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Must-Visit Museums In San Diego, California

Picture of Catrina Pang
Catrina Pang
Updated: 31 October 2016
With over 90 museums in San Diego, culture lovers have no shortage of spaces to choose from. We profile the city’s must-visit institutions, from art centers to science exhibitions.

USS Midway Museum

Since June 2004, the USS Midway Museum has preserved the historic USS Midway and the legacy of those who serve, while inspiring and educating future generations. Capture a glimpse of life at sea aboard one of America’s longest-serving aircraft carriers. You’ll enter a floating city at sea and walk in the footsteps of 225,000 Midway sailors who served America and upheld the ideals of strength, freedom, and peace. With over 60 exhibits, a collection of 29 restored aircraft, and a self-guided audio tour narrated by Midway sailors, you can spend an entire day filled with fun at this museum. There are even two flight simulators for aspiring pilots and adventurers to experience launching off the flight deck, engaging the enemy, and returning home safely.

San Diego Natural History Museum

The San Diego Natural History Museum got its start from the San Diego Society of Natural History, the oldest scientific institution in southern California and the third oldest west of the Mississippi. Today, its mission is to interpret the natural world through research, education, and exhibits that promote the understanding of evolution and the diversity of southern California, as well as to inspire a respect for nature and the environment in everyone. Fascinating exhibitions on the unique and biodiverse southern California region and a giant-screen Dolby digital 3D theater that shows films with a focus on the natural world, as well as several traveling exhibitions each year that teach visitors about the natural world as it is today and as it was in the past make the NAT a thriving and dynamic learning environment and exciting experience.

San Diego Museum of Man

As the only anthropology museum in the region, the San Diego Museum of Man is the place to go to learn about people, to reflect on the place of humans in the world, and to build a better community. Originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the museum was designed by the famous architect Bertram Goodhue as a design hybrid – it has Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Rococo details and a unique Spanish-Colonial exterior that hints at Gothic influence with inspiration from Mexican Spanish churches. It has since become a San Diego landmark, and today holds the most outstanding cultural and ethnographic collections as well as renowned biological anthropology collections. The museum showcases five permanent exhibitions including Ancient Egypt; Kumeyaay: Native Californians; Footsteps Through Time: Four Million Years of Human Evolution; Maya: Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth; and Discover Egypt. It also has changing special exhibits that feature artifacts from the museum’s collections and around the world.

San Diego Air & Space Museum

At the San Diego Air & Space Museum, you’ll experience aviation history and learn about the historical and social significance of air and space technology as well as its promise for the future. There, you can walk beneath a model of the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon of 1783, the first manned vehicle in recorded history to break the bonds of gravity and lift humans above the earth. You can also view rare specimens of aircrafts in the World War I Gallery and marvel at the antics of the barnstormers of the 1920s in the Golden Age of Flight Gallery. Mint condition beautifully restored airplanes like the Spitfire Mk. XVI, Navy F6F Hellcat, and A-4 Skyhawk jets help you appreciate the increasingly complex technology represented in the military aircraft of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The museum also houses a display of space age technology that is continually progressing along with mankind’s journey into the stars.

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

With more than 100 interactive science exhibits in eight galleries as well as major traveling exhibitions, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is the best place to go if you want to create colored shadows, touch a tornado, examine the vibration of guitar strings, and get your hands on a variety of intriguing scientific phenomena. Home to the world’s first IMAX Dome Theater, the science center presents the biggest films on the planet, its unique configuration wrapping audiences in images and providing the illusion of being suspended in space. Since its opening in 1973, the Fleet has been one of San Diego’s most-visited museums, thanks to the theater and interactive exhibits as well as the Tinkering Studio, which allows visitors to experiment, invent, and create, and Kid City, which is an exhibition just for kids five and under. The Fleet also holds lectures, classes, workshops, and more.

Museum of Photographic Arts

Exhibiting work from a collection of over 7,000 images as well as new artists, the Museum of Photographic Arts is one of only three museums in the United States that is devoted entirely to the collection and preservation of photography, film, and video. Since it was founded in 1983, the museum’s endeavors consistently address cultural, historical, and social issues through its exhibitions and educational programs. Its exhibits represent the entire history of photography, its aesthetic movements, and technological advancements. The museum’s collection illustrates the complex and varied history of the medium, focusing largely on modern and contemporary work, social documentary photography and photojournalism in particular. In addition, the museum houses a state-of-the-art movie theater that often holds international film festivals.

Mingei International Museum

Founded in 1978 by San Diego State University Professor of Art Martha Longenecker, Mingei International Museum collects, conserves, and exhibits arts of daily use by anonymous craftsmen of ancient times, from traditional cultures of past and present, and by historical and contemporary designers. Longenecker studied the art of pottery-making in Japan, becoming acquainted with and learning from the founders of the Mingei Association of Japan, which inspired her to bring the vision of mingei to America. Mingei means “art of the people,” and was coined by Japanese philosopher Soetsu Yanagi when he discovered the beauty of the Korean Yi dynasty pottery, which was largely taken for granted due to its abundance. Yanagi started collecting lots of Korean and Japanese pots and crafts, writing about them and displaying them in the first mingei museums, so that people could see truth and beauty in these anonymous objects. The Mingei International Museum has shared over 183 exhibitions in its years, covering a diverse range of cultures, themes, and media.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is the only American Alliance of Museums accredited model railroad museum in North America, and with 27,000 square feet of property, it is also one of the largest. Its mission is to preserve the heritage of railroading through a series of miniature representations of California railroads, as well as research and preserve the history of model railroading. The museum also strives to educate the public about the history and aspects of railroading while actively engaging all kinds of people in learning about the art of model railroading and the history of railroads. It is also home to pieces from the original display of the historic miniature replica of the AT&SF railroad system in the Ford Building, built by legendary model railroader Minton Cronkite for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Sitting on a bluff that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, Birch Aquarium at Scripps is the public exploration center for the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. It features over 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates, from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical waters of Mexico. The oceanographic museum also includes five dozen interactive elements and exhibits research discoveries by Scripps scientists on climate, earth, and ocean science. More than 400,000 people visit Birch Aquarium at Scripps every year to enjoy the numerous tanks of fishes and invertebrates, the 70,000-gallon kelp forest, the interactive exhibits, the living hands-on tide pools, and the 13,000-gallon shark reef tank as well as the incredible view of the coastal bluffs.

Museum of Making Music

The National Association of Music Merchants founded the Museum of Making Music in 1998 to showcase and celebrate the music products industry. It was opened to the public in March 2000, and has since provided the community with many opportunities for cultural enrichment while preserving musical heritage through special exhibitions, innovative concerts, and educational programs. Hundreds of vintage instruments, audio and video clips, and a vibrant interactive area are permanent exhibits in the museum. Each gallery features historic milestones and the popular music and instruments of the eras, all organized chronologically, giving visitors a nostalgic glimpse into the music products industry. Twice a year, special exhibitions are displayed, along with music presentations and workshops that showcase renowned international and national musicians as well as local talent.