The San Diego Natural History Museum, otherwise fondly know as theNAT, is one of the best museums for kids in Balboa Park. I can’t count the number of times we’ve been or the number of kids I’ve taken there over the years.
I’ve created this list entirely based on what I see them enjoy over and over again. While these local kids know their way around each floor, they visit with the same enthusiasm each time. As they get older, I see them recognize that many of the exhibits in front of them are relevant to where they live.
This is because the San Diego Natural History Museum studies and catalogs the evolution and diversity of southern California and the Baja peninsula. Parts of their enormous specimen collection are scattered throughout the Museum to highlight cool discoveries and inspire visitors to respect nature.
The good news is that it’s possible to see the entire Museum in a visit. If you’re a first time visitor or have kids in tow, look out for the displays and activities listed below, but keep in mind there is much more to see. While it’s totally reasonable to pop in for an hour, I’d suggest a minimum of 2-3 hours with a movie and a snack break, if your itinerary permits.
Al (or Alice)
The Allosaurus cast skeleton in the lobby is lovingly referred to as “Al” or Alice” by its fans. (We’ve always called it “Al” though I’m not really sure why. For the sake of this article, I’ll stick with it.) Al arrived at theNAT in 1987 as a result of a fundraising campaign where donors could “Buy a Bone” on the skeleton. Each of Al’s 338 bones is numbered so that donors can actually find their bone. The original fossil this cast is modeled off of is from Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry in Emery County, Utah.
Ready to learn some fun Allosaurus facts? They lived during the late Jurassic Period, about 130-150 million years ago which is actually 70 million years before T. Rex! These predators did not live in San Diego but Al is definitely a highlight that the kids always stop to look at.
Enter through the Museum doors opposite the fountain and Fleet Science Center and one of the first things you’ll see is the Foucault Pendulum. This device was designed by Jean Leon Foucault in 1851 in order to demonstrate Earth’s rotation. Many people think it’s a clock. It’s not but it does complete a 24-hour cycle and knocks over wooden pegs as it progresses.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to pull mesmerized kids away from the pendulum because we had to get going. They love it. Tip: You can view the pendulum from the top down from the Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science exhibit upstairs.
“Meg” the Megalodon
I’ve always found her super sweet looking. It’s like she’s trying to tell me something really amazing.
Like Al, you can’t miss her. Rest assured that Meg is enormous. Carcharodon megalodon date back to the Miocene Epoch, somewhere between 25 and 5 million years ago, and scientists think that they could have been up to 50 feet long and weighed up to 50 tons.
And how is this for cool? Scientists from theNAT have collected Carcharodon megalodon teeth from this from Miocene sandstones in Oceanside and near Ensenada.
Coast to Cactus
If there’s an exhibit that kids spend the most time in, I would say it’s Coast to Cactus. Here, various displays showcase the diversity of San Diego’s plant and animal inhabitants. Did you know that our deserts, beaches, mountains, and chaparral make us one of only 35 biodiversity hotspots in the world?
Native or Not?
They totally know the answers but this doesn’t stop them from guessing which animals on each flip board along the pretty blue fence are native to San Diego.
This interactive area is part of Coast to Cactus. We spend so much time here that I felt it deserved its own mention.
It’s not an issue now that the kids can read signage, but another sentence I’ve often spoken inside theNAT is, “Get off the sea cow!” The sea cow model in Fossil Mysteries is super cute and often just a little too tempting. I have no pictures of it probably because I’m used to being on sea cow alert. The kids always stop here to touch or hug it (and, thankfully, not climb on it).
Hydrodamalis cuestae are a type of sea cow that evolved in the late Miocene period, about 5 million years ago. Their remains have been found in California, Baja California, and Japan, including in a construction site of the Otay Ranch planned community in Chula Vista.
Two different areas inside of Fossil Mysteries, the large permanent exhibit that covers the 75-million-year fossil-rich prehistory of southern California and Baja California, have scavenger hunts. Pick up one of the sheets and try to find everything on it. This fun activity causes kids to really look closely at everything in a particular section. They retain a different tidbit of knowledge every single time they do this.
Hands-On Dinosaur Hatching
Sometimes, it’s the simple things that derive tons of joy. During the toddler years, my daughter’s favorite thing do to at the San Diego Natural History Museum was to spin a wheel that cracks open a dinosaur egg in Fossil Mysteries. She and her friends may be 10 years old now but they crank the wheel and squeal when the baby dinosaur appears every time.
Close to 200 skulls from theNAT’s collections are on display upstairs. While the skulls are cool, visitors are also encouraged to draw their best skull on this enormous chalkboard.
The chalk board is erased daily, so that new visitors can have a go, in case you were wondering. I’ve been toward the end of the day when it’s totally filled with art. Very cool. All ages love it.
Downstairs is where a neat rotation of temporary exhibits are showcased. Remember, you have until September 4th to see see Ultimate Dinosaurs. These cool dinos evolved in isolation in the Southern hemisphere and are totally different than their more well-known cousins.
The Flying Squirrel Cafe has expanded and improved its menu. During our last visit, my daughter and her friend shared a perfectly-cooked, juicy California burger with avocado, cheddar cheese, mozzarella cheese and onions on a gourmet bun. It’s delicious. But you can also choose a variety of sandwiches, salads and snacks to grab-and-go. You may also now enjoy beer and wine when dining in the cafe! Even more fun plans are in the works for this space so stay tuned.
It is worth checking the movie schedule before a visit to plan an itinerary around shows that piques your interest. The Subaru 3D Experience is the largest Dolby® 3D theater for a museum in California. The 300 seats are in stadium style for optimal viewing. Tickets to the movies are included with admission and we love that they’re fairly short (25 – 40 minutes) but packed with educational info. Check what’s playing.
Shop for Edutainment
A few years ago I put together a segment for NBC San Diego about holiday shopping in Balboa Park because the museum gift shops are so cool. In addition to stuffed animals, the store sells science kids, cool gadgets and more edutainment. It’s a fantastic place for neat birthday and holiday gifts.
Admission to the San Diego Natural History Museum
Almost daily, readers message me what the best way to buy tickets for San Diego attractions is. Admission to theNAT can be purchased in a myriad of ways.
- Buy tickets upon arrival.
- Buy tickets online, in advance of arrival.
- Become a Museum member ($79/year for a family is a great deal)
- Buy a Balboa Park Explorer Pass for daily or annual admission to multiple Balboa Park museums
- Visit on a Residents Free Tuesday (On Tuesdays, San Diego residents, active military and their dependents receive free admission to a rotating selection of San Diego museums)
- Add the San Diego Natural History Museum to a Go San Diego pass. This is by far the discounted attractions pass that visitors to San Diego purchase the most. You can buy a pass with multiple attractions (good for power sightseeing) or build-your-own pass based on a handful of attractions you’d like to see.
What is your favorite thing to do at the San Diego Natural History Museum?