Going Local: San Diego’s Best Museums

published on July 20, 2021 by

San Diego isn’t just about beaches. This Southern California city is one of the state’s best cultural destinations, with an array of museums that provide new perspectives on the past, present and future. The diverse range of these attractions is unmatched. During a single vacation, you can travel backwards into prehistory or ascend into space. You can explore a massive aircraft carrier or see Impressionist masterpieces. It can be hard to narrow down your options in the city. But we’ve done our best to give you some recommendations for the best San Diego museums. 

San Diego Travel Tip: The Go San Diego All-Inclusive Pass gives unlimited entry to over 55 attractions, activities, experiences, and tours for one low price. 

USS Midway Museum

You may have visited plenty of museums in your day. But how many museums located on a four-acre historic aircraft carrier have you visited? The USS Midway was the longest-serving U.S. Navy aircraft carrier of the 20th century, once carrying 4,500 shipmates across the oceans.  

Today, it’s docked permanently in downtown San Diego, serving as the USS Midway Museum. The museum lets visitors of all ages explore the ship via interactive exhibits (flight simulator, anyone?) and self-guided audio tours narrated by former Midway sailors. Oh, and check to see if you’re in town for regular Top Gun movie nights!

  • What Else To Do Nearby: Stroll through the historic Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego, where modern architecture blends seamlessly with Victorian-era buildings. The Gaslamp is home to some of the city’s very best gastropubs, craft brew hot spots, rooftop bars, and stylish shopping options. 

The New Children’s Museum

The mission of downtown San Diego’s New Children’s Museum is to unlock the potential of kids’ imaginations through art and the creative process. But your kid won’t be too busy thinking about such a lofty goal. They’ll be too busy having the time of their life as they discover whimsical art installations that invite interaction. Climb through the Wonder Sound, a labyrinth made of 18,000 hand-cut wooden shapes. Climb into the Whammock!, a 3-D textile environment that looks like a giant hammock. A visit to Wobbleland is like being shrunk down to insect-size, as toddlers play with oversized food sculptures. The only thing your kids won’t like about the New Children’s Museum is having to leave at the end of the day.

  • What Else To Do Nearby: Seaport Village is a nice escape from the bustle of downtown, with cobblestone pathways that offer panoramic views of the harbor, plus eclectic shops and tasty treats — ice cream, cookies, popcorn, and beyond. 

Museum of Us

Located in the astounding Balboa Park (home to 16 world-class museums), the Museum of Us is indeed about … us! The museum’s unique exhibits illustrate the vast diversity of human culture, illuminating unknown corners of the past. You’ll learn about the Kumeyaay Nation, the native Californian people whose ancestral homelands reside on the Balboa Park grounds. In the Race: Are We So Different? exhibit, you’ll uncover the roots of race and racism — and find productive ways to move forward. You’ll also want to climb to the California Tower, an iconic San Diego landmark, which offers 360-degree views of the surrounding city from an eighth-floor observation deck.  

  • What Else To Do Nearby: Balboa Park is, to put it lightly, lush. The many landscaped gardens here give you the chance to immerse yourself in nature, with native California plants, lily ponds, rare orchids and more. 

San Diego Museum of Art

In need of inspiration? Spend a few hours in the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA), also located in Balboa Park. This spot is a monument to human creativity — its collections include more than 20,000 objects from across the globe. There are plenty of pieces by internationally renowned artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Henri Matisse, Francisco Goya, John Singer Sargent and many more. But the marquee names are just the beginning of the treasures here. The museum’s collection of German expressionism is unparalleled (including works by including Otto Dix, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele), and the Buddhist sculptures from China and Japan will expand your mind. Check the schedule to see what’s showing during your visit

  • What Else To Do Nearby: Located in the San Diego Museum of Art’s Marcy S. May Sculpture Garden, Panama 66 is one of the best craft beer bars in the U.S., with more than dozen local brews on tap, plus hand-crafted food and drink and seasonal cocktails. 

San Diego Air & Space Museum

The cosmos is within reach at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, this Balboa Park attraction houses aircraft and spacecraft from all over the world, from a detailed reproduction of the Wright Brothers’ 1901 Glider to Apollo 9. Families: don’t miss the new SPACE: Our Greatest Adventure exhibition that takes guests from NASA’s earliest forays into the stars to the future of space exploration in the 21st century and beyond. The exhibition’s four separate zones are packed with one-of-kind artifacts, hands-on educational experiences, and even “selfie stations” so you can tell the folks back home that you visited the Moon, Mars, and the International Space Station. 

  • What Else To Do Nearby: The San Diego Air & Space Museum is all about flight. Afterwards, pay a visit to the original flyers at the San Diego Zoo’s Scripps Aviary, home to more than 130 colorful African birds. 

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