The one and only Balboa Nights
Every time I hear people talking about their local festivals, there is one question I ask myself. How far would I travel to go there? My recommendation for Balboa Nights is that I would use it to anchor a Christmas trip to San Diego from anywhere. Lofty praise for sure but here is why:
- It’s a huge Christmas celebration at Balboa Park in San Diego – about 360,000 people visit over the two days it’s going. That’s a lot of food and entertainment. In fact, it’s the largest free community festival in San Diego,
- Food and drink from around the globe at the International Christmas Festival at the International Cottages (from the 1935 Pacific exhibition). This is our favorite part. This year 36 nations were represented at the event with four to five dishes each and drinks at the spirit garden.
- Free museums from 5-9 – All the Balboa Park museums are free for the festival. They are definitely worth that price.
- Lots of Entertainment: Musical and dance presentations from the San Diego Junior Theatre, San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, Del Cerro Baptist’s Christmas Story Tree and more.
- Well-placed within the holiday season. Let’s face it, it’s hard to find time for yourself during the holidays. You’re served a stack of Christmas parties sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas with the family. Balboa Nights is set for the first weekend of December which is often the only free weekend you can find for yourself during the holiday season.
- It’s San Diego shoulder season so you can find travel deals without fighting beach tourists
San Diego has a plethora of other world class holiday events such as Sea World, San Diego Zoo, Light Parade, and Hotel Del Coronado that you can see while you’re out here.
- Winter brings changes to the ocean. You can see the ocean in ways you just can’t during the summer months. Winter tidal swings expose tide pools some days and others can have the waves crashing on the sea walls. The whales are migrating south and you can get some big wave days for sure.
San Diego’s biggest Christmas Party
We make a point of coming to Balboa Nights every year and every year we get a little “Better” at it. Winning the big party games is all about getting the goodies and avoiding the crowds. To do this we invert Surge Loading. Do everything 30 minutes early and you’ll be leading the lines. The city does a fantastic job of setting up free event shuttles which are a great idea if you are coming in from a hotel at the pickup (think Gaslamp) or plan to get your cheer on. For us, we choose to drive in at 4:00 when people are leaving the zoo.
We fought traffic a bit coming in but found a spot with little difficulty. This year, we were taking Jenn’s mom out for Christmas (in return, she is watching our cats as we go to Thailand). We parked at the zoo and made the short walk over. We passed the train, decked out for Christmas riders and the last set of flush women toilets you’ll see without a line.
Beeline for Christmas Treats
The crowds thickened as we approached the Museum of Natural History. Food trucks and crafts stands lined both sides of the street giving you the feeling that you were on a fair midway. We were saving our calories for later so we kept walking and people watching. We made a right turn and flowed down to the center of the park.
We were on a mission get to the International Cottages before the dinner rush. In 1935 San Diego hosted the Pacific Exhibition and each country set up a little house in the park. These houses still stand today as a focal point for their respective ethnicities. They roll out the carpet to show you their countries special way of celebrating Christmas.
Getting your Christmas Spirit on
We started in the spirit garden. Spiced Norwegian wine, Eggnog with Danish brandy, plum liquor for Bulgaria, Mexican hot chocolate with tequila – every country had a booth with hand imported liquor. You can buy these at any store but for $4-$7 dollars a drink you can take a drinking tour of the world. We were a touch chilly so we went for spiked coffee. We intended to run the Irish Coffee circuit but we were too tipsy by the time we reached the Ireland booth we had to tap out and bid adieu to the brew.
The spirit gardens exited onto a strange collage of carnival rides. It was 5:00 and the sun was just setting. The carnival rides were lighting up in the twilight glow. I could imagine turning right, walking past them and into the (free tonight) Air and Space Museum. We might have too if we didn’t need to stay ahead of the dinner rush. To our left was our favorite multicultural buffet. Not really a buffet but a Christmas market of sorts.
International Christmas Feast
Our first course was in India for some Chicken Tikka Masala. Headed over to Peru for empanadas and some kinds of baked cheese. Mom saw the Hungry stand and wanted an Italian sausage. She passed on the Hungarian sausage but, luckily, Italy was only two stands down so she was happy. We were full, but not wanting to pass on dessert. We headed over to Scotland (complete with a bagpipe group playing out front) and got Edinburgh cloud, bread pudding in scotch whiskey, chocolate cake, and chocolate mousse. All in all, entirely too much food but Christmas only comes once a year.
Main Stage at Spreckels Pavilion
We waddled into the main Christmas stage – the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. People were standing at the periphery but there were still good seats to be had. All in all, over this place seats over 2000 people with a decent sound system. We watched Chinese dragon dancers performing in front of the Christmas tree and then stayed for the San Diego Women’s chorus performance of more traditional fair. Mom wanted to go to at least one museum in the park so we left the performance and returned the to Panama square.
Balboa Christmas Lights
The square sits in roughly the middle of the museum strip. Prado sets up pub food in the square and right next door is Panama 66. We could hear music coming from several stages set up around the central square. To our left, the bell tower danced in Christmas lights. Underneath it was the Museum of Man and past it, the Cabrillo Bridge. To our right was the Bea Evenson Fountain, Natural History, and the Science Center. We turned right to retrace our steps back to the Zoo. Mom was getting tired and we were flying to Thailand in the morning so we were ready to call it a night.
Reflecting on the Christmas Glow
The park was decked out in Christmas lights. Not simple strands of lights, but projected snowflakes and entire buildings glowing like ornaments. We made a point to walk past the reflection pond in front of the arboretum and it was magnificent. Perhaps it was the holiday spirits, the crowd of revelers, Christmas lights or carolers, but we were all beginning to feel a little like Christmas.
Having a Christmas for the ages
The lines into the Museum of Natural history were very manageable (but judging from the lines leaving we did well to get ahead of the surge). I had taken my mom to Smithsonian Natural History less than a month ago so I can tell you that the Smithsonian is better, but what would you expect. The museums at Balboa Park are good but not great. The larger museums will take about an hour to explore. There are Imax movies and special exhibits available in many of them for an additional charge. If you visited each of the principal museums in the park, you would have an excellent museum visit ( which you can do for free during Balboa Nights).
Not quite zipping home
Outside of the museum, we watched the little zip line and lit up fig tree (It’s a San Diego Christmas) for a little while and then started to wander back to the car. This time, we passed through the artist village and Mom insisted on going into the San Diego Gem and Mineral Club building. She was amused but if we ever take her to the Tucson Gem show she’ll be blown away. We passed the Balboa Park Train (now lit with Christmas gala) and to our car. There was about 20 minutes of traffic to leave the lot but no real traffic on the roads once we cleared. We probably should have headed south out of the Zoo to catch I-5 back to PB. Live and learn. If we did everything correct we wouldn’t have room for improvement next year. I think next year we will ride the gondola over the zoo lights which is only $5/round trip. The city says Balboa nights is scheduled for December 1 and 2 for 2017. We have our calendars marked already.