San Diego County is ranked in the top five of the nation’s cultural capitals by number of museums so from historians at heart to entertainment seekers, there is something for everyone to enjoy at San Diego’s amazing museums and cultural attractions.
You will find yourself exploring the hidden treasures of the ocean at Birch Aquarium at Scripps or the far reaches of outer space at San Diego Air & Space Museum. If history is your passion, you can find exhibitions at local museums that satisfy your curiosity. There is no limit to the remarkable displays of visual arts, botanic gardens, science exploration, and architectural treasurers located right here in San Diego. Museums such as USS Midway Museum, The New Children’s Museum, Museum of Making Music, San Diego Botanic Garden, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, and many more are waiting for you.
Take a tour by neighborhood:
NORTH COUNTY COASTAL
Known for its beachy landscapes, breezy lagoons and rocky reefs, North County is San Diego’s second-post populous region for more reasons than one. The stretch of coast, from Del Mar to Oceanside, is home to a number of museums rich with activities for the whole family. In addition to be being a short distance from Legoland, Cape Rey Carlsbad, a Hilton Resort is a stone’s throw away from the Museum of Making Music. Unleash the musician within as you explore hundreds of vintage instruments and get a glimpse into music history with interactive areas and galleries that highlight popular music through the eras. After, head up the scenic coast and watch the surf on your way to Oceanside’s California Surf Museum. Here you’ll catch some waves off the sand while exploring a collection that chronicles the history of surfboards and wave riding in Southern California.
Next stop is the Oceanside Museum of Art with highly praised modern and contemporary art exhibitions from national and global artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. All of the adventure is sure to work up an appetite! Don’t forget to stop along Oceanside’s N. Coast Highway that’s lined with dozens of restaurants for even the pickiest of eaters, from family cafes to gastropubs.
NORTH COUNTY INLAND
Drive through North County Inland’s rolling hills and winding roads as you make your way to museums that celebrate its history. The Barona Cultural Center and Museum and the San Diego Archeological Center are dedicated to the collection and exhibition of San Diego’s archaeological and Native American artifacts. For an off-the-beaten-path experience, take an educational journey at the museums while learning how local people have lived for the past 10,000 years.
Make your way north to The Escondido Center for the Arts that celebrates local Southern California artists. If you’re looking to entertain the little ones, then you’ll love the Escondido San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum. The family-centric museum is filled with interactive exhibits such as outdoor art studios, guided garden exploration, and STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Art, and Math) stations that promote child learning.
DEL MAR/LA JOLLA
La Jolla may be best known for its cliffs, coves and famous golfing at Torrey Pines, but there’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to this community. Dive into an under-the-sea adventure at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps with 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical waters of Mexico and beyond. Get immersed into a world of amazing underwater forest ecosystems with their two-story, 70,000-gallon, Giant Kelp Tank.
Have a one-of-a-kind aviation experience at La Jolla’s Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum where you can take tour of the world’s largest and most complete collection of vintage aircrafts flown by Marine pilots with 27 aircrafts and 8 galleries of marine artifacts from World War 1 to present day on display.
Head to downtown La Jolla and take a visit to the La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage, a designated historical landmark and beach cottage built in 1904. End your day with dinner at an array of ocean view restaurants to choose from including Cusp Dining & Drinks perched on the 11th floor at Hotel La Jolla, Curio Collection by Hilton.
DOWNTOWN: HISTORICAL TO CONTEMPORARY SAN DIEGO
With over 100 years of history, San Diego’s Gaslamp mixes Victorian architecture with premier shopping, dining and entertaining attractions. First stop is the Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House where you can partake in architectural tours throughout the neighborhood or walk through the historic David House (1850), the oldest surviving structure in downtown San Diego. Close by is the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum with monthly walking tours that uncover the multicultural history of San Diego’s Asian Pacific Historic District.
Downtown San Diego has its fair share of city skyscrapers and busy sidewalks. In the heart of downtown is The Museum of Contemporary Art with a collection of more than 4,700 works created after 1950, from installations to paintings. Half a mile away is The New Children’s Museum where kids and parents alike can have fun with hands-on educational exhibits.
While downtown, don’t forget to visit San Diego’s Little Italy, an urban neighborhood known for their authentic European cuisine, energetic breweries and trendy cocktail bars.
SAN DIEGO BAY TO LIBERTY STATION
From downtown head west towards San Diego’s harbor and you’ll find yourself at the USS Midway Museum. Bring Midway’s history to life with a self-guided tour that takes you through a floating city at sea with 60 exhibits throughout the longest-serving Navy aircraft carrier of the 20th century and 29 restored aircraft. Just a short walk is the Maritime Museum of San Diego where you can hop aboard the world’s oldest active sailing ship, The Star of India. Take part in a four-hour sail aboard their replica of the historic San Salvador, the 16th century galleon captained by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo who was the first European explorer to reach the West Coast
A few miles north is San Diego’s blooming arts district, Liberty Station. Once a Navy training base, Liberty Station is now a destination for restaurants, galleries and several museums. At Liberty Station’s New Americas Museum you can celebrate visual arts, live performances, and cultural events that promote understanding between new citizens and native-born Americans. Embrace your creative side at the Visions Art Museum where textiles come to life as intricate pieces of art.
MISSION VALLEY/OLD TOWN
Established in 1769, Old Town is home to historical sites that will transport you through hundreds of years of history. While in the area, make sure to visit the Adobe Chapel; the first parochial church in the first parish of California after the secularization of the missions in 1832. Take a tour of Old Town’s Whaley House, believed to the most haunted house in America, where they offer private after-hour tours for brave souls. Visit the Junípero Serra Museum, a top destination known for its renowned architecture and California settlement history.
Coronado, a peninsula on San Diego’s bay, is home to some of the world’s most desirable beaches. Sail across the bay between San Diego and Coronado Ferry Landing on an iconic 15-minute ferry ride and then stroll through the waterfront marketplace full of over 25 unique shops and restaurants.
Stepping away from the sand, you’ll find the Coronado Museum of History & Art where you can explore original objects used at the Hotel del Coronado from the early 1900s. Take a walking tour of the historic Coronado with beautiful gardens and architecture. Adventure south, over the Coronado Bridge to San Diego’s South Bay where you can have a hands-on, wildlife experience at The Living Coast Discovery Center. Feed bat rays, touch horn sharks and meet a rosy boa snake in their animal encounter exhibit. A short distance away is the Bonita Museum where you can take a lesson on local culture with hundreds of photographs, artifacts, books and works of art. Or step out into nature with a Tijuana Estuary guided bird tour on the beautiful North McCoy trail.
Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s most famous landmarks, with more than 17 museums, multiple art venues, intricate gardens and exciting attractions. This internationally renowned destination offers something for everyone, from art and culture to science and history. Take a self-guided tour through the park, exploring its lush gardens from end to end. While you’re there, delve into Japanese culture while admiring stone arrangements, koi ponds, water features, and sukiya-style architecture at the Japanese Friendship Garden. Take on a spectacular journey through distant lands at the Fleet Science Center’s IMAX & Digital Shows. See if you’ve got what it takes to go fast with the San Diego Air & Space Museum’s launch of Speed: Science in Motion. Discover a “backstage” glimpse into the San Diego Natural History Museum storage areas with their new Unshelved: Cool Stuff from Storage exhibit that features hidden wonders from their collection of eight million specimens. End your day enjoying the beautiful views of the park at one of their many cafés or restaurants.