The culture that resides in San Diego is an ever-growing and evolving being that deserves to be explored. One of the many contributions to that flavorful culture is the array of San Diego museums scattered about the city.
As a kid, I went to these museums on field trips. I found that my fascination with discoveries and research was born within the walls of these museums in San Diego. Even now, as an adult, I adore going back to them and discovering new ones to feed my changing hyperfixations. If you’ll indulge me for a little bit, let me tell you all about the museums of San Diego.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
1649 El Prado, San Diego, Ca, 92101
+1 (619) 696-0199
Hours of Operation: (Tue-Fri) 10am-4pm (Sat-Sun) 11am-5pm
This lovely museum was open in March of 1982 so the train passionate few could research, collect, present, and preserve the heritage of the American railroad system with neat little scale modes of the California railroads. They encourage visitors of all ages to find a passion or even just a little interest in trains so the love of them will live on.
The Model Railroad Museum is an indoor/outdoor exhibit that measures out at about 27,000sqft. If you don’t know why that’s cool, then I’ll happily tell you. Being that large, it makes this particular museum the largest exhibit in California and one of the largest in the whole world. It’s size is not the only impressive thing about it either.
For those who can’t visit in person, the SDMRM provides online exhibits like 75 years of Thomas to showcase the changing model of the famous Thomas the Train. But my favorite of the online exhibits is Iron Women. For now, it’s online, though they do fully intend to make it an in-person exhibit in due time. Iron Women showcases the many contributions to the railroad industry. They give thanks to the very first documented employees who were forced into the industry and really made it thrive.
The permanent exhibits are also quite the sight as well, including models of the Tehachapi Pass, The Cabrillo Southwestern and The San Diego & Arizona Eastern tracks, and even a Toy Train Gallery. But there are so many more too, just waiting for you to explore them. Each was given so much history and dedication and each is incredibly breathtaking.
If this sounds neat or sounds like something your child would enjoy, they welcome you down during their hours of operation. They also offer programs for children and adults seeking a better understanding of trains or whoever thinks they’re really cool and wants to possibly get really invested in them.
San Diego Maritime Museum
1492 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
+1 (619) 234-9153
Hours of Operation: (Sat-Sun) 10am-5pm
The San Diego Maritime Museum is a must for all ship lovers. Right on the downtown waterfront, this museum is perfect, whether you want to explore for a whole day, or just kill an hour or two in between other sights.
From submarines to antique sailboats, this museum is extensive. There is so much to explore and visit. And if this is not enough to get you excited about this San Diego museum, this will: you get a free 45-minute historic harbor tour included with our ticket. Make sure to buy your tickets online, as space is limited.
San Diego Natural History Museum
1788 El Prado, San Diego, Ca, 92101
+1 (619) 232-3821
Hours of Operation: (Tues-Sun) 10am-4pm
The Museum of Natural History, also lovingly called The NAT, has got to be one of my personal favorites in the area. It does a really great job of combining storytelling and science to create this immersive educational experience. I always got so excited to go through the museum on field trips because there was always something new on display. I’d spend 5 minutes watching the Foucault Pendulum in wonder, amazed that this beautiful piece could prove the Earth’s rotation.
The NAT is the oldest scientific institution in Southern California and the second oldest west of the Mississippi. Back when it first opened in 1874, they called it the San Diego Society of Natural History but over time, I suppose they just thought the San Diego Natural History Museum had a much better ring to it.
This museum is constantly evolving with the ocean of information that the scientific community is discovering all the time. You can walk through the exhibits wide-eyed and information hungry. The humane methods of preserving and collecting everything are utterly fascinating.
Even if something isn’t officially on display, you can find it in the Unshelved section of the museum. That is where you find all the cool stuff they’ve kept in storage. If you’re particularly interested in the regional ecosystem then I highly recommend you visit the Living Lab where they have the Vivarium, a place to care for live animals). From exoskeletal to slimy to furry creatures, you can come face to face with regional creatures that you may or may not be familiar with.
Not only do they have living and fossilized animals, they also have an exhibit dedicated to gemstones from all over the place. The museum deep dives into the history and scientific facts regarding each and everything that they have on display.
Did I mention how fun it is to learn there? No matter how old or young you are, you can find amusement in the storytelling way they go about education. It’s very apparent how utterly enthralled they are by the endless mounds of information that they collect and display. From cacti to the history of humans, you can find fun in each exhibit.
Museum of Photographic Art
1649 El Prado, San Diego, Ca, 92101
+1 (619) 238-7559
Museum Hours: (Tues-Sun) 10am-5pm
Shop Hours: (Tues-Sun) 11am-5pm
I adore this museum for a few reasons. It is free but visitors can contribute whatever they deem worthy. It is a pay what you wish system so that way the exhibits and workshops are accessible to everyone. If you can’t pay, that’s fine, that’s why it’s free general admission. Of course, not everything is free. They do have a shop and a theater. They also have facilitated tours and camps that require a little bit more give to support the teachers and employees but overall, they do look out for the interest of art itself.
That, I think, is the beauty of museums such as these. They are dedicated to education and the appreciation of art. The Museum of Photographic Art displays exhibits of all kinds to truly help express the artist’s intentions. The curators make sure the museum itself is accessible to every kind of person, offering Sign Language and Spanish translators as well as any physical assistance that may be needed.
Every time you visit the museum, there will be a new exhibit two in rotation waiting for observation. Not only do they have photographic arts on display, they also have workshops and classes about film, photography, and editing offered both online and in-person for every age group. They truly just want to spread their love of art to you. I think that is so beautiful.
Fleet Science Center
1875 El Prado, San Diego, Ca, 92101
+1 (619) 238-1233
Hours of Operation: (Mon-Sat) 10am-5pm
Have you ever wanted to be in space? Or at least feel like you were? Well, I have some great news for you. The Fleet Science Center and Planetarium allow visitors virtual experiences such as those. How can they do that? Well, they built this 76-foot dome tilted at a 25 degree downward facing angle to simulate the feeling of being suspended in space. In this dome, they present educational programming and even an IMAX movie about the wonders of Earth and beyond.
If you’d rather not check out the movies, then you can check out one of over 100 interactive exhibits on display. This is a really neat museum because it puts a fun spin on education much like the Natural History Museum but makes it a little more interactive. If you’re a sucker for science or just really like to build special effects sets and props, you’ll really enjoy this spot. It’s suitable for everyone, no matter how old you are or how you identify.
Another beauty of this specific museum is that all the exhibits are self-guided and the museum runs on generous donations. If you would rather get something extra for your money, there is a gift shop filled to the brim with memorabilia and science stuff that you or a child you love may find interesting. This is yet another museum dedicated to the beauty of knowledge. It is definitely worth a wee little gander.
Mingei International Museum
This is another one of my personal favorites. It exemplifies what I love about art, that it tells the artist’s story. Mingei means ‘the art of people’ which is exactly what the museum is dedicated to. They want to further understand the art of just being a person, appreciating the everyday craftsmanship from all people and cultures around the world. They present a wide variety of diverse exhibitions in a variety of different locations.
What I absolutely love about this museum is that they feature everyday crafts from unknown artists from every era. They allow the objects to speak for themselves in their entirety. The Mingei International Museum believes that these simple pieces of useful handmade objects reflect the joy and the timeless beauty that satisfies the human spirit.
The reason why I love this so much is that they allow those who have remained unknown in their work to whisper their stories through ancient or recent pieces. Despite not putting their name on them, the ware and the use sings out from every curvature and notch, every imperfection speaks of love and joy. There’s nothing more beautiful than that.
USS Midway Museum
910 N Harbor Drive, San Diego, Ca, 92101
+1 (619) 544-9600
Hours of Operation: (Mon-Sun) 10am-5pm
The USS Midway Museum is one I know very well actually. As a kid, it was an annual field trip that we took around springtime. I can still remember never being warm enough once we left the bus. The metal of the ship made everything a little bit colder. But I did love the smell of salty metal and rust and the fact that it was cloudy. The ship gently rocks against the push and pull of the current though you get used to it quickly. Then you see all of the mannequins positioned in different scenes in every room. It brought the ship back to life in a way.
This museum is nice for a quiet self-guided tour, though I would recommend following the path or else you’ll get pretty lost. You can listen to the taped tours or have a tour guide with you. I always preferred the tape and reading the plaques next to each scene. It provides a nice inside look on Naval Aircraft Carriers and gives you a little bit more of an appreciation for those who actually worked on them. It was nonstop moving all the time.
On deck, you’re able to take a look at some of the airplanes that the ship stored and maintained. Some of them, you can even look inside of them. It really is a lovely tour that I recommend taking with a veteran or someone who thoroughly enjoys ships and planes. They’d find the history fascinating in every way. You can make a day out of it too. If you also visit on a cold, gloomy day, I suggest getting some nice hot soup and a sandwich nearby afterward.
San Diego Air and Space Museum
2001 Pan America Plaza, San Diego, Ca, 92101
+1 (619) 234-8291
Hours of Operation: (Mon-Sun) 10am-4:30pm
Founded October 12th, 1961, the San Diego Air and Space Museum has since been dedicated to preserving the significant artifacts of space and aircraft technology and history. They have continuously celebrated the achievements of the industry and strive to inspire future engineers. This funky fun museum is basically a huge walkable timeline of air and spacecraft history, going through the monumental discoveries and the little experiments of aviation. Walking in, you will feel the true passion these people have for what they do.
Every day, they post a STEM challenge on their website to challenge people of all ages and get those critical thinking brains moving. The fun thing about them is that it doesn’t require a grade and you can do them just to get better. I’ve always enjoyed going through the Air and Space Museum and experiencing the beautifully done exhibitions that they’ve created and continuously update.
I recommend taking those loved ones who have a specific interest in STEM and engineering as this would be fascinating to them. You could also take a look at the programs and workshops they offer as well. It might be nice to get involved or build a craft model.
San Diego Museum of Art
1450 El Prado, San Diego, Ca, 92101
+1 (619) 232-7931
Hours of Operation: (Mon-Thu,Sat) 10am-5pm (Friday) 10am-8pm (Sunday) 12pm-5pm
Have you ever pictured yourself walking through an art museum with your partner, quietly taking in the pieces hand in hand while exchanging soft loving glances? Well, even if you haven’t, the San Diego Museum of Art is still a lovely place to visit. Every time I visit, I make a day of it with a packed breakfast and treating myself to a nice lunch afterward. However, the experience is enhanced by doing it with someone that you love.
The Museum of Art’s mission is to inspire, cultivate, and educate curiosity through artworks and boy can that do that. The works of beauty that are on display could take anyone’s breath away. They have an extremely diverse collection of pieces, some of which are permanent and some on rotation to keep things fresh. They encourage the education of art and want to continuously inspire creativity and growth within the community.
The museum provides workshops and programs for people of all ages to learn about music, film, painting, and so much more. Artists will work with you to get better. But never be afraid to develop your very own style. No matter what you want to do, even if you just like art a little bit, I recommend checking this place out.
New Children’s Museum
200 W Island Ave, San Diego, Ca, 92101
+1 (619) 233-8792
Hours of Operation: (Mon-Sat) 9am-5pm (Sunday) 11am-5pm
If you have kids who are particularly invested in art or you want to show them the beauty of art, you should most definitely go to the New Children’s Museum. They’ve brought kid sketches to life in huge 3D models where kids can climb around and just be kids. It shows them that their art can become real. This is a great way to stimulate their imaginations while learning about the wonderful world of art.
I understand that just looking and fooling around isn’t always the vibe, but they have many activities for kids and programs where they can let their creative juices flow about freely. It’s a lot of fun for parents too! What more fun is there than to watch the inspiration light a fire in your kid’s eyes as they create?
From young to old, you can visit this funky place to reignite your childish imagination. I think we all could use a little bit of that every now and then.
Going to museums is so much fun. It’s one of my favorite things to do around town. All of the creativity, love, and passion that goes into curating these fine exhibits is truly an inspiration. Take your partner, your kids, your parents, or just yourself. There’s no way you can go wrong at the San Diego Museums.
This article was written by Hedge Metreyeon, a freelance travel writer and artist. Check out their website for more.
Last Updated on October 4, 2021 by Maria Haase