San Diego Natural History Museum - theNAT

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1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
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Open:
10:00 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Monday to Thursday)
10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Saturday to Sunday)
10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (Friday)
Nat at Night from 5:00 -10:00 p.m. on Friday
The San Diego Natural History Museum is one of the premiere museums of Southern California. A trip to theNAT is sure to be a fun experience for everyone!
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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Enjoy Family-Friendly Fun and Education at the Nat!

Ankylosaurus Replica at the San Diego Natural History MuseumMastodon Fossil at the San Diego Natural History Museum

The San Diego Natural History Museum, often referred to as simply the Nat, is located in Balboa Park, in sunny San Diego. The museum is full of amazing displays that showcase centuries of natural history.

The Nat is a four-story building, and each of its stories are full of exciting and educational exhibits. These exhibits contain over nine million different specimens, which means there’s always something new to learn on every visit. The building also contains a large 3D theater where guests can view educational films on a myriad of natural history topics.

I love taking the family here, as the kids really enjoy looking at the different exhibits - especially the dinosaur bones. And it’s just as interesting for adults too! You can easily spend the day here and still have plenty of reasons to come back and see more of the museum’s extensive collection.

Albertosaurus Replica at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Albertosaurus Replica at the San Diego Natural History Museum

What TheNat Offers

The museum contains information about natural history from all across the world, but the primary focus of the exhibits is on the history and biodiversity of the San Diego area. Many of the collections feature archaeological finds and scientific discoveries made right in San Diego, so you can be sure that the Nat provides a unique experience you can’t get anywhere else in the world.

The history of the San Diego Natural History Museum dates back to nearly 150 years ago. The Nat was founded back in 1874 by the San Diego Society of Natural History, which makes it the oldest scientific institution in Southern California.

Since its founding, the museum has worked toward its original goal of bringing the incredible and awe-inspiring parts of nature into the public consciousness to promote conservation and discovery.

The museum follows through on its mission by welcoming over 400,000 people into its doors every year, allowing everyone to enjoy their visit and learn something new. It also encourages education with community outreach programs, and is involved in conducting its own scientific research in Southern California and the Baja California (Mexico) Peninsula area.

By showcasing the very best of what nature has to offer, the San Diego Natural History museum is the perfect place to get kids engaged with science, and there’s plenty for adults to learn too! One thing is for certain: with four floors of interesting and thought-provoking exhibitions, no trip to the Nat will ever be boring!

Like many other attractions in the southern California and Balboa Park area, this San Diego museum is included in the Go City San Diego Pass, which provides additional savings for dozens of fun experiences.

Consider buying a Go City San Diego Pass in advance to save up to 50% off of the cost of regular admission. There are over 55 San Diego attractions and activities included with the Go City San Diego Pass including the San Diego Zoo.

Book a Hotel Nearby

Maximize your time at the museum and minimize travel headaches when you stay at a San Diego hotel. Both elegant and family-friendly, the Carte Hotel San Diego Downtown provides a luxury experience with a conveniently central location.

Local Tips
Face to face with Creatures
Don't miss out on the "Fossil Mysteries" exhibit, where you can journey through millions of years of Earth's history and come face-to-face with the incredible creatures that once roamed the region.

Take a tour of The Prado, a popular restaurant in Balboa Park serving all flavors of San Diego dishes. The Prado has maintained its reputation of excellence for years, making it an iconic locale.

Go on a Food Tour

What You’ll See During Your Visit

Many Exhibits at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Many Exhibits at the San Diego Natural History Museum

When you visit the Natural History Museum, you should plan to spend quite a bit of time there. The museum contains so many different displays and attractions that you could easily walk through it for the better part of the day without getting bored.

The museum entrance is on the second floor, which is where the majority of the exhibits are held. The second floor primarily contains dinosaur bones and information about other creatures from the same era, which is always a delight for kids and older visitors alike.

Exhibits on the other floors include ones focusing on insects, geology, various animal skulls, and other aspects of natural history.

Dioramas and other displays aren’t the only thing you’ll find at the museum. It also boasts an impressive collection of scientific texts, journals, and maps that cover all areas of biology, paleontology, geology, botany, and entomology.

The research library at the San Diego Natural History Museum contains over 56,000 volumes including some rare books, both new and old, as well as a large photography collection for any and all research needs.

No visit to the museum would be complete without checking out the state-of-the-art theater, which plays films that expand upon the topics covered at the museum. If you get hungry during your visit, head to the Flying Squirrel Café and enjoy an array of sandwiches, salads, soups, beverages, and snacks.

San Diego Natural History Museum the Nat Hidden Gems
San Diego Natural History Museum the Nat Hidden Gems

Anniversary Celebrations

2024 marks the 150th anniversary of the San Diego Natural History Museum. Join the museum to celebrate this milestone anniversary throughout the year, looking back at the past and paving the way to the future.

As part of their roadmap, The Nat is focusing on improving accessibility and supporting conservation efforts. This means bringing the backstage to the forefront of the museum, creating new exhibition galleries to show off the once-private research library collection and expanding exhibits centering on California-specific issues.

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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%!

Natural History Exhibits

Southern California Landscape at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Southern California Landscape at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Exhibits make up the bulk of the Nat’s floor space. They are the first thing you’ll see when you enter the doors, and likely the last thing you’ll see when you leave. There are hundreds of different displays, each one featuring some part of the natural world; many of them including specimens recovered in the San Diego area.

The majority of the exhibits at the San Diego Natural History Museum are permanent, but there are also rotating attractions that help keep the museum fresh for repeat visitors. These include specially themed displays, exciting looks at new research developments, and presentations by real scientists and researchers.

Occasionally, exhibits are retired in favor of new ones. One such exhibit was the Insects Face to Face photography gallery. However, plenty of new exhibits are always in the works.

Some of the rotating exhibits currently on display or planned for the near future include:

  • Art of Science (July 26, 2023 through May 27, 2024)
  • Nature Trail at The Nat (Opening Spring 2024)
  • Action from the Archives: The Nat at 150 (Opening May 24, 2024)
  • Caught on Camera (November 18, 2022 through April 21, 2024)

Fossile Mysteries at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Fossile Mysteries at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Fossil Mysteries

The Fossil Mysteries exhibit is the centerpiece of the museum.

It showcases the incredible paleontological discoveries that have been made and the different kinds of creatures that once walked the Earth, swam in the seas, and soared in the skies. This exhibit includes creatures from the age of the dinosaurs all the way to the Ice Ages, which spans 75 million years of evolution and significant global changes.

The fossils in this exhibit are primarily ones that have been uncovered in and around the San Diego area. They provide a peek into what the world might have looked like millions of years ago in the very same spot visitors stand to view these creatures.

Fossil Mysteries is a very interactive exhibit. While the dinosaur bones themselves are only for display, many include educational diagrams, voice overs, and models that are all safe to interact with and sure to delight younger visitors.

You can touch real fossils, practice your fossil identifying skills, and use your imagination to picture what these beasts would have looked like when they roamed.

One especially notable fossil in the museum is Al the Allosaurus, who stands tall and ready to welcome visitors. The Allosaurus is an older relative of the T. rex, so it’s quite the impressive sight to see.

The Fossil Mysteries exhibition also contains a life-sized replica of the extinct Megalodon shark. It is a recreation based on ancient teeth recovered from California by museum staff. Many guests enjoy snapping a picture in front of the display, all while sporting their own matching toothy grin!

Extinct Whale Like Mammal at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Extinct Whale Like Mammal at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Skulls

The Skulls exhibit contains over 200 different animal skulls that come from all different eras of the world’s history. It includes the skulls of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds from all around the world.

This exhibit stands out thanks to the incredible variety of the skulls on display. Some skulls are hardly bigger than your thumb, while others may be as large as your torso!

The Skulls attraction also contains information about the different bones that make up the skull in all kinds of animals, as well as how these bones work together to make a fully functioning skull.

Non Venomous  Snake at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Non Venomous Snake at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Living Lab

While many of the creatures on display at the Natural History Museum are fossils or replicas, the Living Lab is full of living, moving specimens. The Living Lab focuses on creepy crawly critters like snakes, bees, arachnids, scorpions, and lizards. This part of the museum isn’t for the faint of heart, but for those who are unafraid of these less cuddly animals, there is plenty to discover.

While all of the animals in the Living Lab are native to the San Diego area, they are rarely seen due to their size and reclusive nature. Learning about the adaptations these creatures have made to survive without detection is just one part of what makes this part of the museum so interesting.

The exhibit blends science and storytelling, creating a lasting impact that is sure to leave an impression on all visitors.

The San Diego Natural History Museum’s team of professional animal handlers keep these animals comfortable and well cared for, year-round.

Spring in the Desert Habitat at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Spring in the Desert Habitat at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Coast to Cactus in Southern California

The Coast to Cactus exhibit is dedicated to showing off the incredible biodiversity that can be found in Southern California. San Diego’s terrain and landscapes are incredibly diverse, and this diversity is reflected in the animals and plants native to the region. In this exhibit, you’ll take a closer look at the region’s different habitats and their residents.

While Fossil Mysteries provides a look into San Diego’s past, Coast to Cactus focuses on San Diego’s present wildlife. Together, these exhibits are two halves of a still-developing story.

San Diegos Gem Tourmaline at the San Diego Natural History Museum
San Diegos Gem Tourmaline at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Hidden Gems

Hidden Gems houses the museum’s gemstone and mineral collection. Here, you’ll find over 100 different gems, many of which feature eye-catching bright colors, and some of which even glow in the dark. Hidden Gems highlights the gemstones native to the San Diego area, including topaz, quartz, and the hot pink tourmaline San Diego is known for.

Rather than being laid out in a more traditional fashion, this exhibit is right outside the elevator doors on each floor. This way, the first thing you see when you step out onto the new floor is another part of the collection.

Map of Baja California Inside Expedition Baja at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Map of Baja California Inside Expedition Baja at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Expedition Baja

As part of the Natural History Museum’s focus on conservation, the Expedition Baja exhibit highlights the biological diversity of the Baja California Peninsula.

Get a closer look at a habitat that’s right next door to San Diego. This desert region is filled with plants and animals that have adapted to survive in an otherwise-hostile climate.

Native species guests can learn about at the exhibit include birds, insects, small rodents, and cardón cacti. Specimens and dioramas depict both extant and extinct creatures. The exhibit also includes murals and stories depicting the experiences of researchers on the Baja California Peninsula.

Ground Floor of the San Diego Natural History Museum
Ground Floor of the San Diego Natural History Museum

Unshelved: Cool Stuff from Storage

There are over 8 million specimens housed inside the building of The Nat.

With such a large collection, it would be impossible to display everything at the same time. Rather than keeping everything hidden in storage, however, the museum is highlighting the very best of their collection at the Unshelved exhibit.

Unshelved is a chance for guests to peer behind the curtain at The Nat without having to take a behind-the-scenes tour. The selections on display rotate often to give as many different specimens as possible their time in the sun. Come see the wild, the weird, and the wonderful.

Fish Out of the Water Exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Fish Out of the Water Exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science

What does it take to contribute to the field of science? While many people assume you need a degree and years of study, some of the most important breakthroughs in the scientific world have actually come from average, everyday people who had a question and sought answers.

Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science is a revolutionary exhibit that brings untold tales to the forefront. Learn how so-called “citizen scientists” have made discoveries, including contributions by San Diegans.

This is one of my favorite exhibits for kids, as it’s a great way to show them that anyone can love science and get involved, which is a meaningful message for kids interested in STEM.

Dinosaurs Resemblance to Modern Day Mammals at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Dinosaurs Resemblance to Modern Day Mammals at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Demonstration Lab

Learn how the scientists and researchers at The Nat preserve and prepare the specimens that make up their exhibits at the Demonstration Lab. This exhibit offers a look at the work done by museum staff every day to help bring the Natural History Museum to life.

At the Demonstration Lab, you can watch the preservation process and learn about the unique challenges that make preservation such a vital part of the museum’s work.

Megalodon at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Megalodon at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Science Spotlight: Baleen Whale Evolution

The Scientist Spotlight: Baleen Whale Evolution exhibit highlights the work of the San Diego Natural History Museum’s own Dr. Tom Deméré in researching the history of the evolution of the baleen whale.

Look at real whale specimens and see a recreation of what these whales’ ancestors might have looked like - with teeth instead of their characteristic baleen. By highlighting the unanswered questions and theorizing about what could have been, this exhibit reminds guests that science is an ongoing process with many mysteries still being solved.

3D Theater

The giant-screen theater at the San Diego Natural History Museum is perhaps one of its most well-known installments. The theater can fit up to 300 guests at a time. Tickets to a showing are included with paid admission, as well as with admission through the Go City San Diego Pass.

The movies offered at the theater run on a rotating schedule, so check ahead with the website to see what’s playing. Most movies run between a half hour and 45 minutes, and all films are centered around educational, family-friendly content.

Exhibitions and Activities for Children

The Backyard Kids Play Area at the San Diego Natural History Museum
The Backyard Kids Play Area at the San Diego Natural History Museum

The Backyard

The Nat includes an area specifically for young visitors known as the Backyard. Here, kids have space to run around or to cool off while playing and reading.

Fun activities for kids are available all throughout the museum. On top of the interactive exhibit features, kids can participate in two different scavenger hunts in the Fossil Mysteries section, identifying the different skeletons as they explore.

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Important Tips for Your Visit

Here are some tips that can improve the quality of your visit to the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Parking Tips

The easiest way to access the museum is to park in the Inspiration Point lot and take the free tram to the Nat. Nearby parking can also be found throughout Balboa Park.

The Nat Museum Store
The Nat Museum Store

The Nat Museum Store

Gifts and souvenirs can be purchased at the Alex and Elizabeth Wise Museum Store, located inside the museum.

San Diego Natural History Museum theNat Entrance
San Diego Natural History Museum theNat Entrance

Accessibility

The museum is fully wheelchair accessible, with a ramp at the north entrance and access ramps in the northwest and southwest corners of the building.

ASD mornings are offered once a month so individuals on the autism spectrum can enjoy a less crowded museum experience. For more information on accessibility, check the official website.

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