My last day in California, I spent the majority of the day strolling (and at some points hiking strenuously) through Balboa Park. Named for the explorer Balboa, the first European to reach the Pacific ocean, it's a 1,200 acre park/cultural center in San Diego. I'll liken it to Central Park in NYC, but it's actually very different (mainly in that it's much less flat).
The Park is split by a major road, one side being primarily a Canyon preserve with trail running, picnic areas, ball fields, tennis courts, lap pool, disc golf and actual golf, and the second side being a cultural hub of museums, tea gardens, art houses and the San Diego Zoo.
The main hub is El Prado, a long promenade of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, which was built to host the 1915 Panama-California Exposition which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. San Diego was the first port of call after vessels exit the Panama Canal, and the city wanted to introduce itself to the world. At the time, San Diego had a meager population of 40,000.
Congress had set aside 5 million dollars to celebrate the completion of the canal, but most of it was going Panama-Pacific International Convention (world's fair) that was taking place simultaneously in San Francisco. But the San Diego fair met with such approval and admiration that Theodore Roosevelt recommended that the buildings, which were of such "rare phenomenal taste and beauty", stay as permanent additions.
The park's use has changed over the decades, being used for the 1935 California Pacific International Expo and as Naval training grounds during the World Wars. In recent years, its received over 12 million visitors a year.
For me, visiting the park was a fulfilling experience. Once I crossed Florida Avenue, it was like walking out of this solitary desert and right into the busy streets of Europe. I spent much of the afternoon laying on a bench in a quiet sculpture garden. Nearby, under a bell tower and a shining cupola, somewhere I couldn't see but I could hear, a string violin played softly. People walked along the streets while I read my book, in what felt like, my own private piazza.