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Museums in Balboa Park

Heighten your love of art, natural history, and even model railroads

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It’s known as the Smithsonian of the West for a reason: San Diego’s Balboa Park has a wide range of fascinating institutions, with specialties that will appeal to almost any kind of curious mind.

The San Diego Museum of Art is only one of Balboa Park’s many fine art museums, but as the largest and oldest, it’s a good place to start. The collection features pieces from 5,000 B.C. to present day, all housed behind an intricate facade designed to mimic a Spanish cathedral. The free-admission Timken Museum of Art offers a similar range of pieces in a smaller space. In the Museum of Photographic Arts, visitors can gaze on the more than 24,000 pictures in the permanent collection, or head to Mingei International Museum, which celebrates beauty in ordinary objects like textiles and bowls.

If you’d like to visit an actual artist’s studio—or better yet, several of them—Balboa Park is home to the Spanish Village Art Center, a picturesque cluster of building and courtyards originally constructed to resemble a charming town in Spain in 1935 for the second California Exposition. Today it houses studio and gallery space for more than 250 local artists of every imaginable discipline: painters, sculptors, metalsmiths, mixed-media artists, photographers, glassblowers, and many more. You can stroll through shows and sales, watch demonstrations, and observe the artists at work; the studios are open and questions are encouraged.

Those curious about engineering will appreciate the handful of park museums dedicated to how stuff works. The San Diego Air & Space Museum houses an impressive number of original and replica aircraft—Apollo 9, Wright Glider, and Super Marine Spitfire, to name a few—which help visitors understand the wonder of flight. Gearheads should check out the San Diego Automotive Museum, which has a 1947 Cadillac that still holds the record for driving from San Diego to New York and back—without stopping. For a better understanding of the physics behind machines, head to the Fleet Science Center for interactive exhibits that are good for kids (and adults) of all ages, while kids and train spotters will also love the Model Railroad Museum. Some kids would argue, too, that the park’s 1910 Herschell-Spillman Carousel, near the Activity Center, is a museum in itself. 

Two more can’t-miss stops include the San Diego Natural History Museum, which allows visitors to channel their inner archaeologist with dinosaur skeletons and mastodon bones. The truly unique San Diego Museum of Man focuses on one of earth’s most peculiar creatures with rotating exhibits on animal cohabitation, cannibalism, and the invention of mythical beasts.

Useful info: As a public park, entrance to Balboa Park is free, but tickets to the various museums, performance venues, tours, etc. vary, as do their hours of operation. Visit the site for details and a useful map. The Balboa Park Explorer Pass, a pass with one-day, one-week, and one-year options is available. The park also has an app to help you make the most of your visit.

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