San Diego History Center

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1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
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Open:
Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Get an in-depth look at the fascinating and rich history of your favorite city in Southern California when you visit San Diego History Center in Balboa Park.
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.
San Diego History Center
Delve Into the Past
What to Expect
Save on Tours
All About the Exhibits
Parking
Tips for Your Visit
Stay Nearby

Highlights

Exhibits / Attractions
Tickets
Parking
Tips
Exhibits / Attractions
Tickets
Parking
Tips

Delve Into San Diego’s Past

Mission Beach Surfers in the 1950S at the San Diego History CenterAmericas Cup History at the San Diego History Center

San Diego History Center is unlike any other museum in San Diego because its entire collection of documents and artifacts detail the origins, communities, struggles, and successes of the city.

If you love San Diego, plan a visit to the museum to better understand where the city came from and where it is headed in the future. You’ll appreciate this fascinating look at the rich and varied incarnations of the birthplace of California as you explore the exhibits.

The San Diego History Center
The San Diego History Center

The Historical Casa de Balboa

Found in historic Balboa Park, this San Diego history museum opened in 1981 and features rotating and permanent exhibits to explore as well as interactive experiences that appeal to the young and young at heart. It also offers educational programs and special events throughout the year.

Both the building and its contents highlight the embodiment of how San Diego has evolved; the museum collection is housed in Casa de Balboa, an historic building which was constructed in the 1910s as the Electric Building for the Panama-California Exposition and even used as military barracks during World War II. Presently, it is home to the museum and its archives, a valuable resource for educators and historians in the area.

Hillcrest Painting at the San Diego History Center
Hillcrest Painting at the San Diego History Center

What Makes the Museum Worth Your Time?

The ever-changing displays and exhibits about San Diego provide a snapshot of what life was like for different segments of the population or what events in the past changed the course of its history.

You never know what you might learn during your visit, but chances are good it will leave a lasting impression on you.

Know What to Expect When You Visit

The Beautiful Casa de Balboa at Balboa Park
The Beautiful Casa de Balboa at Balboa Park

Your experience at San Diego History Center begins before you enter the museum. Walk around the building and grounds for a sense of the opulence and vision that was meant to showcase the city in the early 1900s.

Once inside, plan to spend an hour or two strolling through the exhibits, or if you prefer, take a guided tour with a knowledgeable docent to lead the way.

It is always a good idea to check the calendar before you go to see if anything special is scheduled during your trip. Any way you spend your time here, you can have an engrossing look at the people and events that shaped the city.

Giraffes at the San Diego Zoo
Giraffes at the San Diego Zoo

Recommended Activities After the Museum

There’s a variety of activities we’d recommend that would complement the museum visit nicely.

The one’s included with the Go City San Diego pass can be had at a discount! Highlights are The San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, LEGOLAND California and SeaWorld San Diego plus Hiking Tours, Whale Watching Tours, Museum Tours, Speed Boat Adventures & more!

If it sounds like a lot of value, that’s because it is and with the All-Inclusive pass, you can have it all. Use our exclusive discount code GVSD5OFF to save an extra 5%!

Local Tips
The History Centers Massive Collection
The Document Archives at the History Center, the region’s largest collection of historical materials, holds over 45 million documents including public and architectural records, books, maps, scrapbooks, manuscripts, newspapers, ephemera, diaries and oral histories.

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San Diego Hiking Tour
San Diego Hiking Tour
San Diego is not just sunny beaches, but home to some of the best hiking in the country. With Go Pass, choose from two trails for your hike. Mission Trails Regional Park and Tecolote Canyon Trails offer trails for beginners and experts!
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Local Tips
What activities does the Go City San Diego pass include?

There’s a variety of activities included with the Go City San Diego pass such as: The San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, LEGOLAND, SeaWorld, Hiking Tours, Whale Watching, Museum Tours, Speed Boat Adventures & more!

For the most popular attractions and water-sport rentals as well as the biggest discounts, consider the All-Inclusive Pass.

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

All About the Exhibits

The displays at this San Diego history museum are not your typical chronological progression from by-gone days to the present. Instead, each exhibit focuses on a specific aspect of San Diego’s growth as told through the eyes of an individual or a community.

It is a creative approach that can encourage children and adults to connect with the past.

Exhibits that have been retired include: Her-Story: Pioneers of San Diego, I’m Not Like You: Notes from the San Diego Underground, The Path of the Mystic: Art & Theosophy at Lomaland, and LBGTQ+SD.

Check out these current exhibits during your next visit!

Utopia at the San Diego History Center
Utopia at the San Diego History Center

San Diego’s New Deal Renaissance: An Artist’s Experience

Celebrating the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the New Deal and Belle Baranceanu’s arrival in San Diego, this exhibit traces Baranceanu’s experiences as an artist working for the federal government and the impact of the New Deal on work and art in San Diego and the rest of America.

The Sensuous Environment - Sim Bruce Richards, Architect

Curated by Keith York, The Sensuous Environment chronicles the career, architecture, art, and design of Sim Bruce Richards–an architect who created a design aesthetic unique to the San Diego region.

Taste San Diego Craft Community and Culture

An ongoing exhibit every Friday through Sunday, Taste San Diego Craft Community and Culture will help you get a sampling of why San Diego is one of the great craft beer regions in the world while also learning about its unique history.

If you’re interested in learning more about San Diego and beer culture, plus perhaps having a tasting, I recommend the San Diego Craft Brewery Tour or the Brothels, Bites and Booze: San Diego Gaslamp Walking Tour.

I must say that the Brothels, Bites and Booze: San Diego Gaslamp Walking Tour is one of my favorite tours in San Diego!

Women Law and Society at the San Diego History Center
Women Law and Society at the San Diego History Center

To Advance the Status of Women in Law and Society: Lawyers Club of San Diego at 50 Years

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Lawyers Club, this exhibit tells the story of the six women lawyers that challenged barriers and elevated women to a new and equal status as lawyers and people during the American women’s rights movement of the 60s and 70s.

Photos of Nathan Harrison at the San Diego History Center
Photos of Nathan Harrison at the San Diego History Center

Celebrate San Diego: Black History & Heritage

New to the San Diego History Center, Celebrate San Diego: Black History & Heritage is an ongoing, dynamic, and ever-evolving project that relies on collaboration and partnerships with the community to gather insights, information, and items to showcase a previously uncollected community’s history.

Art and History at the San Diego History Center
Art and History at the San Diego History Center

Be Here Now

Anew visual arts exhibit, Be Here Now features San Diego natives or artists who have spent a significant amount of time in the area.

The exhibit explores questions in both English and Spanish on the connection between community and place with the goal of creating dialogue among one another.

Painting of Balboa Park California Tower at the San Diego History Center
Painting of Balboa Park California Tower at the San Diego History Center

Balboa Park: The Jewel of San Diego

This 30-minute film serves as an introduction to this beloved city park and its many attractions that are frequented by both residents and visitors.

Inside|OUT

Located in the central atrium, this permanent exhibit presents items from the extensive archives of the museum. The artifacts, photos, and documents are rotated every quarter to share some of the over 17,000 curated pieces with the public.

Replica of Nathan Harrisons San Diego Home at the San Diego History Center
Replica of Nathan Harrisons San Diego Home at the San Diego History Center

Nathan Harrison: Born a Slave, Died a San Diego Legend

Focusing on a former slave and homesteader, this exhibit is a snapshot into hardships of the early African American settlement.

Marston’s History Emporium

This hands-on learning lab gives child visitors a glimpse at the city’s history in an experiential way.

Expanding Through Education

1987 Americas Cup in San Diego at the San Diego History Center
1987 Americas Cup in San Diego at the San Diego History Center

In addition to the seven stations of the History Emporium, the museum offers other informative programs to augment the education of students in the city.

Some of these enrichments include school field trips, Boy and Girl Scout activities, Bum the Dog’s Kids Club, private group tours, public lectures, an online at-home learning program, and resources and lesson plans for local educators.

These enlightening opportunities enhance and foster community engagement as well as visitors’ experiences in a meaningful way.

Virtual Programs

Designed for children in grades 1-12, the San Diego History Center offers several single-session and multi-session virtual programs for children to learn the skills to become a historian; the daily life of the Kumeyaay, the Spanish, and the Mexican inhabitants of early California; and the importance of oral histories through 45-60 minute online sessions.

Space is limited so be sure to schedule in advance.

Funding is available for many of these virtual programs through ArtsBusXpress, which can be applied for online through the San Diego History Center website.

Onsite Field Trip Programs

With numerous onsite field trip programs available for children grades K-12, there’s something for every kid at the San Diego History Center!

Examine and investigate artifacts, documents, art, oral histories, and historic photographs to learn about the people, places, and events that shaped history and the community. Explore Presidio Park to learn about the inhabitants of early California.

Examine primary source materials to discover influential San Diegans and discuss what it takes to become a History Maker. Or use your cartography, navigation, and spatial awareness skills as you explore the building and features of the 1915 Expo that formed the foundation of Balboa Park today!

Classroom Outreach Programs

Children grades K-12 can discover the importance of oral histories, learn about the people and cultures of the past that have shaped San Diego today, explore how to become a living history exhibit, and more through multiple classroom outreach programs held by the San Diego History Center.

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Tips for a Successful Visit

Parking near San Diego History Center
Parking near San Diego History Center

Where to Park

Parking is free in Balboa Park but not always easy to find close parking. Don’t forget the tram can take you from a parking lot to the museum.

Stay Nearby

A short Uber or Lyft ride from Balboa Park is the trendy Gaslamp Quarter neighborhood. There you’ll find my recommendation for a great place to stay - the Gaslamp Plaza Suites!

As a historical, European-style hotel built in 1913 that still retains the remnants of its original architecture, including the original marble on its walls and stairways and its brass elevator doors.

It is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places and is the perfect place for history buffs to stay on their next visit to San Diego.

Entrance to the San Diego History Center
Entrance to the San Diego History Center

Take All the Photos You Want

I can understand why you might wonder if photography was OK in the museum. I know I’ve been to museums with old documents or art where the facility does not allow photos.

The good news at the San Diego History Center is you can take as many photos as you’d like!

The only thing that is asked is that you do not set up a tripod or use your flash as the light from which can damage old documents.

Host a Private Event

You can host your private event at the History Center. From weddings to work functions, the staff can assist with arrangements and budgeting.

Service Animals Only

Pets are not permitted. Only service animals are allowed in the building.

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