People you meet in museums are cooler than other people. — Anonymous Sage
Here are links to interesting museums in and around San Diego, with some brief comments on each. In general, most are small and, compared with museums in many other cities, most are overpriced. However many are interesting in their way.
In Balboa Park, most museums offer once-a-month "Residents Free Days" admission for San Diego County residents (Link), with different museums participating on different Tuesdays. For the more museum-prone visitor, a number of multi-museum pass programs exist, including one valid for a year in all the park's museums. (Link).
After the San Diego listings in each category, I have added a few museums in the Los Angeles area that seemed particularly worth going out of one's way to visit. I have been far more selective with these than with the San Diego ones.
Remember that modern museum web sites often allow you to look at selected items in their collections on your computer. It can be fun to spend some time with such "virtual visits," although of course nothing beats a real visit. Many museums now allow photographs in some galleries, so bring a camera. That makes it possible and fun to share your visit with others. Be prepared to use the camera's "macro" setting —some newer cameras are smart enough to take care of this by themselves; be sure you know how to turn off the flash; and watch out for reflections on glass.
This list, with my descriptive and evaluative comments, is intended to be generally helpful, not definitive. Information should always be checked with the museum's web site before you visit, since hours (and prices) may shift seasonally (and/or unpredictably).
Heritage of the Americas Museum http://www.cuyamaca.net/museum/main.asp +1-619-670-5194.
12110 Cuyamaca College Drive West, El Cajon
Prehistoric and historic art, ethnography, and natural history of the Americas. The material exhibited is nearly all from the collection of one person, and, while identified, is rarely labeled in a way that explains very much, so it is well to know what you are looking at, and some probable reproductions are not so identified. That said, there are some surprising objects here, ranging from Chimú featherwork to early Chinese jades.
(Take Route 94 west to El Cajon. It will eventually turn into Campo/Jamacha. Keep with Jamacha as it forks to the left. Then turn left almost immediately into Cuyamaca College Drive West. The museum is the first exit on the right as you enter the college.)
San Diego Museum of Man (Balboa Park)
Admission is free on the third Tuesday of each month.
Permanent collections and visiting exhibits on anthropological themes. As anthropology museums go, this is not a large collection, and the building is not really ideally configured to be a museum, but most exhibits are interesting. In addition to standing exhibits, large permanent collections are rotated to provide continuing special exhibits in addition to visiting ones. Especially notable continuing exhibits include the Maya collection, the (oddly uninformative) section of fossil hominids, and the exhibit on the indigenous Kumeyaay of this region. The Egyptian hall includes materials from Tell el-Amarna, unusual for a small museum.
San Diego Archaeological Center http://www.sandiegoarchaeology.org, +1-760-291-0370
16666 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido, CA 92027-7001
The building functions largely for storage and active work on collections of archaeological materials found in San Diego County, but its museum is open to the public except Sundays.
New Americans Museum http://www.newamericansmuseum.org +1-619-255-8908
2825 Dewey Road, Suite 102, San Diego 92106
Temporarily closed to the public.
One of San Diego's newest museums, located at the old Navel Training Center and still struggling establish its reputation, this collection is devoted to documenting the immigrant experience in this country, with a sepecial emphasis on our own region. In addition to its exhibits, the museum sponsors interesting oral history and other documentation projects.
Bowers Museum of Cultural Art (Santa Ana)
http://www.bowers.org, +1-714-567-3600 & +1-714-972-1900.
2002 North Main Street, Santa Ana
Very interesting but pricey small museum that stands somewhere between art and anthropology in its interests. One of the best permanent collections here is the one devoted to Maya materials. Easy to stop by en route to or from Los Angeles. The address is 2002 North Main Street in Santa Ana. Use your map, however. Despite a few freeway signs, the exit and the route to the museum are easy to miss. (If you are heading northward, a large brown building that looks like a cube standing on one corner helps identify the exit.)
Fowler Museum of Cultural History (UCLA)
(Enter UCLA at Woodward Plaza off Sunset Blvd.) This is UCLA's principal museum, home to a wide range of visiting exhibits, often of mixed artistic and ethnographic interest. An interesting associated insitution is the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/ioa.
California Center for the Arts Museum (Escondido)
Admission is free on the first Wednesday of each month.
Traveling exhibits; museum store with local crafts.
Mingei International Museum (Balboa Park)
Admission is free on the third Tuesday of each month.
Rotating and visiting exhibits of folk art from around the world. ("Mingei" is a transliteration of the Japanese term 民藝, "folk art.") The Exhibits change frequently, are always interesting, and are beautifully curated. The museum also has the most interesting gift shop in Balboa Park.
Museum of Contemporary Art (La Jolla & downtown branches)
Admission is free from 5-7 pm on the third Thursday of each month.
(I haven't visited this since they charged me $5 to view an exhibit of dirty sheets hanging on the walls in about 1970 and I decided "contemporary art," at least in La Jolla, fails to lift the spirit.)
Museum of Photographic Arts (Balboa Park)
http://www.mopa.org Admission is free on the second Tuesday of each month.
San Diego Museum of Art (Balboa Park)
Admission is free on the third Tuesday of each month.
The city's principal, if humble, art museum, with both permanent collections and traveling exhibits.
Timken Museum of Art (Balboa Park)
A small museum housing the personal but remarkably impressive collection of Amy and Anne Putnam, who were also major donors to the San Diego Museum of Art. Located immediately adjacent to SDMA, the Timken specializes in traditional European and American art and is also noted for its collection of Russian icons and its free admission (a welcome contrast to the generally high admission fees of other museums in the park).
San Diego Comic Art Gallery (Liberty Station Shopping Center) www.SanDiegoComicArtGallery.com +1-858-270-1315
A very small museum, opened in June, 2015, sponsored by publisher IDW in the one-time barracks in the former Naval Training Center in Liberty Station shopping center. Admission is free.
UCSD Stuart Collection (UCSD campus)
http://stuartcollection.ucsd.edu Works of controversial modern art spread around the UCSD campus. UCSD students have to live with this stuff every day. Other people can probably get more than their fill from the web site.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Hollywood)
1-213-937-2590 (tape); +1-213-937-4250 (office)
The most important art museum in the Western states, with large collections from all periods and around the world, as well as traveling exhibits. One can happily spend a day here.
Huntington Library (Pasadena)
http://www.huntington.org Although the library function still has priority, this is also a major art collection and spectacular botanical garden that draws visitors from throughout the area to visit time and time again. Thoughtful labels on the exhibits make this an especially pleasant visit. One can happily spend a day here. (Avoid coming in the rain, since the exhibits are in several buildings, and walking through the gardens is part of the experience. If it is raining, it can be a wet experience.)
John Paul Getty Museums (Los Angeles and Malibu)
The Getty Villa in Malibu was built in the form of a Roman villa to house the personal collection of one of the world's richest men. The collection included Greco-Roman sculpture as well as European painting and decorative art through about 1800. It was elegantly displayed and conspicuously well labeled. Although now supplemented by jarringly non-Roman outbuildings and limited to the Greco-Roman collections(and occasional visiting exhibits), this museum remains a joy to visit. Because of limited (paid) parking capacity, advance reservations are still necessary.
The newer Getty Center (just beside Route 405 as it heads north toward the Ventura Freeway in Los Angeles) is home to the non-Greco-Roman collections. The acclaimed but uncomfortable building complex covers a hilltop and also houses a range of conservation, library, and research facilities that make a museum visitor feel like an intruder. (Notice how their web site conveys exactly the same feeling when compared with those of other museums listed here.) However, the collection is still excellent; the labels are still superb; and admission is still free (although parking is not).
Norton Simon Museum (Pasadena)
Initiated around the personal art collection of industrialist Norton Simon, this elegant museum, particularly noted for its collection of works by Paul Cézanne, has many other works by extremely prominent painters and sculptors. On the lower level is an impressive collection of sculpture from South Asia, one of the best in the United States, with surprisingly informative labels. Well worth a visit.
Pacific Asia Museum (Pasadena)
This museum seeks to present the arts of Asia and the Pacific Islands (which mostly means Asia). The collection is limited for such a grand ambition, but there are some extremely interesting pieces. Changing temporary exhibits and a vigorous program of activities makes it interesting. It is just down the road from the Norton Simon Museum and is easily combined in the same visit.
Centro Cultural de Tijuana http://www.cecut.gob.mx, Tel: +1-664-687-9600
(Paseo de los Héroes y Javier Mina, Zona Urbana Río C. P. 22320 Tijuana, B.C. Mxico.)
A major center for temporary exhibitions and cultural events, the "Cecut" of Tijuana also houses a continuing exhibit on the history of Baja California and an interesting bookstore.
Although vehicle access from the United States involves a confusing routing through downtown Tijuana, the museum is a walkable mile or so from the pedestrian border crossing. You may find it convenient to park on the American side, then cross the border and head eastward along the river. Lots of friendly people can help you find it if you get lost.
San Diegito River Park (From Solana Beach to the mountain crests)
http://www.sdrp.org Stretching as it does between the mountains and the coast, this enormous park along the river system features a "Coast to Crest Trail," actually a collection of hiking trails that pass through a remarkable range of different habitats. Beginning from the coast at Solana Beach, the park stretches inland to Lake Hodges, along the southern periphery of Escondido, then north of Ramona to the Southerland Reservoir and beyond up into the mountains. Check the excellent web site for map, contact information, pictures, and other information.
Birch Aquarium (UCSD)
http://aquarium.ucsd.edu Far more than just fish. An attractive museum. The story is told that when SIO was founded Mrs. Scripps provided that it should have a free public aquarium. Sadly, when the aquarium was rebuilt it was no longer named after her and now charges a substantial admission fee.
San Diego Botanic Garden (Encinitas)
(Formerly: Quail Botanical Gardens) http://qbgardens.com Thirty-acre site of a wide range of plants, native and imported.
San Diego Japanese Friendship Garden (Balboa Park)
This small garden in Balboa Park is a quick and inexpensive introduction to the art of the Japanese garden if you happen already to be in the park. A small tea and snack shop stands at the front gate.
San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park (Zoo in Balboa Park, WAP in San Pasqual)
http://www.sandiegozoo.org One of the world's leading zoos, with over four thousand animals and plants to match. The WAP is a 2,000 acre plot of land designed scientifically to promote breeding but exploited commercially to get in maximum gate, with lots of shops, restaurants, animal shows, etc. Fun, if you are not too put off by the commercialism of it. (Meanwhile the focus of the zoo itself is also shifting from animals to shops and restaurants. Bring money or high sales resistance.)
Huntington Library (Pasadena)
http://www.huntington.org Although the library function still has priority, this is also a major art collection and substantial botanical garden that draws visitors from throughout the area to visit time and time again. Thoughtful labels on the exhibits make this an especially pleasant visit. Avoid coming in the rain, since the exhibits are in several buildings, and walking through the gardens is part of the experience.
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (Balboa Park)
http://www.rhfleet.org Admission is free on the first Tuesday of each month.
Interactive exhibits and IMAX dome cinema.
San Diego Natural History Museum (Balboa Park)
Admission is free on the first Tuesday of each month.
A small permanent collection focusing mostly on San Diego county. The museum has recently built a substantial new wing but has not managed to fill it with exhibits. Traveling exhibits seem to be driven mostly by what the board of directors imagines will bring in the most people —model dinosaurs seem to come up a lot— but the museum has an impressive range of classes, field trips, and other activities that brighten things up considerably. The web site has quite extensive reference materials of interest to hobbyists.
Los Angeles County Natural History Museum (Exposition Park, Los Angeles)
http://www.nhm.org/ Much grander version of the San Diego Natural History Museum, with lots more permanent exhibits and a wider geographical spread. (And dinosaurs.) Particularly impressive are the three very large halls of stuffed animals in natural habitats, the wonderful life-sized dioramas that populate every kid's dream of what makes museums wonderful. (No mummies, though.) The museum's interesting collection on Mexoamerican archaeology has unfortunately rotated off exhibit due to seismic refitting of portions of the building, but very interesting traveling exhibits come through constantly. Located across the street from the USC campus.
Western Science Center & Western Center for Archaeology & Paleontology (2345 Searl Parkway, Hemet)
This museum apparently begain to house fossil animals discovered during the excavation of a reservoir in the 1990s and grew to a modern, 43,000-square-foot museum complex with much greater scope. Worth a stop if you are passing near or through Hemet.
Map & Atlas Museum of La Jolla (7825 Fay Ave., Suite LL-A, La Jolla)
http://mamlj.org, +1-858-551-1170 (temporary)
This new museum is dedicated, just as the name implies, to maps. Our easy access to computerized data bases full of geographical knowledge sometimes leads us to forget how critical physical maps were in past centuries. The museum, although free, is temporarily available only by appointment.
Cabrillo National Monument (Cabrillo point, Point Loma)
http://www.nps.gov/cabr Commemoration of the arrival of Cabrillo in 1542. XIXth-century Lighthouse. Spectacular views and nice visitors' center. Admission is waived for holders of National Park passes.
Old Town State Historic Park (Old Town, San Diego)
The state historic park contains a number of different small museums, the most important of which is the Presidio Museum on the site of the original Spanish presidio, and perhaps one of the most interesting of which is the Casa de Estudillo, opposite the late, lamented Casa de Bandini restaurant, formerly a delight in its own right as well as an historic building. The park web site contains brief descriptions of the buildings and links to web sites when there are any.
Gaslamp Museum (410 Island Avenue, Downtown)
The Gaslamp Museum, chronicles the history of the Gaslamp district, San Diego's center. It is located in the William Heath Davis House, the oldest wooden structure in downtown San Diego and headquarters of the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. In addition to tours of the house, the museum offers a number of walking tours of downtown: architecture on Thursdays and Satursdays, ghosts and haunts on Fridays. It also offers discounted tickets to the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park.
La Jolla Historical Society (La Jolla)
Although not yet a museum, quite, the headquarters of the La Jolla Historical Society is open to the public and includes collections of historical materials. Recently the recipient of an historical site in downtown La Jolla, the society is expanding and consolidating. The web site provides an introduction to its work and collections.
Carlsbad Historical Society Museum (Carlsbad)
This wee museum occupies rooms of a house that serves as the headquarters for the Carlsbad Historical Society.
Fallbrook Historical Society Museum (Fallbrook)
(260 Rocky Crest, Fallbrook)
Admission is free, but the museum is open only Thursdays and Sundays.
Centered around a model railroad featuring reproductions of buildings in Fallbrook, the museum also includes objects and pictures from Fallbrook and the immediate area. Recent additions include a rock and mineral collection in the basement, and a new barn housing vintage cars, tools and farm machinery. (It also houses the county's only public barbed wire collection.)
If you visit on Thursday, this can be combined with a visit to the Fallbrook Gem & Mineral Society
Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum (Vista)
Display of early vehicles and engines.
Marine Corps Recruit Depot Command Museum (near Old Town)
http://www.usmchistory.com (caution: background sound), +1-619-524-6038
Historical displays on MCRD from 1846 to date.
San Diego Chinese Historical Museum (404 Third Avenue, downtown)
Very small but nicely kept and interesting museum on the history of early Chinese migrants to San Diego. The museum and associated historical society sponsor many events relating to the Chinese-American experience. Its downtown location near Seaport Village makes a visit easy to combine with other downtown attractions.
San Diego Historical Society Museum (Balboa Park)
http://www.sandiegohistory.org Admission is free on the second Tuesday of each month.
Permanent and changing exhibits and a documentary and photo archive. The Historical Society also operates the Serra Museum near Old Town, located on the site of the first European settlement in Alta California in 1769, which contains exhibits on San Diego history before 1850.
San Diego Maritime Museum (North Harbor Drive & Ash Street)
http://www.sdmaritime.com Displays and actual ships relating to the history of sea navigation especially in San Diego.
San Diego Air & Space Museum (Balboa Park)
www.aerospacemuseum.org Admission is free on the fourth Tuesday of each month.
Historic aircraft and related exhibits; more interesting to the non-enthusiast than one might anticipate. The former name was San Diego Aerospace Museum.
California Surf Museum (Oceanside)
223 North Coast Highway, Oceanside
You're by the ocean. What did you expect?
Children's Museum/Museo de los Niños (200 W. Island Avenue, San Diego)
http://sdchildrensmuseum.org, +1-619-233-8792 .
Art-focused museum directed at children. There is no permanent collection, but there are temporary exhibits and educational programs. A newish building, opened in 2008, provides a range of amenities, including birthday-party rooms!
Museum of Making Music http://www.museumofmakingmusic.org +1-760-438-5996 & (toll free) +1-877-551-9976.
5790 Armada Dr., Carlsbad
Old instruments, photos, paintings, etc. Some interactive exhibits. Web site includes virtual reality views.
San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum (Balboa Park)
http://www.sdhoc.com/ Admission is free on the fourth Tuesday of each month.
Formerly merely a repository for San Diego trophies, it was destroyed by an arsonist and the new replacement museum is considerably better, with interactive displays and more interesting exhibits.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum (Balboa Park)
http://www.sdrm.org Admission is free on the first Tuesday of each month.
Here you can see a very large model railroad (and the grown men whose hobby it is) as well as some full-scale railroad artifacts.
Fallbrook Gem & Mineral Society (Fallbrook)
123 W. Alvarado Street, Suite B
Admission free. Open Thursday through Saturday, 11-3.
A two-room museum with a beautiful and carefully selected display of minerals, identified but not very informatively explained. If you want to see tourmaline, they have it. If you want to understand tourmaline, you need to find a book. The museum has friendly staff and a small but interesting gift shop. If you visit on Thursday, this can be combined with a visit to the Fallbrook Historical Society Museum
Lyon Air Museum (Santa Ana)
19300 Ike Jones Road, Santa Ana
This small private museum is full of old airplanes (and other vehicles) lovingly curated by a true aviation enthusiast. It is located on the west side Of John Wayne Airport in Orange County. The museum is free for now, and open daily, although it closes at 3.
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