the visit. I walked straight from my hostel to it, which proved somewhat tricky as I got lost (naturally) but with a park that big and popular, you won’t run into problems asking strangers for directions.
If you visit San Diego in winter, you can visit the different museums to have a great time. In summer, you will want to take your time strolling around the beautiful park grounds.
I recommend using the main entrance on El Prado with its iconic white bridge leading to a highly decorated museum that could have been imported straight from Spain.
The park itself did not seem very typically American at all and you can easily tell the Spanish roots that made San Diego the city it is today. For a day out exploring them, you can head over to the Old Town Historic Park and travel back in time.
Firmly rooted in the here and now, I strolled along the beautiful white buildings with their rich ornaments, white exterior walls and the typical curves and arches for doors and passageways. In short, everything was successfully evoking the Spanish colonial style.
Back to the Spanish
The park, however, was not quite that old, having been developed for the 1915–16 Panama–California Exposition and later been added to for the 1935–36 California Pacific International Exposition. In fact, the wooden botanical building was the then largest wood lath construction in the world.
At first glance, I thought it was a classic globe glass building, such as with the botanical garden in Copenhagen or in Washington, but it was actually open air and just imitated a ceiling with the wooden beams. Quite genius, if you ask me. The San Diego weather is pleasant all year round, so no need for the greenhouse effect.
And so you won’t be surprised to see palms planted along the paths and throwing a slight shadow on the reflection pond with its long rectangular outline and splashing fountains. Again, very Spanish, such as the smaller yards filled with low and perfectly geometrical shrubs and tiny fountains decorated with colourful tiles. I felt as if back in Barcelona again.
Gardens for Politics
Speaking of gardens, they are not just a place to relax or enjoy nature in its tamed way but are also a form of expression and therefore are not only personal but also culturally meaningful.
The botanical garden, for instance, you might not see an immediate purpose beyond a localised retreat to enjoy the beauty of nature and inhale floral scents while listening to the dance of water droplets in the fountains. It is both a form of cultured entertainment as well as an expression of a city’s wealth and taste.
San Diego surely does not need to gather exotic plants with such a warm climate but, as mentioned before, the botanic garden was set up during an important exhibition to profile itself as a city worth visiting, which was not only for tourism sake but also to establish it as the first port after the Panama Canal was opened.
It had economical and political significance. That’s quite a lot for a pretty little botanic garden. This becomes even more crucial as San Diego was the least populated city to ever host a world exhibition. Remember this feat the next time you have a quick five minute stroll through the hall.
Friendships like a Flower
We are not quite done yet with the garden talk. Not far away we find the well kept Japanese Garden of Friendship on a slope. Its path starts at the top near the welcome and tea house and leads through a big Japanese gate towards a path that meanders down and opens up to small ponds with red bridges and cherry trees that boast their pink colours come spring.
In late autumn, however, many trees had already lost their leaves and the garden seemed to enter its hibernation mode. That, of course, is not true for bamboo and so I walked next to the green plants and watched the eager koi fish snatch for imaginary food while I was watching my reflection in the pond. (No, don’t sing the Mulan song now. She was Chinese.)
The garden was actually established in 1915 as a Japanese tea house for the first exposition to celebrate the strong ties between the USA and Japan. It was handed over to Japanese locals who turned it into a popular cultural hub until Pearl Harbour happened.
Then, tragically, the Japanese population suffered a lot from suspicions and temporary deportations until the Japanese later took it over again to restore it to its old glory and build a brighter future, re-establishing the community spirit.
Art for the Culture Hungry
Now that we have put the park in a bigger context to look beyond the facade and see its underlying meanings and history, let’s just forget about all that for a minute and move on to art.
But wait, art is never produced or should be consumed in a state of vacuum of meaning as well and so I was confronted with the United States’ diverse multicultural past and present with the recent exhibitions in the Mingei International Museum.
Its name was misleading as most exhibits were created within the country and represented the specific state. There were even kids games surrounding which state’s item were the most favoured.
From bejewelled saddles coming from the Midwest over to hand carved paddles from Hawaii, each state was represented with a unique hand crafted item and a special exhibition of personalised walking sticks gave insights into the lives of ordinary people in rural surroundings from decades past.
I have never seen such delicate and intricate wooden walking sticks and was not even sure if they had been mainly used for decoration or really for practical purposes. Some represented local fauna, others featured biblical elements and yet again others depicted daily life in the mines or memories from an army past.
There certainly was a lot to explore on aesthetic, cultural and historical levels. It was one of the ost intersting cultural activies in San Diego while I visited.
Where Old Meets New in Art
Don’t think I am done talking art yet. There are so many more places and cultural activies in San Diego for that!
San Diego has quite a range of masterpieces to boast about and so I stepped into the nearby Museum of Art.
As it was Christmas time, the entrance hall was festively decked with golden baubles and a tree made entirely out of poinsettias. The museum was not very big but its collection featured pieces from all over the globe.
I especially admired one of my favourites, Bouguereau, Monet and Degas, and then was really intrigued by Arabian tile art. I think I should head to Morocco soon.
Each area was perfectly arranged to showcase the art pieces in their relativity but also to complement each other. You could really explore the world’s art in such a short amount to get a good overview.
Heading straight to the contemporary, I also explored the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is directly in the middle of Downtown. With just three rooms displaying an installation each, the feeling was an entirely different one and I turned from an observer to one involved in the art process.
You see, the projects were meant to make the visitor dwell on the meaning and draw them closer by hanging huge fabrics filled with fragrant spices from the walls, us drawing on using all five senses and at the same time also showcasing the body’s feature itself.
Before you think I am getting a bit out there, let me just take you out there, out into space. San Diego has its own Air & Space Museum with an impressive alignment of air force planes, NASA equipment and background information on it all.
This museum hosts changing exhibitions as well and so I got to learn more about the mastermind Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions and innovative ideas. I fancied knowing already quite a lot about him since I am an art nerd and I loved the Drew Barrymore film Ever After (and consequently did more research on him after watching it), but what I saw took me completely aback.
He basically predicted elevators, invented the tank (and decoded it so no one could use it for evil, I’m looking at you, Albert Einstein) and so much more.
It made me feel quite ashamed of always being quite disinterested in physics because what he did seemed like magic at time to me but everything was meticulously calculated and scientifically worked out – never mind that not everything turned out to be working as planned. I never knew da Vinci was such a future forward strategist and military planner.
Cruising the Harbour with Look at the Navy
So why does San Diego focus so much on the military aspect? Well, it has its very own massive Navy base right there in the harbour.
I was completely ignorant of this before I set out on a two-hour cruise with Hornblower Cruises thanks to San Diego city and was soon educated about all of it.
I saw submarines, both inside and out of the water (a rare sight!), saw many of the silver planes taking off and don’t even get me started on all the different and giant Navy ships anchoring along the harbour shore.
One thing I was pretty impressed with was the fact that it was a woman who invented sky parachuting. It made perfect sense as she was an air acrobat, fixing planes in the air and she sure must have been sick of the constant risk and I bet she didn’t mind more fun adrenaline by shooting down to the ground and landing like a flying squirrel (at least, that’s what I imagined).
The harbour in San Diego itself is not a picturesque one and entirely dominated by the low city skyline and the Navy ships. If you are interested at all in learning more about anything navy, military or just like ships, you certainly are in the right spot. Beaches you can see plenty anyway with San Diego having 33 of them and a 70 mile-long coastline in total.
Where to Go after San Diego
There are plenty of amazing places to go in and around San Diego. Honestly, I can see why Jason Mraz keeps raving about this place during his concerts. (Which, admittedly, was definitely one reason for me to check it out. It’s even among the top 10 cheapest places in Cali.)
However, if you want to see more of California, why not head over to Los Angeles? Or even drive all the way up to San Franisco on an extensive Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary?
Alternatively, Joshua Tree National Park is only three hours away. Cleveland National Forest is much closer in case you don’t want to roadtrip out too far.
In case you don’t mind crossing borders, Mexico’s Tijuana is right next to San Diego. Neighbouring Tecate isn’t far away either.
So would I recommend San Diego Museums in particular and the city as a cultural hub in general? Without a doubt! The city has so much to offer (I mean, food, shopping, beaches AND culture?) and I was trying to fit everything in, the three days of my stay were not enough in the least. I never got out of Downtown even though San Diego is so big (this means, no beaches for me) but one thing I can tell you for sure: I will be back!
Now I wonder, what do you think of the cultural activies in San Diego and the city itself? Is it a city you are interested in visiting (again)? What was your perception before reading this? Share your thoughts right here and feel free to ask me for awesome foodie spots as well (mashed potato pizza, anyone?).
I would like to thank San Diego tuorism again for providing e with a museum media pass and a cruise ticket so I coud experience the diverse cultural activities in San Diego first hand and tell you all about it. As always, it is my very own personal opinion you know and trust.