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10 San Diego Museums That You Need to See

Learn, play, and have fun at our best museums.

San Diego museums cater to artists, archeologists, surfers, kids, photographers, and a variety of interests. The most well-known are located in Balboa Park, the nation’s largest urban cultural park, though others worth seeking out are sprinkled around the county.

The ten best San Diego museums on this list are among the most visited. I can tell you, based on personal experience and memberships, that they are outstanding. Be sure to check hours of operation as they are not all open daily.

Tip: Save up to 55% with the Go San Diego sightseeing pass which includes most of the museums on this list.


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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 no doubt 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. Docents, many who 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, Vietnam War, Korean War, and other wars.

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

Buy Discounted, Straight-to-the-Gate Tickets on aRes Travel

See also: Tips for Visiting the USS Midway Museum

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, hikes, and get involved via the Citizen Scientist projects.

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

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Location: La Jolla

Best San Diego Museums: Visitors listen to a tank talk by a staff member at Birch Aquarium.

If your kids have an interest in oceanography, Birch Aquarium at Scripps is a must-see. Here, research discoveries by Scripps Oceanography scientists are showcased across 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates, hands-on exhibits, an energy-powered play space, outdoor tide pools with panoramic views over La Jolla Shores beach, and more fun.

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

See also: Guide to the Birch Aquarium

Fleet Science Center

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 left out of the fun, especially when it comes to the Fleet’s special events. Fleet Night of Science is just for the 21 and older crowd to geek out at this fun this 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 Mingei International Museum, San Diego History Center, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and others.

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.

Museum of Man

Location: Balboa Park

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

The Museum of Man 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, too. 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 to 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. A timed ticket is necessary for this unique experience. 

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 come to life on a giant screen; the mattress room which 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.

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. While 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. Walking through the May S. Marcy Sculpture Court and Garden and grab a bite to eat at Panama 66.

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.

San Diego Air and 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.

Tips for Visiting our Best Museums

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 or a Balboa Park Explorer Pass (recommended for residents).

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 a long day. I suggest, if time permits, that you break visits into two days.

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).

San Diego Museums Under Renovation

Currently, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla is closed for renovation. The Mingei Museum of folk art in Balboa Park (one of our favorites) is also closed for renovation until late 2020. Both also can be classified as belonging to best museums in San Diego lists and we’ll let you know when they reopen.

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