18 Great Museums in San Diego

Get ready to experience one of the cultural epicenters of Southern California! San Diego offers over 50 museums covering fine art, culture, and maritime history. There’s truly something for everybody between the iconic paintings by celebrated masters, learning about the local wildlife and sealife, time traveling through California’s history, and the hands-on exhibitions that engage and entertain.

Make your stay at a San Diego vacation home rental full of fun, learning, and amazement by immersing yourself in the best neighborhoods and museums around San Diego County. Here is our short list of some of the top cultural venues attracting millions of visitors annually to San Diego’s vibrant museum scene.

The San Diego CityPASS

A San Diego CityPASS is useful for discounted admission bundles for various local attractions and museums, including the US Midway Museum and the Maritime Museum of San Diego. In addition, many of the San Diego museums offer free admission on select days of the month.

Fine Art Museums in San Diego

San Diego Museum of Art

Photo Credit: FrimuFilms

  • Address: 1450 El Prado, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Balboa Park

  • Website: sdmart.org

Set aside a couple of hours to wander between the galleries of the San Diego Museum of Art. Its extensive art collection features the biggest names in art in a collection of more than 20,000 works! You’ll see everything from Spanish Old Master Paintings like Francisco José de Goya, German Expressionism masterpieces by Gustav Klimt, iconic American artists like Georgia O’Keefe, and an entire gallery dedicated to the art of East Asia.

Don’t forget to step outside and check out the sculpture garden with works like The Prodigal Son by Rodin and Solar Bird by Joan Miró.

Pro tip: This neighborhood also has some great options for breweries to visit after perusing the museum, including the North Park Beer Company.

Timken Museum Of Art

Photo Credit: Sherry V Smith

  • Address: 1500 El Prado, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Balboa Park

  • Website: timkenmuseum.org

Put away your wallet because Timken Museum has free admission to see the priceless works of art hanging on its walls. Nicknamed the “jewel box,” a few of the gems you’ll find inside include works by 17th-century Old European Masters, including the only Rembrandt in San Diego. It has five galleries with paintings, sculptures, and decorative tapestry art dating to the 17th century.

Museum Of Contemporary Art San Diego

Photo Credit: Marben

  • Address: 700 Prospect St, La Jolla, CA

  • Neighborhood: La Jolla

  • Website: mcasd.org

Craving something with more modern-day masterpieces? The MCASD spotlights contemporary works dating from the 1950s to today. This museum is a visual sensory overload with creative 20th-century abstract works in its collection. Even better is the galleries exhibit wall-to-wall views of the Pacific Ocean! The newly expanded space includes additions to its permanent collection and temporary featured exhibitions.

Mingei International Museum

Photo Credit: Gabriele Maltinti

  • Address: 1439 El Prado, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Balboa Park

  • Website: mingei.org

This museum brings handmade fine art from around the world to its galleries. More than 25,000 works showcase creativity from 141 countries. Its permanent collection includes decorative American quilts, carved African rocks, Japanese textiles, and mid-century furniture. Step out onto the terrace for scenic views overlooking Balboa Park. After, treat yourself to a post-museum chai latte from the Craft Cafe in the outdoor courtyard.

Museum Of Photographic Arts

Photo Credit: Tiago Pestana

  • Address: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Balboa Park

  • Website: mopa.org

A walk through the Museum of Photographic Arts feels like scrolling a timeline full of striking imagery. Since its opening in 1983, it has amassed a collection of 9,000+ photos by 850 photographers. It includes photojournalism images by Margaret Bourke-White, mid-20th century photos by Alfred Stieglitz, and a collection of Soviet Russian photography documenting a moment in history.

The replica 19th-century building housing the museum is worthy of a stop in and of itself!

Museums For Culture And Heritage

California Surf Museum

Photo Credit: surfmuseum.org

  • Address: 312 Pier View Way, Oceanside, CA

  • Neighborhood: Oceanside

  • Website: surfmuseum.org

Dive into one of the most comprehensive displays of California’s surf heritage. Founded in 1986, you’ll see how surfing evolved since arriving in the Golden State in the 1920s.

Follow the surfboard timeline to see how they’ve changed and learn about famous surfers, like Duke Kahanamoku, who pioneered surfing. Its photo and video archives immerse you in local surf culture. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have a vacation rental near the beach to catch some real waves.

Museum Of Us

Photo Credit: museumofus.org

Ever wondered what it’s like to experience the world from a different perspective? The Museum of Us challenges visitors to re-examine their view of the world and what it means to be human.

Formerly called the Museum of Man, its new name reflects its current mission. Its exhibitions are inside self-reflection, dialogue about the human experience, and explore unique stories that make each of us different. After the galleries, climb to the top of the California Tower for a panoramic view, including the Cabrillo Bridge, San Diego Zoo, and the Laguna Mountains in the distance.

Women’s Museum Of California

Photo Credit: womensmuseumca.org

  • Address: 2730 Historic Decatur Rd, Barracks 16, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Liberty Station

  • Website: womensmuseumca.org

Experience California through HERstory! Learn about the women who helped shape the state and nation into what they are today. Archives fill this small museum with information about prominent women figures who advocated for women’s rights, achieved noteworthy accomplishments, and several untold stories unearthed for museum exhibitions.

Whaley House Museum

Photo Credit: Rosamar

  • Address: 2476 San Diego Ave, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Old Town

  • Website: whaleyhouse.org

By day, the Whaley House is still considered one of the ‘finest homes in America.’ However, by night, it’s more famously known for being the ‘Most Haunted House in America.’ Choose your time wisely when visiting for an experience that matches your comfort level.

Self-guided tours during the day let visitors explore exhibition rooms. Here, you’ll see original furniture, archives of the Whaley family, and information about early state history. Those more daring can embark on nightly paranormal activities. You may even encounter the Whaley family ghosts inside!

Museums To Explore San Diego Maritime History

USS Midway Museum

Photo Credit: chau quoc trung

  • Address: 910 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Downtown

  • Website: midway.org

It’s hard to miss the massive naval aircraft carrier docked at Navy Pier when walking the waterfront. The decommissioned USS Midway is retired from its record-setting service. Now, it functions as a museum educating about its history and life on the ship.

Climb aboard to explore the flight deck and Aircraft Gallery, which holds over 30 preserved aircraft from the Battle of Midway, the Vietnam War. You can even sit in the cockpit! Go below deck for the Life-at-Sea exhibit to see the lifestyle of the 225,000 sailors and pilots who served on the ship. Even flight simulators for a virtual reality flying experience.

Maritime Museum Of San Diego

Photo Credit: f11photo

  • Address: 1492 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Downtown

  • Website: sdmaritime.org

Explore the depths of San Diego’s maritime history at the Maritime Museum. This city established itself as a major port city during the Panama-California Exposition and now holds the country’s largest collection of historic ships. Visitors can explore the historic fleet on docent-led tours to learn about sailboats, steamships, submarines, and more.

The museum even offers water adventures on its iconic Star of India, the oldest active sailboat in the world.

Science And Technology Museums

San Diego Natural History Museum

Photo Credit: Kit Leong

  • Address: 1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Balboa Park

  • Website: sdnhm.org

Nicknamed The Nat, this museum blends education and fun for all ages. It has five floors of inviting exhibitions to explore the history of SoCal, Baja California.

Stand next to the life-size fossil diagram of the Allosaurus or snap selfies near the mouth of the Megalodon shark replica. The massive Foucault pendulum proves the rotation of the Earth, and a giant theater immerses viewers into underwater or prehistoric worlds. There’s even a demonstration lab to see scientists working in the active research facility—the oldest in Southern California.

San Diego Air & Space Museum

Photo Credit: Sherry V Smith

Take flight at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. The air and spacecraft collection ranks as the fifth largest in the US. Visitors are greeted with the Apollo 9 Command Module at the entrance before exploring themed galleries.

You’ll find World War aircraft, technology from the modern space age, and the golden age of flight. Its replica aircraft include one of the earliest Wright Brothers models and vintage rocket engines that helps propel humankind into space. It also hosts educational programs fostering an interest in STEM.

San Diego Fleet Science Center

Photo Credit: Sherry V Smith

  • Address: 1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Balboa Park

  • Website: fleetscience.org

Whoever said science couldn’t be fun? This science center brings you 100+ interactive exhibits for adults and kids to test their genius while learning about how the world works around us.

Test your perception of reality with optical illusions, unleash your creativity in the Design Zone, immerse in virtual reality worlds, journey into the final frontier in the Space Gallery, and inspire the next generation of scientists in the Kid City play area. Get tickets to a screening in the IMAX Dome Theater for a 4D experience through the Serengeti, Antarctica, and planetarium shows.

Special Interest Museums

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Photo Credit: EQRoy

  • Address: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Balboa Park

  • Website: sdmrm.org

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum preserves California’s rich railroad heritage. As a haven for train lovers, you’ll explore scale models representing famous trains and rail lines that crisscross the state. See the vintage locomotives from the 1950s, like the Cabrillo Southwestern O, and see the intricately designed landscapes of trains passing through the Tehachapi Pass and Pacific Desert Lines.

San Diego Automotive Museum

Photo Credit: Inspired By Maps

  • Address: 2080 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA

  • Neighborhood: Balboa Park

  • Website: sdautomuseum.org

The San Diego Automotive Museum is one venue you don’t want to speed through. Otherwise, you’ll miss this amazing car and motorcycle collection! It features vintage Ford Model Ts, a Rolls-Royce from the 1940s, a Lamborghini and DeLorean from the 80s, and a range of vintage Harley Davidson bikes.

The museum’s 17,000 square feet showcase vehicles in thematic exhibits dedicated to the San Diego lowrider, Innovative Electric’s, and West Coast customs tricked-out rides!

New Children’s Museum

Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

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

  • Neighborhood: Downtown San Diego

  • Website: thinkplaycreate.org

Give the kids some excitement during your stay in San Diego by stopping by the New Children’s Museum. It’s one San Diego museum where kids are encouraged to touch the art, inspiring kids to think, play, and create. Colorful art installations rotate in the galleries for something new every time. One day kids can play on quirky textile features, and the next, discover a playroom made with oversized food sculptures.

Museum Of Making Music

Photo Credit: Rosamar

Your 15 seconds of fame starts the moment you step inside the Museum of Making Music. The museum exhibitions provide a glimpse into the life of an instrument. It showcases how they’re made, distributed, and played and their impact worldwide. Visitors can sit and play various guitars, synths, drums, and more. Check the event calendar to find special events during your visit.

Explore The Best Of San Diego’s Museums

Enrich your stay at a San Diego vacation home with stops at all your favorite museums in San Diego. Exploring San Diego’s history, culture, and arts through the lens of these fine museums is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in what this area is all about.

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