How to Visit the Maritime Museum of San Diego
Much to the delight of visitors and locals alike, the U.S. Navy is not the only nautical show in town. San Diego has a long and storied maritime history of exploration and commerce extending from the age of sail and steam to our modern era. Nothing celebrates this facet of San Diego history better than the Maritime Museum of San Diego.
As a retired Naval officer, maritime museums always capture my interest. There’s just something about ships and life at sea that stirs my soul. After all, I spent 28 ½ years serving the Navy across the seven seas.
Though it may be a tourist attraction like the USS Midway Museum, it’s one of the very best San Diego has to offer. This fascinating venue preserves one of the largest and most impressive collections of historic sea vessels in the United States.
Among the most unique of all San Diego museums, the Maritime Museum, established in 1948, hosts fascinating exhibits and well-maintained vessels that reflect the evolution of maritime technology and immerse visitors in its fascinating nautical history through the years.
Ships of the Maritime Museum
Located in downtown San Diego along the Embarcadero of San Diego Bay, the impressive museum boasts 10 historic vessels, four of historic distinction on the National Register.
Here is a list of the Museum’s current historic ships and submarines on display along with tips for exploring these nautical treasures. Of special note, is that one ticket allows guests to explore all ships in the museum’s collection.
Star of India
This 1863 iron-hulled merchant bark is the world’s oldest active sailing ship and the jewel of the waterfront. Her impressive silhouette is one of the iconic landmarks along the waterfront and among the most photographed sights in San Diego.
Launched as the Euterpe just five days before Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, she has sailed around the world 21 times and has never been fitted with auxiliary power.
In her long and storied history, she’s seen many adventures, running aground in Hawaii, trapped in Alaskan ice, and a survivor of a collision, a mutiny, and a cyclone. Yet she still sails the sea today with a volunteer crew.
It’s exciting when the crew dons period costumes and interact with visitors sharing their information on basic seamanship, nautical superstitions, and life onboard a sailing vessel.
While maritime technology has certainly changed over the years, it always amazes me how much of the nautical traditions and terminology remain constant.
The Berkeley operated for 60 years on San Francisco Bay. This 1898 steam-powered ferryboat is both a California State and a National Historic Landmark. She’s an iconic reminder of the impressive steam-power era. In 1906, the Berkeley was a heroine of the San Francisco earthquake, carrying thousands of survivors to safety.
Today, she proudly serves as the museum’s offices, a major maritime research library, workshop, model shop, museum store, and special events venue with a capacity for up to 800 guests.
Serving as the official tall ship of the state of California, the Californian is a 1984 replica of the 1847 cutter C.W. Lawrence. This vessel served the Revenue Cutter Service patrolling the coast of California enforcing federal law during the gold rush. The Californian’s distinctive sail configuration makes her one of the most recognized tall ships in America.
She is used for a variety of dockside and at-sea educational programs along with public adventure sails. Her annual tour along the California coast each summer offers residents and visitors throughout the state an opportunity to tour this impressive ship.
Another star of the Museum’s historic fleet is the HMS Surprise. She is a 1970 replica of a 24-gun frigate from Great Britain’s Nelson-era Royal Navy. Of no “surprise” she has played starring roles in Hollywood films Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Originally commissioned as the Rose, she was constructed with a focus on authenticity. This replica frigate has sailed thousands of miles as an attraction and sail training ship prior to her conversion to the Surprise.
B-39, Soviet Foxtrot class submarine
Of all the vessels in the Maritime Museum collection, the B-39 was the most intriguing to me as a retired Naval submarine officer. Commissioned in the early 1970s, she was one of the largest conventionally powered submarines ever built. Assigned to the Soviet Pacific Fleet, the B-39 served as a potential adversary to many U.S. Navy San Diego based warships.
Through the use of light, sound, and script, the B-39 Soviet diesel submarine tells the riveting tale of one of its sister submarines, the B-59 whose actions nearly precipitated nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a tale shared in quite a dramatic fashion.
A unique U.S. Navy submarine, the Dolphin is actually the deepest diving submarine in the world. She is capable of submerging to world-depth record of 3,000-feet. She has played a major role at the forefront of undersea naval research during her 40-year career. This remarkable vessel has a storied history of numerous military and scientific accomplishments.
The San Salvador is a replica of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s galleon. She served as the flagship of his expedition that discovered the San Diego Bay in 1542. The original ship, highly touted as the “Mayflower of the Pacific Coast” is the founding ship of both San Diego and of the State of California.
The San Salvador came to the Museum fleet in 2015. She was expertly constructed with extreme historical accuracy based upon extensive research of early European maritime documents, technology, and archeology. This galleon periodically sails the California coast, visiting communities as a floating educational platform for school children and locals.
Serving in both World Wars, this 1904 steam yacht was constructed largely of oak, teak, and steel. Originally a pleasure craft, she was modified into a gunboat and employed by France. In WWII both British and Norwegian Forces used her.
After the war, the Medea was converted back to a pleasure craft. She may be old but she’s still quite attractive. Today, the Medea goes out for special excursion cruises and also serves as an open dockside museum attraction.
Formerly named the C24 or P24, this 1968 Vietnam War-era Patrol Craft Fast was transferred to Malta in 1971 and decommissioned in 2011. These type vessels, more commonly known as Swift Boats played a key role in the U.S. “Brown Water Navy” interdicting Viet Cong operations along the Mekong River and Delta.
Restored to operational status, this powerful vessel is an option for museum visitors to experience high speed runs in San Diego Bay while Swift Boat veterans and docents relate their various roles and stories as crewmen in Vietnam.
What a great name for a 1914 harbor pilot boat. During her 82-year career, the Pilot served as San Diego’s chief pilot craft. She assisted thousands of major merchant vessels entering and leaving San Diego Bay. A relic of the past, she provides a rare and priceless link to the economic rise of San Diego through maritime commerce. Now, she is used for the harbor cruise that is included in the admission ticket.
Optional Complimentary Historic Bay Cruise
Bonus: The Museum is now offering 45-minute bay cruises at no additional charge with the purchase of an admission ticket. Three narrated bay tours are available on weekends.
You can make reservations upon arrival to the museum when purchasing general admission passes from the Ticket Booth or online.
Check-In times and location are: 12:15 p.m., 1:15 p.m., and 2:15 p.m. at the dock behind the Berkeley.
San Diego Maritime Museum Plan Your Visit
Location and How to Get There
The Maritime Museum at the Star of India Wharf is located on the west side of North Harbor Drive, between the ends of Ash Street and Grape Street, south of San Diego International Airport.
You can find metered parking along the Embarcadero. Additional parking is available at the nearby Midway Museum lot. Other options include using San Diego public bus or trolley transportation.
Hours of Operation
The good news is that beginning February 13th and 14th, the Maritime Museum will be re-opening on weekends only from 10 am to 5 pm for open-deck touring only of its ships. Check the website for updated information.
Tickets and Prices
Tickets can be purchased by credit card only at the Museum Ticket booth daily from 10 am to 4 pm located on the North Embarcadero at 1492 N. Harbor Drive or on the museum’s website. The museum is also part of the Go San Diego Card bundle. If you plan to visit multiple San Diego attractions, you can save some money.
Tickets are currently based on new reduced capacity. These provide same-day access to all museum vessels currently available for touring.
Adult 18+ $20.00
Senior 62+, Military w/ID, Students 13-17 years $15.00
Child 12 and under $10.00
Tips for Your Visit
Pick and Choose Your Ships. The extensive nature of this museum may require visitors to be selective if they don’t want to spend all day touring the vessels.
Talk to the Docents. These volunteers are so full of knowledge and interesting stories about the ships at the Maritime Museum. We talked to Bob Bower, one of the docents there. He shared with us some interesting historical facts not only about the museum but also about San Diego.
Save time for the Ferryboat Berkeley. She’s literally a museum within a museum. She features an impressive multi-deck display of boats, yachts, and nautical equipment along with a host of highly detailed models of numerous warships and commercial vessels throughout the ages. As a Navy veteran, I particularly love the many highly detailed models of numerous warships and commercial vessels throughout the ages.
Let kids choose. If you have children with you, give them a vote on which ships to visit. My personal bet is on the HMS Surprise. On our last visit there, my two grandchildren, a boy and a girl acted out scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean. They enthusiastically played the roles of Captain Jack Sparrow and Keira Knightley’s swashbuckling heroine, Elizabeth Swann.
COVID Restrictions apply. Many educational activities, docent-led tours, and below deck tours may not be available. Check the website for updated information.
Optional Harbor Cruise. Bring sunscreen or sunblock, close-toed shoes or nonslip soles, hat, sunglasses, jacket or sweater, and of course, your camera.
Enjoy your visit to San Diego’s magnificent Maritime Museum. It’s quite impressive to say the least.
Visit the Maritime Museum in San Diego – Helpful Tips from a Local was written by Michael Kompanik for San Diego Explorer.
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Last Updated on April 23, 2021 by Maria Haase