The San Diego Natural History Museum, otherwise fondly known as The NAT, 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.
The mid-sized museum studies and catalogs the evolution and diversity of Southern California and the Baja California Peninsula. Parts of their enormous specimen collection are scattered throughout the Museum to highlight cool discoveries and inspire visitors to respect nature.
Local kids like my daughter know their way around each of the five floors, and they visit with the same enthusiasm each time. As they get older, I see them understand more about how the exhibits are relevant to where they live.
Things to Know Before Visiting The San Diego Natural History Museum
Before you go, here are some of the things you should know.
Tickets & Hours
The San Diego Natural History Museum is open every day from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (excluding Wednesdays). It is closed on holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Ticket and admission prices are as follows:
- Adults: $22
- Seniors, Students, and Military: $18
- Youth (3-17): $12
- Children (2 and under): Free
For local San Diego residents, museum admission is free on the first Tuesday of each month. Check the calendar.
If you plan to visit more than once, the museum also offers very reasonably-priced memberships that include free admission and also accepts sightseeing passes, including the Balboa Park Explorer Pass and Go City San Diego pass.
Two Sightseeing Pass Choices
Bundle admission to The Nat with other attractions across San Diego or just in Balboa Park.
Go San Diego Pass
Both the All-Inclusive and Explorer sightseeing passes include The Nat in Balboa Park and over 50 other San Diego attractions.
Use promo code LJM10SDO 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 that include 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.
Food & Drink
The San Diego Natural History Museum has the grab-and-go Flying Squirrel Cafe on level one in the atrium. Make sure to stop by for a coffee, salad, sandwich, or snack.
The Backyard play space for kids ages 0–5 is conveniently next to the cafe so parents can have a coffee and keep an eye on the kids.
A few years ago, I put together a segment for NBC San Diego about holiday shopping in Balboa Park because the museum gift shops, like this one, are so neat. You’ll find the Alex and Elizabeth Wise Museum Store in the atrium.
In addition to stuffed animals, the store sells science kits, cool gadgets, and more edutainment. It’s a fantastic place for neat birthday and holiday gifts.
Some clothing, art, and household items (not the toys) are available to shop online.
Parking & Transportation
Parking is available in the San Diego Natural History Museum lot in front of the museum. There are also nearby parking lots located within Balboa Park street parking on Park Blvd.
Parking within Balboa Park is free of charge. The museum can also be easily accessed by bus or the Old Town Trolley.
How Long to Spend Inside The Nat
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.
Not-to-Miss Highlights Around The Nat (As Chosen by Local Kids)
Here’s a little from a very long list of cool stuff to look for inside The Nat. The good news is that it’s possible to see the entire Museum in one 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.
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 The Nat 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. One of the first things you’ll see is the Foucault Pendulum.
But pay close attention. It might look like the pendulum is swinging in a circle. However, it’s you (and the Earth) that’s moving around the pendulum.
This device was designed by Jean Leon Foucault in 1851 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 Meg super sweet looking. It’s like she’s trying to tell us something really amazing.
Like Al, you can’t miss Meg — she is enormous and suspended from the ceiling.
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 The Nat have collected Carcharodon megalodon teeth from this from Miocene sandstones in Oceanside and near Ensenada.
Coast to Cactus
Of the interactive exhibitions, I would say kids spend the most time in 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 our area one of only 36 biodiversity hotspots worldwide?
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 The Nat 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 is 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 at 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 teens now, but they crank the wheel and squeal when the baby dinosaur appears every time.
Visitors take a walk through our region’s prehistoric past in this always-on-view exhibit.
Close to 200 skulls from The Nat’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 chalkboard 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.
Special Exhibits at The San Diego Natural History Museum
Downstairs is where a neat rotation of temporary exhibits is showcased. We’ve seen King Tut, Ultimate Dinosaurs (pictured below), and many more neat displays that keep the museum fresh for members and repeat visitors.
It is worth checking the movie schedule before a visit to plan an itinerary around shows that pique 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 paid admission, Go San Diego, and Balboa Park Explorer passes. If you’re taking advantage of Residents Free Tuesday, they are $5 per person at the admission desk.
We love that the movies are fairly short (25 – 40 minutes) but packed with educational info. Check what’s playing.
Activities on Offer Outside of the Museum
You can explore the Museum’s collections in Balboa Park but don’t forget about activities on offer outside of the museum. Some you can even take advantage of at home.
During gray and blue whale watching seasons, book a tour on City Experiences accompanied by a museum-trained volunteer naturalist to learn more than you would on the average cruise.
Museum Canyoneers lead free guided hikes on various trails around San Diego County to familiarize people with our local landscapes.
This year, they’ll happen between September 2022 and June 2023. You can check the calendar for dates and times.
Community Science Projects (at Home)
If you need help entertaining the kids when school is out or are interested in conservation, please remember to check the Community Science page for ways you can help The Nat catalog current events.
You can submit photos of Monarch butterflies, reptiles, or bumblebees in Southern California or Baja California and upload them to the iNaturalist portal. You can help log king tides or participate in other seasonal projects.
While fun and interesting, these photos are extremely helpful so that scientists can see how wildlife and plant life live in the region.
Why We Love The San Diego Natural History Museum
We love the museum for your next day out in San Diego. But really encourage readers to use their resources for at-home edutainment and not to forget about activities they offer outside of the museum.
I’m in a unique spot where I’ve actually been behind the scenes at The Nat. I’ve seen a portion of their massive research collection of fossils, plants, and other specimens that help track changes in our environment. They also have rare books and historical documents, some of which are displayed throughout the museum.
It’s pretty amazing and gave me a much greater appreciation for the work that they do.
They are so much more than just a museum. Scientists are hard at work in the field collecting data on expeditions and consulting on biological surveys and conservation challenges — to name a few.
The Nat is a small but mighty museum dedicated to documenting and preserving the natural history of Southern California and the Baja California Peninsula.
What is your favorite thing to do at the San Diego Natural History Museum?