San Diego museums cater to artists, archeologists, surfers, kids, photographers, and various interests. The majority are located in Balboa Park, the nation’s largest urban cultural park, though other fantastic museums are sprinkled around the county. I speak from personal experience, having visited all of them.

The ten best museums in San Diego on this list are among the most visited by residents and tourists. Some have popular cafes and unique gift shops that you’ll want to plan time to browse. Check opening hours before you go and know that some participate in sightseeing passes that could save you money.

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Discount ticket Choices

Buy single-day admission at a discount or opt for a multi-attraction sightseeing pass.

Go San Diego Pass

Both the All-Inclusive and Explorer sightseeing passes include San Diego museums and over 50 other San Diego attractions.

Use promo code GOSDO5LJM for 5% off!

Balboa Park Explorer Pass

This pass includes 16 participating Balboa Park Museums.

Choose one of three pass options: a Parkwide Pass good for seven consecutive days, an Annual Pass (best for residents), or a Limited Pass that includes any four participating venues good for one day.

1. USS Midway Museum

Location: Downtown San Diego

Best San Diego Museums: USS Midway Museum aircraft on the flight deck.

The most unique San Diego museum is undoubtedly the USS Midway Museum. It’s one of the longest-serving aircraft carriers of the 20th century. The naval ship is docked as a maritime museum at the San Diego Embarcadero in downtown.

Admission includes a self-guided audio tour narrated by former USS Midway sailors that leads visitors throughout the ship to sleeping quarters, the engine room, galley, and more. You can now take the Hangar Deck and Flight Deck tour routes.

Docents wearing yellow hats, many of whom also served on the ship, add incredible value to a visit by relaying personal anecdotes and answering questions. Do find one and ask away! You can also walk through galleries detailing events and memorabilia from World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and other wars.

Visitors may climb aboard many of the retired aircraft displayed on the outdoor decks. You can also step into a simulator to see what it was like to fly one. Cafe 41 serves a hearty menu of burritos, tamales, burgers, and Italian hero subs.

If there’s one San Diego museum to visit, make this your top choice, as there aren’t many in the world like it.

Tips: Bring your own wired earbuds for the audio tour. Below deck tours, flight simulators, and climb-aboard cockpits are closed, but there is still plenty to see. We have tickets.

See also: Tips for Visiting the USS Midway Museum

2. San Diego Natural History Museum

Location: Balboa Park

Best San Diego museums: My daughter reads a scavenger hunt sheet at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

The San Diego Natural History Museum (also known as theNAT), is a favorite of local kids. As they get older, they go back to the same exhibits they love over and over again. In the process, they manage to see, do, and learn something new every time.

Highlights include “Al,” the allosaurus cast in the lobby, the second-floor scavenger hunts in Fossil Mysteries, the Foucault Pendulum, drawing skulls on the gigantic chalkboard, movies in the Giant-Screen Theater, and more.

I’ve had a chance to go behind the scenes at theNAT to take a peek at some of the over 8 million specimens in their collection used to monitor change in our region. Findings by scientists drive exhibit content and motivate guests to live with environmental conservation in mind.

Also, do take a peek at special exhibits and events like camps and hikes, and get involved via the Citizen Scientist projects. If you can’t visit in person, use their at-home learning.

And, if you’re looking for a unique kids’ birthday gift, be sure to check out the gift shop full of DIY projects, books, puzzles, housewares, and STEM fun. You can also grab a coffee or sandwich at the Flying Squirrel Cafe.

See also: Local Kids’ Guide to the San Diego Natural History Museum

3. Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Location: La Jolla

Kids look into the giant tank at Birch Aquarium

I always get so excited when people choose San Diego as a vacation destination because their kids are interested in oceanography. The first place I send them is to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, and I encourage residents also to take advantage of their programming.

Here, research discoveries by Scripps Oceanography scientists are showcased across 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates, (usually) hands-on exhibits, outdoor tide pools with panoramic views over La Jolla Shores Beach, and more fun.

Speaking of the outdoor tide pools, there is a new animal touch experience where guests can gently touch juvenile Swell Sharks, Horn Sharks, Round Rays, endangered Pink Abalone, sea stars, and more.

Be sure also to check their naturalist-led offsite programming schedule including tide pool tours, whale watching, snorkeling with La Jolla leopard sharks, and more.

You’ll also be able to see the new Little Blue Penguins exhibit — the world’s smallest penguins are too cute!

See also: Guide to the Birch Aquarium

4. Fleet Science Center

Location: Balboa Park

Best San Diego museums: A boy spins an interactive wheel at the Fleet Science Center.

The Fleet Science Center makes science fun for all ages through over 100 interactive exhibits and movies shown in the IMAX dome theater. So Watt explores the different ways we generate electricity here in San Diego. Kid City allows kids under 5 to explore texture, movement, and shapes in a fun play space with a ball wall, fire station, and more. There is even an infant play area. Temporary exhibits have included everything from Grossology to Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition.

Adults aren’t excluded from the fun, especially regarding the Fleet’s special events. Fleet Night of Science is just for the 21 and older crowd to geek out at this fun San Diego museum with a cocktail in hand. (These exhibits are fun no matter what your age is.)

Tip: This top San Diego Museum is just across from theNAT and one end of the pedestrianized El Prado street. Start here and walk past several other fantastic museums like the Mingei International Museum, San Diego History Center, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and others.

See also: Guide to the Birch Aquarium

5. Museum of Photographic Arts

Location: Balboa Park

Best San Diego Museums: A man looks at a photo at the Museum of Photographic Arts.

Have an interest in photography? Stop into the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), one of the only independent institutions in the country dedicated to photography, film, and video.

The museum showcases the history of photography through its collection of over 9000 historical images. You’ll also view images from some contemporary artists. The Joan & Irwin Jacobs Theater hosts film festivals, movie premieres, documentaries, and other fun events. Another must-see is the Edmunds L. & Nancy K. Dubois Library, a unique collection of over 20,000 books and resources for visitors to browse through and use.

The museum operates on a pay-what-you-wish admissions philosophy. You can also browse unique photography books and camera equipment in their gift shop.

6. Museum of Us

Location: Balboa Park

Best San Diego museums: Museum of Man dome and California Tower on a sunny day.

The Museum of Us is an anthropology museum dedicated to studying the role of humans in the world. It’s housed in four original buildings from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Today, highlights include Beerology, an exhibit covering over 10,000 years of beer history. San Diego is a craft beer mecca, after all. Kids head straight to the hands-on exhibits in Adventure Kids in Egypt while stopping to take a peek at the real mummies in residence. The Museum of Man is also one of the best places to learn about the Kumeyaay, the Native American people of San Diego and surrounding areas.

Climb up a staircase (that was hidden from the public for decades) to the top of the California Tower for 360-degree panoramic views of San Diego. A tour guide relays the history of the tower and other fun facts. You can climb the tower in groups of six.

7. The New Children’s Museum

Location: Downtown San Diego

Best San Diego Museums: A girl plays in an exhibit at The New Children's Museum.

The New Children’s Museum believes that children learn the skills they need to become future leaders through art and creative play. Highlights include the Sketch Aquarium, where kids draw fish on paper that comes to life on a giant screen; the mattress room encourages kids to jump on the bed; and the wonder sound labyrinth or rooms, nooks, and ropes to explore.

This San Diego museum is conveniently within walking distance of popular downtown San Diego hotels and is also one of the best things to do in San Diego with kids.

8. San Diego Museum of Art

Location: Balboa Park

Best San Diego Museums: Two women admire paintings at the San Diego Museum of Art.

Our most prestigious fine art museum is the San Diego Museum of Art. The collection specializes in Spanish art featuring Murillo, Zurbarán, Cotán, Ribera, and El Greco.

Other highlights include works by Goya, Rubens, Matisse, Renoir, and van Dyck. Pieces date from 5000 BC to 2012 AD. All exhibition text is in both English and Spanish. The museum is currently closed on Wednesdays.

Take advantage of the free docent tours. The counter-order Panama 66, adjacent to and operated by SDMA, is my favorite Balboa Park restaurant. Go for craft beer, cocktails, salads, and sandwiches. Let the kids explore the May S. Marcy Sculpture Court and Garden while you rest.

See also: Guide to San Diego Museum of Art

9. Maritime Museum of San Diego

Location: Downtown San Diego

The Star of India Ship in the water at the Maritime Museum of San Diego.

See the largest preserved collection of historic ships in the United States at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Of the various ships, steam-powered boats, and submarines, museum highlights include the Star of India, an 1863 iron bark, a historically-accurate replica of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s, San Salvador. Guests can even take a ride on board some of the museum’s ships. Tours include whale watching.

In addition to touring the ships, permanent and temporary exhibits convey important milestones in maritime history ranging from Swift Boats at War in Vietnam to Charting the Sea.

See the Maritime Museum of San Diego and USS Midway Museum on the same day, as they’re only a short walk from each other. Get discounted tickets.

See also: Guide to the Maritime Museum of San Diego

10. San Diego Air & Space Museum

Location: Balboa Park

The Spirit of St. Louis replica plane at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

Go to the San Diego Air & Space Museum to view various original and replica historic aircraft and spacecraft, including a Spirit of St. Louis replica (it can fly) and the original Apollo 9 Command Module. Step into a Max Flight simulator for a full-motion multi-role aircraft ride or watch a movie in the 3D/4D Zable Theater.

The artifact collection walks visitors through the history of flight and includes artifacts from Charles Lindberg, the Wright Brothers, and other flight pioneers. San Diego Air & Space Museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

See also: Guide to San Diego Air & Space Museum

Tips for Visiting Our Best Museums

Be sure to arrive with a charged phone. Cashless payments and reliance on museum apps for navigation will mean you’ll use them more than usual.

The Balboa Park museums can easily be seen on the same day. You’ll want to avoid paying admission each time with either a Go San Diego sightseeing pass (use promo code GOSDO5LJM for 5% off) or a Balboa Park Explorer Pass (recommended for residents) — two of my favorite San Diego discounts.

Those who live in San Diego County can also take advantage of Residents Free Tuesdays, where residents receive free admission to a rotating set of museums upon presentation of a valid ID. The Timken Museum of Art is always free.

The San Diego Zoo is also located in Balboa Park. You can visit both on the same day, but it would be long. I suggest, if time permits, that you break visits into two days. Read my advice on how to buy San Diego Zoo discount tickets.

Many of these museums are on my list of best children’s museums in San Diego (but there are others your kids may be interested in on that list).

Some museums in San Diego participate in Kids Free San Diego, an October promotion where kids receive free entry with paid adults. Alternatively, February is Museum Month, where, with a free pass, you can enter participating museums for half-price.

FAQs About Museums in San Diego

What are the best art museums in San Diego?

The San Diego Museum of Art is San Diego’s go-to spot for art. The prestigious museum is famed for its Spanish art and hosts some of the best Asian art collections in the country.

Other top art museums include the Museum of Photographic Arts and the Mingei International Museum. For local art, make sure to check out La Bodega Gallery.

You must also see the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, and its downtown branch for really cool installations from the 1950s onward.

What are the best museums for ancient history in San Diego?

The San Diego Natural History Museum is the best San Diego spot to learn about natural history in California. One of the oldest scientific institutions on the West Coast, one of the main highlights of the museum is the Fossil Mysteries interactive exhibit that focuses on the prehistory of Southern California.

The San Diego Museum of Us focuses on the pre-Columbia history of the Americas, while the Maritime Museum of San Diego boasts the largest collection of historic ships in America. 

What museums in San Diego are free?

The Timken Museum of Art offers free general admission every day it is open. While most museums in San Diego do not offer free general admission daily, several museums offer free admission days every month on a rotating basis.

For San Diego residents and active military members, the San Diego Air & Space Museum is free on the second Tuesday of every month, and the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Us are both currently free on the third Tuesday of every month (the schedule varies, please check it before you go).

Similar resident deals exist for other San Diego museums, so make sure to check these out before booking your museum tickets.

See also: Top Things to Do in Balboa Park

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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