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

The ten best San Diego museums on this list are among the most visited by residents and tourists. Most have reopened but those that haven’t remain on this list for those who are planning future vacations.

Now, you can expect enhanced health and safety measures when you visit including masks required for ages 2 and up, reduced capacity, distancing markers, temperature screenings, timed reservations, and cashless transactions. You’ll also need to check opening hours before you go.

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Save up to 55% with the Go San Diego sightseeing pass which includes most of the museums on this list. Balboa Park Explorer passes are also available now.

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1. USS Midway Museum

Location: Downtown San Diego

Status: Open. 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. If you are not a member, you will usually need a timed ticket.

Special Promotion: Two kids ages 6-12 GO FREE with each paid adult between now and December 15, 2020. Get your qualifying ticket (these tickets do not require a reservation).

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. Right now, you can take the Hangar Deck and Flight Deck tour routes.

Docents wearing yellow hats, 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.

During normal times, 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. (Both of these activities are currently closed.) Some food and drinks are available for purchase.

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

See also: Tips for Visiting the USS Midway Museum


2. San Diego Natural History Museum

Location: Balboa Park

Status: Closed. theNAT is taking some time for enhancements and expects to open in January 2021. In the meantime, you can still take advantage of their at-home learning.

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


3. Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Location: La Jolla

Status: Open. Timed reservations are required for all guests. Go San Diego card holders can make reservations by contacting Visitor Services at 858-534-FISH. High touch exhibits are closed EXCEPT for a new touch experience in Tide Pool Plaza (details below).

A family wearing masks enjoys a fish tank at Birch Aquarium.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography | aquarium.ucsd.edu

I always get so excited when people choose San Diego as a vacation destinations because their kids have an interest in oceanography. The first place I send them is to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, and I encourage residents to also 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 and Round Rays, endangered Pink Abalone, sea stars and more.

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

Make sure to know how to use the QR code reader on your phone. In place of hands-on exhibits, there are new ways to explore exhibits that you’ll discover after reading the associated QR code. Also, they are working on a fun Halloween outdoor experience. Stay tuned for more details.

See also: Guide to the Birch Aquarium


4. Fleet Science Center

Location: Balboa Park

Status: Closed. Use their online resources to build cool stuff and perform experiments at home.

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.


5. Museum of Photographic Arts

Location: Balboa Park

Status: Closed. Check out their online photo club.

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.


6. Museum of Us

Location: Balboa Park

Status: Open from September 16 on Wednesday – Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Masks are required for all guests (no age restrictions provided but county order is for ages 2 and up).

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, 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. Right now, you can climb the tower in a small private group.


7. The New Children’s Museum

Location: Downtown San Diego

Status: Closed. They are working on their reopening plan and do not have a date yet.

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 and is also one of the best things to do in San Diego with kids.


8. San Diego Museum of Art

Location: Balboa Park

Status: Open daily. Use their app to navigate as no paper maps will be distributed.

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, my favorite Balboa Park restaurant. They’re open for grab-and-go and limited dine-in.


9. Maritime Museum of San Diego

Location: Downtown San Diego

Status: Open. You’ll tour on a one-way path that covers certain vessels (the submarines are temporarily excluded) beginning at the Berkeley and ending at the Star of India.

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.


10. San Diego Air and Space Museum

Location: Balboa Park

Status: Open. Simulators and interactive area are closed.

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.

When museums were given the green light to reopen, they were among the first. The museum is already uniquely set up for properly distancing due to its layout. So, go and have fun!


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 that you’ll be using it 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 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. 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.

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 2021. 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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