San Diego Museums: Top 9 Spots for Local Culture, Inspiration

Whether breaking from the beach or looking for a new attraction, the top San Diego museums provide hours of entertainment, education, and activities for all ages. The city houses dozens of top-rated museums, all featuring diverse exhibits and lots to do. With so many options visitors may have trouble deciding, so we picked the best. See which ones made the cut:

San Diego Museums: 9 Places for Art, Culture and History

san diego museums carrier

USS Midway Museum

Consistently rated as a top thing to do and best museum, the USS Midway Museum features more than 60 exhibits and 29 restored aircraft. Housed on the historic USS Midway Navy aircraft carrier, most visitors will spend three to four hours browsing exhibits and learning about those who served in U.S. military.

Top sites showcase the crew’s sleeping quarters, engine room, a jail, and docents waiting to tell an story or anecdote. The museum also houses restored aircraft dating as early as WWII to the Korean War and Vietnam to Operation Desert Storm. Admission includes all this plus a self-guided audio tour. For a small additional fee, families will also enjoy two flight simulators: Air Combat 360 and Flight Avionics.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

The Maritime Museum of San Diego strives to collect, preserve and share San Diego’s maritime heritage. The museum has a world-renown reputation for restoring, maintaining and operating historic vessels, offering visitors dozens of sites to explore. Permanent exhibits include Age of Sail, Age of Steam, Harvesting the Ocean and San Diego’s Navy.

In addition, guests can even board and see a large collection of sailing ships, steam boats and submarines. Maritime Museum of San Diego also hosts several public events throughout the year, such as Pirate Days for kids and the annual Concert Series aboard Berkeley, a 1898 steam ferryboat.

san diego museums aquarium vacation

Birch Aquarium at Scripps (La Jolla)

In nearby La Jolla, visitors will find a top San Diego museum and one of the best aquariums in the U.S. At Birch Aquarium, see more than 5,000 fish and 60-plus habitats complete with interactive activities and up-close encounters. Top exhibits feature sharks, seahorses, kelp, bioluminescence and a hall of fish.

Then meet other water lovers at the Tide Pool Plaza, and learn about sea stars, sea anemones, hermit crabs, lobsters and more. For a photographic journey with stunning photos, don’t miss Mexican Seas, which showcases biodiversity and marine life. Families will also enjoy feedings, shows, think tanks and hands-on activities.

San Diego Air & Space Museum

Located in Balboa Park, an entertainment district with more than 15 museums, guests can learn about space and beyond. The San Diego Air & Space Museum houses 60-plus exhibits and fun activities for all ages. The museum is separated into seven sections, including the WWI, WWII, Golden Age and Modern Age galleries. While browsing, guests learn about gliders, space modules, astronauts, helicopters and the innovative developers who advanced technology. Other fun things to do include the Aerial Combat Experience with four flight simulators and watching exciting 3D/4D adventures at Zable Theater.

san diego museums art attractions

San Diego Museum of Art

The San Diego Museum of Art operates as the go-to spot for fine arts in Balboa Park. The museum ranks as the oldest, largest and most-visited art museum in the area with both permanent and special exhibitions. Visitors will explore art from all over the world, featuring American, European, Latin American and Asian artists. Some pieces even date as early as 5,000 B.C.

Groups of all sizes can also take a one-hour guide tour and attend special events and family programs. Those looking for a Friday night date option should attend Art After Hours. For only $5 per person, guests can browse the museum, then head to the onsite Panama 66 restaurant for food, drinks and live music.

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

San Diego Model Railroad Museum ranks as the world’s largest operating model railroad museum. This attraction also sits in Balboa Park, and welcomes visitors to explore 28,000 square feet of tracks, trains and history. Model trains feature displays of Cabrillo Southwestern, Arizona Eastern, Southern Pacific-Santa Fe Tehachapi Pass and Pacific Desert Lines, to name a few. Award-winning Toy Train Gallery features a Choo-Choo camera that gives visitors a virtual reality tour of the layout. For an added bonus, those who love San Diego can’t miss the Centennial Railway Garden, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of Balboa Park.

san diego museums balboa park

San Diego Museum of Man

Learn more about mankind and help build a better community with a trip to San Diego Museum of Man. This attraction focuses on inspiring human connections through engaging and interesting exhibits. Some change each year, but topics range from Footsteps Through Time to Ancient Egypt to Graffiti Art and Monsters!

After learning about local and international culture, tour the California Tower. The structure dates back to 1914, and offers 360-views of San Diego and the surrounding areas. For an added price, guests can climb 125 steps on a 40-minute tour and have time to observe and take photos.

San Diego Natural History Museum

Calling all dinosaur lovers! Head to theNAT, a.k.a San Diego Natural History Museum. Among the top San Diego museums, this attraction focuses on promoting the evolution and diversity of southern California and the Baja California peninsula.

Exhibits change regularly, however must-sees include Ultimate Dinosaurs, Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People and Fossil Mystery – as of 2017. Past exhibits celebrate animals, nature, photography, art and much more. Families should plan to attend family days and story-time events perfect for those with small children. For added adventure, check out the whale-watching tours hosted by theNAT and Hornblower Cruises.

Spanish Village Art Center

Doubling as a top San Diego museum and shopping hot spot, the Spanish Village Art Center is located near theNAT. This area contains quaint buildings and colorful courtyard built in 1935, which represent an old village in Spain. Over the last 60 years, local artists have built upon this area, adding flowers, concrete tiles and artsy studios. In fact, the Spanish Village Art Center now houses more than 200 local artists in all mediums. While touring the village, learn about Spanish culture and see daily demonstrations, onsite glass blowing, hear music, and pick up that perfect souvenir.

Check out the top 10 kids attractions, and start planning your San Diego vacation.