One of the best things to do in San Diego for kids is to visit the Maritime Museum of San Diego for its large collection of historic vessels (originals and replicas). Adults will find climbing aboard these docked ships and submarines and learning about the roles they played in history from docents equally cool.

The good news is that this San Diego museum is located on the Embarcadero in downtown, just a few minutes’ walk from Little Italy and the USS Midway Museum making it easy to see all plus Seaport Village in one pleasant day spent enjoying our year-round sunshine.

While there is quite a bit to see, these are our favorite activities.

1. Climb Into a Real Soviet-Era Submarine

Our favorite part of visiting the Maritime Museum of San Diego is climbing into the B-39 Soviet submarine which was in active duty for over 20 years, commissioned during the 1970s, and stalker of many U.S. warships.

You’ll shimmy inside to see the torpedo room (nuclear warheads use to live here), sleeping quarters, engine room, and more.

The missile room inside B39 with a warhead inside.

It’s impressive to see how Soviet Navy sailors lived in such narrow quarters.

Exterior view of the above water portion of the B39 submarine at Maritime Museum of San Diego We love touring this Cold War submarine.

Tip: The space is small so not for those who are claustrophobic. You will need to be physically able to climb through a small test hole outside of the submarine to be sure that you can make it inside. It might be tough for unsteady walkers as you will walk over uneven surfaces and climb and down small ladders inside the sub.

But the cool factor of this experience is part of the reason why it’s on my list of best museums in San Diego for kids.

You can also explore the USS Dolphin at Maritime Museum of San Diego, known as the world’s deepest-diving submarine.

2. See the Official Tall Ship of the State of Californian (Replica)

The Californian set sail for the first time in celebration of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The replica ship is modeled after 1847 Revenue Cutter C.W. Lawrence which patrolled the coast during the Gold Rush.

She’s built for speed and has hosted living history overnight adventures for students, sailing enthusiasts, and history buffs on a variety of excursions up the coast of California and even to Hawaii.

In 2003, the California was declared by the Governor as the Official Tall Ship of the State of California.

You can join a Sunday 4-hour sailing where passengers are invited to participate in the ship’s sailing. The day ends with a cannon salute.

3. Admire the Ship that Discovered California (Replica)

The San Salvador is a replica ship of the one Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed on when he discovered San Diego.

Like the other Maritime Museum of San Diego ships, it’s neat to see the parlors and rooms inside that are certainly a step back in time.

Tip: If you’re in San Diego to learn about California history, it’s easy to pair a visit to this San Diego museum with exploring Cabrillo National Monument and Old Town San Diego in the same (full) day.

A chart displaying Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's timeline of historic events.

While it’s usually docked at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, you can join a 4-hour sailing tour on San Salvador as well that departs on Saturdays.

4. Climb Aboard the World’s Longest Active Sailing Ship

Star of India with its big white sails ship docked on the San Diego Embarcadero on a sunny day.

Star of India is the most prominent ship that you can see from some downtown San Diego hotels and as you walk or drive along the Embarcadero.

She set sail just five days before Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and is the world’s oldest active sailing ship. The iron ship’s career involved sailing from Great Britain to India and New Zealand 21 times.

During our most recent visit a docent who actually sailed on Star of India captured the attention of many guests onboard with his colorful stories.

5. Book San Diego Bay Cruises on Pilot

Join a public 45-minute San Diego Bay cruise on Pilot, the ship responsible for guiding commercial ships into the bay between 1914 – 1996.

This historic cruise is great activity for those who would like to sightsee from the bay (you may see some sea lions and other marine life) but have limited time. There are multiple daily departures.

6. Take a PCF 816 Swift Boat Bay Cruise

These boats are called PCFs (Patrol Craft Fasts) by the U.S. Navy but sailors refer to them as Swift Boats. They were used in the Vietnam War.

Two V12 diesel engines deliver 980 horsepower as you roar through the San Diego Bay on a 75-minute PCF 816 Swift Boat cruises. You’ll listen to retired Swift Boat Sailors and docents talk about what it was like to be a crewman in Vietnam while also addressing San Diego military history.

7. Tie a Knot

Barrels with signs that have directions for how to tie sailors knots that guests of Maritime Museum of San Diego can try to tie themselves.

This activity can be a bit more challenging than it looks but it’s one that both kids and adults love to tackle. Try your hand at tying various sailors’ knots. It’s fun.

A staff member carries a rope through the exhibition gallery inside Steam Boat Berkeley at Maritime Museum of San Diego.

After touring the Maritime Museum of San Diego ships, spend some time walking through the permanent and visiting exhibition gallery on the Steam Ferry Berkeley.

Berkeley hails from the San Francisco Bay where she operated for 60 years. She played an important role in rescuing victims of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake/fire.

The sizable ship is home to the museum’s offices, a major maritime research library, the museum store, event space for 800, museum exhibits, and more.

9. Reserve Guided Tours

If you have a group of 10 or more people, book a guided tour. These can be self-guided, docent led (recommend) or youth group tours.

10. Plan Special Events

At the Maritime Museum of San Diego these events include the likes of a channeling your inner pirate during a themed Boarded! sailing, aboard one of the tall ships, New Year’s Eve parties, and much more.

One of my missions is to remind San Diego residents and visitors to check local museum special events to take advantage of one-of-a-kind programming.

Maritime Museum of San Diego Tickets

  • You can save on tickets, tours, and hotels through my affiliations. If you make purchases through the links in this post, I may be compensated.

Check two places for saving money on Maritime Museum of San Diego tickets:

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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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