San Diego, California has a rich history and stunning natural beauty that are both celebrated in its numerous museums. Visiting museums in San Diego is an awesome way to learn about the city and immerse yourself in art, culture, science, and natural history!
As a San Diego local, I put together this list to help you find the best San Diego museums. If you like it, be sure to bookmark my guide to the top things to see in San Diego!
Let’s dive in:
Table of Contents
- 17 Best Museums in San Diego
- Balboa Park
- San Diego Zoo
- San Diego Air and Space Museum
- Museum of Us (formerly Museum of Man)
- Maritime Museum of San Diego
- Museum of Photographic Arts
- Fleet Science Center
- San Diego Natural History Museum
- Whaley House Museum
- San Diego Museum of Art
- USS Midway Museums
- Comic-Con Museum
- California Surf Museum
- Japanese Friendship Garden
- The New Children’s Museum
- The Junípero Serra Museum
- The Barona Cultural Center and Museum
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17 Best Museums in San Diego
One of California’s most iconic cultural institutions offers 1,200 acres of walkable history, culture, stunning architecture, and beautiful gardens.
The 1,200 acres of land that would become Balboa Park was set aside as a park back in 1835 but transformed into its current form in 1910 when it was developed to hold the 1915 Panama-California Exposition to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal.
Today, Balboa Park is a gorgeous sprawling assortment of gardens, meandering pathways, 17 different museums (many of which will be mentioned below), and the famous Zoo. Not to mention that the park is a historical landmark and a work of art in its own right! The intricate Spanish baroque and colonial architecture makes it feel like you’ve been transported to Barcelona.
👉 Pro Tip: The best way to learn about Balboa’s intriguing history is with a tour! Here are some of the best.
San Diego Zoo
Get up close to incredible, rare wildlife while supporting conservation at one of San Diego’s top destinations!
The San Diego Zoo is home to about 660 rare and endangered animal species and more than 700,000 plants. The zoo is regarded as one of the top in the world both in visitor experience and in conservation efforts. The cageless, open-air exhibits, designed to mimic the animals’ natural habitats offer guests a unique and special chance to see exotic animals close up.
👉 Visiting from out of town? Take a look at my article on where to stay in San Diego.
San Diego Air and Space Museum
Learn about humanity’s intriguing relationship to flight and space travel.
The San Diego Air and Space Museum celebrates the history and progress of air and space travel, from man’s first attempts at flight to the advances in technology that have taken man to outer space.
The museum contains a huge collection of restored aircraft and replicas, including fighter planes, gliders, and the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon of 1783, the first manned aircraft. Four flight simulators also allow guests to taste the exhilarating wonder of flight.
Museum of Us (formerly Museum of Man)
Delve into the history and evolution of humankind and culture at one of the most popular museums in San Diego.
The Museum of Us is a museum of anthropology and one of the most popular in Balboa Park! The exhibits highlight pre-colonial history, focusing on the Mesoamerican civilizations in the Southern California region. In addition, the museum is home to one of the most important collections of artifacts from Ancient Egypt in the U.S.
👉 Local Tip: San Diego County residents and active-duty military get free admission to The Museum of Us every third Tuesday of the month!
Maritime Museum of San Diego
Tour historic, one-of-a-kind ships docked in the San Diego Bay at what’s considered one of the city’s best museums.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego is unlike any other museum in San Diego. Located in the San Diego Bay, the museum displays one of the biggest collections of restored and preserved historic ships in the U.S. including steamboats, military ships, a submarine, the Star of India, the world’s oldest operating ship. You can even tour many of the ships on display!
Museum of Photographic Arts
Experience history, nature, and far away places in the world renowned photography museum.
Located in Balboa Park, San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts aims to bring people together to admire, learn about, and be inspired by film and video. Boasting a collection of nearly 9,000 historic and contemporary images, the galleries of images represent the history and evolution of photography.
Be sure to also check out what’s on at MOPA’s Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater, which hosts local film festivals that celebrate the art of visual storytelling.
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Fleet Science Center
One of the top museums in San Diego inspires people of all ages with the wonders of science and technology.
Growing up, the Fleet Science Center, located in Balboa Park, was one of my favorite San Diego museums growing up and I still love it as an adult! It has awesome interactive exhibits and activities that display the wonders of science and technology, as well as educational events and shows that kids and adults alike will love. The littlest family members aren’t left out, as Kid City is specifically geared towards kids 5 and under.
This San Diego museum is also home to the IMAX theater, a 76-foot wraparound movie screen that shows movies, documentaries, and planetarium shows.
San Diego Natural History Museum
Glimpse into the past by way of fossils, historic artifacts, and educational activities at one of the city’s most iconic institutions.
Balboa Park’s San Diego Natural History Museum is a celebration of the natural world and is where my love of nature was born! Visitors to The Nat have the opportunity to learn about and appreciate the biodiversity of Southern California and Baja California through replicas of long-extinct species, fossils, gems, and minerals, and photographs of Southern California’s and Baja’s natural beauty.
Whaley House Museum
If you’re intrigued by life in San Diego during the 1800s, and enjoy a taste of the paranormal, then the Whaley House is for you!
Ghosts, rich history, beautiful architecture – The Whaley House in Old Town San Diego has it all and is considered the most iconic building in the city. Originally constructed as the Whaley family home in 19th century, it then became San Diego’s first commercial theater, the county courthouse, and a general store. Throughout its long history, the house has also collected its fair share of ghosts!
Tour the house and grounds that feature interactive displays to get a glimpse into life in San Diego in the 1800s.
👉 Pro Tip: Book an evening tour of the historic house where a tour guide will go into detail about the house’s haunted history. Or take a guided tour of all of San Diego’s haunted spots.
San Diego Museum of Art
Immerse yourself in the arts at one of the region’s oldest and largest art museums.
Visitors to one of the top art museums in California will have the opportunity to tour multiple galleries that house nationally renowned collections displaying paintings and sculptures by Spanish, Italian, and South Asian masters, as well as 19th and 20th-century American paintings and sculptures.
Be sure to check the website for the current schedule of events, as the museum often hosts special exhibits from around the world as well as cultural and educational programs for children and adults.
USS Midway Museums
An entire museum dedicated to the U.S. navy, all housed within an immense, decommissioned US Navy aircraft carrier.
The USS Midway Museum is a decommissioned US Navy aircraft carrier located at the Navy Pier on San Diego Bay. This alone would make the destination interesting, but what sets it apart (and makes it one of the top things to do in San Diego) is the 10 acres-worth of museum space that holds 30 restored military aircraft.
Getting to tour the immense ship and see the jet planes and helicopters up close is fun and memorable for the whole family!
Thanks to this museum, the excitement of Comic-Con can be experienced all year round.
For the past 50 years, Comic-Con (Comic Convention) has been one of San Diego’s premier annual events. The founders of Comic-Con decided a couple of days of magic each year just wasn’t enough and they opened the Comic-Con Museum.
Now fans can visit the museum throughout the year to celebrate science, technology, art, and storytelling. The museum hosts daytime classes and activities, as well as movie screenings and trivia in the evenings.
👉 Want More Free Travel Tips? Check out all my free San Diego travel guides.
California Surf Museum
Dive into the rich history of surf with a visit to an impressive collection of surfboards and other surf-related artifacts.
Surf is synonymous with San Diego, so much so that the city has a museum dedicated to it! The California Surf Museum in Oceanside, founded in 1986, houses a unique mixture of contemporary surf-related art, surf artifacts, photos, and stories that tell the story of surf.
Japanese Friendship Garden
The stunning beauty of this traditional Japanese garden leaves visitors with a sense of joy and serenity.
The Japanese Friendship Garden is a 12-acre serene botanical Eden nestled in the heart of Balboa Park, opened in 1991 as an expression of friendship between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama. The traditional Japanese garden, which features stone arrangements, koi ponds, and streams, was created as a place to educate, engage, and inspire visitors about Japanese culture and community.
👉 Visit the museum in spring to see the cherry blossom trees in bloom. For more seasonal events in the city, check out this article!
The New Children’s Museum
This museum is designed specifically to inspire children to interact with, appreciate, and make art!
The Children’s museum, originally located in La Jolla, relocated to Downtown San Diego in 2008 and became The New Children’s Museum. The center is made specifically for kids and families and uses contemporary art to inspire imagination, creativity, and critical thinking.
Check the museum’s website to see what awesome activities, shows, and special exhibits are on display.
The Junípero Serra Museum
Enjoy the beautiful grounds of the first European settlement in California and dive into its history in the museum.
The Junípero Serra Museum, managed by the San Diego History Center, is located in beautiful, historic Presidio Park, the site of California’s first European settlement. The museum documents and shares the early history of the settlement and the city of San Diego.
Besides the museum, the park grounds are a fun and beautiful place to enjoy a beautiful San Diego day!
The Barona Cultural Center and Museum
Show your support and appreciation of San Diego’s first inhabitants, the Kumeyaay.
When the Spanish colonization of San Diego in 1769, the region was home to the Kumeyaay people. Barona Cultural Center was founded to preserve the culture and rich history of the Kumeyaay, and is the first museum on a San Diego reservation dedicated to this task.
This is an awesome way to both learn about San Diego’s history, as well as support the Center’s efforts to preserve and share the Kumeyaay culture!
San Diego is a hub of art, culture, history, and science which is best appreciated at one of its incredible museums!
Before you leave, check out this article to see what other awesome activities San Diego has to offer.