San Diego Model Railroad Museum

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1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
|
Open:
10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (Tuesday - Friday)
11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Saturday & Sunday)
One of the largest museums of its kind, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park offers a magical environment for railroad fans of all generations.
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 Model Railroad Museum
All Aboard!
What to Expect
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Know Before You Go
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Exhibits / Attractions
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Tips

All Aboard at the Model Railroad Museum

Bella Looking at a Model Train Display at the San Diego Model Railroad MuseumCemetery Behind Mexican Church Model at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Railroad buffs of all ages can spend hours at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum watching the progress of dozens upon dozens of trains, absorbing the minute details of the various layouts and relishing the magic of a bygone era.

Visitors will be captivated by the precise scale-model trains and the picturesque landscape through which they travel. The detail is stunning, from the tables inside a dining car to an outdoor fair, complete with a Ferris wheel, and a passing drama of firefighters using a safety net to save a man jumping from a four-story building.

I personally find this museum very interesting and educational. The attention to detail and the work that went into building the models is phenomenal. I think you’ll find the museum worth your time and after checking it out, there’s a lot more to explore outside in Balboa Park.

Ticket Booth of the San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Ticket Booth of the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Discount Tickets & More

Looking for a discounted admission to the museum? Purchasing Go San Diego passes before your visit is the perfect way to get the savings you’re looking for.

With discounted admission to the museums plus access to over 55 attractions and activities around San Diego, you’re sure to see everything you’re hoping for on your vacation. You can get up to 50% off regular admission costs, and by using discount code GVSD5OFF, you can save even more!

Local Tips
Free Tuesday
If you're planning a visit, a helpful tip is to check out their schedule for special events, like "Free Tuesday," where admission is free for San Diego residents, and themed exhibitions that rotate regularly.

What to Expect when Visiting the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

The Mexico Side of the Boarder at the San Diego Model Railroad Musuem
The Mexico Side of the Boarder at the San Diego Model Railroad Musuem

Before you even arrive at the museum, you’ll notice your incredible surroundings. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum (SDMRM) is located in Balboa Park.

Named a Historic Landmark in 1977, the park is a popular destination for visitors and residents of San Diego alike. Spread over 1,200 beautifully landscaped acres, it is home to more than a dozen museums, including the SDMRM, as well as the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

The museum itself is one of the largest museums of its kind in the world!

The painstaking construction on the various layouts brings railroading to life and carries out the mission of the SDMRM, which is to "research, collect, preserve, and present the heritage of American railroading with scale models of California railroads".

Many of the buildings in the exhibit took years to construct, and visitors can marvel over the careful detailing on backdrops of hills, valleys, towns and farmland. Trains of different eras in large G scale down to the smallest Z-scale model run on tracks, tunnels, bridges and trestles that cover more than 27,000 square feet.

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Local Tips
How much can you save by using the Go City San Diego pass?

The Go City San Diego pass is the perfect way to explore more attractions and activities that the area has to offer, all while being cost-efficient.

With the Go City San Diego pass, you can save up to 55% off admission fees at some of the area’s most popular attractions.

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

Exhibits & Attractions

Lots of Railroad Cars at the San Diego Model Railroad Musuem
Lots of Railroad Cars at the San Diego Model Railroad Musuem

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum features several exhibits, all of which showcase California railroads, and the trains come in different sizes.

For example, a G-scale engine is 13 inches long by 6 inches wide and 4-3/4 inches high. It is 6.9 times bigger than a Z-sale engine, which is only 4 inches long, 2/3 inches wide and 3/4 inches high.

The Model Railroad Museum frequently features rotating exhibits on top of their permanent displays.

Train Exhibit at the San Diego Model Railroad Musuem
Train Exhibit at the San Diego Model Railroad Musuem

Rotating Exhibits

For the spring, the museum is featuring a childhood favorite!

Tales of Thomas: Everyone’s Favorite Train

Spring 2024 brought the exhibit Tales of Thomas: Everyone’s Favorite Train to the museum, highlighting the history and legacy of Thomas the Tank Engine. The family-friendly icon has encouraged countless kids’ interest in trains and railways.

Train on Display at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Train on Display at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Permanent Exhibits

Below are the permanent exhibits featured at the museum in 2024.

The Cabrillo Southwestern

The O-scale Cabrillo Southwestern has a double-track mainline as well as a narrow-gauge branch line set into a mountain-town backdrop. The layout represents California in the mid-1950s.

Among the details is a church with a small cemetery. The headstones here are engraved with the names of deceased SDMRM members.

The San Diego & Arizona Eastern

Another layout modeled after the 1950s is the 142-foot-long San Diego & Arizona Eastern featuring the all-wood Goat Canyon Trestle.

This layout shows visitors the route from San Diego to El Centro, CA, where a drive-in movie theater is the town’s main feature, a nostalgic memory for baby-boomers. The San Diego Model Railroad Association operates both this layout and the Cabrillo Southwestern.

The Southern Pacific-Santa Fe Tehachapi Pass Layout

The La Mesa Model Railroad Club operates this HO-scale, single-track mountain railroad. The model layout is true to reality in that the steep mountain grade in the Tehachapi Range of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is replicated.

Everything in this layout is done to scale, including the types of trains, their speed and their operating times.

The Pacific Desert Lines

In approximately 1,500 square feet, this is a model of a route that was planned in 1855 but never built.

Operated by the San Diego Society of N Scale, the layout shows the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railroad in N scale that runs past local landmarks from the Carlsbad Flower Fields to the downtown area.

The Toy Train Gallery

Operated by the San Diego 3-Railers Club and featured by Classic Toy Trains Magazine in 2012, the Toy Train layout has “Lionel-size” trains that chug along on 3-rail, O-gauge track.

The Toy Train Gallery provides visitors with the “Choo-Choo Cam” on a running train that offers a virtual view of the layout.

Freight and Flora: A Garden Railroad

This exhibit captures San Diego’s history in the Gilded Age of the mid-1880s. With miniature buildings created by Applied Imaginations, watch as G-gauge trains wind their way around a garden landscape bursting with scaled-down recreations of San Diego’s native flora.

This exhibit was previously the Centennial Railway Garden. Opened in 2015 to celebrate SDMRM’s 100th anniversary, it has since been repurposed to the new Freight and Flora: A Garden Railroad.

Educational Programs & Events

Kids Love the San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Kids Love the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

SDMRM members support educational activities for young people both online and in person at the museum.

Model railroading and children go together naturally, so learning is an integral part of the experience when students visit the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Students can attend Steam Workshops as well as Summer Camps where they discover what it takes to build a model railroad.

Through these educational programs, they can put their critical thinking and problem-solving skills to work to develop a track plan and build an operational, themed layout.

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Before Visiting, Here’s What to Know

Have a great day with your family at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum with these useful tips.

On the Way from San Diego to Arizona at the San Diego Model Railroad Musuem
On the Way from San Diego to Arizona at the San Diego Model Railroad Musuem

How Do You Get to the Museum?

SDMRM is just off El Prado, in the lower level of the Casa de Balboa Building. If you’re coming from Park Boulevard, turn onto Space Theater Way, which will take you right to the museum.

Where Can You Park?

The Model Railroad Museum shares a parking lot with the Fleet Science Center, which happens to be part of the Go City San Diego pass as well! Save when you visit both attractions and purchase a pass using our discount code GVSD5OFF.

If the lot is full, there are multiple small lots in Balboa Park which have free parking, as well as some free street parking. If you’d prefer to use San Diego’s public transportation, there’s a tram stop at the Inspiration Point lot on Park Boulevard.

Enjoying Refreshing Lemonaide at the Prado Restaurant at Balboa Park
Enjoying Refreshing Lemonaide at the Prado Restaurant at Balboa Park

Are There Places to Get Lunch?

Though the San Diego Model Railroad Museum does not have its own restaurant, there are plenty of places to get something to eat nearby.

Some of my favorite options in the area include Prado, Panama 66, and Cafe in the Park.

View of the US Grant in San Diego from the Park Across the Street
View of the US Grant in San Diego from the Park Across the Street

Where I Recommend You Stay Near the Museum

To experience everything Balboa Park has to offer, including its many museums and attractions on the Go City San Diego pass such as the Japanese Friendship Garden and San Diego Zoo, book a nearby hotel.

Here are some of my top choices.

Omni San Diego Hotel

In the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter, the Omni San Diego Hotel is perfectly positioned between top attractions like PETCO Park. Rooms feature sweeping views of Downtown San Diego and the San Diego Bay.

Kona Kai Resort & Spa, A Noble House Resort

Featuring a private beach and a tiki bar, staying at Kona Kai Resort & Spa is like having a tropical island vacation right in San Diego. The hotel’s spa and outdoor bonfires make it an appealing choice for couples.

The US Grant

Stay in elegant luxury at The US Grant hotel!

This historic property offers guests every bit of upscale comfort they could ask for, from high-class cuisine to live music in the lounge.

Desert Garden at Balboa Park
Desert Garden at Balboa Park

Take a Balboa Park Walking Tour

As a long-time local in San Diego, I can say that the home of the San Diego Railroad Museum, Balboa Park, is one of the prettiest places in town.

I think a great way to get the most out of your visit is to take the San Diego Walking Tour: Balboa Park with a Local Guide. The tour is a nice family accompaniment to a visit to the museum.

It will take you past the many other museums and attractions in Balboa Park so you can choose where you’d like to go next!

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