San Diego isn’t just about great beaches and endless outdoor opportunities. It’s also home to fine art treasures from around the world, ready for you to discover at The San Diego Museum of Art.
Located in Balboa Park, the city’s cultural heart, this two-story museum presents art exhibitions and collections that showcase everything from contemporary art to ancient objects dating back to 3,000 BC.
Spacious and airy, the museum invites introspection. It’s a manageable size, neither too big to feel overwhelming nor too small to finish in twenty minutes. Give yourself one and a half to two hours to browse the galleries and the gift shop. And then add some extra time for a meal or drink at my favorite Balboa Park restaurant, Panama 66, which is onsite.
Here are some of the highlights of visiting the museum:
- Extensive collections: The museum’s permanent and rotating exhibits span every continent and significant art movement, providing you with an all-encompassing glimpse of different art styles throughout the eras.
- Emphasis on Spanish works: These include familiar names like Murillo, Zurbarán, Cotán, Ribera, and El Greco.
- Asian art: You’ll find everything from 13th-century Middle East decorative bowls to 17th-century Japanese wooden sculptures, as well as paintings, photos, and decorative art pieces from regions throughout Asia.
- Rotating exhibits: Temporary exhibits frequently showcase works by masters like Monet, Matisse, Cezanne, and other artists.
- Beautiful architecture: The building itself is a work of art. In addition to perusing the art pieces housed in the museum, take a moment to appreciate the building’s impressive architecture indoors and outdoors.
- Outdoor sculpture garden: Let the kids run around the grassy area, which is also home to some 20th-century sculptures. Plus, adjacent to the garden is the fabulous Panama 66 restaurant (more on this below).
Know Before You Go
Tickets & Hours
If you’re looking for an affordable way to keep the whole family engaged indoors, The San Diego Museum of Art is a great choice — admission is free for kids ages 17 and under.
The museum is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. It’s closed on Wednesdays.
- Adults: $20
- Students (with ID): $8
- Military: $10
- Seniors (ages 65+): $15
- Ages 17 and under: FREE
Two Sightseeing Pass Choices
Bundle admission to SDMA with other attractions across San Diego or just in Balboa Park.
Go San Diego Pass
Both the All-Inclusive and Explorer sightseeing passes include SDMA in Balboa Park and over 50 other San Diego attractions.
Use promo code LJM10SD0 for 10% off through December 31, 2022.
Balboa Park Explorer Pass
This pass includes 16 participating Balboa Park Museums.
Choose one of three pass options: a Parkwide Pass good for seven consecutive days, an Annual Pass (best for residents), or a Limited Pass that includes any four participating venues good for one day.
Café & Restaurants
No food or drinks are allowed in the gallery spaces. However, the museum has the Panama 66 restaurant in the May S. Marcy Sculpture Court and Garden. This is one of our favorite places to eat in Balboa Park.
Menu offerings include locally sourced casual fare and a wide selection of craft cocktails, wine, and local beer. The menu is seasonal but features the likes of steak frites, wagyu burgers, banh mi sandwiches, kale caesar salads, and lots of options for kids, like mac and cheese and turkey sandwiches.
Go on the early side, as it does get busy. It’s counter service, but you’ll enjoy your break at one of the outdoor tables that are both kid- and pet-friendly. And be sure to check out their live music calendar.
The Museum Store sells one-of-a-kind art-centric gifts and books about your favorite artists and art movements.
You’ll find apparel, jewelry, prints, games, and specialty items. Store hours are the same as the museum’s hours.
You can leave your car at Balboa Park’s free parking lots, walk to the museum or take the free tram.
The closest lot is Alcazar Parking Lot. It’s small, so you may have to park further south in the Organ Pavilion lot (the tram stops here).
Docents lead free guided tours through select exhibits that last 40-50 minutes long. You can check the schedule for any happening during your visit and upcoming events.
A Few More Tips for Your Visit
It’s In Plaza De Panama
I would call Plaza de Panama the heart of the Balboa Park museum area. Not only does the Balboa Park tram and Old Town Trolley stop here in the roundabout, but you’re surrounded by other museums, including the Japanese Friendship Garden, Mingei Museum, Timken Museum, and the Museum of Us.
It’s here where many people take Instagram photos, and you’ll find tables to sit at and some food vendors selling water, popcorn, and other snacks.
Check for Family Programming
Families are welcome, and children of all ages are invited to have fun exploring the museum. A parent or legal guardian must accompany kids younger than 14.
While the exhibits may not entertain younger kids at length, you can feel no guilt in bringing them in because they’re free. However, check for days when The San Diego Museum of Art offers Family Workshops.
You can also check their SDMA at Play section on their website, which has tutorials for art projects to do at home for kids as young as Transitional Kindergarten age.
Displays Are Bilingual
Serving as the region’s oldest and largest art museum, The San Diego Museum of Art prints its exhibition text in English and Spanish for greater accessibility. (For kids or teens in your group who are taking Spanish in school, you can add the bilingual component as another educational element of your visit.)
Check For Special events, Like Art Alive in the Spring
The museum hosts seasonal, musical, cultural, and educational programs and events throughout the year, sometimes extending its hours.
These events include Art Alive, Art After Hours, Artist Talk, lectures, jam sessions, art previews, and more. Check the museum’s calendar of events to see what’s happening during your visit.
You can Explore the Museum Online
If you want to learn about specific art pieces inside the museum, view neat collaborations with San Diego Opera and San Diego Ballet, preview special exhibits, and more, visit the museum’s YouTube page.
You’ll get a Zoom link with instructions on how to participate. It’s a great way to expand your art knowledge beyond what you see in the on-premises galleries.
Why We Love The San Diego Museum of Art
The museum’s size is manageable, with plenty to see, and I don’t ever find it too crowded (aside from Art Alive). You can take your time through the different galleries, taking in the majesty of each piece while reading about each art piece and its artist.
This isn’t the largest art museum in the country, but it’s our area’s most visited art museum. It’s also one of the most inclusive, with selections from many different cultures representing almost every period of art history. You’ll see paintings by Goya, woodblock prints by Ukiyo-e, portraits by Cassatt, arts of Iran, German Expressionism pieces, and much more, all under one roof. It’s like traveling the world through art, in a sense.
Suppose you have a favorite artist or you’re researching a particular style. In that case, the museum’s website and social media let you search the galleries to continue your art exploration after you get home.