When people choose to stay in my seaside community, they often want to break up their itinerary with a cultural experience offered by a museum. We do have a handful of museums in La Jolla. Two are fairly major while the rest are hidden gems I suspect many locals don’t know about or utilize as much as they should. I’ll highlight all of them here because they are on my list of popular activities in La Jolla.

Key Takeaways

  • The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and Birch Aquarium are the most popular La Jolla museums that people drive in specifically to see.
  • The rest are smaller and free to enter.
  • Three offer fantastic free self-guided or guided walking tours you should check out!

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Location: 700 Prospect St, La Jolla, CA 92037
Website: MCASD
Tips: Ages 25 and under are free, thanks to the Qualcomm Foundation. The museum is currently open
Parking: They have a small parking lot and street parking around the museum is 2 hours. BUT, they also have valet parking for $15/car which is a great deal for La Jolla.
Hours: Thursday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; extended hours on third Thursdays

My favorite docent leads our group.

Visit MCASD in La Jolla to see contemporary art from the 1950s to the present day scattered throughout the thoughtfully designed (and recently expanded) galleries. This building is the former home of philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, who is responsible for shaping La Jolla as we know it today. If you have the chance to take a docent-led tour (I have), they will shed light (pardon the pun) on how windows, angles, and other interior features were specifically designed by architects to showcase the art.

Be sure to check the admission page. They do a good job of making art accessible to everyone. EBT/Snap card holders and military personnel receive free tickets. And I already mentioned the free youth and young adult tickets above. There are a couple of free days per month and memberships for supporters to buy.

Tips: We like the sculpture garden and its panoramic view. The docents are awesome if you can take a tour. And there are quite a few family-friendly activities to sign up for, including kids’ summer camps. Check the calendar of events before you go.

Dining: Even people not visiting MCASD go to The Kitchen restaurant for ocean views and an internationally inspired menu, specifically from Southern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. Think sumac chicken flatbreads, kebabs, tuna niscoise, and lamb burgers mixed in with breakfast burritos and cobb salads.

Shopping: From books to housewares to handbags, I like this neat shop for unique gifts and art-related items.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Location: 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, CA 92037
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
Admission: Buy tickets through through Birch Aquarium. This La Jolla museum is also part of San Diego CityPASS and Go City San Diego sightseeing passes.
My Full Review: Insider’s Guide to Birch Aquarium

Kids look into the giant tank at Birch Aquarium

Birch Aquarium is the public outreach center for the famous Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I talk to quite a few families who plan San Diego vacations specifically because their kids are interested in oceanography. Yes, a stop at the aquarium is a must-do in these cases. But if you fall into this category, it might be worth planning your trip around one of their outdoor adventures, like Scripps Pier walks or summer camps that go deeper into the topic while incorporating fun.

Circling back to what you’ll see at Birch Aquarium, more than 60 habitats await you. My favorite animals are the rescued Loggerhead Sea Turtle, the seahorses, and cute and active Little Blue Penguins.

On the back patio, you’ll see some human-made tide pools with sea creatures that you’d see in our La Jolla tide pools, and docents will answer your questions about them.

Tips: Parking is free, but the lot can fill up, so I like to get there when the aquarium opens. You can plan about 1.5-2 hours for your visit. Be sure to turn off your flash if you are going to take photos of the fish.

Shopping: I also love this gift shop for unique kids’ birthday gifts you won’t find in an average toy store.

Dining: Splash Cafe onsite has some counter-order sandwiches and salads. It’s powered by the popular French Gourmet restaurant.

La Jolla Historical Society

Location: 780 Prospect Street, La Jolla, CA 92037
Hours: Wed-Sun 12-4 p.m.
Tickets: Admission is always free
Website: La Jolla Historical Society

The La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) is on the same block (a 2-minute walk) as the Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla, so you can easily visit both on the same day. Its exhibits are housed in the historic Wisteria Cottage. As you might expect, they’re themed around local history, notable residents, architecture, and the cultural evolution of our seaside community. The society also maintains an extensive archive and offers educational programs.

You might have heard of two major events hosted by the La Jolla Historical Society. The first is the Secret Garden Tour of local homes (the exact homes are revealed on the day), which is amazing for garden inspiration. I’ve volunteered at this event, and it’s a really nice way to spend a spring day.

The second is Concours d’Elegance, a well-known classic car show at La Jolla Cove that draws visitors from all over to my seaside community (and their cool cars).

Visitors and residents can take free guided and self-guided themed walking tours at any time. Themes include:

  • Historic La Jolla Churches
  • Coast Walk Tour
  • A Walking Tour of La Jolla Village
  • Historic Beach Cottages of La Jolla
  • Jazz Age La Jolla: Architecture of the 1920s
  • Mid-Century Modern architecture
  • Irving Gill’s San Diego

Athenaeum Music & Arts Library

Location: 1008 Wall Street, La Jolla, CA 92037
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. (closed Sundays, Mondays, and holidays)
Website: Athenaeum Music & Arts Library

This resource is a unique cultural center with art exhibitions, music performances, and a vast collection of books and materials related to music and the arts. I think the best way to take advantage of it is to check The Athanaeum’s event calendar to see when some lectures or events interest you.

You’ll need a library membership to check out books and music and use their curated streaming. Exhibits are free to visit and feature rotating art exhibits by emerging and established artists from our region and beyond.

Katie Dillon writes La Jolla Mom, a luxury travel and lifestyle site covering things to do in San Diego, flying with kids, food and destinations around the world.
Me in front of my favorite mural (it’s been replaced).

Tips: The Athenaeum is responsible for our mural project and hosts walking tours once a month. You can also download a map and take a self-guided tour. Our murals near ground level are very popular for Instagram photos!

It’s also very easy to pop into The Athenaeum between shopping or dining in the Village of La Jolla because it’s located in the heart of everything on lower Girard Avenue and Wall Street.

Mandeville Art Gallery at UC San Diego

Location: Mandeville Center, UC San Diego campus, La Jolla, CA 92093
Website: Mandeville Art Gallery
Tickets: Free

The Mandeville Art Gallery has been on campus since 1966. It showcases contemporary art by emerging and established artists and supports experimental and interdisciplinary art practices. The teaching gallery is supported by the university’s Visual Arts Department and often displays faculty art, too.

You don’t need to be a student to visit! It’s open to the public, so check the opening hours and any special events that might pique your interest.

Tips: Parking on campus can be tricky, so it’s worth knowing where the lots are and downloading the ParkMobile app. This is more of a stop for art enthusiasts looking for hidden gems rather than a destination museum in La Jolla.

Stuart Collection at UC San Diego

Location: All over the UC San Diego campus (see the map)
Website: Stuart Collection

Fallen Star in UC San Diego Stuart Collection
Fallen Star (2012) by Doh Ho Suh Stuart Collection UC San Diego Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann

The Stuart Collection is scattered throughout the University of California San Diego campus. It’s a mix of sculptures (some you may immediately see while others blend into the landscape) and a live testament to the university’s commitment to public art. It’s not really a traditional La Jolla art museum, but it’s a fantastic way to spend a few hours looking at art.

Popular Exhibits:

  • Ocean of Words: 800-foot pathway featuring literature and art.
  • Sun God: Iconic and colorful sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle beloved by students — there’s an annual festival on the lawn where its lived for decades.
  • Fallen Star: You can go inside the little blue house on the edge of the Jacobs Hall Engineering Building! Make reservations online.
  • Bear: It’s a giant bear made of boulders found locally that’s 23′ high and kids love it.

For First-Time Visitors:

  • The collection is accessible to all, whether you’re a UC San Diego student or not.
  • The art pieces are intermingled with everyday campus life.
  • Remember to wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll be doing a fair bit of walking.
  • My daughter used to like exploring the Stuart Collection as a scavenger hunt of sorts.

What’s your favorite La Jolla museum?

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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