Best Family-Friendly Museums in San Diego

10 Best Family-Friendly Museums in San Diego

San Diego is famous for its theme parks, beaches and year-round sunshine but world-class museums also await. Most are located in Balboa Park, the nation's largest urban cultural park which is must-do on any San Diego itinerary. However, wherever you are in the county, a museum is probably not too far away.

Most of our museums are great for families because while densely-packed with awesome exhibits, they aren't huge and are priced accordingly. They are the perfect place to go for a break from afternoon sun or on the rare rainy day.

With fidgety kids, an hour or two at the San Diego Natural History Museum to check out some dinosaur bones or Reuben H. Fleet Science Center for an IMAX movie and some hands-on science fun is plenty of time. Or, if your child is considering music lessons and isn't sure which instrument to choose, the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad has an impressive room of instruments just waiting to be played.

Keep in mind that San Diego museums offer Residents Free Tuesdays where museums offer complimentary entry to those who live here on a rotating basis. While it's a boon for locals, it can mean extra crowds. The schedule is online.


Birch Aquarium

One of the world's most renowned aquariums, this facility dates to 1903 and features 30 tanks filled with a plethora of fish and coral species. One side is dedicated to sea life while the other places emphasis on things we can do to protect the oceans and our environment through plenty of hands-on exhibits for kids. Out in the back is a tide pool area where docents are on hand to supervise touching starfish, anemones and more. Budget about an hour here with young kids in tow. There is a small cafe for snacks at the entry. The aquarium is also available for private events.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: It's a very well-done aquarium and never really that crowded.

Katie's expert tip: The back area with the tide pools has a panoramic view of the ocean that is perfect for photos.

Read more about Birch Aquarium →

The San Diego Air & Space Museum offers a comprehensive overview of the history of flight from early balloon ascents to space travel. Several galleries showcase such aviation topics as the Wright brothers, the Golden Age of flight, World Wars I and II, and the Jet Age. Special sections feature women in flight and an International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Over 50 aircraft hang from the rafters (note that some are re-creations and not the original aircraft). Docents dress in period costumes and are available to enhance your experience with extra details. There's a small restaurant inside and the museum located next door to the Automotive Museum.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: It's widely regarded as one of the best aerospace museums in the nation.

Katie's expert tip: Some believe this museum is more for air travel and war aficionados but kids do love it.

Read more about San Diego Air & Space Museum →

Even folks who don't consider themselves railroad buffs enjoy this museum, but if you were a train enthusiast in your youth or have a kid who is, this museum is a must-see. The 27,000 square-foot space features four railroads of the southwestern US, recreated to scale by model railroad clubs throughout Southern California: Cabrillo Southwestern (O-Scale), San Diego and Arizona Eastern (HO-Scale), Tehachapi Pass (HO-Scale), and Pacific Desert Lines (N-Scale). There's also an interactive toy train gallery with Lionel, Brio and Thomas the Tank Engine layouts. Guests praise the attention to detail on the tracks and in the dioramas as well as the knowledge of the helpful docents. It's conveniently located on the main street in Balboa Park.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: This place is a train enthusiasts dream. It's hard not to appreciate the detail within each exhibit.

Katie's expert tip: Pay close attention to see what you can find from graffiti on the trains to little fish in ponds.

Read more about San Diego Model Railroad Museum →


The aircraft carrier USS Midway, which served from 1945-1992, offers a fascinating glimpse into life aboard a giant ship. Take the self-guided audio tour, then check out some two dozen aircraft on the flight deck and experience the simulator ride. Docents, some of whom served on the ship while it was active, are on board every day to answer questions and can occasionally be persuaded to relate a funny or interesting story or two. There are 29 restored aircraft on the ship as well as more than 60 exhibits and two flight simulators. There's also a cafe and a gift shop onboard.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: This is one of the best places to learn about and appreciate the jobs of the enormous military community in San Diego.

Katie's expert tip: Plan to spend time listening to the audio tour or really take in what the docents are saying. It would be a shame to miss out on so much interesting history by quickly walking through.

Read more about USS Midway →

The San Diego Children's Discovery Museum is a North County attraction dedicated to helping kids explore, imagine, experiment and discover the world around them in 6000 square feet of indoor space and even more outside. Highlights include the outdoor Children's Discovery Garden where plants, worm farms, chicken coops and more teach kids learn about our ecosystem as well as the investigative science stations in the Exhibits Workshop. Look out for the new Water Wise exhibit which exposes kids to the idea of renewable energy and water conservation, issues that hit home to many San Diegans at the moment. Admission is very reasonable at $3 - $6 for non-members.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: This North County museum is dedicated to helping kids discover the world around them through fun hands-on exhibits.

Katie's expert tip: Check the event calendar for educational programming happening during your visit such as daily story time, yoga and more.

Read more about San Diego Children's Discovery Museum →

Balboa Park

Located in the historic California Quadrangle at Balboa Park, this museum focuses primarily on the cultures of the ancient Americas. Permanent exhibit topics include the Maya, the Kumeyaay Indians, and human evolution. Changing special exhibits have featured subjects such as Haitian Voodoo, American Indian rock art, and the art of Abenaki, Hawaiian and Maori cultures. A Children's Discovery Center provides interactive exhibits about ancient Egypt, archaeology and anthropology but there are other hands-on exhibits sprinkled throughout. Visitors may now climb the museum's California Tower for one of the most panoramic views of San Diego (ages 6 and older). An additional ticket is needed for this which can (and should) be reserved online in advance.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: There's well-rounded mix of exhibits parents will like plus fun for the kids with plenty of teaching moments mixed in.

Katie's expert tip: Kids love the area where they can dress up like pharaohs in the Children's Discovery Center.

Read more about Museum of Man →

Museum of Making Music

Not only do you come to the Museum of Making Music to admire exhibits of music themed throughout the decades, but you can try your hand at playing a number of instruments. Each gallery represents 20 years, with vintage instruments as well as audio and video clips of that era's popular music. The final gallery is an interactive music room where visitors put on head phones and try out keyboards, guitars and the like. Changing exhibits look more closely at specific instruments such as the ukulele or at certain genres of music. Regularly-scheduled events include musical story times for children, artist performances and music workshops.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: The instrument room alone is worth the visit because of the sheer variety of things to play.

Katie's expert tip: Ask the docents anything and they'll answer with contagious enthusiasm.

Read more about Museum of Making Music →

The New Children's Museum re-opened in 2008 with a motto of think, play and create, which is exactly what kids do here. What is different about The New Children's Museum is that they specifically commission works of art with tactile features that appeal to kids rather than re-create existing art to suit a younger generation. Hands-on art and exhibits hold the attention of ages ranging from toddlers and teens. The new "Eureka" exhibit explores our state through cars and music and "Feast" explores playing with food! The 50,000 square foot environmentally-sustainable building has an open yet clean feel. Note that the museum is closed on Tuesdays.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: Locals love this museum and its location is convenient for tourists staying downtown.

Katie's expert tip: The location is convenient to Seaport Village and the Gaslamp for a nice lunch afterward.

Read more about The New Children's Museum →

"Please touch" is the motto of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and they offer over 100 hands-on exhibits to prove it. The museum is home to 12 permanent exhibits and many visiting ones but you'll also want to plan time to see a movie in the dome IMAX theater. Highlights include "Kid City", a learning play space for kids 5 and under, the "Block Busters" space full of Kiva planks to build large structures and fun in the "Tinkering Studio". The outstanding gift shop warrants a trip just on its own. It's a must-do for families with children and located at the far eastern end of El Prado, on Plaza de Balboa.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: The Fleet makes learning science a hands-on experience. And, the IMAX movies are awesome.

Katie's expert tip: Get to the big parking lot behind the Fleet just before opening to score a spot for the day.

Read more about Reuben H. Fleet Science Center →

Live snakes, insects, lizards and frogs are featured in some of the exhibits at this museum, which also has extensive fossil and skeletal collections of regional flora and fauna. California geology (with emphasis on San Diego) and geography are explored in-depth especially with the addition of the new "Coast to Cactus" exhibit. A massive Foucault pendulum hangs suspended in the lobby, demonstrating the earth's rotation. Special programs for kids and families are frequently offered, including Sunday visits from Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame. There's a small cafe inside for snacks and drinks and a gift shop full of toys that kids love. Short, educational 3-D movies also show throughout the day.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: Go here to learn more about the area's geology and history in addition to hands-on exhibits.

Katie's expert tip: The family membership is great value for locals.

Read more about San Diego Natural History Museum →


Meet Katie Dillon

Katie Dillon originally moved to the seaside community of La Jolla to attend UC San Diego. When the opportunity presented itself, she and her husband set off for a 7 year stint overseas as...  More About Katie