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The 12 Best Museums in San Diego, California [2023]

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Amar Hussain
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Amar Hussain

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Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications incl...
Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
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Keri Stooksbury

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With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now editor-in-chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...

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San Diego is a vibrant city with a lot to offer, but it’s probably not the first place that comes to mind when you’re in the mood to visit top-notch museums. However, this corner of California is home to some of the best exhibits on the West Coast. From science to photography, there’s bound to be a museum that deserves a place on your travel itinerary, no matter what trip you plan.

The 12 Best Museums in San Diego

1. Comic-Con Museum

Comic Con Museum
Image Credit: Comic-Con Museum

The Comic-Con Museum first opened in 2021, making it one of the newest exhibit spaces in San Diego. The facility was founded to keep the buzz and excitement of the Comic-Con convention event alive all year.

The museum showcases memorabilia, props, and artwork depicting some of pop culture’s most famous figures, namely superheroes and video game characters.

In addition to the permanent exhibits, temporary galleries are routinely open. These special exhibitions range in topic from taking a closer look at the life of Stan Lee to focusing on art and the evolution of popular manga or comic series.

The museum also houses a hall of fame for comic figures. The very first inductee was Batman, but this hall has since expanded. Additionally, the museum hosts special events throughout the year, like workshops, art classes, and meet-ups for comic enthusiasts and those interested in STEM.

Admission is free for children under 4, $18 for children 4 to 12, $24 for students aged 13 to 17, seniors 65+, and military personnel, and $30 for adults. Group discounts are available. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The nearest transit stop is Santa Fe Depot.

  • Address: 2131 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101

2. Fleet Science Center

Fleet Science Center
Image Credit: Fleet Science Center

The Fleet Science Center was the first museum of its kind in the country to make use of interactive elements in its exhibits. It was also one of the first facilities to embrace emerging IMAX technology, thus creating the trend for a theater to be included in most other science centers around the U.S. There are 12 permanent exhibits in the facility, which cover topics from electricity to illusions and even virtual reality.

However, multiple spaces are used for temporary exhibits. These rotating displays have tackled more niche subjects, like how LEGO tools have been used for small-scale feats of engineering and what elements of science fiction might actually come true.

The museum’s exhibits are fit for people of all ages, and the facility hosts several entertaining and educational events and activities for children, teens, and adults.

Admission is free for children under 3, $19.95 for kids 3 to 12, $22.95 for seniors 65+, and $24.95 for visitors 13+. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The nearest bus station is Park Boulevard and Inspiration Point Way.

  • Address: 1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

3. Maritime Museum of San Diego

Maritime Museum of San Diego
Image Credit: Maritime Museum of San Diego

Founded in 1948, the Maritime Museum of San Diego houses the country’s most extensive collection of historic ships. While there are vessels from various points in history, the most important boat in the museum’s possession is the Star of India. This boat was initially built to sail from Britain to New Zealand and India before being used to transport salmon from Alaska to California.

There are currently 10 other boats in the museum’s permanent collection. However, as time passed, the facility acquired new ships and is open to expanding this collection. In addition to authentically historic boats, the museum also has replicas and other artifacts.

The museum sponsored the construction of the San Salvador replica, which has been used for coastal tours since 2016. It also has designated spaces that are available for both public and private events.

General admission is free for children under 2, $10 for children 3 to 12, $15 for children 13 to 17, military personnel, and seniors 62+, and $20 for adults. Special events and exhibits may require an additional ticket. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The nearest bus stop is Pacific Highway and Grape Street.

  • Address: 1492 N. Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101

4. Mingei International Museum

Mingei International Museum
Image Credit: Mingei International Museum

Opened to the public in 1978, the Mingei International Museum houses a collection of folk art from around the world. The museum’s Japanese name in English translates to “art of the people.” To ensure the structure showcased arts and crafts from various cultures, the museum was developed over the course of 20 years before it opened.

It houses over 20,000 art and design pieces from over 140 countries today. While some pieces are more contemporary, others can be traced back over 2,200 years. Some of the museum’s highlighted pieces are an Alebrije figure from Mexico, an Inuit doll, and “Hollow Form” (a metallic sculpture from a U.S. artist).

The items in the museum are arranged by topic instead of culture, so the diversity of different parts of the world can be more easily seen and celebrated.

Admission is free for children under 18, $10 for seniors, students, and military personnel, and $15 for adults 18+. The museum is open Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The nearest bus stop is 12th Street and Imperial Transit Center.

  • Address: Balboa Park, Plaza de Panama, 1439 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

5. Museum of Photographic Arts at The San Diego Museum of Art

Museum of Photographic Arts at The San Diego Museum of Art
Image Credit: Museum of Photographic Arts at The San Diego Museum of Art

The Museum of Photographic Arts at The San Diego Museum of Art (MOPA) is one of the only museums in the country dedicated to preserving the art of photography.

The collection has grown to over 9,000 photos from over 800 creators. In addition to its pictures, the museum also houses over 20,000 books about photography, covering technical topics like the process of taking an objectively good photo and photography art books.

As photography and cultural tastes continue to change, MOPA’s collection continues to grow. One of its missions is to get as wide a demographic as possible interested in photography and the importance of preserving the medium.

In addition to the museum’s sizable permanent collection, temporary exhibits are hosted throughout the year. These galleries usually showcase particular artists who revolutionize photography, like James Balog or Suda House.

Admission is free for everyone, but voluntary donations are welcome. The museum is open Thursday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The nearest bus stop is Park Boulevard and Presidents Way.

  • Address: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
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6. Museum of Us

Museum of Us
Image Credit: Museum of Us

With its first exhibits opening in 1915, the Museum of Us has been one of San Diego’s most important anthropology museums for over 100 years.

The museum’s primary purpose is to focus on pre-Columbian history in the western regions of North, Central, and South America, with particular attention paid to Southern California. However, the facility also has notable exhibits that showcase artifacts from international cultures, like ancient Egypt.

In total, the museum has amassed a collection of over 100,000 cultural artifacts, 300,000 archaeological artifacts, and 25,000 photos and other documents. It’s worth noting that much of this collection is kept in the archives.

Additionally, the museum presents temporary exhibits, which display more niche elements of anthropology. Some popular topics include how humans have adapted to live alongside animals and how the Mayan culture has adapted to persist to the modern day.

Admission is free for children under 6, $16.95 for seniors 62+, military personnel, students, and children 6 to 17, and $19.95 for adults. The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The nearest tram stop is Balboa Park.

  • Address: 1350 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

7. The New Children’s Museum

The New Childrens Museum
Image Credit: The New Children’s Museum

The New Children’s Museum was opened to foster 3 things in children: imagination, creation, and critical thinking. What sets the facility apart from other children’s museums is its collaboration with local artists to create sets for children to play and learn. It’s also notable for its sustainability, considered one of the city’s first “green” museums.

The New Children’s Museum is built for kids of all ages, but some exhibits are designed for specific demographics, like the “Innovators Lab,” which is meant for kids 6 and up. “Wobbleland,” instead, is best for kids under 4.

The museum also works with schools to create virtual visit days, which were particularly useful during the COVID-19 pandemic. To ensure the museum’s art is always up-to-date, exhibits and murals are routinely renewed. Events are also held on-site for kids and families throughout the year.

Admission is free for members and infants under a year old, $15 for teachers, seniors 65+, and military personnel, $18 for children 1 to 17, and $20 for adults. The museum is open Friday to Monday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The nearest cable car stop is Convention Center Station.

  • Address: 200 W Island Ave., San Diego, CA 92101

8. San Diego Model Railroad Museum

San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Image Credit: San Diego Model Railroad Museum

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is the largest of its kind on the continent, needing a 27,000-square-foot space to hold its models. Originally just a model made for a 1935 expo, the museum was later expanded and opened to the public by 1980.

Today, the museum is divided into 5 main exhibits showcasing a different model train track. The most popular among locals is the “Cabrillo & Southwestern” exhibit, an accurate to-scale display of the train route connecting San Diego with the state capital, Sacramento.

However, numerous temporary exhibits are hosted at the facility. These models showcase different types of trains like those historically used by circuses. Another specialty exhibit is the “Freight and Flora.” This gallery used historical references to recreate San Diego during the Gilded Age when the first train tracks were laid there.

Admission is free for children under 13 accompanied by an adult, $9 for students 13 to 18, $9.50 for military personnel, veterans, and their spouses, $16.50 for seniors 65+, and $19.50 for adults. San Diego County residents can visit for free on the first Tuesday of the month. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The nearest tram stop is Plaza de Panama.

  • Address: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

9. San Diego Natural History Museum

San Diego Natural History Museum
Image Credit: San Diego Natural History Museum

The San Diego Natural History Museum opened its doors in 1874, making it the oldest museum in California. In the over 100 years since it was founded, the museum’s collection has grown to consist of over 8 million specimens from America and worldwide.

Its exhibits include displays showcasing California’s natural landscape and evolution, gemstones, fossils, and more. Using a combination of authentic artifacts, replicas, and interactive elements, the facility can appeal to a wide variety of visitors.

The museum also serves as a research center in 8 scientific fields and has over 20 exotic bugs, lizards, and more living on the premises. So, part of the museum experience is seeing the experts at work at the “Living Lab” and “Demonstration Lab.” Additionally, the museum hosts several temporary exhibits and special events during the year.

Admission is free for members, guest pass holders, and children under 3, $14 for children 3 to 17, $20 for seniors 62+, students, and military personnel, and $24 for adults. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The nearest bus stop is Park Boulevard.

  • Address: 1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

10. Timken Museum of Art

Timken Museum of Art
Image Credit: Timken Museum of Art

First opened in 1965, the Timken Museum of Art initially only had 40 to 60 pieces of fine art in its collection. Over the years, the museum has acquired several paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and more to better showcase art from primarily European masters. However, artists from other cultures are also represented.

Some of the most important pieces in the museum are “The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket” by Eastman Johnson, “Saint Bartholomew” by Rembrandt, and “Parable of the Sower” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

The museum also hosts both private and public events throughout the year. The latter are usually educational and often include lectures and discussions with artists and experts. Even during a regular visit, guided tours are free with one of the museum’s knowledgeable docents. The Timken also hosts outreach programs, like art classes.

Admission is free to everyone. The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The nearest tram stop is Plaza de Panama.

  • Address: 1500 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

“We’ve been focused on the three Es: educate, excite and experience. We’ve been working really hard on the visitor experience and making them engaged with the art by having a lot more information available on the collections and having gateway events and exhibitions that bring people in. Then by virtue of being here, they see the collection.” 

Megan Pogue, Executive Director, Timken Museum of Art 

11. USS Midway Museum

USS Midway Museum
Image Credit: USS Midway Museum

Located near the city pier, the San Diego USS Midway Museum is a decommissioned aircraft carrier the Navy once used. Throughout its career, 200,000 men and women were stationed on the Midway, and in 2004, it was officially converted into a museum.

Today, it houses over 30 planes and helicopters that the Navy likewise employed. Many of these aircraft were even built in California factories.

The oldest planes in the museum were used in 1942, while others were deployed in more recent conflicts like the Koran and Vietnam Wars. Notably, as of now, the only planes on display in the museum were models that were or could have been transported by the Midway before it was decommissioned.

Other artifacts and documents are also displayed to showcase the ship’s history. The museum also acts as a venue for both private and public events throughout the year.

General admission is free for children under 6, military personnel, law enforcement, and firefighters, $21 for veterans and children 6 to 12, and $31 for adults. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The nearest train stop is Santa Fe Depot.

  • Address: 910 N. Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101

12. Women’s Museum of California

Womens Museum of California
Image Credit: Women’s Museum of California

Since its opening in 1983, the Women’s Museum of California has been essential in preserving women’s history. Initially, it began as the private collection of Mary B. Maschal, who sought artifacts showcasing women’s evolution and path to earning equal rights.

Eventually, Maschal also began interviewing women’s activists to preserve physical artifacts and oral histories. To this day, these initial documents and pieces are still part of the museum’s collection.

As the museum has grown, it’s also added a research library that collects books, photographs, and other records about the suffrage movement and the first waves of feminism. It also houses articles about women’s typical clothing and how it developed over the past 300 years. Additionally, the museum also houses temporary exhibits as well as special events. Its annual film festival is perhaps its most popular.

Admission is free for all visitors, but donations are welcome. The museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. The nearest bus stop is Park Boulevard and Village Place.

  • Address: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

How To Get Free or Reduced Admission to San Diego Museums

We’ve indicated with each museum whether or not children, students, or seniors receive free or reduced admission. Several other programs offer similar concessions.

The Museums for All program offers free or reduced admission to museums through the U.S. for those receiving food assistance (SNAP benefits). Participating attractions in the greater San Diego area include the San Diego Archaeological Center, San Diego Automotive Museum, San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, San Diego History Center, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, and more.

Bank of America’s Museums on Us program offers cardholders free general admission on the first full weekend of every month to the following San Diego museums: the Museum of Photographic Arts at the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Art.

Participation is subject to change; please verify participating museums and entry conditions before your visit.

Final Thoughts

San Diego has no shortage of museums to visit while you’re in town. From American history to international art, there’s something for everyone in “America’s Finest City.” With any luck, this list has helped you narrow down your options so you can pick the San Diego museums that best suit your itinerary.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is San Diego famous for anything?

San Diego is famous for numerous things. It’s home to the world-famous Comic-Con event each year. It’s the location of the San Diego Zoo, which is known for its conservation efforts. The city is also famous for its culture.

How many museums are there in San Diego?

There are nearly 100 museums in the San Diego Country, many of which are in the metropolitan area. In addition, there are also other galleries, exhibits, and pop-up art showcases scattered around the city that aren’t counted on that list.

Does San Diego have good museums?

San Diego has a number of world-class museums, some of which can be considered some of the best on the West Coast. These museums cover various topics ranging from art and history to culture, so there’s something to suit nearly everyone.

What is the biggest museum in San Diego?

The San Diego Museum of Art is the largest in the city by collection size. It’s also the oldest museum in this part of California. Numerous other large and mid-size museums are worth visiting while in San Diego.

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About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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