San Diego’s exhilarating cocktail of Spanish, Mexican and American influences make for some eye-poppingly wonderful cultural experiences across the city. Not least in Balboa Park, a vast green space just north of Downtown, where the heady mix of architecturally surprising buildings house several of the region's finest museums and art galleries. There’s more than enough here and around town to keep everyone – from excitable toddlers to the most jaded culture seeker – entertained for days. Maybe even weeks! Here’s our countdown of the 10 best museums in San Diego.
San Diego Museum of Art
The cathedral-like facade of the region’s largest art museum cuts a striking dash even on Balboa Park’s El Prado boulevard, where nearly every building is an architectural masterclass. A grandly ornamented door leads you beneath imposing statues of Velázquez, Murillo, and Zurbarán and into this huge, well-lit space, where works by these Spanish masters and others including Goya and El Greco dominate. The collection is supported by pieces from America, Asia, Europe and Latin America. Browse Japanese woodblock art, Buddhist sculpture and an impressive collection of German Expressionist works as well as big names including Canaletto, Monet, O’Keeffe and Tamayo. And be sure not to miss Bosch’s typically disturbing The Arrest of Christ and Renoir’s beguiling Woman Combing Her Hair while you’re here.
USS Midway Museum
The United States' longest-serving 20th-century aircraft carrier is honored at the USS Midway Museum. You can’t miss this vast vessel: now permanently docked downtown at Navy Pier, it was once the largest ship in the world. The museum is a thrill-a-minute for Top Gun fans, with oodles of flying machines to ogle, including an F9F-P Cougar from the Korean War and a WWII SDB Dauntless dive bomber. You can even play captain up on the bridge and do your best Tom Cruise impression inside an airplane cockpit. But if it’s boats that, um, float your boat then there’s no reason you can’t fit the USS Midway Museum and the nearby Maritime Museum of San Diego on the same day, with a bit of military precision. Grab lunch at nearby Seaport Village or Little Italy to keep your sightseeing strength up.
Fleet Science Center
All terracotta roof tiles, ornate balconies and arches running the length of its sand-colored facade, the Fleet Science Center looks like for all the world like a royal Spanish villa has been air-dropped into Balboa Park, extravagant water fountain and all. Inside, there are stacks of interactive exhibits designed to entertain both kids and grown-ups. Find out why toast always seems to land butter-side down, become a human battery, experience a thrilling virtual reality spacewalk at the International Space Station and take an immersive journey through the natural world in the IMAX cinema. Little ones will love Kid City, where cranes, carts and conveyor belts make for hours of hands-on fun.
Built in the traditional ‘saltbox’ style – traditional, that is, to Portland, Maine – downtown San Diego’s oldest surviving structure was actually built hundreds of miles away before being dismantled and shipped here way back in the mid 18th Century. Step inside the (reassembled) timber-framed building to enter a frozen-in-time snapshot of the Victorian era. Wander rooms filled with period furniture and other ephemera of the time and learn about former inhabitants including ‘father of San Diego’ Alonzo Horton. You may even, if you’re lucky, run into the Gaslamp Museum’s resident ghost. Boo!
Air and Space Museum
The supersonic Lockheed A-12 and Convair YF2Y-1 Sea Dart airplanes that flank the entrance to Balboa Park’s Air and Space Museum will give you some idea of what to expect inside. Aircraft enthusiasts will once again be in seventh heaven: here’s where to see exhibits from the great and good of air and space exploration, including artifacts from the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart and Buzz Aldrin. Check out the faithful replica of Charles Lindbergh’s tiny Spirit of St. Louis plane, which he flew solo from Long Island to Paris in 1927. And see Gumdrop, one of only 13 Apollo command modules on display anywhere in the world. The museum also boasts interactive exhibits galore, including an immersive 4D cinema, flight simulators and a Kids’ Aviation Action Hangar with cute little pedal planes.
New Children’s Museum
Kids will have their tiny minds blown by this excellent downtown museum that’s chock-full of entertaining activities and interactive exhibits. Each little room here is themed, with ever-changing installations keeping things fresh year-round. Expect colorful murals, mind-bending puzzles and a mini theater with dress-up materials for budding young thespians. There’s even a giant woven hammock that kids can climb into and explore, as well as workshops where little hands are kept busy with clay, paints, stencils and other artistic bits and bobs.
Museum of Us
As if Balboa Park’s highly decorative California Quadrangle buildings aren’t testament enough to humanity’s skills, ingenuity and artistry alone, inside is where you’ll find the Museum of Us. Exhibits in this fascinating anthropological journey through human evolution explore everything from cannibalism to the ancient (and somewhat more palatable) art of beer-making, a nod to San Diego’s status as the capital of US craft brewing. Learn about what makes people unique as well as the ties that bind us all together. And, while you’re here, be sure to climb the iconic California Tower for sweeping views across the park and beyond.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps
Perched on a hilltop in the delightful La Jolla district around 12 miles north of downtown, the Birch Aquarium is an excellent low-key alternative to SeaWorld San Diego in Mission Bay; we recommend visiting on a day trip to La Jolla’s fine sandy beaches. See if you can spot the elusive giant Pacific octopus and rescued loggerhead turtle in the Hall of Fishes, and come face to face with spotted leopard sharks at Shark Shores. Kids will love exploring Tidepool Plaza and getting hands-on with the sea anemones, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, lobsters and various other critters in the living tidepools here.
San Diego Natural History Museum
This fab family attraction in Balboa Park features all manner of prehistoric monsters and other wild beasts across four floors. Meet the museum’s giant replica mastodon, examine dozens of dinosaur fossils and check out the bizarre collection of animal skulls – many from the San Diego region – from tiny reptiles to towering pachyderms. Kids can study fossils up close using real archaeological equipment and get answers to their most burning questions about the natural world from scientists in the Demonstration Lab.
Museum of Photographic Arts
This collection of fascinating images spans the entire history of photography. Its thousands of photographic and filmed images allow for a wide range of rotating exhibitions, and are supplemented by touring shows by photographers from around the world. There's also a range of events and workshops available to help bring out the best in your selfie skills and really make your Instagram sparkle. Why not start by snapping the museum building, another visually stunning Spanish Colonial Revival confection in (where else) Balboa Park?
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