San Diego for Free – Salk Institute for Biological Studies – An Architectural Gem Nestled Above the Pacific

 A weekly column dedicated to sharing the best sights and activities in San Diego at the best price – free!  We have a great city and you don’t need to break the bank to experience it.


Neighborhood & Address:  Torrey Pines Mesa; 10010 North Torrey Pines Road, San Diego, CA 92037

Best For: Architecture students and fans

Hours: 8:30 – 17:00 daily, closed holidays

Free Hours: Free guided tour Monday through Friday at 12:00,  online registration required.  Visitors are also welcome to explore public areas on their own during regular hours.



Just south of the famed Torrey Pines Golf Course lies the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.  The institute was created in 1960 by Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine.  Salk wanted to build on the success of the polio vaccine and create a institute to increase knowledge of biology and a unique, inspiring environment for researchers to work in.  Today the research at the Salk Institute is focused on molecular biology and genetics, neurosciences, and plant biology.  Over 50 years after being created, the Salk Institute continues to build on past successes.  As described by Jonas Salk:  “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.”

The compound that houses the Salk Institute was designed by Louis Kahn and first opened in 1963.  Kahn was a world-renowned architect and other buildings he designed include many government buildings in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  He also designed the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and many other notable buildings.  His buildings are large and have a monolithic feel stemming from his extensive use of concrete and lack of adornment.  The clean lines and calming color tones found in much of his work are writ large at the Salk Institute.

The Salk compound is centered on a large open courtyard made of travertine marble,  flanked by identical concrete rows of offices and laboratory space.  The courtyard ends on the west side with a spectacular view of the Pacific and the soothing sounds of fountains. The courtyard is the highlight of the site and was designed by Kahn but with significant inspiration from Mexican architect Luis Barragan.  Kahn originally planned for trees or plants to be in the courtyard.  However, Barragan visited the site and told Kahn, “I would not put a tree or blade of grass in this space. This should be a plaza of stone, not a garden.  If you make this a plaza, you will gain a facade – a facade to the sky.”  Kahn took Barragan’s advice and the courtyard  has an amazing open feel to it with the large sky above the massive courtyard complementing the vista of the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean.

The Salk Institute has received a number of awards and recognition for architecture and design.  These include the 25-Year Award from the American Institute of Architects, which recognizes architectural design of enduring significance for a structure that has stood the test of time for 25 to 35 years.  The Salk Institute received this award in 1992.  The building is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

Adjacent to the Salk Institute grounds, to the north-east, is the Torrey Pines Gliderport.  Before or after a visit to the Salk Institute it’s a great place to watch hang gliding and paragliding.  There’s also a cafe so you can relax with a sandwich or coffee and enjoy the cool sea breeze while watching the sea gulls and gliders soar.

Another fun addition to a visit to the Salk Institute is to park at the Torrey Pines State Park and walk south along the beach, then take a trail up the cliffs to the gliderport before heading to the Salk Institute.  It’s a very nice walk and also takes you through San Diego’s clothing-optional beach, Blacks Beach.  It’s about a 2.75 mile walk from the state park to the gliderport.

To return to your vehicle you can take North Torrey Pines Road north from the east entrance to the Salk Institute, turning off onto Torrey Pines Park Road just after the golf course.  This road was the original highway from Los Angeles to San Diego and will take you through the east side of the park and down the hill to the parking areas.  Free parking is available at the beach, if you’re lucky (or early) enough to find an open space or the parking lot is $12 – $15 per day.

For an overview of the locations noted above, here’s a Google Map of the area with site markers added.

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John P. Anderson

John was an accountant in a former life and now devotes his time to child-rearing, reading, writing, and working to ensure that San Diego is truly America's Finest City. Interested in environmental issues, John enjoys connecting with others that want to improve the health of our world and community. You can find John at or on Twitter (@j_p_a_). Comments, suggestions, wisdom, and complaints are enthusiastically welcomed.


  1. avatarbob dorn says

    Only yesterday, while I was just south of the pier looking up past Scripps Institution to the Aquarium above it I could see a new structure that apes Salk’s monumental set of blocks stepping back and nearing each other as they approach the cliff. The new set of blocks looked a lot cheaper than Salk’s and were flip flopped so that the opening was to the west. I suppose that was a tribute to the original, which might be San Diego’s most distinctive and elegant big design.

    • avatarJohn Anderson says

      You mean the Birch Aquarium design? It definitely echoes Salk but maybe there’s another building on the same page in that area?