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

Whether breaking from the beach or looking for a new attraction, the top San Diego museums provide hours of entertainment, education, and activities. 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 see which ones made the best-of list.

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

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USS Midway Museum

Consistently rated as a top thing to do and best museum, USS Midway Museum features more than 60 exhibits and 29 restored aircraft. Housed on the historic USS Midway Navy aircraft carrier, most visitors 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 a 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 an additional fee, families also enjoy two flight simulators: Air Combat 360 and Flight Avionics.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

Maritime Museum of San Diego collects, preserves and shares 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 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, an 1898 steam ferryboat.

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Birch Aquarium at Scripps (La Jolla)

In nearby La Jolla, visitors 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 Tide Pool Plaza, and learn about sea stars, sea anemones, hermit crabs and lobsters. For a photographic journey, don’t miss Mexican Seas, which showcases biodiversity and marine life. Families also enjoy feedings, shows, think tanks and hands-on activities. Explore Birch Aquarium.

San Diego Air and Space Museum

Located in Balboa Park, an entertainment district with more than 15 museums, guests can learn about space and beyond. San Diego Air and Space Museum houses 60-plus exhibits and fun activities for all ages. The museum is separated into seven sections, including WWI, WWII, Golden Age and Modern Age galleries.

While browsing, guests learn about gliders, space modules, astronauts, helicopters and innovative developers who advanced technology. Other fun things to do include Aerial Combat Experience with four flight simulators and watching exciting 3D/4D adventures at Zable Theater.

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San Diego Museum of Art

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 admire 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 can also take a one-hour guided tour and attend special events. Those looking for a Friday night date option should attend Art After Hours. For only $5 per person, guests browse the museum, then head to 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, don’t miss Centennial Railway Garden, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of Balboa Park.

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San Diego Museum of Man

Learn 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 California Tower. The structure dates back to 1914, and offers 360-views of the greater San Diego area. 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 Baja California peninsula.

Exhibits change regularly, however past exhibits include Ultimate Dinosaurs, Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People and Fossil Mystery. Families should attend family days and story-time events perfect for those with small children. For added adventure, check out whale-watching tours hosted by theNAT and Hornblower Cruises.

Spanish Village Art Center

Doubling as a top San Diego museum and shopping hot spot, 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 studios. In fact, Spanish Village Art Center now houses more than 200 local artists in all mediums. While touring, learn about Spanish culture and see daily demonstrations, onsite glass blowing, hear music, and buy souvenirs.

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