The Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) is a film, art, and photography museum inside San Diego’s beautiful Balboa Park. The museum features stunning and thought-provoking photography exhibits, modern film screenings, and even workshops that allow all ages to enjoy a visual learning experience.
It’s a small but specialized museum with one my my favorite gift shops in the park. You should check their calendar before you go to see if there’s a film or special artist event on the day of your visit. And don’t forget about their robust library available for public use.
Thanks to a “Pay What You Wish” admission structure, tourists and locals can enjoy this museum without worrying about the cost. If you feel inclined, join as a member or leave some cash in the donation box on the way out to support their ongoing efforts.
Here are highlights to look out for when you visit the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.
- Schwartz Permanent Collection Gallery: Browse a selection of pieces from the museum’s permanent collections featuring work from the 19th and 20th centuries. See artwork from Ruth Bernhard, W. Eugene Smith, and Manuel Alvarez Bravo.
- Rotating Exhibits: You may see something new every time you visit, ranging from local artists to world-renowned professionals.
- Sound Wave Booth: A unique feature of the museum is the sound wave booth, where you can take a photo that will be printed as a black and white picture. The booth uses sound waves to capture your image and translate it into a photograph. This exhibit is a fun way to understand sound waves and get a personalized souvenir from the museum.
- Film Screenings: The museum hosts film screenings and special cinema events that vary throughout the year. Check the schedule before you go.
- Tours: You can schedule group or private tours with a photography and film expert.
- Balboa Park: It is an easy stop while exploring other nearby San Diego museums.
Things To Know About the Museum of Photographic Arts San Diego
Before you visit, read the section below with all the need-to-know information.
Tickets and Hours
The Museum of Photographic Arts does not have a general admission fee but a voluntary contribution policy that makes the museum accessible to everyone. Technically, any Bank of America cardholder can get in for free, but everyone is still encouraged to make a voluntary donation to help the museum.
The museum has relatively limited hours. Currently, they are open from Thursday—Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., excluding holidays. On holidays, they typically close early, around 3 p.m., or close for the entire day. You’ll want to check the calendar for opening times before you go.
Nearby Cafe and Restaurants
While there is no restaurant or cafe inside the Museum of Photographic Arts, Balboa Park and the surrounding area offer plenty of options. You can refer to my list of Balboa Park restaurants for even more ideas.
Below is a quick list of some of the best places to eat near the Museum of Photographic Arts San Diego:
- Panama 66, a casual, counter-order restaurant serving American cuisine with beer, is a few minutes walk from the museum and our favorite place to eat near MOPA.
- The Prado restaurant a few doors down offers full-service dining and a lovely patio for soaking up San Diego sunshine.
- Tea Pavillion at the Japanese Friendship Garden will satisfy a craving for soba noodle salad, mochi, and tea (not super authentic but a good option).
The Cool Gift Shop
The gift shop hours are slightly different than the museum, usually opening 30 minutes after the museum. Generally, the gift shop is open every day from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The MOPA gift shop has a variety of products, including apparel, accessories, books, cameras, kids’ items, DVDs, and home goods. Most gifts are related to photography, art, the color wheel, and similar topics.
The gifts range in price from $2.99 to $69.95. Museum members receive a discount on gift shop items, and anyone can order MOPA products online.
Balboa Park has convenient free parking lots near MOPA available to visitors. The easiest lots are along Space Theater Way, where a free tram service transports guests to the main Plaza de Panama area, just a few minutes walk to MOPA.
You can take this tram from your car to the museum and vice versa any day between 8:30 a.m.—6 p.m. Street parking can be found along Park Boulevard.
Top 5 Unique Facts About The Museum of Photographic Arts
Here are five unique facts to know about MOPA.
It’s Free: The museum is technically free. While visitors are strongly encouraged to donate what they can to keep the museum running, you can enter at no charge if you’re on a tight budget. For big families or people looking for an affordable day in Balboa Park, MOPA is the perfect activity.
It Is Kid-Friendly: MOPA is a kid-friendly and inclusive environment, though best suited for elementary school-aged kids and up who like to take photos or appreciated visual art.
The museum features youth programs, including a photo club, photography camps, and youth art workshops. You can even attend juried art shows featuring work from local kids.
The library features books on and about photography and art, while the theater hosts retrospectives, premieres, film festivals, and documentaries.
You Can Use Their Expertise at Home: Expand your talent and mine at home with their online resources.
It Is One Floor: One of the unique aspects of MOPA is that it is a one-floor museum, so you can easily stroll through and see everything.
You Can Become a Member: One inexpensive way for frequent visitors to support MOPA is to become a member.
Why We Love MOPA
MOPA is a popular destination for tourists and locals because it is a special place for the community to learn about films, photos, and art on a donation-only basis.
The museum is easy to stop into for a few minutes, thanks to its simple layout and digestible size, or a few hours in between visits to other Balboa Park San Diego museums.
Plus, we are huge fans of museums that provide more than exhibits. Residents especially should not forget to spend some time in its library browsing a unique collection of books and photographs. Need to research a related project? Library staff can help with that, too.