Each of these essential California adventures has been tried and tested by a Travel section staffer or contributor. To search the state by region, use the filter below.
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Why: The California Tower, built to conjure Spanish Colonial daydreams for a world expo in 1915, was closed to visitors in 1935. But it reopened in 2015 and as you surmount its 157 steps, you'll hear how Balboa Park has grown from a temporary fairground into one of the nation's foremost urban parks. You'll also get a bird's-eye view of the signature tiled dome that's also part of the California Tower.
What: The tower and dome are both part of the Museum of Man, one of 17 cultural organizations in the park. If you sign up to climb the tower, your guide will remind you how the 1,200-acre park began as a venue for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, San Diego's underdog effort to compete with San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition the same year. San Francisco's expo was fancier, but when those parties were over, San Diego set aside more acreage, preserved more buildings and may have reaped more long-term benefits.
Anyway, the tour lasts about 40 minutes. It's fun to climb the narrow spiral staircase (and a tad disappointing to learn that the highest levels of the tower are off-limits). The observation deck, about 100 feet above the ground floor, looks out on the redwood lattice of the Botanical Building; the not-so-native trees shading the not-so-native animals of the zoo; the curlicued Spanish Colonial Revival facades of the Prado; the roofs of the Old Globe; and the Cabrillo Bridge, also built for the long-ago expo.
Within a short walk of the tower, you'll find the Fleet Science Center, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego History Center, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Japanese Friendship Garden and more. In fact, it you haven't given Balboa Park at least half a day, you've probably fouled up your San Diego vacation.
Where: 1350 El Prado, San Diego, 123 miles southeast of downtown L.A.
How much: Tower tour tickets (which also include museum admission) cost $22.50 per adult, $18 for students over 12, $10 for students and children age 6-12. Open to children 6 and older. (Frugal family option: Flop down on the grass by the park lily pond and listen to the musicians that play there for tips.)