You'll be blown away by what you don't know about Balboa Park. From hidden hikes to scavenger hunts, to secret gardens to an unusual "subscription program," Bonnie from Famdiego.com joins us to break it all down, as we go ALL IN on Balboa Park!
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AJ: Hey, it's AJ and Sarah, and thank you for tuning in for the first episode of the new season It is going to be different. When we came back as a podcast, we figured let's just do our radio show as a podcast. Well, it turns out podcasts are listened to very differently than radio shows and as we kept peeling back thing after thing that was great on the radio, but not so great on a podcast, we ended up just having a podcast where we told stories about our lives.
Sara: I mean, and we do love sharing about our lives. That's always been something really special to us, but there's only so many AirFryer recipes that we can float your way. So many crazy dogs stories and kids stories, right?
AJ: So once we decided we couldn't be the hosts and the topic of our show, we had to brainstorm what the show could be about. Eo we decided to go all in on San Diego. Every episode will be about the people and places that make San Diego. Awesome. In fact, today's episode is about bell Balboa Park.
Now you may have been there one time or a thousand times. I'm here to tell you there's a lot. You don't know about Balboa park.
Sara: We're going to have a conversation with a woman named Bonnie from @famdiego , and you guys, she's going to blow your mind. There's so much that there is to explore at Balboa park.
I guarantee you're not going to know about a lot of this stuff.
AJ: From hidden gardens to a strange cat community to something you could actually check out and bring home for bell ballpark. That's going to absolutely blow your mind.
Sara: And don't forget about where there used to be a bunch of nude people walking around.
AJ: Oh, that's right. The nudist stuff. All right. It's time to go all in on Balboa park. Bonnie, thank you for joining us.
Bonnie: Hi, I'm so happy to be here with you guys. Thank you.
AJ: I'm so happy to talk to you and to talk to you about Balboa park, because this is the perfect example of a place that San Diegans go to about once a year and then they're get overwhelmed. They say “There's lhere's so much to do! I need to come here more often!” And then a year later they go and they screw it all up again. We want to get everyone really good at having a great time at Balboa
Bonnie: yeah. There's so much to do it. Balboa park for not just families, but there's two dog parks there's so many playgrounds there's athletic programs or swimming pools. There's a golf course. There's just endless things at Balboa park for everybody.
AJ: I've been going there for 19 years. I knew not one of the things you just said.
Sara: I know. I was thinking, Oh, wow. She's already told me about 10 things. I never knew existed there.
AJ: Yeah. Can we start though with the first question everyone has about Balboa Park what is the best place to park?
Bonnie: Oh, the best place to park. Oh, should I give away my secret spots?
Sara: Oh no. See that's the problem. Won't be anymore.
Bonnie: I do like to park in front of the natural history museum in front of the Spanish village. There's usually always a ton of parking right there. That's a really good spot. The other spot is behind the Spreckels Oregon pavilion. There's always a lot of good spots there and that's right next to the bathrooms too. So that's a good
Sara: double points.
Bonnie: Yeah, totally.
Sara: Walk us through like the perfect day at Balboa park.
Bonnie: , if I'm out with my kids, we'll just probably, we used to go to all the museums, before. The pandemic. , but lately we've been going to the Japanese friendship garden. That's one of our favorite places now to go to, , . Well, sometimes we'll go for a hike. There's the Palm Canyon, which is right next to the Oregon pavilion.
It's kind of tucked away. Not a lot of people know about it. It's , there's these bathrooms across from the Oregon pavilion and it's on a wooden deck and you kind of have to go through these trees and over a bridge and down some steps. And so you'll peek through all these trees and you'll find it's the Palm Canyon.
It's a really super short and easy hike for kids. , it's probably take you 15, 20 minutes. , little kids can do it. So that's one of our favorites places. And then there's some trails that go up the Hill. So my kids love to go scrambling up the Hill too. And oh, the bathrooms are back up at the top, so it's perfect.
AJ: Ah, perfect. I didn't know. There was a hike there. That's amazing. So you can go work up an appetite and then go get some food. You mentioned something that some people even who have been about Balboa Park may not have done, which was the Japanese friendship gardens. Cause it's kind of off the beaten path a little bit, but it's a really cool experience, right?
Bonnie: feels like you're in a different world when you go through the Gates. And it's just this really beautifully landscaped pathway kind of zigzags all the way down through the Canyon.
And then, then along your way, they have all these beautiful cherry blossom trees, , beautiful Japanese sculptures. They have these really cool, , bamboo water fountains. That they fill up. And then when they fill up, , the weight of the water releases the bamboo and then it empties out and then it pops back up and then it fills back up again.
, there's a big, , koi fish pond that my kids love to just stop and watch all the koi fish swimming around. There's a big waterfall at the very bottom. Yeah, it's beautiful. There's so many trails that, Oh, there's really cool thing about it is they have a lot of stepping stones over the little river that flows through the bottom of the Canyon.
And so my kids love to just jump over the stepping stones and cross to the river. There's lots of fun bridges for kids to run across over the river. It's great. It's great for everyone.
AJ: And during normal times, you can even buy yourself a cup of green tea or something right there. And just Zen out before you go back out into the chaos.
Bonnie: Yeah. Right. Next door is the tea pavilion and that's one of my favorite secret spots for food. They have over 50 kinds of teas. You can get them iced or hot. They have miso soup, they have Sesame seaweed, salads. I love all kinds of Asian foods. That's one of my go-to places. They have mochi, which I love mochi.
They have Japanese rice candy. They have poky sticks, like all kinds of Japanese snacks and treats in there with Sabi peas. So that's kind of a little secret cultural spot and it's really great.
AJ: and that's for people who don't, who don't know if you're headed from kind of, what's considered the center part of Balboa park and headed towards the outdoor symphony pavilion.
You'll pass the Japanese on your left-hand side, right?
Bonnie: Yeah. Right next to the Oregon pavilion. Yep.
Sara: What are your other favorite spots to eat inside of Balboa park? If somebody is there in the morning for breakfast or lunch or dinner, what are your favorite spots?
Bonnie: Oh, good question. I love Daniel's coffee cart in Spanish village.
That's one of my always, I always stopped there. They have good coffees. They have. Good smoothies for the kids, some muffins. So that's a good spot. The bathrooms are also right next. Can you see, Bonnie knows where all the bathrooms are. It's so crazy. I do either. You never know when you're going to need them and then when you need them, you need them.
Yeah. Especially with kids. Yeah. So the Daniel's coffee card is at the North end of Spanish village, closer to the zoo and there's a mini railroad that we can maybe talk about later. So Daniel's coffee card is a good one. The Prado perk has a little coffee stand right next to the Prado restaurants.
But as far as food goes I love the, what's it called? I think it's called cafe on the park. . It's above the model. Train museum. So if you find them all train museum and go up the top of the steps next to the San Diego history museum, there's a really good cafe.
They have good breakfast foods, good lunch foods for lots of great kids options, healthy snacks, healthy treats.
AJ: , I'm excited to hear about that little train because when you said that I pictured it in my mind's eye. Like I've walked by it 10 times before, but I don't know what's going on with little railroad train.
Bonnie: Yeah. Have you guys written that before? No. So it's just North of the Spanish village kind of like on your way, going to the zoo and it is really hard to find stuff you don't know, it's there. You go to Balboa park, you probably would never know it's there. Um, think I've ever even seen it. No, yeah, it's kind of by, so when you're by the carousel, you can see the tracks, the railroad tracks, but to get starting point, you walk around.
Towards the zoo and go towards Spanish village and then you'll see the starting point and you buy your tickets and you board the train there. And it's a cute little just ride on little mini train and it takes you about five minutes, kind of loops all around these little tracks. And they've got these really cute animal sculptures, like tigers and gorillas.
So it's a fun little ride, at the very end you go through this tunnel and then everything kind of gets black for a second. And then you come out the other side. So it's really fun for kids.
Sara: Is the, you mentioned the carousel, is that up and running right now?
Bonnie: It's going to be, I, I don't know if this is public knowledge yet, but it's supposed to be open on May 29th.
Sara: Oh, Bonnie breaking news right now.!So I don't know if that's public knowledge yet, but yeah. May 29th is when they're supposed to open. So if it's not, now it is, it
AJ: is, it leads right into the next thing I was going to ask about, which is outdoor activities. Right. You know, I love all the museums and somebody might be listening to this months in the future when all of that's back to normal.
But as of this recording, we're not doing the museums. What can we do outside for fun?
Bonnie: Yeah. There's so much. , the Japanese friendship garden is all outdoors, so that's one of our favorites. They have a junior ranger badge program. There's a trivia questions for a bigger kids and a bingo sheet for little kids, and you can download them, take them to the park or you can also get them from the visitors center.
And then you just go around the park and you answer the questions and you find the pictures on the bingo and it takes you everywhere. It took us several hours. Over several return visits to finish. Well, just with little kids, big kids, attention span. So whenever we're there, we'll do one or two of them and then we'll come back and do another one or two at a different time.
So it took us a while to finish it. And then when you're done, you take them to the visitor center and they'll give your kids a cute little ranger patch Yeah. It's really fun. It's cute.
Sara: we’ve done that with the kids at other national parks, like big ones, like Zion. I didn't realize that we had something like that right there in Balboa park. That's super cool.
Bonnie: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Cabrio has one too kind of off the Bellville apart topics, but yeah. And then, um, yeah, so that's fun.
AJ: And so I, and that starts at the visitor center.? That’s where you get the, the bingo card or the questions.?
Bonnie: Yeah. They can give you the printed sheets or you can download them from their website and take them with you. , but I learned so much and some of the questions [00:11:00] were hard. Even for me, who've been, I've been going to Balboa for four years and I didn't even know the answer to some of these.
Bonnie: So it made me think too.
AJ: Now if you're at Belmont park and it's crowded, are there any little secret places you can duck away if you just want some peace and quiet?
Bonnie: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, bellow park is so huge and you think there's so many people at time, but.
So many places you can go to be just on your own. So Balboa Park has over 13 gardens. Did you guys know that? No, I didn't know that. Yeah. 13 gardens are all free except for the Japanese French garden. So if you look on Bellville Park's website, you can find all the gardens and you can just make a day of it and just find all the gardens.
One such garden is really off the beaten path and I didn't even know it was there and I've walked by it so many times. It's called the old cactus garden. And it's down on the lower part of Volvo park, like where the the automotive museum is. Yes. And so right next to that is Casa de Balboa.
So, the Balboa club is called the Balboa club. You can rent it for weddings. and behind that is this old cactus garden and it was designed and laid out by Kate Sessions. So she organized and planned all the plantings back there. It's really cute. It's a phenomenal place. And, and even more secret spot tip about that is that , there's a bunch of wild cats that run around back there.
And my kids are cat crazy and they love to go check on the cats. And there is a dedicated team of volunteers, people who work at Balboa Park, they come feed the cats. They take the kids to the vet when they need treatment, they adopt the cats out, but otherwise they just let these cats run around this little cactus garden.
It's the coolest place.
Sara: That’s really good. If there are any stray cats listening, Balboa park is the place to be!
AJ: A big part of our audience is stray cats!
Bonnie: Yeah. Also in that cactus garden, there's this, it looks like an old. Ruins. I don't know what the original purpose was, but there's an old oven. That's kind of like an old chimney fireplace. That's broken down and there's some really cool picnic benches back there nobody's ever back there. So that's a good spot for a picnic too.
Sara: Oh yeah. If you're taking a picnic lunch, that's perfect. Do you know, do you know much Bonnie, about the international cottages there?
Are they in use right now or are they open?
Bonnie: I don't think they are. Cause every time you go, like they always seem like they're close. So usually on the weekends, they're open 11 to five or something. And then Sundays, one of the houses rotates at, so at 2:00 PM on Sunday. [00:14:00] Yeah.
One of the houses has a big festival for whatever house, like the house of Turkey or the house of Portugal or whichever. And they showcase their food, their music, their dancing, their arts and crafts. But I don't think that's happening right now.
Sara: Well, my family is Iranian, so, you know, we've been to the house of Iran and we just, yeah, it's like, So many Iranians, just like it's awesome.
Bonnie: They're actually adding more houses to, I forget which ones. but they're building, they're doing some construction right now. So they're adding new houses. Yeah.
AJ: Well, people will have to Google this.
We try not to focus too much on events cause they're, you know, they come and go, but they're in those houses. There is, I believe a one weekend of year where they opened them all up and it's like a food festival and you go from house to house, like a taste of downtown, but it's a taste of the world and you try food from all over the world.
I've only been once, but it was the coolest thing.
Bonnie: Yeah. Usually during the holidays, like Christmas time, the, December [00:15:00] nights, they usually do that.
Sara: You know, Bonnie, I feel like, as you're telling us all this stuff, it's like, I mean, I've been in San Diego for 20 plus years. I've been to Balboa Park
We got married inBalboa Park We got married, in front of the Prada but, Oh my gosh. And it's like getting me really excited about Balboa park and it just makes you realize what a little treasure. Yeah. Amazing, beautiful, diverse, like cultural little treasure that we have, right? Yeah. In San Diego.
Bonnie: That's amazing. Yeah. Did you know there's a church in Balboa park?
Sara: I did. Yeah. We didn't get married church. We got married in that little outdooterrace. Um, but there's so much. And you forget how big it is.
Bonnie: Yeah. Have you guys done the tower climb?
At the museum of man. You can go up in the tower. Did you know that?
AJ: I have a funny story about that, but no, I didn't know. You could, you can sign up to go up and yeah.
Bonnie: Yeah. I think it's closed right now, but hopefully it'll open up soon. my husband, I did on a date night one time, so it's a good day. I think it's for kids six and up my husband, I went on our own.
And you can climb all the way up to the, not the very top, but one of the, the highest points and the views are amazing inside the tower. You'll see the organ where I don't know who's doing the music right now, but you know how every hour there's the bells chime. So there's the organ or the piano, whatever they use to program the songs is in the tower.
And so when you're on this tower climb, there's the submission box. And so you can submit song requests and once in a while, they'll pick out a song request and play it over the, the California tower. Yeah.
Sara: Oh my gosh.
AJ: I was wondering why I heard who let the dogs out one time when I was there. Yeah, right on the hour.
AJ: Where do you sign up to go up into the tower?
Bonnie: Oh, it's through the museum. So it's used to be called the museum of man, but now it's called the museum of us. So they just changed it recently. So it's through the museum of us websites where you sign up.
AJ: Very nice. I took my mom to Balboa Park one time when she was visiting, this was years ago and we, I, we walked by the museum of man.
I said, let's go in this. This will be fun. And it was the museum of torture at the time. It was all the real ways. Mankind has tortured other people throughout history and it was a really weird a tour with my mom live here with my mom!
Yeah. but it's funny, I do an annual toy drive where I I've usually live in a scissor lift.
We call it “AJ’s Kid’s Crane”and there was one year where they wanted me to live in that town. The tower you're talking about!
Bonnie: that would be cool.
AJ: Uh, I don't know how many people would have gone and brought toys all the way, walked all the way through Balboa park to get to me. But that's a cool thing. I didn't know. You could go up in there. And then you said in the beginning of this. There are dog parks. Where are these hidden?
Cause I've never seen these, but you said tot yeah.
Bonnie: So Balboa Park is huge, right? It looks like a big square when you're looking at it on the map. So there's one called Nate's point and it's across the Cabrillo bridge. So it's more towards l six Avenue, the far West side of elbow park. Okay.
So there's a dog park there and then all the way on the opposite side of the far East side, there's one called the grape street dog park. It's kinda more like South Southeast, like golden Hill, South park kind of area on that side. Wow. That's very cool. Yeah. Where is this new observation deck? That's not the tower that you were talking about.
Is it now?Oh, no, it's a brand new. It just opens May 1st. It's a beautiful observation deck by the big, big, as we locals know it to be. It's this big Morton Bay fig tree behind the natural history museum. I think it was, was it planted during the exposition.
Everyone knows that that's the big, big, and it's kind of a meeting place for people you say, I'll meet me at the big, big, I'll see you there. And so over time, kids and people have been climbing on these big tree ruts and climbing up the tree and it's kind of been deteriorating. And so they put a big fence around it.
And trying to figure out what to do, and then they just build this observation deck and fully fence all the way around. It's really nice. And you can get up close to see it. You can just see the big tree. There's cute little log benches that they used, , from trees that have fallen down in Bellville park, they cut them into the bench skews for the, the decking.
So that's so cool. That's neat.
AJ: we all love to take our kids there and have a family day out. But you mentioned a date night with your husband. Talk to the people that are going to have a grown-up a girl's night out or a date night without the kids. Where are you going to go for an adult beverage or something more grown up at the ballpark?
Well, let's get to the good stuff. That's cocktails!
Bonnie: Well, there's always the Prado, you know, that's always like a really nice. Fancy place with good views. But our favorite place we love to go to is Panama 66. It's a restaurant next to the museum of art. So it's kind of like in the main central , available park where the big fountain is.
They have outdoor patio dining. They've got really good beer. Their food is really good. and a secret spot behind that is the secret sculpture garden. Do you guys know about that?
AJ No, none of this, I don't think I've ever been to Balboa Park!
So there's a sculpture garden in this really small grassy area with these arts sculptures. It's from the, the museum of art manages it. And you don't even have to go through Panama 66. There's kind of a side hallway that you can walk down and go into the garden and just, it's really quiet spot and I'll leave a lot of people are there.
Kids can run around a little bit. I don't think they allow food or drinks there anymore, but it's a fun, quiet place to just sit and chill and relax for a little bit. Um, but so while you're waiting for your food or your drinks to come at Panama 66, you can walk through the sculpture garden until your food is ready.
So cool. Yeah. Thanks for good date night spot. Yeah, it sounds like a great day, night spot. What are you mentioned leagues? There are leaks. Is it sports leagues or swimming classes? What kind of activities can you?
Yeah, so there's so much, there's a golf course. There's a disc golf course. They have an archery range,
Sara: Frisbee golf, right?
AJ: Yeah. That's my sport, Sarah and it's disc golf. It's not owned by the Frisbee corporation and Morley fields is the best place in town to play in. The sport of Kings! Yes, there's a swimming pool. they have kids swimming lessons there in the summertime. there's a gym there by the air and space museum.
So you can go sign up for a gym membership and work out there. There's a tennis club. There's box ball. There's lawn bowling. There's a velodrome. And they used to have Tuesday night bike races. So the velodrome is this, round track for , um, cyclist before they're real road bikes, not BMX bikes that rode bikes and it, they used to have bike races there.
Bonnie: So I don't know when they're going to start that up again, but that's kind of a fun thing to go and watch these have a food truck and stuff. That's fun.
Sara: What about pickleball? Pickleball is taking over San Diego, right?
Bonnie: I have not heard, I don't know. You'll have to start your own league. That's that's, you know, everyone in San Diego talks about, you know, the dream is living on the beach or, , living downtown, man, if you live by Balboa park, you've really won the lottery.
There is so much going on. You go there every day and do something different every single time you go every day is different when you go there. Yeah. And we've only talked about a few of the, the kind of , more event driven things. Cause , like a third of all the fun runs in San Diego are done through Balboa park and there's so many other things that are just, it's such a hub.
Yeah. They usually have a lot of events in the summers. They usually have Friday night food trucks and they have, the December nights and December. yeah, they have just a ton of stuff. They have a butterfly release, but it's virtual this year. I think you can sign up. I don't know how they're doing the virtual part, but.
In other times, they have a butterfly release so that you can go and sign up and you get a butterfly and you can release it in the butterfly garden. Not so family friendly, but it used to be a nudist colony history. Taking notes and like a park used to be nudist colony Yeah. It's not anymore.
AJ: So it's not that doesn't make for a good date night anymore. People that loved being naked and raising cats. And that's where the cats actually came from. Yeah. Crazy for everyone. Now it's the butterfly garden. Okay. It's a fully closed butterfly garden. It is family friendly. Now you've given us so many specific things to check out.
Sara: I mean, this is really, really great. I can't wait to go back to them. There's so many more. I have nowhere to be let's keep going. What else have we not covered? Okay. So there's some, secrets about the museums that most people don't know.
Bonnie: I think we've covered some of them. the secret sculpture garden is through the museum of arts behind Canada, 66. the natural history museum has, is really cool. Animal loan program. And so they have a whole storage room full of all their taxidermy animals.
AJ: Yeah. I was not expecting you to say that I still don't know where this is going!
Who are they loaning them to, anybody? I think they normally use them for teachers and educators, but anybody can sign up. We signed up for one year, just our family. there's so there's a twenty-five dollar, one time fee or $75 for the year. And I think you get like, How many animals a month, like two or three animals a month, you can take home and you can choose.
They have huge cougars. They have big egrets, big birds., it's really fun for Halloween time. So we took home a bat tarantula, and I forget something else kind of Halloweeny. So we kind of had it like in our house and the kids would just go up and look at it and we'd talk about it. So it's a good talking point for kids.
but yeah, they have all kinds of animals, snakes, insects. they have those shard like looks like pickled animals. [00:26:00] Oh my gosh. Storage room of these taxidermy animals. You can walk through and just pick out whatever you want to take home. But it's great for teachers too. So teachers don't know about this.
Teachers can sign up and bring animals into their classroom too. Oh my gosh. Yeah. Nobody knows about that, right? No. Yeah, no, I never, you know, that's party at my house. There's a Badger, a centerpiece. Yeah. Thanksgiving dinner, Turkey, taxidermy, Turkey.
. All right. So you mentioned one hiking trail earlier, and I didn't even know there was that one, but are there others? There's so many hiking trails available.
There's kind of, I don't know how many, but they have a whole trail system. If you go onto their website. Um, I think they're color coded orange and blue trails.and they tell you how easy or difficult they are. You can see where they are, how long they are. they're all over Bellville park. You know what I'll tell you what, especially over the course of this, last year and a half or so, as we've all been trying to find new and creative ways to get outside and get exercise ,I don't think people have walked and hiked all over San Diego more than they have in the past.
It's getting bored, like getting bored of the same walks and same trails. I mean, there's a whole world to explore there atBalboa park. I had no idea. Yeah. There's so many hiking trails to explore and gardens. I mean, those are kind of the big things that people are doing. They want to do outdoor things now and Valpo park, you know, you can go there every day and do something outside, not just the museums, but outside.
They have so many things to do there. Even just walking around, they have so many food vendors. There's a bubble guy that sometimes is there. So it's, there's this, this guy. And I think there's a few of 'em and they have a big bucket of soapy water and. A big rope thing and they just do bubbles and sometimes they'll let the kids make their own big bubbles.
And that's a fun thing for kids to see.We've we've been there before when the bubble guy was there and then the bubbles are so big. They'll encase like people in, into a big bubble. Yeah. Why do you think? I feel like the more I talk to you, I feel like people don't realize how much is going on about ballpark.
AJ: How would you, why do you think it's, it's kind of a, maybe a, for lack of a better term slept on by San Diego, if they don't realize how great it is. Yeah. I think it's like, kind of like the beach sometimes just take it for granted and you think, Oh, the beach is always there, but you know, I hate to say it, but we don't go to the beach that often, but we, every time we go, we're like, why don't we come here more often?
Bonnie: It’s kinda like the whole park. I think it's so big. Then maybe people don't know what to do, or maybe they're intimidated by it. They don't know where to start. Yeah. Where to go. But if you just park and show up and walk around, you can just wander around and you can find so many things to do. Just go around the buildings and that you wouldn't normally walk around and you'll find something totally amazing and brand new.
There’s just so much to do around every corner there. You've given us a lot to do, and we thank you for it. Uh, and [00:29:00] if you've listened to this podcast, they get, well, Bonnie is quite the Balboa park expert. She does this with every place. She goes in San Diego and she shares all these great tips.
AJ: She’s a great follow on Instagram fam Diego at fam Diego, or go to her website, San diego.com. Wow. Yeah, you exceeded our expectations. I was hoping for five of our six ideas you gave us about 25. So thank you for your time. Thank you for joining us again. It's fam Diego on Instagram or online, Bonnie. Thank you. Thank you so much. This was great.
AJ: And there you have it. Season two, episode one is in the
Sara: books. But that's just the beginning. We have so much more on the way for season two. If you love San Diego, as much as we do, make sure you go wherever you listen to your podcasts and hit subscribe.
AJ: Thanks so much for listening. Bye.