Best Museums in San Diego

Learn and Go Hands-On at San Diego's 10 Best Museums

Museums in San Diego take great pride in educating the public about our past and how to preserve the future. Over 90 museums are spread across the county with 15 major ones centered in Balboa Park, the nation's largest cultural urban park. 

Narrowing the list down to 10 is, frankly, quite difficult. Kids love the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and The New Children's Museum. However, photographers gravitate toward the Museum of Photographic Arts. We also have the longest-serving aircraft carrier, the USS Midway as a museum. The list of topics and interests addressed by each museum is incredibly diverse.

Keep in mind these tips for enjoying San Diego's museums at a lower cost. During select Tuesdays, those with a valid ID containing a San Diego County address or active military can receive free admission at select Balboa Park museums. Free entry applies to ID holder dependents as well. The Timken Art Museum is always free. Balboa Park offers Explorer passes that allow multiple museum entries at a discounted price for one day, seven days and an entire year. February is museum month where a booklet can be picked up at Macy's that provides half-off admission to museums throughout the county.

Wherever you are in San Diego, there is definitely a museum waiting for you.


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. There's hands-on art and exhibits to hold the attention of toddlers up through teen years. They can climb the Trojan horse, build stuff with blocks or drop into an art class. The 50,000 square foot environmentally-sustainable building has an open yet clean feel. Family memberships are also good deal for repeat visits.

Recommended for Museums because: Simply put: Kids love it. They can run, play, make art and learn while doing it.

Katie's expert tip: The location is convenient to Seaport Village and the Gaslamp for a nice lunch afterward (the museum cafe isn't great).

Read more about The New Children's Museum →

This beautiful museum began in what was once the 1916 Mission-style home of Ellen Browning Scripps, noted San Diego philanthropist. (The Institute of Oceanography and the breathtaking oceanside park are named for Mrs. Scripps.) Expansion to the original building was completed in the mid-1990s. The museum houses an impressive collection of post-1950s contemporary art from famed California artists as well as works by Warhol, Cornell and Stella. Equally impressive are the building's architecture and unparalleled views of the Pacific. The Museum Cafe serves gourmet sandwiches, soups and salads as well as beer and wine. Kids are welcome to view the exhibits and play in the garden in the back--the latter they absolutely love.

Recommended for Museums because: MCASD La Jolla boasts spectacular art and views of the Pacific Ocean. It's family-friendly and easy to navigate.

Katie's expert tip: Have lunch at the cafe and then spend an hour or two here. Check the schedule for kid-friendly events like stroller tours.

Read more about Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla →

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 U.S.: Cabrillo Southwestern (O-Scale), San Diego and Arizona Eastern (HO-Scale), Tehachapi Pass (HO-Scale), and Pacific Desert Lines (N-Scale). Each was recreated to scale by model railroad clubs throughout Southern California. 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.

Recommended for Museums because: It's the world's largest accredited model railroad museum with also reasonably-priced entry at $8 per adult and kids under 5 free.

Katie's expert tip: The detail on the model cities and trains is impressive. Pay close attention to see what you can find from graffiti to little fish in ponds.

Read more about San Diego Model Railroad Museum →

San Diego Museum Of Art

San Diego's most comprehensive collection of art. Italian Renaissance, Dutch, Spanish and baroque pieces are exhibited, as well as contemporary paintings and sculptures. Works by Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Pisarro, van Gogh and Dufy are rotated in display on the ground floor. Shop, sculpture garden and cafe with outdoor seating. Located on the north side of Plaza de Panama. The museum also offers family programs from summer camps to Teen Art Cafe where they can make art centered around works on view. Family drop-in days occur every Sunday where quality time can be spent studying art on view and creating art projects. The museum is located in Balboa Park.

Recommended for Museums because: It's the most visited art museum in the region and where the annual and very popular Art Alive flowerexhibit takes place.

Katie's expert tip: They have a great Culture and Cocktails series where a DJ spins tunes and drinks are enjoyed in the evening at the museum.

Read more about San Diego Museum Of Art →

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. You may also now make a reservation to climb the museum's California Tower for panoramic views of the park. The museum hosts summer camp and is also a venue for private events.

Recommended for Museums because: If you have a mummy enthusiast or an interest in early California, this is where you come.

Katie's expert tip: Kids will love dressing up like pharoahs and more in the Children's Discovery Center.

Read more about Museum of Man →

Mingei is a Japanese word meaning "arts of all people". This museum presents exhibits of folk art from around the world, including Indonesia and New Guinea (multicolored masks, dolls, fertility symbols and shadow puppets) and Japan (decorative bottles, bowls and jars). Children will delight in the displays of international toys and antique carousels. Don't forget to visit the Collectors' Gallery/Museum Store for a wide selection of modern and antique arts and crafts. Climbing and touching the alligator outside is encouraged. The 3rd Sunday of each month is Family Day where it costs $5 to admit the entire family along. Located at the corner of El Prado and the Plaza de Panama, southwest of the fountain.

Recommended for Museums because: It's one of the most highly-rated museums in Balboa Park for it's ease of navigation and colorful folk art.

Katie's expert tip: The gift shop is full of interesting jewelry, housewares, books and other items that make great gifts.

Read more about Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art →

The USS Midway aircraft carrier, which served from 1945-1992, offers a fascinating glimpse into life aboard a giant ship. Self-guided audio tours are included with admission and are narrated by former Midway sailors. 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 as well as a cafe and a gift shop onboard. Ample parking is available in a paid lot right next to the ship, but still arrive early to avoid disappointment.

Recommended for Museums because: One of America's longest serving aircraft carriers is now a maritime museum. All ages love learning about how sailors lived at sea.

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 →

Museum of Photographic Arts

This world-class museum features extensive collections of still photographs, videos and films. The history of the medium is illustrated, from the earliest Daguerreotypes and albumen prints to modern laser holograms. A variety of artists are represented, including Alfred Stieglitz, Ben Shahn, Alberto Korda, Ansel Adams and Margaret Bourke-White. A 226-seat theater offers regular film showings, including an annual program of cult favorites. The emphasis is on photojournalism, social documentary photography and mid-twentieth century Soviet-Russian photography. For film showtimes, call 619-238-7559, dial "F" for film. Also check out POP Thursdays which blends music, cocktails, and photography for a fun evening. Artists may even submit their own work for consideration.

Recommended for Museums because: The over 7000 photographs represent the entire history of photography. It's one of the only institutions in the country dedicated to photographs, videos and film.

Katie's expert tip: This is a special place regardless of whether you're a novice or professional photographer.

Read more about Museum of Photographic Arts →

The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is home to five galleries with interactive exhibits. The motion simulator ride is a favorite as is About Face, in which you capture your image on freeze-frame video. The museum also includes a planetarium and dome IMAX theater. "Please touch" is their motto and they offer over 100 hands-on exhibits to prove it. Kid City is for kids 5 and under, while all ages can channel their inner inventor at the Tinkering Studio. This science museum is a must-do for families with children and is located at the far eastern end of El Prado, on Plaza de Balboa.

Recommended for Museums because: It's home to the world's first IMAX dome theater and where learning about science equals hands-on fun.

Katie's expert tip: Arrive at opening to park in the lot behind the Fleet. Also, the store has unique gifts for science lovers.

Read more about Reuben H. Fleet Science Center →

This popular museum isn't huge but the award-winning design team knows how to maximize space. Find fossils, dinosaur exhibits, California geology (with emphasis on San Diego) and geography explored in-depth. A massive Foucault pendulum hangs suspended in the lobby, demonstrating the earth's rotation. And, a new giant-screen Dolby digital 3D theater shows films with a focus on the natural world. 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. Pay attention to the family-friendly temporary exhibits, like the recent one dedicated to King Tut.

Recommended for Museums because: Dinosaur bones, bugs, skulls, hands-on fun and top-notch temporary exhibits keep families returning to this favorite.

Katie's expert tip: Don't miss the new, interactive Coast to Cactus exhibit showcases the flora and fauna of Southern California.

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