Top 12 Museums in San Diego

Last Updated on February 19, 2024 by Emily Johnson

San Diego is known for its beautiful beaches, parks, and great weather, but it also has a thriving arts and culture scene. Home to Balboa Park, one of the nation’s largest urban cultural parks, San Diego has an impressive array of museums covering interests from science and technology to art, history, and wildlife conservation.

MuseumFocus
Museum of Photographic ArtsPhotography art
Fleet Science CenterScience and technology
San Diego Natural History MuseumNatural history of Southern California and Baja, Mexico
USS Midway MuseumNaval aviation history
Museum of Contemporary Art San DiegoContemporary art
New Children’s MuseumInteractive art for children
Birch Aquarium at ScrippsMarine life and ocean science
San Diego ZooWildlife and conservation
Maritime Museum of San DiegoMaritime history and vessels
Museum of UsCultural heritage and anthropology
Japanese Friendship GardenJapanese garden and culture
Museum of Making MusicMusical instruments and history

With so many excellent museums to choose from, it can be tough deciding which ones to visit during your San Diego trip. To help narrow down the options, here is a guide to 12 of the top museums in San Diego that should be on your radar.

Museum of Photographic Arts

Name and Location: The Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) is centrally located in San Diego’s Balboa Park at 1649 El Prado.

Collections and Exhibits: Holding more than 7,800+ images in its permanent collection by over 800+ artists such as Ansel Adams, contemporary exhibitions span topics like Frida Kahlo selfies, Mexican street photography and the medium’s most influential moments told through images, lectures and events.

What to Expect: Visitors explore provocative, enlightening photography shows in four rotating galleries alongside a Bloomberg media room, small store and peaceful outdoor Luis garden ruminating on beauty, culture, history and more through the photographic arts.

Visitor Information: Open Monday–Sunday from 10AM–5PM. Closed Wednesdays. Adults $12, seniors, youths $9, active military free.

Located in Balboa Park, the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) is a popular, must-see San Diego museum dedicated to the art of photography. Established in 1983, this is the only museum in southern California devoted to photography as an art form. Its 7,000-square-foot space has six galleries showcasing both international and national permanent and rotating photographic exhibitions spanning historical to contemporary works from renowned photographers.

Some of the museum’s past exhibitions have featured artists like Annie Leibovitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Ansel Adams. While visiting, don’t miss the special photography exhibitions in the main galleries and the wonderful scenic views of Balboa Park from Upper City View Terrace. Be sure to also check the schedule for any lectures, workshops, or other events happening during your visit.

Fleet Science Center

Name and Location: The Fleet Science Center resides at 1875 El Prado in San Diego’s Balboa Park with an IMAX Dome Theater.

Collections and Exhibits: Through immersive, interactive STEM experiences, the center ignites science education among youth bridging community to classrooms with exhibits like the Newton Ball, mind-bending optical illusions, 3D printer demos and other engaging displays making real-world science fun.

What to Expect: Visitors of all ages explore hands-on science experiments, enjoy films in California’s only IMAX Dome Theater and engage their minds through multimedia galleries, discussions or astronomy viewings in the planetarium sparks inspiration, critical thinking and understanding.

Visitor Information: Open daily at set hours. Tickets packages $10-$69. Advance passes include access to special temporary exhibits like Mummies. Details at rhfleet.org.

Recommending museums in San Diego for both children and adults, the renowned Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park provides an interactive, playful learning experience focused on science. Originally opened in 1973, the science center aims to encourage curiosity, innovation, and critical thinking through hundreds of fascinating, hands-on science exhibits and demonstrations.

Some top things to do at the Fleet Science Center include experiencing earthquake and simulator rides, exploring the unique exhibits in the Tinkering Studio, watching an IMAX documentary film, and enjoying awe-inspiring Laser shows at the Eugene Heikoff and Marilyn Jacobs Heikoff Giant Dome Theater. With so much to see and do, you’ll want to spend a good portion of your day immersing yourself in the exciting world of science here.

San Diego Natural History Museum

Name and Location: The San Diego Natural History Museum traces biodiversity, paleontology, sustainability and human cultures at 1788 El Prado in Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama.

Collections and Exhibits: Holding over 7.5 million specimens in entomology, botany, anthropology, herpetology and paleontology, the museum displays dinosaurs like Velociraptor alongside exhibits about SoCal habitats, earthquake preparedness, native peoples, gems/minerals and regional wildlife.

What to Expect: Guests encounter dynamic wildlife dioramas, see marine fossils dating back 450 million years, gaze up at giant whale skeletons suspended inside and explore nature-focused interactive spaces perfect for kids like the Discovery Center/Explorer Kids Museum.

Visitor Information: Open daily 10AM–5PM except Thanksgiving/Christmas. Adults $22, seniors/students/youth $19. Free tours daily. Accessibility services.

Tracing its origins back to 1874, the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park seeks to interpret the natural world of Southern California and Baja, Mexico. This expansive museum complex houses an extraordinary collection of over 7.5 million specimens and objects related to animals, plants, fossils, minerals, and Native American cultures.

Must-see exhibits at the natural history museum include the Fossil Mysteries with massive dinosaur fossils, the Coast to Cactus in Southern California highlighting local flora and fauna, Baja’s desert, and the monumental granite slabs with petroglyphs in the Ancient Baja California Cultures in the Age of Dinosaurs galleries. Be sure to also explore the museum’s botanical garden showcasing over 5,000 types of plants outdoors.

USS Midway Museum

Name and Location: The USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum is docked along Navy Pier at 910 Harbor Drive on downtown San Diego’s Embarcadero.

Collections and Exhibits: As America’s longest serving 20th century aircraft carrier now retired as a floating naval aviation museum, the USS Midway holds 29 restored aircraft and multiple flight simulators amid vast open-air decks displaying bombers, helicopters and fighters while touring 60 exhibits spanning a Navy ship’s inner workings.

What to Expect: Visitors walk miles touring the massive ship to sit in cockpits, meet veterans, view restored sleeping quarters, mess hall, brig and key operational areas to understand onboard sailor life across over five decades of service from Vietnam to Operation Desert Storm.

Visitor Information: Open daily 10AM–5PM, extended summer hours. General admission $24-$34, discounted rates for seniors, students and retired military available. Audio tours included.

One of the most unique and family-friendly museums in San Diego, the USS Midway Museum offers the once-in-a-lifetime chance to tour the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 20th century, the USS Midway. Since opening in 2004, this floating naval aviation museum docked in downtown has allowed visitors to walk the 4-acre flight deck, glimpse the officers’ quarters, and try landing a jet in simulators while envisioning what life at sea was like for over 200,000 Navy sailors who served on the iconic vessel.

Some top highlights of touring the USS Midway include seeing aircraft exhibits with fighter jets, trying the engaging audio tour guide, and watching flight deck action videos in the Battle of Midway theater. Be prepared to spend about 3-4 hours exploring all that this massive, historic ship has to offer your entire family.

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Name and Location: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) operates two locations–the La Jolla location at 700 Prospect St focuses on postwar art dating 1970 onward.

Collections and Exhibits: With 6,000+ modern works from painting to photography to video from emerging and established artists, rotating exhibits emphasize minimalism, pop art and conceptual contemporary art by greats like Christo and Andy Warhol alongside outdoor sculptures gracing scenic coastal cliffs.

What to Expect: Museum goers thoughtfully engage multimedia exhibits often addressing cultural dialogue around peace, social justice through sessions, lectures and events complementing galleries like a reading lounge, museum store and cafe overlooking the Pacific Ocean from its enchanting setting.

Visitor Information: Open Thursdays-Tuesdays 11AM–5PM. Adults $15, discounts for students/educators/military available. Free third Thursdays from 5–7PM. Garage parking.

Regarded as one of the region’s foremost contemporary art museums, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) has locations in downtown’s Jacobs Building and La Jolla showcasing seminal works by both international and regional modern artists. Established in 1941 in Balboa Park, MCASD’s ever-growing permanent collection includes over 5,000 pieces in various mediums like installation, multimedia, painting, prints, photography, and sculptures created after 1950.

Some standout exhibits and pieces to check out at MCASD’s locations include the Border Cantos Sweepstakes print portfolio addressing US-Mexico border relations, the expansive room installations, and any of the rotating special exhibitions held throughout the year highlighting both renowned and emerging artists. You’re bound to be intrigued and inspired by the compelling contemporary art encountered at MCASD during a visit.

New Children’s Museum

Name and Location: The New Children’s Museum occupies a wholly reimagined structure at 200 West Island Avenue along downtown San Diego’s Park Boulevard.

Collections and Exhibits: Featuring over 100,000 square feet of dedicated art space and studios tailored specifically for kids, the museum focuses solely on encouraging play, creativity and learning through innovative environments, installations and programs developed by artists expressly for children ages 0-10.

What to Expect: Interactive spaces challenge children to make art, build structures, engage their bodies and collaborate together through unique installations like an art studio, fort building cloud climbers and color, light and scale manipulation stations nurturing young imagination.

Visitor Information: Open daily 10AM–4PM. Exhibit entry tickets $14, senior/military $11, under age 1 free. Memberships and group rates available. Parking validation, cafe on site.

A top pick among San Diego kids museums, the New Children’s Museum focuses on spurring the creativity and imagination of children through interactive art. Founded in 1983, this playground-like children’s museum in downtown aims to spark wonder and joy through unique hands-on exhibits incorporating sculpture, installations, and multimedia works made specifically for kids aged 0-10 to explore and enjoy.

At the New Children’s Museum, must-try exhibits and spaces include the magical, mirrored Wonder Sound room, the climbable, twistable Giant Red Rabbit sculpture installation, the Messy Messaging craft area for making artsy stamps to print messages, and the Hawaii Potter Project activity allowing kids to collaboratively build clay sculptures. Parents can also sign kids up for any of the special workshops or storytimes happening daily.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Name and Location: Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography resides at 2300 Expedition Way within La Jolla overlooking the Pacific.

Collections and Exhibits: As the public outreach center for renowned UC San Diego and the oceanographers at Scripps Institution, Birch Aquarium features more than 60 lush tanks displaying over 3,000 marine species to showcase research on climate, ecosystems and conservation.

What to Expect: Visitors enjoy breathtaking views of La Jolla Shores while wandering two levels of exhibits revealing iridescent Pacific coral reefs, glowing jellyfish, seahorses and an eel tunnel tank through interactive spaces like tide pools as interpreters answer questions on ecosystem preservation.

Visitor Information: Open daily 9AM–5PM. Adults $24, youths $19. Discounts for seniors, students, military. Memberships include unlimited access among other perks at aquarium.ucsd.edu.

For a family-friendly museum experience highlighting ocean science and marine life conservation, look no further than Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla. Managed by the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego since 1903, this aquarium has over 60 tanks housing more than 3,000 colorful fish and invertebrates from the Pacific Ocean and California coastline representing over 400 unique species.

Top things to see at Birch Aquarium include the Hall of Fishes tropical fish exhibit, the Kelp Forest Display featuring California’s Giant Kelp underwater ecosystem, the Mysteries of the Deep where bioluminescent animals glow in the dark, and the Scripps Research Explorations 20-foot long aquarium home to leopard sharks and stingrays. Don’t miss attending any scheduled dive talks, tidepool feedings, or touch tank activities with the aquatic creatures too.

San Diego Zoo

Name and Location: Opened in 1916, the San Diego Zoo located inside Balboa Park was among the first cageless wildlife habitats anchoring a 100-acre campus at 2920 Zoo Drive housing 700+ endangered species.

Collections and Exhibits: Home to some of the few giant pandas and koalas living in the US, exhibits replicate regions like Northern Frontier, Asian Passage and Lost Forest populated by eagles, lions, elephants, polar bears amid hands-on animal encounters spread across meticulously crafted panoramas with world-renowned care standards.

What to Expect: Visitors admire habitats housing rare wildlife via bus, skyfari and hiking trails while eye-to-eye animal moments happen at petting paddocks with sheep and goats or inside the children’s zoo nursery cuddling ducklings among beautifully cultivated botanical gardens throughout grounds.

Visitor Information: Open daily 9AM–5PM. 1-Day tickets start at $63 adults, $53 children under 12. Guided tour options, membership includes deals. Public transit drops off nearby.

No list of best attractions in San Diego is complete without including the world-famous San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. Home to over 4,000 rare and endangered animals, this 100-acre zoo first opened in 1916 and pioneered cageless exhibits to better mimic animals’ natural habitats. Allow a full day to see all that this incredible zoo offers visitors in terms of wildlife encounters and conservation efforts.

Must-visit exhibits at the San Diego Zoo include the Panda Trek habitat housing the zoo’s beloved giant pandas, the Kangaroo Walkabout area where you can see the marsupials hopping freely, Polar Bear Plunge to view the polar bears swimming, and Elephant Odyssey recreating a California wildlife sanctuary where Asian elephants roam. Don’t forget to ride the express bus giving a 35-minute tour through the massive zoo and see one of the animal shows at Wegeforth Bowl too.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

Name and Location: Along downtown’s waterfront Embarcadero, the Maritime Museum of San Diego offers historic ships, exhibits and educational vessels docked for boarding.

Collections and Exhibits: Artifacts, ship models, carved figureheads and salvaged treasures cover 500 years of maritime history across vessels like the elegant steam ferry Berkeley, HMS Surprise tall ship movie star and Vietnam swift boats with sailing school aboard Pilot offered for aspiring captains touring massive navy ships.

What to Expect: Deck shoes on, visitors climb ladders between decks, touch rivets in the boiler room and admire vintage sleeping quarters aboard creaky boats imagined anew through scenic harbor tours, overnights and festive annual events perfect for all ages to embrace San Diego’s sailing heritage.

Visitor Information: Open daily 9AM-8PM. Ticket prices vary per ship $5-$20, sailing tours extra. Parking downtown, transit accessible. Welcome aboard at sdmaritime.org!

Located on the scenic downtown Embarcadero, the Maritime Museum of San Diego celebrates the region’s maritime history and naval presence through artifacts and historic vessels. Established in 1948, this museum allows you to explore an impressive collection of nine historic ships docked along the harbor like the 1863 Star of India merchant sailing ship, the 1898 ferryboat Berkeley, and the Cold War-era Soviet submarine called the B-39.

In addition to self-guided tours of the ships, visitors can view thousands of precious objects at the museum’s archive and take sailing lessons in the museum’s own replica of Juan Sebastian de Elcano’s 16th century Spanish galleon. Time your visit to also coincide with any of the special tall ship festivals happening annually like the Parade of Sails.

Museum of Us

Name and Location: Museum of Us/Casa de Balboa occupies the House of Hospitality’s northeast corner within Balboa Park’s iconic colonies at Plaza de Panama.

Collections and Exhibits: Rebranded in 2021, the museum celebrates everyday San Diegans using community partnerships, collaborations and crowd-contributed personal stories woven into oral histories and installations about subcultures packed with heartfelt nostalgia visitors relate to across changing themes.

What to Expect: Rotating shows feature vast local crafts, concert memories, Aztec legends, border artifacts and resident recommendations unlocking “only-in-SD” pride by putting regional diversity and collective connections on display via soundbooths, videos and interactive prompts to engage minds and perspectives.

Visitor Information: Free entry to permanent Identity Gallery daily 11AM-4PM. Special exhibits $15 adults. Parking options abound across Balboa Park’s many lots and garages nearby.

Formerly called the San Diego Museum of Man, Museum of Us relocated just last year to a breathtaking new building in Plaza De Panama. Dedicated to telling the story of San Diego’s cultural heritage and diverse communities, this vibrant social history museum transports visitors through different eras using immersive exhibits incorporating artifacts, oral histories, and multimedia.

Standout exhibits at Museum of Us include the vivid and emotive 19th century cemetery scene in Remember Me, the revival of Mexican border culture in Borderless, and the Cathedral Basilica Gallery showcasing unique Catholic artifacts. Visitors can also go on an anthropology-focused scavenger hunt using provided iPads or get creative making Mexican folk art during any scheduled workshops. Don’t miss checking event listings too for dynamic guest speakers, musical performances, and festivals happening here.

Japanese Friendship Garden

Name and Location: The Japanese Friendship Garden overlooks Mission Valley from panoramic renown within Balboa Park at 2215 Pan American Road East near the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

Collections and Exhibits: Built to strengthen relationships between San Diego and its Pacific neighbor Japan while showcasing nature-focused Yin energy design principles, strolling gravel paths reveal ornate drum gates, stone lanterns, koi ponds and a traditional teahouse where ceremony and meditation happen daily amid elegant jasmine and bonsai plantings.

What to Expect: Guests enter a serene portal appreciating this authentic spiritual garden space through harmonious elements and activity like weekend tea ceremonies, weeknight Zen talks plus annual events from ikebana to mochitsuki rice pounding that bring peace while sharing significant aspects of Japanese culture.

Visitor Information: Open Tuesday-Sunday 10AM–4PM. Entry $8 weekdays, $10 weekends. Free third Tuesdays. Tours available, native wildlife and special events at niwa.org.

For a peaceful, scenic break amidst the bustle of San Diego museums, spend some time wandering through the lush Japanese Friendship Garden found in Balboa Park. Built to inspire contemplation and harmony between humans and nature, this 12-acre Asian-style garden complex has walking paths passing a koi pond, bonsai trees, rock garden, ceremonial gate, bamboo grove, buddha statue, and the traditional Tea Pavilion offering matcha tea ceremonies.

In addition to quietly reflecting while meandering through the tranquil garden landscapes dotted with traditional pagodas, lanterns and bridges, you can take part in classes teaching origami, ikebana, Zen meditation, or calligraphy during your visit. The Japanese Friendship Garden also hosts beautifully vibrant events each spring during cherry blossom season and summer for the Tanabata Star Festival.

Museum of Making Music

Name and Location: The Museum of Making Music resides at 5790 Armada Drive in the coastal community of Carlsbad, 35 miles north of downtown San Diego.

Collections and Exhibits: Over 500 vintage instruments and artifacts relay the history and evolution of American instruments celebrating key innovators who shaped contemporary music from rock-and-roll to blues alongside listening stations and a rare Fender guitars memorabilia trove including “the basement” –a hands-on music education space.

What to Expect: Interactive galleries tuned to all ages reveal stories behind wood, brass, percussion and string instruments through displays outlining advancements and creative culture impacts while guests may select songs, isolate tracks or play instruments themselves via listening domes and digital consoles illuminating concepts.

Visitor Information: Open daily except Thanksgiving/Christmas. Times vary. Adults $15 weekdays, $20 weekends, discounts for students/military available. Private tours by request at museumofmakingmusic.org.

If you’re a music lover or hobby musician, don’t pass up the chance to tour Carlsbad’s one-of-a-kind Museum of Making Music tracing the history of making and innovating musical instruments. Using its collection of over 600 instruments, this dynamic museum walks visitors through the evolution of how music has been created all the way from the 1700s to today.

Interactive exhibits let you try your hand playing unusual instruments like a glass armonica or theremin, listen to hundreds of music samples from a jukebox, and watch recordings of musical legends during studio sessions. Visitors can also observe repair technicians working in the Instrument Restoration Workshop, attend any scheduled concerts or workshops, or visit the onsite Taylor Guitars factory. It’s an immersive musical adventure perfect for musically-inclined guests of all ages.

Bonita Museum & Cultural Center

Name and Location: The Bonita Museum & Cultural Center chronicles the region’s history at 4035 Bonita Road in Chula Vista.

Collections and Exhibits: Run by volunteers, the museum grounds and buildings serve as repositories for artifacts and relics from Bonita and greater San Diego rural life including blacksmith demonstrations, a restored 1920s schoolhouse, agricultural displays like vintage tractor barn, military exhibit plus small farming animal interactive petting pens for hands-on living history.

What to Expect: Community groups and visitors step back in time while appreciating how people settled the fertile valley, meet docent-dressed characters from sheriffs to school marms and explore nature trails connecting to Sweetwater River locales that first nourished native Kumeyaay tribes and early homesteaders.

Visitor Information: Free access Wednesday-Saturday 11AM–3PM. Nature trails/gardens open daily for self-guided exploration. Volunteers welcome; more details at bonitamuseum.org.

Lastly, for those looking to learn about San Diego’s history beyond the city, add the Bonita Museum & Cultural Center to your itinerary while visiting Chula Vista in South Bay. Operated entirely by volunteers since 1987, this little-known yet worthwhile museum complex made up of four historic buildings collects and archives thousands of artifacts illuminating what life was like in the former small agricultural town of Bonita in the late 1800s.

Wonder through rooms filled with intricate model trains, sad irons, one-room school desks, vintage sewing machines, historic photos of the Sweetwater Dam construction, and other everyday objects from the past while learning just how people lived and worked during that era. The museum also has a blacksmith shop, welding shop, farmshed and 1920s era house open for exploring to immerse yourself in Bonita’s local history firsthand.

Final Thoughts

With its coastal setting and perpetually sunny weather, visiting museums may not be the very first thing that comes to mind when planning a San Diego vacation. However, as evidenced by these 12 top-notch, enlightening museums, there is truly no shortage of exceptional museum options here well worth taking time to experience during your California trip.

From appreciating avant-garde artworks to discovering dinosaur fossils, touring historic navy vessels to smelling floral gardens, listening to century-old music recordings to petting sharks up close, San Diego museums have something to delight visitors of all interests. So be sure to include a few of these fascinating cultural attractions into your warm-weather itinerary for the most fulfilling and memorable southern California getaway.

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