The Best Museums in San Diego

From Musical Instruments to Folk Art to Military Aircraft

The New Children's Museum in San Diego

TripSavvy / Ana Alarcon 

When it comes to museums in San Diego, most of us think of the great collection in Balboa Park, and rightly so, but San Diego has interesting and amazing museums all over the county. Some of these museums are well known, while others are under-the-radar gems just waiting for you to discover. One thing this list of museums has in common, however, is the uniqueness of their collections. From musical instruments to folk art to military aircraft - here's a list of San Diego's most interesting museums worth checking out.

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San Diego Museum of Man

San Diego Museum of Man

TripSavvy / Ana Alarcon

The San Diego Museum of Man is a cultural and physical anthropology museum. It was established to collect, preserve, interpret and communicate evidence of human development and creativity to advance understanding and respect for all cultures. The mission is to basically teach people about people. Set in the majestic California Tower Quadrangle in Balboa Park, the Museum of Man is a really interesting place to learn about civilization. Cool exhibit: kids (and adults) will be mystified by seeing the mummies on display. 

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San Diego Natural History Museum (NAT)

San Diego Natural History Museum
San Diego Natural History Museum

Nothing epitomizes a grand museum better than the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park. Established in 1874, the NAT is one of the oldest scientific institutions west of the Mississippi.

While visiting the NAT, you'll find just about everything pertaining to natural history -- insects, dinosaurs, mammals, geology, flora, fauna and more.

Besides the permanent collections and exhibits, the museum is host to a number of visiting exhibitions, which has included the Dead Sea Scrolls to Backyard Monsters to A Day in Pompeii.

It's a great museum to spend time wandering. One last tip: don't miss the mesmerizing Foucault Pendulum in the lobby of the original building.

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Museum of Making Music

Museum of Making Music
Museum of Making Music

This unique and cool museum is found in the North County San Diego city of Carlsbad. Since its opening to the public in 2000 and renovation in 2011, the Museum of Making Music has become a cultural destination with interactive and educational programs and exhibits.

Founded by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) the Museum of Making Music showcases the evolution of musical instruments from the late 19th century to the present day in five galleries.

It also regularly hosts intimate concerts and hands-on workshops to introduce the public to the history of American music products. If you're a musician, or just fascinated by how music is made, the Museum of Making Music is a place to visit.

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California Surf Museum

California Surf Museum
 Gwsuperfan/Wikimedia CC 2.0

It's always neat to find museums that are tied to the local culture and history. In San Diego, surfing is a big part of the local culture, which is why you should check out the California Surf Museum.

This museum was founded in 1986 when architect and surfer Stuart Resor appeared in a local newspaper article inviting interested people to found a museum to honor the history of surfing.

After residing in a number of homes in North County since its founding, the California Surf Museum moved into a sparkling new home in Oceanside in 2009.

The museum's mission is to preserve the California surfing heritage and features a number of special exhibits recounting surfing eras, technology, personalities and cultural influence.

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Maritime Museum of San Diego

Star of India ship at the Maritime Museum of San Diego
Michael Wood/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

If you've been to the San Diego waterfront, you've undoubtedly noticed the majestic sailing ship called the Star of India. You also may have noticed some other boats moored nearby to it. But did you know this collection of ships is known as the Maritime Museum of San Diego?

Founded in 1948, the museum grew out of the acquisition of the Star of India in 1927. Now fully restored, the Star of India is maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers and skilled craftsmen and sailed at least once a year.

The museum’s collection also includes the 1898 steam ferry Berkeley, the 1904 steam yacht Medea and the H.M.S Surprise, a magnificent replica of an 18th century Royal Navy frigate featured in the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

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San Diego Air & Space Museum

San Diego Air & Space Museum
 San Diego Air & Space Museum

San Diego has a long history tied to aviation and space travel. Convair, home of such famous aircraft as the B-24 Liberator and the PBY Catalina, was founded here.

Ryan Aeronautical, home of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, was located here, and North Island Naval Air Station is the home of naval aviation. Much of that knowledge is captured and conveyed through the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

Established in 1961, the museum is a must for anyone fascinated by technology and exploration.

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The New Children's Museum

The New Children's Museum

TripSavvy / Ana Alarcon

The New Children's Museum in San Diego is a great museum for families with children to visit.

The museum's state of the art center is focused on creating a space where children can think, play and create through hands-on exhibitions, art creation, and educational opportunities.

It has something for children of every age and parents will enjoy the learning nature of it as well. 

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Museum of Photographic Arts

Museum of Photographic Arts

Art is subjective and interpretive, and sometimes hard to decipher. Less so photographic arts, perhaps. And who doesn't like looking at amazing images of real things? Which is why the Museum of Photographic Arts is so cool.

MOPA became one of the first museum facilities in the United States exclusively spanning the history of photography from the 19th century to the present day. 

The museum’s permanent collection offers a rich photographic heritage of some 7,000 images including works by Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Stieglitz, and Ruth Bernhard, among 850 other photographers. Films screenings are often presented in support of the Museum’s exhibitions or in collaboration with a community partner.

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USS Midway Museum

USS Midway Museum in San Diego

TripSavvy / Ana Alarcon

Nothing smacks of U.S. military might better than a Navy aircraft carrier. The USS. Midway, anchored at the embarcadero, is the most visited floating museum in the world.

Commissioned a week after the end of World War II, the USS Midway embarked on an unprecedented 47-year odyssey that ended after Midway served as the Persian Gulf flagship in Desert Storm. The Midway is the longest-serving U.S. Navy carrier of the 20th century and ranked as the largest ship in the world from 1945 to 1955. 

Exhibits range from the crew's sleeping quarters to a massive galley, engine room, the ship's jail, officer's country, post office, machine shops, and pilots' ready rooms, as well as primary flight control and the bridge high in the island over the flight deck.

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Mingei International Museum

Mingei International Museum
Mingei International Museum

Established in 1978, Mingei International Museum is a non-profit public institution that was established in 1978. Located in Balboa Park, the museum houses a variety of art forms from cultures all around the world, both past, and present. It includes nearly 20,000 artistic objects and artifacts from over 140 countries and focuses on folk art, craft, and design. 

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San Diego Police Museum

police motorcycle in museum exhibit
Tomás Del Coro/Flickr CC

Housed in a former city branch library in the Rolando neighborhood, the San Diego Police Museum is a historical memorial to the men and women who have served for the SDPD.

The San Diego Police Museum is a fitting place to learn about the history of the city's police force, with interesting memorabilia, documents, artifacts, and photos. There are small exhibits and displays of the department through the years and it's interesting to see how crime fighting has evolved.

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San Diego Firehouse Museum

The Firehouse Museum in San Diego
Another Believer/Wikimedia CC 2.0

If you're going to visit the San Diego Police Museum, then you have to visit the San Diego Firehouse Museum, too, right?

Founded in 1962, the Firehouse Museum occupies the former home of San Diego Fire Station No. 6, which now resides at First Avenue and B Street, the City Operations Building.

The museum’s brick-and-mortar building in Little Italy features all manner of fire-fighting gear imaginable and pays tribute to fire marshals, chiefs, deputy chiefs, alarm dispatchers and battalions who have answered the call of duty.

Inside, you will see firefighting memorabilia dating back 100 years.  Everything from fire buckets to early firefighting apparatus is on display.

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Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum

Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum
Cdydatzigs/Wikimedia CC SA 3.0

If you're a fan of the annual Miramar Air Show, then the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum is a good place for you to visit.

What sets this museum apart from all others is the fact that it is the only museum in the world dedicated to preserving the incredible contributions made by Marine Corps Aviators and their ground support personnel.

Located at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, the museum is comprised of an outdoor area, displaying an average of at least twenty five vintage aircraft and an indoor display of memorabilia and artifacts dating to the earliest days of Marine Corps Aviation.