10 Best Museums for Kids in San Diego

From hands-on art and history museums to exhibits on science and aerospace, San Diego is one of the best cities for kid-friendly museums on the West Coast.
Todd Sarouhan
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means if you make purchases through them, I may be compensated at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
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Most people think of vacation as a break from school and a time for pure relaxation, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Learning isn’t limited to the classroom; for parents who want their kids to gain critical early experience with a wide range of topics, from art and history to science, nature, and seafaring, the museums of San Diego are the perfect opportunity to do just that!

Not only are there plenty of chances to learn at San Diego museums, but many kid-friendly museums are designed specifically to engage young minds with interactive exhibits and informative presentations. Aquariums and botanic gardens offer up-close encounters with the natural world, while spots like the Natural History Museum (NAT) and the Air and Space Museum have larger-than-life exhibits sure to capture kids’ attentions and their imaginations.

If you’re a parent, guardian or will soon be traveling with kids to San Diego, the best tool you can have on your next vacation is a Go City San Diego pass. San Diego County is filled with family-friendly attractions, whether you’re taking surf lessons at La Jolla Shores or visiting major theme parks like SeaWorld San Diego and LEGOLAND California.

And what’s even better, any of the best museums in San Diego are part of the Go Pass discount program! So don’t pay full price and grab one for each member of your family before your next visit! Use our discount code, GVSD5OFF, for even more savings.

Local Tips
Children Programs
Many museums in Balboa Park offer hands-on exhibits, special children's programs, and interactive displays, making learning fun for the little ones. Check the schedule for any guided tours or workshops tailored for kids, enhancing their museum experience.

10 of the Best Museums for Kids in San Diego

The intersection of fun and education meet at San Diego’s best museums for kids!

You and your little ones can explore sprawling galleries filled with exhibits, huge gardens filled with exotic plant life, engaging activities designed specifically for kids, live shows, and immersive theaters at 10 different family-friendly attractions throughout San Diego County.

We’re parents too and know, especially when visiting a new location, how important education, entertainment and fun for the whole family can be. With that in mind, we gathered this list of our team’s personal favorite museums for kids in San Diego. We hope you enjoy the list as much as we enjoyed putting it together!

Make sure to stick around until the end for some bonus tips to make your trip to your chosen kid-friendly museums a resounding success!

1) Explore Nature & Scientific Inquiry at the Living Coast Discovery Center

San Diego Area Museums: Living Coast Discovery Center

Located in the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Chula Vista, the Living Coast Discovery Center is a natural habitat containing countless species of diverse plant and animal life.

We suggest you start by getting some fresh air while walking the easy, mile-long trail through the park. Walking the trails is completely free, but you can elevate your experience by buying a ticket and enjoying the other educational materials provided at the Discovery Center.

One of the most impressive parts of the park is Raptor Row, which is a haven for birds of prey. It’s not uncommon to see a keeper walking past with a hawk or falcon on their arm, though it’s also fun to birdwatch. There’s the Shorebird Aviary and Eagle Mesa, plus educational nature installments like the Compost Garden and the Native Pollinator Garden.

Your kids can also learn about coastal marine life at the Living Coast Discovery Center’s aquarium! Not to be missed, the park has a shark and ray experience and a turtle lagoon, where kids can watch live feedings.

Visit the Living Coast Discovery Center

2) Enjoy the Largest Indoor San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Balboa Park Museums: San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Do you have a child who’s interested in trains? If so, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum is a must-visit attraction! The museum features intricate model railroad exhibits that recreate local sights as they were back during the days of the Transcontinental Railroad.

See the majesty of the Tehachapi Pass and the Cabrillo and Southwestern rails, and explore the Freight and Flora exhibit for a close look at San Diego plant life in miniature. Kids can let their imaginations run wild at the Toy Train Gallery, explore the on-site library, and take home a cute souvenir from the museum gift shop.

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is especially enticing for parents vacationing on a budget, as kids 12 and under can visit for free with an accompanying adult! If you’re looking for the complete experience, we suggest pairing these savings with a Go City San Diego pass and a room at one of the best budget-friendly hotels nearby so the whole family can have a blast without breaking the bank!

Visit the San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Shark Exhibit at the Fleet Science Center
Shark Exhibit at the Fleet Science Center

3) Touch a Tornado at Fleet Science Center

Balboa Park Museums: Fleet Science Center

Kids of all ages can benefit from early exposure to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, especially when they have the chance to learn about science in fun and engaging ways!

The Fleet Science Center takes education to a whole new level with over a dozen kid-friendly exhibits and experiences. Featuring plenty of opportunities for kids to play and flex their creative muscles, the museum employs everything from life-size dioramas to VR technology to deliver lessons in innovative ways.

Stop by the movie theater in the Fleet Science Center to watch films about the depths of the ocean and the furthest reaches of space. There are also exhibits designed specifically for younger children at Kid City, which features many hands-on activities for kids 5 and under.

Other experiences include interactive lessons on electricity in the So Watt exhibit, the Space Gallery, an exhibit on San Diego’s water, and showcases of optical illusions. Each exhibit teaches guests of all ages about the miraculous forces that make up our natural world and the ways in which humans interact with them.

Visit the Fleet Science Center
Navy Jet Outside the Air and Space Musuem at Balboa Park
Navy Jet Outside the Air and Space Musuem at Balboa Park

4) Explore the 4D Theater at Air and Space Museum

Balboa Park Museums: San Diego Air & Space Museum

Air and space exploration captures the imagination of many kids. If you’re visiting San Diego with kids who are interested in science, we highly recommend a visit to the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

One reason this museum is considered one of the Best Things to Do in San Diego with Kids is its excellent 4D movie theater. Opened in 2010, this 3D/4D theater was the first of its kind in the city, with seats that move and other immersive effects that let you feel like you’re not just watching the movie but experiencing it first-hand.

After watching a show at the theater, be sure to check out the other exhibits in the museum. Marvel at its collection of spacecraft and aircraft, from fighter jets and reproductions of early gliders by the Wright brothers to the Apollo 9 Command Module. Learn about the pivotal role some of these aircraft played in military conflicts at the World War I and II galleries, or check out Moon Base San Diego for a taste of what it’s like to live on the moon!

Visit the San Diego Air & Space Museum
Old Navy Airplane on Display at the USS Midway Museum
Old Navy Airplane on Display at the USS Midway Museum

5) Learn About Naval History at the USS Midway Museum

San Diego Area Museums: USS Midway Museum San Diego

Looking at its famous beaches and laid-back vibe, you might not realize it, but San Diego County has a long and storied military history, much of that with the Navy. With a visit to the USS Midway Museum, you and your family can get an in depth look at the naval history of San Diego, which has been a key location for the US Military for decades.

The museum is located inside the real USS Midway aircraft carrier, a now-retired ship that was involved in multiple military operations during Operation Desert Storm and holds the distinction of being the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 1900s. Climb aboard and tour exhibits on its military exploits, or sit inside a real fighter jet on the hangar bay. You can even watch a short film about the Battle of Midway, the ship’s namesake.

With its focus on education and its many engaging exhibits that let kids experience what it’s like to set sail on a real US aircraft carrier, the USS Midway Museum is one of the overall Best Things to Do in San Diego with Kids, especially if your family loves exploring museums!

Visit the USS Midway Museum San Diego
Art for All Ages at the New Childrens Museum
Art for All Ages at the New Childrens Museum

6) Stimulate Your Kid’s Imaginations at the New Children's Museum

San Diego Area Museums: The New Children’s Museum

Young kids sometimes struggle to enjoy a typical adult focused art gallery like the Institute of Contemporary Art San Diego or Museum of Contemporary Art (Downtown), but with more hands-on attractions specifically geared toward encouraging a love of art in kids, the New Children’s Museum is the perfect way to spend an afternoon in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

Every exhibit in the New Children’s Museum is designed with kids in mind, from the hand-braided Whammock to the colorful sculptures and giant slide of El Más Allá. Other installations include massive murals, explorable mazes, and even a sensory-friendly Breathing Room when kids need a break.

For families with kids 4 and under, know that you won’t feel left out at the New Children’s Museum! Multiple exhibits are toddler-friendly, so even the youngest kids in your group can play and explore! These include the larger-than-life food sculptures of Wobbleland and the sensory-focused Tikitiko.

Some installations are permanent, while many rotate and are replaced with new fixtures every year. With that in mind, we love this museum for kids even if you’ve visited before because there’s always something new to see and explore!

Visit the The New Children’s Museum
Ankylosaurus Replica at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Ankylosaurus Replica at the San Diego Natural History Museum

7) Take a Trip to the NAT - San Diego Natural History Museum

Balboa Park Museums: San Diego Natural History Museum - theNAT

Filled with towering dinosaur skeletons and large geology collections, the San Diego Natural History Museum, often shortened to The NAT, is a must-see attraction for vacationing families. This four-story building offers kids and their parents endless opportunities for both fun and education.

Start your day off by learning about the archeological discoveries that have been made right in San Diego, including information about what Southern California might have looked like hundreds of thousands of years ago. Then step back in time to the Jurassic period and examine real dinosaur bones, learn about fields of study like geology and biology, and grab lunch at the Flying Squirrel Cafe.

The Natural History Museum also has its own 3D theater which plays various educational films. Other exhibits include the Living Lab, which houses small creepy crawlies like insects and snakes; the Hidden Gems mineral collection; and Coast to Cactus, a showcase of California’s incredible biodiversity.

For a local tip to paying less for admission, the best way to explore the museum and many other attractions around Balboa Park is with the All-inclusive version of the Go City San Diego pass!

Visit The Nat
Roll Playing with Kids on the Star of India
Roll Playing with Kids on the Star of India

8) Learn Seafaring History at the Maritime Museum of San Diego

San Diego Area Museums: Maritime Museum of San Diego

Even among coastal cities in Southern California, San Diego’s seafaring history is especially interesting. Follow up a trip to the USS Midway Museum with a stop at the nearby Maritime Museum of San Diego to broaden your knowledge of the city’s Naval exploits and other shipping ventures.

Kids can learn how early sailors helped chart the Pacific Ocean and California’s coastline. Then take a cruise around the bay for some sightseeing, which is included with admission. And of course, no visit is complete without checking out the many ships on display around the harbor.

The Maritime Museum’s collection of ships has grown significantly since it opened in 1948. Notable vessels include sailing ships like the Star of India, submarines including the 555 USS Dolphin, and the Berkeley steam ferry.

There are also engaging exhibits on topics ranging from old sailor superstitions about sea monsters to the different eras of seafaring vessels, from sails to steam. You can plan to see vintage pictures from the Wish You Were Here postcard collection and the Wind and Water Photography Exhibit, or take a kid-friendly tour given by one of the museum’s guides.

Visit the Maritime Museum of San Diego
Birch Aquarium Gray Whale Tail Statue
Birch Aquarium Gray Whale Tail Statue

9) Observe & Enjoy the Marine Life at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps

San Diego Attractions: Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Aquariums are an excellent way to learn about marine life. At the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, families can see unique and elusive creatures from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, including the Giant Pacific Octopus, sea turtles, sea dragons, jellyfish, and various species of tropical fish like the orange Garibaldi and various species of sharks.

Alongside taking the kids to see different marine animals in their exhibits, there are opportunities to play around the property too. Admire the Gray Whale Tale statue, hop inside a shark’s mouth at the Kids Shark Photo Booth, and get hands-on with the outdoor tide pools and touch tanks.

The Birch Aquarium at Scripps is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. It’s easy to fit in a trip to the aquarium after a day at the beach with a rental surfboard or a trip to other fun attractions like LEGOLAND California, San Diego Zoo Safari Park or the world-famous San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park.

It’s one of our team’s top tips to suggest you fill your family vacation with all the best activities the city has to offer with the help of a Go City San Diego pass!

Visit the Birch Aquarium

10) Explore the San Diego Botanic Garden

San Diego Area Museums: San Diego Botanic Garden

Encouraging you kids to get outside and explore nature is one of the best ways to ensure they’re living an active, healthy lifestyle. There are plenty of outdoor playgrounds in San Diego, from the hiking trails of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park to the biking trails that crisscross through Balboa Park, but one of the best spots for fostering a love of the natural world with kids is at the San Diego Botanic Garden.

The gorgeous grounds of the botanic garden are teeming with plant life from near and far, including many species native to San Diego’s deserts and scrublands alongside more exotic settings. Traverse North America’s largest bamboo grove, look out over vistas filled with flowering trees and shrubs, and step into microclimates like the tropical rainforest and South Africa Garden, all without having to set foot outside of San Diego.

Bring the kids to the Children's Gardens for extra opportunities to learn and interact with nature. The property has three different gardens designed for kids where they can climb a treehouse in Hamilton’s Children’s Garden, balance on logs lining the Junior Quail Trail, and see a miniature railroad at the Seeds of Wonder Garden.

Visit the San Diego Botanic Garden
Enjoy Art with Go City Pass!
Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla
Museum of Contemporary Art
The Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla is home to an array of art from the region that range from paintings to photography to sculptures. With your Go City Pass, enjoy these exhibitions and art installations by new up-and-coming artists.
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Local Tips
What’s the best Go City San Diego pass to maximize savings?

Families often choose unlimited admission and save up to 55% with the All-Inclusive pass when they visit just 2 attractions per day over 1, 2, 3 or 5 days.

Locals who prefer flexibility as they go often chose the Explorer Pass and save up to 60% off normal ticket prices.

Want to save more? Use our exclusive discount code GVSD5OFF to save an extra 5%!

Insider Tips for Visiting San Diego Museums with your Kids

Which San Diego Museums are the Most Family-Friendly?

While we’ve selected the 10 best museums for families in our expert opinion, there are plenty of other museums to explore, especially around Balboa Park.

Since San Diego is such a tourism-focused city that attracts millions of families each year, nearly all San Diego area museums have special exhibits for kids and educational opportunities.

We think this list will give you a great place to start, then feel free to look through our list of San Diego area museums and Balboa Park museums to see which others sound interesting to you and your family.

How Expensive is Museum Admission?

Since admission prices can change, it’s a good idea to check the official websites of each museum you plan on visiting before you arrive.

If you’re traveling on a budget, buying an All-inclusive Go City San Diego pass is the best way to see dozens of museums without spending a fortune! Use our discount code, GVSD5OFF, for even more savings.

What are Other Recommended Kid-Friendly Activities in San Diego?

This is a big question with plenty of correct answers depending on what your kids enjoy!

San Diego is filled with activities and attractions for families. We suggest checking out our picks for the 10 Best Hikes, 11 Best Water Activities, and Best Things to Do With Kids overall. Then have a look through our article on the Best Family-Friendly Hotels in San Diego to make sure you’re all set for where to stay during your next San Diego vacation!

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