The Balboa Park you see today was created for the 1915 Panama-California World Exposition. The Spanish Revival architecture is set amid immense, almost tropical, greenery and welcomes visitors with a wealth of museums, halls, exhibitions, gardens, and open spaces. Stop at the Balboa Park Visitors Center (1549 El Prado, 619/239-0512, www.balboapark.org ) for a park map and to plan your visit—there won’t be time to see it all!
Hillcrest, immediately northwest of the park, was once a gentrified residential area. Today, a touch of shabbiness has met with hip urban renewal to create a mixed neighborhood that still shelters many older residents, while providing entertainment and energy to a younger crowd. Hillcrest beckons to the San Diego  gay community as well, with clubs and bars  creating a hip queer nightlife scene.