San Diego is home to over 90 museums ranging from tiny specialty museums to open-air museums, to enormous natural history and art museums. Trying to figure out which ones to visit can be a challenge!
When deciding which museums you want to explore, look for ones that grab your attention or cover a subject that you want to learn more about. Even if you are not excited about art, a visit to one of San Diego's art museums may surprise you. If you are interested in military artifacts, a trip to the USS Midway Museum will most likely make your list. Animal lovers have to include the San Diego Zoo on their itinerary and the Maritime Museum of San Diego is a must-see for those who like historic sea vessels.
Spend a day in Balboa Park and explore some of the 16 museums that are housed there. Before you head out to do a little museum hopping, drop your extra bags at a luggage storage locker so you do not have to check any bags at the museums you do visit. So choose a fun public transit option and see what you can learn in San Diego!
USS Midway Museum
Address: 910 North Harbor Drive, Marina, San Diego, CA 92101
The USS Midway opened as a museum in June of 2004. This is the longest-serving aircraft carrier and has become a floating museum where civilians can explore all the nooks and crannies of this fantastic vessel. Take a guided tour and visit the engine room, primary flight control room, jail, and crew’s sleeping quarters.
You can also take a self-guided tour and listen to audio created by several of the USS Midway sailors as they describe what life was like aboard the carrier and what their duties included. As you meander through the ship, you will see several volunteers and can stop and listen as they engage visitors and weave stories about their time on the USS Midway.
There are over 30 different fully restored helicopters and aircraft on display and over 60 exhibition areas, some that are interactive, that detail the carrier’s role in World War II. The Battle of Midway Theater plays a fantastic documentary you do not want to miss. Check out the flight simulators and see if flying fighter jets is as exciting as it seems.
Fleet Science Center
Address: 1875 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101
This is one of the best places to bring the kids and spend an afternoon discovering more about science. With over 100 interactive science exhibits spread out over eight galleries, it is one of the most amazing places for hands-on learning for young and old alike. The Fleet Science Center is also home to the first IMAX Dome Theater where films truly come alive.
The science center opened in 1973 and is one of the most-visited museums in San Diego. There is even an area dedicated to teaching children age five years and under about science. Parents are allowed to accompany their children to Kid City and any of the classes where younger children are welcome.
San Diego Natural History Museum
Address: 1788 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA, 92101
Also located in Balboa Park, this museum was originally part of the San Diego Society of Natural History which was founded in 1874. It is the oldest scientific museum in Southern California and the third oldest located west of the Mississippi River. The Nat, as locals affectionately call the Natural History Museum is a great place to spend a lazy afternoon.
With four floors of intriguing exhibitions and a 3D theater, you will find plenty to keep you busy. There are about nine million artifacts and specimens at the museum including the Foucault Pendulum, a replica of a megalodon from prehistoric times, and over 200 different animal skulls. Head to the basement if you want to see creepy-crawly bugs, snakes, lizards, and even bees.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Address: 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101
Also located in Balboa Park, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum will excite train enthusiasts to no end. Even if you are not a fan of trains, you will find some of the exhibits here fascinating. The massive charts of railroad lines that crisscross the state of California are quite something and the models seen in the museum are precisely to scale according to these charts.
With 27,000 square feet of model trains and track, this is the biggest model railroad exhibit in North America. That alone should be reason enough to want to visit and see what all the fuss is about. The mission of the museum is to preserve the heritage of railroading and they have done just that with the truly unique and marvelous miniature replica railroad system that is on display.
The model railroad was started in 1935 by Minton Cronkite when he created a miniature for the California Pacific International Exposition. Cronkite’s original miniature railroad is on display at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA)
Address: 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101
MOPA houses a collection of over 7,000 photographs representing 850 photographers from around the world. The museum is dedicated to the preservation of not just photography, but also video and film. This includes the technological advancements and aesthetic movements related to the photographic arts.
When in Balboa Park be sure to drop by and see works by Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Bourke-White, and Ruth Bernhard. Wander through a large collection of mid-20th-century photography of Soviet Russia. The museum has an in-house movie theater and plays host to several international film festivals.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Address: 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, San Diego, CA 92037
Home to over 5,000 invertebrates and fish living in over 60 different habitats including a rather impressive shark tank, the Birch Aquarium sits on a bluff that looks out over the Pacific Ocean. So, if the views inside the aquarium do not hold your attention for long, the breathtaking views looking out over the ocean will.
The Oceanographic Museum is located inside the Birch Aquarium and has over five dozen interesting and unique interactive exhibits and elements that will draw you in and teach you about our climate, the Earth’s atmosphere, and ocean health all without you realizing you are being educated. It is a great place for children to learn about our Earth’s oceans.
San Diego Museum of Man
Address: 1350 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101
The San Diego Museum of Man is the only anthropology museum in Southern California so when you are exploring Balboa Park, take some time to check out this unique museum. The museum’s mission is to help understand human’s role throughout history. The exhibit on cannibalism is especially interesting and just a tad off-putting.
There is an exhibit on the history of beer and its affects on human nature and another exhibit that examines man’s relationships with animals. The museum was built as a part of the 1915 Panama-California Expo and it was such a big hit that the city decided to keep it and add to the collection through the years.
Mingei International Museum
Address: 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101
This art museum was founded by Martha Longenecker in 1978; Longenecker was an art professor at the San Diego University. The Mingei Museum has over 17,500 artifacts and objects from 141 different countries. The museum is dedicated to conserving items of daily use including textiles and ceramics.
The museum also has a folk art exhibit that is very fascinating and represents folk art from present day all the way back to the third century. The museum is constantly hosting rotating or travelling exhibitions as a way to always have something new and exciting for visitors to enjoy when they visit.
Museum of Making Music
Address: 5790 Armada Drive, Carlsbad, CA 92008
While not directly in San Diego, the Museum of Making Music is located in Carlsbad, a suburb of San Diego and is a rather unique museum that you do not want to miss. The museum was founded by the National Association of Music Merchants and is dedicated to showcasing how instruments are made and the science behind how they play.
The museum opened in 1998 and has grown to include several exhibits that highlight the masters who have dedicated their life’s work to creating such exceptional instruments. There are even several interactive exhibits that allow you to play some of the instruments yourself. Special exhibits are brought in twice a year as a way to host workshops and showcase local, national and international talent.
What are the best free museums in San Diego?
There are several terrific museums in San Diego that offer free admission making it possible to see even more wonderful museums. Put your wallet away and come check out these free museums! Even if you are not particularly interested in the subject matter, why not check it out? After all, it’s free.
Wells Fargo Museum
Head to the Colorado House and visit the Wells Fargo Museum to see one of the original stagecoaches that dates back to 1867. You can see authentic telegraph machines as well as a large collection of other artifacts and memorabilia dedicated to banking and transportation.
San Diego Union Museum
Learn more about the first newspaper in San Diego, the San Diego Union, and tour a museum that has been set up as a replica newsroom, editor’s office, and print room.
Timken Museum of Art
Opened in 1965, the Timken Museum is a free art museum showcasing several of the European masters, Russian and American artists. Stroll through and view works by John Singleton Copley, Rembrandt, and Peter Paul Rubens.
Which are the best museums in Downtown San Diego?
You don’t have to leave downtown San Diego to find great museums. You can easily stroll through the streets of downtown and check out some of the museums and art galleries along the way. While here, check out these fantastic museums.
USS Midway Museum
An actual aircraft carrier has been turned into a fabulous interactive museum. Visitors can take a self-guided tour while listening to audio of actual sailors who worked on the USS Midway. This unique audio tour is amazing.
The New Children’s Museum
Grab the kids spend a lazy afternoon exploring all the fascinating nooks and crannies of this children’s museum. Through hands-on and interactive play, kids will use their imagination while learning about the world around them.
San Diego Chinese Historical Museum
This museum is dedicated to preserving Chinese and Chinese American history, culture, and art. The tranquility of the museum will seep into your soul.
Are there any cheap museums in San Diego?
Cheap is such a relative term, what one person may consider cheap may seem rather expensive to someone else. Therefore, when searching for a cheap museum to visit you may just want to stick with the free museums and that way you know you will not break the bank.
There are also groupons and coupons available that allow you to visit certain museums at a discounted price. With a little searching, you can find great discounts especially if you purchase your tickets online and use a promo code. Balboa Park also offers free admission to select museums on certain days, check the information booth for more information.
San Diego Museums
We did not cover all of the fantastic museums in the city, of course, becasue there are so many! Others to consider are the famous Whaley House Museum, said to be a haunted house, or the Maritime Museum with its history of steam powered boats. See the work of Ansel Adams in the San Diego Museum of Art and don't miss local art in the ARTS DISTRICT Liberty Station.
Taking the time to check out San Diego museums is one way to enjoy contemporary art and learn about everything from historic ships to air and space travel and more. Whether you are interested in a science museum, an art gallery, or space museum, San Diego museums won't disappoint!