The Best Museums in San Diego, California

Take in sweeping ocean views in San Diego
Take in sweeping ocean views in San Diego | © Westend61 GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
Catrina Pang

With more than 90 museums in San Diego, culture lovers have no shortage of spaces to explore. Culture Trip profiles the city’s best museums and institutions, from art centers to science exhibitions. San Diego’s museums are a testament to its varied history, from its robust military presence to its arts acumen and wildlife research and preservation. They pay homage to California’s strengths and teach visitors about their local culture. The USS Midway Museum is aboard a historic aircraft carrier where visitors can learn about America’s veterans and the conflicts in which they fought, while the Birch Aquarium at Scripps offers a close-up look at the lively ocean life in the area. Then there’s Balboa Park, the central green space that houses more than 16 museums and is an epicenter of educational opportunity, fun and nature. These must-visit museums run the gamut from history, anthropology and aviation to marine life and everything in between.

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USS Midway Museum

Since June 2004, the USS Midway Museum has preserved the historic USS Midway, the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 20th century. Aboard, you get access to areas not often granted to civilians, including the crew’s sleeping quarters, the engine room, the ship’s jail and the primary flight control room. Midway sailors narrate the self-guided audio tour, and you can learn even more by engaging the volunteer docents, many of whom are military veterans and are among the 225,000 sailors who were active during the ship’s historical span. This museum has more than 30 restored aircraft and helicopters on display and more than 60 exhibit areas, including the Battle of Midway Theater, which tells the story of one of World War II’s most notable naval battles, and a virtual-reality flight simulator ride – a newer addition that augments its existing four flight simulators.

San Diego Natural History Museum

Located in Balboa Park, the San Diego Natural History Museum grew out of the San Diego Society of Natural History, founded in 1874, making it Southern California’s oldest scientific institution and the third oldest west of the Mississippi. Commonly known as the Nat, it houses four floors of exhibition space, a 3D theater and approximately 9 million specimens in its research collection. Permanent displays include a replica of a prehistoric megalodon; the Foucault Pendulum, which provides visual proof of the Earth’s rotation; 200 unique animal skulls from the research collection; and the basement living lab where you can see snakes, bees, lizards, spiders and other creepy-crawlies that advance the museum’s mission of environmental education.

San Diego Museum of Man

As the only anthropology museum in the region, the San Diego Museum of Man offers a diverse program, including cannibalism, beer history and humans’ relationships with animals. Its mission is to inspire connections by helping to understand the human experience better, and it accomplishes this goal through its hundreds of thousands of documented ethnographic objects, archaeological items and photographic images. Constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the museum was designed by the famous architect Bertram Goodhue – it has Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque and Rococo details and a unique Spanish Colonial exterior that hints at a Gothic influence, with inspiration from Spanish churches in Mexico. It has since become a San Diego landmark that showcases five permanent exhibitions on topics from Native Californians to ancient Egypt. It also has revolving special exhibits that feature artefacts from the museum’s collections and around the world.

Fleet Science Center

Featuring eight galleries that hold more than 100 interactive science exhibits, the Fleet Science Center is the best place to go for hands-on learning. It’s also home to the world’s first IMAX Dome Theater, which shows the biggest films on the planet. Since its opening in 1973, the Fleet has been one of San Diego’s most-visited museums, thanks to the theater and interactive exhibits like Kid City (an exhibition just for kids age five and under). The Fleet also holds lectures, classes, workshops and more.

Museum of Photographic Arts

With a collection of more than 7,000 photographs by 850 photographers, including Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Stieglitz and Ruth Bernhard, the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) devotes itself entirely to the collection and preservation of photography, film and video, including its aesthetic movements and technological advancements. In particular, MOPA’s collection features a large selection of mid-20th-century Soviet Russian photography, social documentary photography and photojournalism. Since its foundation in 1983, the museum’s endeavors consistently address cultural, historical and social issues through its exhibitions and educational programs. 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 items of daily use, such as ceramics. With a collection of 17,500 objects from 141 countries, the museum contains folk art from the third century BC to the present day. Longenecker studied pottery-making under the tutelage of 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’ – a term coined by Japanese philosopher Soetsu Yanagi when he discovered the beauty of the Korean Yi dynasty pottery, which others overlooked 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 museum, with the hope that others would share his zeal for them. The Mingei International Museum has featured more than 183 exhibitions over four decades. It’s currently closed for renovations but is expected to reopen in fall 2020.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is not just for enthusiasts. California’s railroads play an important part in the state’s and country’s history, and this massive museum charts the rail lines through scale models with precise detailing across 27,000 square feet (2,508 square meters) of property, the largest such exhibit on the continent. According to its website, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum’s mission is “to preserve the heritage of railroading through a series of miniature representations of California railroads, as well as to research and preserve the history of model railroading.” 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. The museum educates the public about the history and aspects of railroading while actively engaging them. So, climb aboard!

Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Sitting on a bluff that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, Birch Aquarium at Scripps is an open invitation for the public to engage with the sea life research conducted by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. The aquarium is home to more than 60 habitats of 5,000 fish and invertebrates, including a 13,000-gallon tank occupied by a variety of species of sharks. The oceanographic museum also includes five dozen interactive elements, and it exhibits new information on climate, Earth and ocean science set forth by the Scripps scientists. More than 439,000 people visit Birch Aquarium at Scripps every year to enjoy the numerous tanks of sea creatures, the 70,000-gallon kelp forest, the interactive exhibits, the living hands-on tide pools, the incredible views of the coastal bluffs and much more.

Museum of Making Music

Some people may have a grand piano in the living room or a guitar lying around, but what actually goes into making these instruments the vibrant playable pieces of art that they are? The National Association of Music Merchants, which founded the Museum of Making Music in 1998 “to showcase and celebrate the music products industry,” answers that question. Through the museum’s various exhibits, you will learn about the people who make the instruments and what they sound like when played by an expert. You can even play them yourself via interactive stations. The museum’s history begins in 1900 and chronologically explores themes such as the manufacturing, distribution and marketing of instruments. Permanent displays include hundreds of vintage instruments, audio and video clips – all organized chronologically. Twice a year, special exhibitions are displayed, offering a chance to experiment on technology that you don’t encounter every day, along with music presentations and workshops that showcase renowned international and national musicians as well as local talent.

Alex Wexelman contributed additional reporting to this article.

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