The Best Museums to Visit in San Diego

From the numerous options in Balboa Park to the newly opened Comic-Con Museum and more, here’s where to get your art fix in America’s Finest City.

As if our perfect weather, miles of gorgeous beaches, world-famous craft beer scene, and ever-evolving culinary landscape wasn’t enough, San Diego County boasts nearly 100 museums, ranging from musical endeavors and artistic creations to preserving the culture of Indigeonous communities and documenting our long maritime history. Whatever your interests, there’s bound to be a museum to stimulate your mind and restore your soul. Here are eight of our favorite San Diego museums:

Balboa Park
Hayk_Shalunts/Shutterstock

Balboa Park
While we’ve already taken it upon ourselves to highlight some of our favorite, must-visit museums inside Balboa Park on this list, it's also worth seeking out this cultural hub that’s been crowned the “Jewel of San Diego” on its own. You can easily spend a day (if not a weekend) getting lost in its 1,200 acres of gardens, museums, attractions, and restaurants.

Of particular note are the San Diego Natural History Museum that first opened in 1874 and is the oldest scientific institution in Southern California; civic leader George W. Marston’s 1905 craftsman home that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places; the Fleet Science Center and planetarium that’s home to the world’s first IMAX Dome Theater; Centro Cultural de la Raza, a nonprofit center that promotes, preserves, and educates around Chicano, Mexican, Indigenous, and Latinx art and culture; and the WorldBeat Center which promotes and preserves African, African-American, and other Indigenous world cultures through art, music, dance, education, and technology. Afterwards, learn about California flora and fauna in the California Native Plant Garden and take a stroll through the stunning Inez Grant Parket Memorial Rose Garden.
Cost: Varies, but San Diego residents can plan their trip around free days for residents. The Timken Museum of Art and the San Diego Mineral & Gem Society Museum are always free.

Comic-Con Museum
Photo courtesy of Comic-Con Museum

Balboa Park
Now San Diegans can experience Comic-Con whenever they like—the Comic-Con Museum opened its doors in Balboa Park late last year. With a mission to increase the awareness for comics and similar popular genres in art, the museum’s current exhibits include: PAC-MAN Arcade, Dave Stevens and the Rocketeer: Art for Art’s Sake: Celebrating the Life of Raymond Briggs, Eight Decades of Archie, and Hemingway in the Comics. In addition, a special exhibit, Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing—The Exhibition, celebrates the 60th anniversary of everyone’s favorite web-slinger. You’ll learn the evolution of Spider-Man in comics and film, and about the contributing artists. Browse various exhibits of Spider-Man, including interactive photo stations, artifacts and props, and comic artwork from private collectors that hasn’t been publicly displayed before. The Comic-Con Museum is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm, and tickets can be purchased online or at the door (capacity restrictions permitting).
Cost: $30 for adults, $18 for children, $24 for students, active military, and seniors 65+.

Museum of Making Music
Photo courtesy of Museum of Making Music

Carlsbad
The recently renovated Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad is the only museum of its kind in the world—celebrating the achievements and significance of those who craft, sell, and use musical goods and instruments, through unique rotating exhibitions, live music performances, and cutting edge educational programs. Four distinct galleries take you on a musical journey through instruments, artifacts, and immersive, multimedia displays, with each room highlighting a different theme, including “Making the Instruments,” “Providing the Instruments,” “Using the Instruments,” and “Beyond the Instruments,” plus “Sit & Play” areas for solo or group experimentation. MoMM is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 am–5 pm. Ticket reservations are required and must be made online.
Cost: $15 for adults, $10 for students, seniors, military personnel, and children three and under are free.

California Surf Museum
Photo by Mary Beth Abate for Thrillist

Oceanside
Did you know that Benjamin Franklin invented the swim fin when he was just 11 years old? Even if you’re not a surfer, you’ll love the California Surf Museum, founded in 1986 and dedicated to surf culture worldwide. For the optimal experience, let the encyclopedic docents guide you around the galleries, but it’s equally fascinating if you prefer a self-guided tour. A rotation of exhibits—currently there’s at least nine different presentations—take you through the history and culture of wave riding, including a tribute to renowned surfboard shaper Donald Takayama, and a delightfully nerdy Where’s The Surf? Find Swell Direction With Wave Science, featuring The Coastal Data Information Program’s (CDIP) near real-time network of monitoring sites for waves and beaches across the US. You can also take a deep dive into the history of boogie boarding, explore a timeline of surfboard development, and be amazed by the most popular exhibit, Courageous Inspiration: Bethany Hamilton, the compelling story of the then-thirteen year old surfer who lost her left arm when she was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark off the coast of Kaua’i in 2003. The museum is open daily from 10 am–4 pm. Tickets can be purchased at the door.
Cost: $7 for adults, $5 for seniors 62+, military, and students, children 11 and under are free.

The Women’s Museum of California
Photo courtesy of The Women’s Museum of California

Valencia Park
The Women’s Museum of California debuted its brand new Southeast San Diego Center earlier this summer. The museum’s featured exhibit, “Crafting Feminism: Textiles of the Women’s Movement,” is currently on display. From “bloomer outfits” and sashes dating back to the 1850s to hot pink knitted “pussy hats” like the ones worn at the 2017 Women’s March, the program highlights how textiles have played a role in the waves of feminism, and features locals such as Michelle Montjoy, Diana Benavídez, Anna O’Cain, Siobhan Arnold, Irma Sofia Poeter, Claudia Biezunski-Rodriquez and yarn bomber Maritza Contreras, who create artwork with textiles.

The museum also holds a library of feminist books, including women-authored books that have been banned from public schools across the country, with plans to grow the collection through donations from the public, An interactive component of the exhibit includes a feminist-themed photo station where visitors can pose with posters and signs harking back to the early 1900s women’s marches. The museum is open on the first Saturday of every month from noon to 4pm, and by appointment on weekdays to schools, community groups and businesses for workshops and activities. Visit its website to book a future tour.
Cost: Free on the first Saturday of the month. Private tours run $5 per student for schools and youth organizations and $15 per person for all other groups.

USS MIdway Museum
Photo courtesy of USS MIdway Museum

Downtown
Attracting more than 1.4 million visitors each year, with almost 30% coming from outside the United States, the USS Midway is not only one of San Diego’s most popular attractions, but it’s also the most visited historic naval ship museum in the world. This decommissioned carrier—which was in operation for nearly 50 years—is one of the best-preserved military attractions in the country, and offers visitors a chance to physically explore the history of America's navy. There are more than sixty exhibit areas, including the flight deck, aircraft gallery, below decks, and hangar deck, plus activities including flight simulators, the Battle of Midway Theater, and a docent-led Guided Island Tour. The museum is open daily from 10 am–5 pm, with the last admission at 4 pm. Purchase tickets online.
Cost: $26 for adults 13+, $18 for children 4-13 and veterans (with valid ID). Free for children five and younger, active duty military (w/valid ID), active sworn law enforcement (w/valid ID), active sworn firefighter (w/valid ID), including reservist.

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

La Jolla
After a years-long renovation and expansion, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) debuted its new La Jolla flagship campus this spring. With four times the gallery space on two light-filled levels, the venue also features a public park and new seaside terraces. Two hundred works of contemporary art fill the gallery, including Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s, which focuses on the artist’s avant-garde work such as her famous “shooting paintings,” created by shots from a .22 caliber rifle, and her vibrant sculptures of women known as “Nanas.” The museum is open Thursday-Sunday from 10 am–4 pm, and tickets can be purchased online.
Cost: $25 for adults, $20 for San Diego County and Tijuana residents, $15 for students and seniors, free for military and their families, people 17 and under, and SNAP/EBT cardholders. Admission is free for everyone on the second Sunday and the third Thursday of every month.

Barona Indian Reservation
The Barona Cultural Center & Museum is dedicated to preserving the Native American culture and history of San Diego County. The county’s only museum on an Indian reservation houses more than 3,000 various artifacts, along with listening nooks, photographs, and archives that inform the compelling stories of the Kumeyaay tribes. With some objects dating back 10,000 years, the exhibits demonstrate the creativity and proficiency of North America’s first inhabitants. In addition, the museum’s library houses over 1,000 books, including rare and out-of-print editions, an extensive archive of photos, and historical documents to help visitors discover more about how Indigenous groups lived. The newest exhibit, and one of the most important in the museum’s history is Nya’waap Illyuw Uuchyuwp—Our Way of Knowing, a short film documenting the Creation Story of the Kumeyaay People. Traditionally, the Kumeyaay people would gather in the fall for special ceremonies and, over four days and nights, young people would listen to oral histories of the Creation Story and learn the ways of their ancestors. The Barona Cultural Center & Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 5 pm and Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm.
Cost: Free

The Maritime Museum of San Diego
Photo courtesy of Maritime Museum

Downtown
Explore San Diego’s long maritime history with a visit to the Maritime Museum of San Diego, the largest preserved collection of historic ships in the U.S. You’ll see steam-powered boats, submarines, a refurbished, historically-accurate replica of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s ship, San Salvador, and the majestic Star of India. On-the-water adventures include the 90-minute interactive BOARDED! A New Pirate Adventure; Swift Boat Naval History Tour; and a Tall Ship Adventure Aboard Californian, a Gold Rush era revenue cutter and the Official Tall Ship of the State of California. On-board exhibits deliver as well, with Sea Monsters: Delving Into The Deep Myth, a Model Gallery, and To The Brink Of War, a chilling depiction of the tense undersea story within the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, plus a half-dozen other permanent and rotating exhibits. The Maritime Museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, last ticket sold and entry at 4 pm.
Cost: General admission is $20.00 for adults 18+, $15 for seniors 62+ and students 13-17, $10 for children 3-12, under 3 is free. On-water adventure prices vary.


 

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.