After being closed to the public for 80 years, Balboa Park’s California Tower at the San Diego Museum of Man is now open for public tours!
From the second floor of the Museum, you go up a staircase hidden to the public for decades. Then you climb seven floors, getting glimpses through narrow windows of the beauty outside. Finally, you climb a spiral metal stairway and emerge into sunlight where you will see a spectacular Southern California vista.
TO THE NORTH, the criss-crossing green cars of the San Diego Zoo’s Skyfari catch your eye as they glide over the canyon landscape just beyond the Old Globe Theater. You can see a bird aviary and sometimes hear animal calls — and maybe catch a peek of the Grinch! Beyond that, there’s the North Park water tower, and, even further away, in the distant northeast, the Cuyamaca Mountains.
TO THE SOUTH, you see the curving arc of the Coronado Bridge, busy shipbuilding yards, glittering downtown skyscrapers, the Coronado Peninsula, Mexico’s misty Coronado Islands, the flat top of Tijuana’s Otay Mesa, and beyond that, more of Baja California and Mexico. Airplanes fly past as they descend toward the airport, and red-tailed hawks often soar over the park’s canyons.
TO THE EAST, you see the ever-evolving heart of Balboa Park: beautiful park buildings, the Plaza de Panama, and the sports fields and trails. All this is set in front of the backdrop of the sepia and umber hues of the Laguna Mountains, as well as the antenna-covered peak of San Miguel Mountain. You may see helicopters land at the Naval Medical Center.
TO THE WEST is the Cabrillo Bridge, Banker’s Hill, more of downtown, the massive spur of Point Loma, and the glimmering San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean, dimpled by the movements of sailboats and military vessels going about their business. To the northwest — just a few feet away — you see the brightly-tiled California Dome, the sister landmark to the California Tower. Look to the northwest over the dome and you may see Mount Soledad and the taller buildings of Hillcrest.
All of the California Buildings, as the structures housing the Museum of Man are called, were completed in 1914, and officially opened in 1915 as part of the Panama-California Exposition. They were designed by Bertram Goodhue, who was inspired by the churches of Mexico and Spain. Even though the California Buildings resemble a church, they have never been a church and have been exhibition halls from the start — except when they were used as a Naval hospital during World War II. The Tower was closed to the public shortly after the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. A more complete history is here.
How it Works
California Tower tours are handled by timed tickets, similar to theatre or airplane tickets. Each ticket has a specific start time. It does not allow you to take the tour whenever you choose. (Find available ticket times here.)
You must arrive at least 15 minutes before your start time so that you can stow your belongings in a locker and then join the queue of other visitors who have tickets for the same tour. If you are late, you will not able to join your tour, and your ticket will not be refunded or exchanged.
Each tour group is in the care of knowledgeable, trained tour guides who will tell you about the history of the California Tower and other things. You will not be permitted to tour the California Tower on your own.
Important Rules and Information
- You may buy tickets at the Museum or you may purchase your tickets in advance online.
- Arrive at Balboa Park early. There is a lot of parking in Balboa Park, but it’s also a popular place! You may end up parking further away than you expect. Parking and directions are here.
- Tours last 40 minutes, including 10-15 minutes on the viewing deck.
- The tour goes to the first viewing deck of the tower. It does not include the second and third viewing decks, which are the top two levels of the tower, as they have not had additional safety features added.
- You will also need to sign a waiver for any minors in your care.
- You must arrive at the Museum at least 15 minutes before your tour starts. Tours will not wait for you and you will not be allowed to join a tour that has already begun. You must show up on time! If you are late, you will not able to join your tour, and your ticket will not be refunded or exchanged.
- It is recommended that you wear flat-soled shoes that cover your whole foot.
- Bring your point-and-shoot or smartphone cameras! There are lots of great pictures to take.
- We have free lockers where you can store your personal items while you are on the California Tower tours. No bags of any kind (no matter how small or large or fanny-packed) are permitted on the tour. Flying devices, large video cameras, or large photography gear are also not allowed, and other items may be forbidden at the discretion of Museum staff. If in doubt, please ask! We recommend you leave big or valuable items at home. The Museum is not responsible for items placed in lockers.
- You will not be able to do the California Tower tour on your own. You must stay with the group. If you do not stay with the group, you will immediately be escorted out of the California Tower.
Frequently Asked Questions
★ How much are tickets? How do I get them?
★ Can I get a ticket just for the California Tower? Can I go up in the California Tower without going into the Museum?
California Tower tour tickets include general admission to see our main Museum exhibitsbecause there is no way to go into the California Tower without going through the Museum. The entrance to the California Tower is inside the Museum on the second floor.
★ Will it be free during December Nights? What about Free Tuesdays?
While general admission to the Museum is offered at no cost during December Nights and Free Tuesdays, special offerings which require an extra charge — such as Instruments of Torture and California Tower tours — are not included. This is standard practice throughout Balboa Park.
★ Can you accommodate groups?
Each tour can accommodate 12 visitors, so if you book all your tickets for the same ticket time, then you’ll all be on the same tour. Larger groups will need to divide themselves up to go in consecutive tours. There is no special group pricing for California Tower tours.
★ How high is the California Tower?
To the very top of the weather vane (which features the ship of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542), it’s about 462 feet above sea level, or 198 feet above the ground. The viewing deck that visitors will go to, the eighth floor, is about 357 feet above sea level. The sea-level height includes the 254-foot mesa that the buildings sit upon.
★ What can you see from the California Tower?
Read the full description above. If the weather is clear, you will be able to see about 23 miles to the horizon, which means a 360-degree view would cover as much as 415 square miles if mountains didn’t block the view to the east.
★ Why can’t I go all the way to the top?
As you can see by the shape of the California Tower, each of the floors gets smaller as you go up. The upper floors are not large enough to accommodate a meaningful number of visitors, and they have not been outfitted with security features. The viewing deck you’ll go up to is amazing enough!
★ How many steps are there?
There are 125 steps from the entrance to the California Tower to the public viewing deck (which is the eighth California Tower floor). If you start at the steps from the California Plaza in front of the Museum, then there are 157 to 164 total steps to the eighth floor of the California Tower, depending which stairs or staircases you use.
★ Is there an elevator?
The architectural and historic nature of the building prevents an elevator from being installed. The only way to go up inside the California Tower is to climb steps.
★ What about people with disabilities? What if I’m afraid of heights?
People with impaired mobility or fear of heights can still see the views on the first floor of the Museum via a 78-inch curved screen showing live high-definition views from the California Tower from all four compass points. A second, smaller screen will give historical and architectural information similar to what the tour guides tell California Tower climbers. This exhibit will be included with general admission tickets at no extra cost.
★ How difficult is the climb? I have a condition/am overweight/have bad knees/not sure I can make it.
It’s a good but manageable workout for most healthy adults and children at least six years of age. To climb the California Tower, you must physically be able to ascend and descend 125 steps within a 40-minute period, including 10 to 15 minutes on the viewing deck. ★ The California Tower is not recommended for women who are pregnant, nor for people with heart, knee, or back problems, or other physical conditions that may be made worse by climbing stairs. If you are unsure whether you are able to climb the California Tower, please talk to your doctor. ★ While our tours will include brief pauses, all guests must climb at the group pace. Tours will not be able to slow down or wait. If you’re concerned about not being able to make it, you can choose instead to see the big-screen live views of California Tower exhibit on the first floor, which is included at no extra cost with the price of a general admission ticket. ★ If you’re on a tour and change your mind about going up, we’ll have a staff member escort you back to ground level.
★ Are children permitted to go up?
Yes! They love it! Children must be at least 6 years of age and be able to climb the California Tower on their own. Children are not permitted to be carried in the California Tower, not in an adult’s arms, by piggyback, car seat, stroller, baby carrier, nor by similar methods. Children ages 6 to 13 must be accompanied by an adult, who is responsible for the children’s safety. Your under-six kids, however, are very welcomed in our two family exhibits: Adventure Kids in Egypt and Monsters! Both are fun and easy for all kids to enjoy, with lots of hands-on stuff to do.
★ Where can I leave my stuff?
There are free lockers for holding purses, backpacks, bags, and other belongings. We recommend that you leave large or valuable items at home. The Museum is not responsible for items placed in lockers.
★ Can I do a photo or video shoot in the California Tower?
Yes! However, it is not simply a matter of showing up with your gear. You must arrange it at least three weeks in advance with our Visitor Experience team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 619-239-2001 ext. 37. Also, keep in mind that tours sell out quickly, so if you want a special time, you must reserve your preferred date and time as soon as possible.
★ Can I propose marriage to my sweetie in the California Tower?
Yes! You’ll probably want to buy out an entire tour (unless you really want to share your special moment with strangers!). Keep in mind that you have limited time on the viewing deck. If you are going to have a photographer present, or if you want something else special, you must arrange it at least three weeks in advance with our Visitor Experience team by emailing email@example.com or calling 619-239-2001 ext. 37. Also, keep in mind that tours sell out quickly, so if you want a special time, you must reserve your preferred date and time as soon as possible.
★ Can I see the bells? Are the bells on tape? Are they really loud?
There aren’t bells like the ones you’re probably thinking of, although, as you will see on the tour, there are real metal chimes being struck. The California Tower wasn’t built to be a bell tower and didn’t have music until 1946. Now a 100-chime electronic carillon makes the California Tower’s music. Here’s how it works: An organist plays songs into the machine using a music keyboard similar to an organ’s. The electronic carillon later replays the songs as electric impulses, causing little hammers to strike thin musical chimes. The sound is then amplified (similar to the way an electric guitar uses pick-ups to amplify its sounds) and played back through loudspeakers on the tenth level of the California Tower. The music can be heard for at least a mile. It’s not too loud! Most people find it rather thrilling.
★ Has the California Tower been in any movies?
Of course! The most famous is Citizen Kane (1941). In a fictional newsreel at the beginning of the film, the California Building doubles as Xanadu, Charles Foster Kane’s mansion in Florida. The mansion in the film is a pastiche of a variety of real-life buildings which demonstrate the newspaper magnate’s vast wealth. The California Tower has also been in Top Dog (1995), starring Chuck Norris, which features scenes inside the California Tower, and the California Tower had cameo appearances in Almost Famous (2000), Traffic (2000), and Anchorman(2004).
Donate to Support the California Tower
We’re more than halfway to raising the $3 million which will help keep the California Tower open to public tours and ensure it is preserved for future generations. We’re counting on you and other San Diegans who understand just how important this is to donate to preserve this important San Diego landmark. See the full list of the many people who have already given their support.
Phone, Email, and Address
To purchase tickets by phone, for refunds, or for problems placing your order, call (888) 718-4253 and choose option 1. Live help is available at that number from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Pacific Time, Monday through Friday.
For information about the the California Tower, the San Diego Museum of Man, and its exhibits, visit the full website. If you have questions that cannot be answered on the website, call (619) 239-2001.
How’d you like to volunteer for the Museum? You could be one of the people going on Tower tours! Find out more here.
THANK YOU TO OUR DONORS
Tower Society ($50,000 and up)
- The Legler Benbough Foundation
- The Parker Foundation
- Jerome D. and Anne Evenson Ryan in memory of Bea Evenson
- Dr. Seuss Fund at The San Diego Foundation
Tower Benches ($25,000)
- Ms. Jean Stein
- The Beyster Family
- Mr. Rob and Mrs. Lynne Hayes
- Mr. Ron & Mrs. Lucille Neeley
- The Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation
Tower Steps ($5,000)
- The Balboa Park Conservancy
- Bank of Southern California
- Barona Band of Mission Indians
- Mr. Charles & Ms. Charlotte Bird
- Bill, Marilyn, Mike, Brian, and Betsy Boggs
- The Bowden Family Foundation
- Ms. Heather Bowden
- Mr. Robert & Mrs. Karen Bowden
- Mr. James Carr
- Ms. Nancy Carol Carter
- Dr. Edwin Chen & Mrs. Hope Carlson Chen
- Dr. Kuan-Cheng Chen & Dr. Le Chen
- Mr. David & Mrs. Lesley Cohn
- Dr. Bernard J. Eggertsen & Ms. Florence Nemkov
- Mr. Peter & Mrs. Doris Ellsworth
- The Dawe Family
- The Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Foundation
- Dr. Nicholas Fintzelberg, Ph.D.
- Mr. Roman & Mrs. Stephanie Friedrich
- Mr. Bill and Mrs. Amy Geppert
- Mr. Ben Garcia & Mr. Scott Fabianek
- Bannister Hall Fund at The San Diego Foundation
- The Gay and Lesbian Fund for San Diego of The San Diego Foundation
- Mr. Jason Hartley
- Mr. Don Howells & Ms. Denise Carabet
- Mrs. Nora Jaffe
- Ms. Aline Stouse Koppel
- Mrs. Peggy Matthews
- Honorable Kevin & Mrs. Cynthia Midlam, Ret.
- Mr. Pat Minton & Mr. Greg Strange
- Sheppard Mullin
- Ms. Edie Munk
- Mr. Abe Ordover & Ms. Eleanor Musick
- The Osmialowski–Thomas Family
- Ms. Judith Parzen
- Mr. Rick Peters
- Mr. James & Mrs. Frances Peterson
- Ms. Monica Phariss
- Dane, Drake, and Nan Pieper
- Mr. Frank & Mrs. Demi Rogozienski
- Mr. Jerry & Mrs. Keiko Schneider
- Mr. Bruce Shank
- Sheppard Mullin
- Mr. Jeffrey M. & Mrs. Linda J. Shohet
- Mr. Harris Steinberg
- Mr. Ken & Ms. Linda Sumner
- Ms. Laurette Verbinski
- Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians
- Mr. Steve Wall & Ms.Franne Ficara
- Vistage Group 3080
- Mr. Bill & Ms. Lori Walton
- Mandell Weiss Charitable Trust
- Mr. Stephen & Mrs. Stephanie Williams
- Mr. Dean & Mrs. Deborah Wilson
- Wood, Smith, Henning & Berman LLP
- Mr. Dale & Mrs. Julie Yahnke
- Mr. George & Mrs. Meryl Young
- Mr. Ron & Dr. Joellyn Zollman
Others Who Have Given in Honor of or to Support the California Tower
- Mr. Larry & Ms. Linda Alessio
- Mr. James Alford
- Ms. Linnea Arrington
- Ms. Lauren Beaudry
- Ms. Bonnie Brown
- Ms. Phyllis Crapo Olefsky
- Mrs. Donna Derrick
- Ms. Berit Durler
- Ms. Edna Everett
- Ms. Heidi Farkash
- Ms. Mary Felter
- Mr. Dieter Fenkart-Froeschl & Ms. Sarah Malka
- Ms. Betty Foss
- Mrs. Pauline Foster
- Mr. Marty Goodman
- Ms. Margaret Ham
- Ms. Anne Hill
- Ms. Grace Hinman
- Ms. Sarah Holtmeyer
- Ms. Janine Joseph
- Ms. Ellen Kern
- Ms. Cynthia Lawson
- Mr. John & Mrs. Joanne Leslie
- Ms. Vicki Lindblade
- Mandell Weiss Charitable Trust
- Dr. Gay McDonald
- Ms. Katherine McDonald
- Ms. Winona McNitt
- Ms. Nelia Monso
- Dr. Elizabeth Nolan
- Mr. James & Ms. Janet Respess
- Ms. Amanda Schaffer
- Ms. Elizabeth Roe Schlappi
- Mr. Robert & Mrs. Ann Steiner
- Mrs. R.H. Taylor
- Ms. Jazmen Tejero Singh
- Mrs. Eloise Thomas
- Mr. Edward Uribe
- Ms. Dottie Vieira
- Ms. Anna Wayman
- Ms. Hilda Naylor Weil
- Mr. Donald & Mrs. Marcia Wolochow
- Ms. Linda Yorba