Historical Museums in San Diego

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A tour of the USS Midway will make you proud to be an American. We are a Navy town and we like to  show our guests who we are.

Historical Museums in San Diego are a huge San Diego Attraction. Yes, there are nearly 100 fascinating Museum from aeronautical museums to veterans museums and everything in between. Fortunately, many museums are clustered together such as the 17 museums in Balboa Park. See the Balboa Park chapter and map, the Embarcadero, which is home to the floating San Diego Maritime Museum and the USS Midway floating museum. Then there is Old Town State Historic Park, which was the first white settlement on the West Coast of the United States. Besides this major attraction being a must see attraction, it’s great appeal is that both the parking and admission are FREE. And, the map and self-guided tour are second to none. Another real plus, are the outstanding Mexican restaurants where you can have a great meal and a frosty margarita. Ole!

On the hill overlooking Old Town is Presideo Park’s Serra Museum, a museum rich in early California history and memorabilia. This museum and hillside view capture the early California spirit. Here too is the remains of the original Mission de Alcala, which was moved to its current location to be closer to a water source a few years later.

An extra bonus awaits you on the top floor of the museum. As you glimpse out the East facing window is a view of Mission Valley today with the cars racing along the freeway and the sprawling commercial area below, is a remarkable photograph of this same view 95 years ago.

To put the pieces of early California together means your next destination must be a few minutes to the east via Highway 8 to see the historically significant San Diego Mission de Alcala, which was the first of 21 missions founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. This mission site in Mission Valley should definitely be visited right after visiting Old Town and Serra Museum because all three museums, capture the historical beginning of San Diego from its inception in 1769.

In fact, all of the one hundred other museums are “must see” attractions in their own right. You won’t be disappointed with their immense number nor the variety of museums found throughout San Diego County! San Diego is definitely a treasure trove of historical sites and museums to see, which is why few visitors to San Diego ever visit San Diego just once. And, believe it or not, why half of the visitors to our city’s 100 museums are locals.



San Diego Automotive Museum, Balboa Park (619-231-2886). The museum is open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. with the last admission at 4:30 p.m. The automotive museum features rotating themed shows that display significant, rare and exotic cars and motorcycles, and vehicles reflecting the history of the automobile. Enjoy the classics of bygone eras as you stroll through rows of cars that are all restored to glittering splendor. Browse through the automotive gift shop. Discounts are also available for the military, seniors and students. Credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, VISA.

Aviation Museum

San Diego Air and Space Museum (619-234-8291) [sandiegoairandspace.org] is in the historic Ford Building in Balboa Park. This impressive museum displays famous aircraft, engines, spacecraft and aviation artifacts from the dawn of aviation through the space age. The museum’s blockbuster exhibit is “Speed, Science and Motion”. You’ll have to pay an extra ($5) to see this special touring exhibit, but it’s well worth it! The museum is open daily 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m. with the last admission at 4:30 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Admission to the museum is only ($19.75) for adults 12 and over; ($16.75) for seniors, students and active duty military with ID; ($10.75) youth ages 3–11; children under 2 are admitted free. See Banquets and Catering. Credit cards: AE, MC, VISA.

Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument is at 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr. which is at the tip of Pt. Loma (619-557-5450). It’s just 20 scenic minutes from downtown, and the views of the city, bay, and ocean are absolutely breathtaking. The monument is open daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m., entrance fee of ($15) per car,  ($7) for walk-ins and bicyclists. Motorcyclists are ($10). The fee includes access to the 1,500-acre Point Loma federal reservation, monument, a visit to the tide pools (this exhibit closes at 4:30 p.m.), and hiking on the bayside trail. Visitors should begin their tour at the Visitor Center Bookstore. At the center, you can see a film and exhibits depicting Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s discovery of San Diego in 1542 and a whole lot more. If you visit the park between late December and the end of February, you can often see the annual migration of the California gray whale. They may pass as close as half a mile from shore. For a closer look, take a whale watching excursion. Credit cards: AE, MC, VISA.

Heritage Museum

Heritage of the Americas Museum, located on the campus of Cuyamaca College in Rancho San Diego at 12110 Cuyamaca College Dr. West off of Jamacha Rd. (619-670-5194) [heritageoftheamericasmuseum.com]. Open Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sat. noon- 4 p.m. Admission for adults is ($3); seniors (55 and over) ($2), children 17 years and younger, students and members are admitted free. Visitors of all ages are invited to experience a journey through time. Five wings divide the building into areas of Natural History, Archaeology, Anthropology, Art and Education. This one-of-a-kind Museum is a cultural and educational facility featuring an incredible display of the prehistoric and historic art, culture and natural history of the Americas. Credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, VISA.

Gaslamp District Tour

The Davis Horton House
The historical walking tour of the Gaslamp Quarter is conducted by the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation volunteers. It’s offered Saturday at 11 a.m. and Thursday at 1 p.m. ($20); active military and seniors 55+ ($15), students ($10). The tour begins at the charming The Davis-Horton House (7) at 410 Island Ave. (619-233-4692). This is the oldest surviving wood frame structure in downtown.


Marine Aviation Museum

The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum which is adjacent to the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar on Miramar Road, San Diego (858-693-1723) [flying
leathernecks.org]. This is the only Command Museum dedicated to the history of Marine Corps aviation. The museum features more than 30 vintage and historically important aircrafts, ranging from World War II “Warbirds” to present-day jet fighters and helicopters. Inside the museum are artifacts, photos and displays that help visitors relive the stories of courage, sacrifice and achievement in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The museum is 1.3 miles west of I-15. Look for their entrance gate marked with Marine Corps and American flags on the south side of Miramar Road. They also have a museum store. Admission is free. The museum is open to the public Tues.–Sun., 9 a.m.–3:30 p.m. except Federal holidays. Show their ad in this book and receive 20 percent off Museum store purchase. Credit cards: DISC, MC, VISA.

MCRD Command Museum

MCRD Command Museum, Building 26 in the Marine base near Old Town, San Diego (619-524- 4200). Open Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Entrance to the Marine base is through Gate 5, which is at the foot of Washington at Pacific Highway. See the Old Town map. Stop at the kiosk for a pass. To get on the base you will need a valid ID, proof of automobile insurance, and current automobile registration. Once you’re on base, the museum is in Building 26, which is a two-story Spanish colonial building. Guided tours are available to groups of 10 or more with advanced planning (619-524-6038). This awesome “must see” historically significant museum is dedicated to preserving the glorious history and rich tradition of the United States Marine Corps. While it may seem a bit tricky to get on to the base, it is well worth the effort, especially if you were a marine or know someone who was in the military. More than 100,000 people visit this historical museum annually. A great help is their brochure titled “A Walking Tour of the MCRD Command Museum.” Fourteen galleries are featured, which encompass dozens of exhibits featuring everything from weapons, uniforms, equipment, paintings, and photographs of various wars and campaigns the Marine Corps. have fought in, including WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. This awe-inspiring museum is one attraction that should not be missed. Admission is free.

Naval Aviation Museum

USS Midway Museum at the Navy Pier in San Diego Bay, 910 N. Harbor Dr., downtown (619-544-9600) [midway.org]. Experience the magic aboard one of the longest-serving aircraft carriers in U.S. Naval history, the USS Midway. It’s a must-see San Diego attraction. The tour lasts 3–4 hours and is included with admission. You can launch, fly dogfight missions and land aboard the carrier via optional flight simulators. Also available are ­educational programs including an award-winning children’s audio tour, a new self-guided tour just for kids, group tours and limited wheelchair accessibility. Limited paid to park on Navy Pier ($10-$20). Open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; ticket booth closes at 4 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is ($31) for adults 13 years and over; youth 6-12 ($21), vets ($21) with ID. Credit cards: MC, VISA.

Maritime Museum

Maritime Museum San Diego at 1492 N. Harbor Dr., downtown San Diego (619-234-9153) [sdmaritime.org]. The fascinating floating museum at the Embarcadero consists of 11 historic ships: the Star of India, which is the oldest active sailing ship in the world, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s flagship; San Salvador; the Berkeley; the Medea; the Harbor Pilot, a B-39 cold war era Soviet submarine; the USS Dolphin a retired diesel research submarine and the HMS Surprise, as seen in the movie Master and Commander starring Russell Crowe among others. You can go aboard and explore these historic ships, see maritime artifacts, charts and take docent-led tours. So for ($15) above the cost of admission you can also take a 45-minute bay cruise aboard their bay cruiser called the Pilot. Seating is limited. Cruise times are: 12:45, 1:45 and 2:45. Also, be sure to visit the maritime gift shop aboard the steam ferry Berkeley. Open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. with extended hours Memorial Day through Labor Day. Admission is ($20) 18 yrs and over, seniors 62 and over, military with ID,  and  Students is ($15);  children 3–12 are ($10); children 2 and under are admitted FREE.  Credit cards: AE, MC, VISA.

Veterans Museum

Veterans Museum at Balboa Park, 2115 Park Blvd., Balboa Park (619-239-2300) [veteranmuseum.org]. This museum houses military artifacts and memorabilia from the Civil War to the present. Divided into three sections, it honors those who served “in the air, on land and at sea” with a walkway of flags, an amphitheater, fountain and a B-24 memorial. The museum is open Tues.–Sun. 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Admission is ($5) for adults, ($4) for veterans and seniors 65+, ($2) for students with ID and free for children 12 and under, active military and their families. Free for San Diego County residents second Tues. of each month. Memorial services are held the fourth Saturday of each month at noon honoring San Diego veterans. Credit cards: AE, MC, VISA.


Mission San Diego de Alcala

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala is ideally located in Mission Valley (see Mission Valley) at 10818 San Diego Mission Road (619-281-8449) for the Visitor Center or office (619-283-7319). The mission is still in use today as a church. Most significantly, is that it is the first of 21 missions founded by Father Juniero Serra in 1769. Offered is an excellent self-guided tour of the grounds and buildings is available. The mission, visitor center and gift shop hours are 9  – 4 daily. Admission is ($8) for adults ,55+ /active military/ students $5 and children 6-12 are $3. This mission, like the Mission San Luis Rey are active churches numerous masses daily and Saturday confessions 4-5 in the Mission Church.

Mission San Luis Rey

Old Mission San Luis Rey at 4050 Mission Ave., Oceanside (760-757-3651) is known as the King of the Missions. It is the largest of the 21 missions that flourished here in the 1700s and 1800s. It’s the majestic jewel of early California history. The museum is open Mon.–Fri. 9:30  a.m.–5 p.m. and Sat. and Sun. at 10 a.m. Prices for self-guided tours are ($7) for adults; ($3) for youth 6-18; and ($5) for seniors 65+; and free for active military and their dependents and children 5 years of age and under. The Mission provides both guided and self-guided tours. Discover the architectural beauty of the Mission’s museum, church, sunken gardens and cemetery. The museum features an extensive collection of early mission artifacts. Be sure to stop by the gift shop featuring unique and delicate religious artifacts, mementos and books. Credit Cards: AE, DISC, MC, VISA.

Music Museum

The Museum of Making Music, 5790 Armada Dr., Carlsbad (760-438-5996) [museumofmakingmusic.org]. The focus of this impressive museum is its presentation of a nostalgic walk through the past 100 years of American music and its creation. Featured are more than 500 vintage instruments. Plus, there are lots of interactive exhibits and hundreds of audio and video clips. This is a unique educational adventure for everyone! Open Tues.–Sun., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. General admission is ($10); seniors 60+, students and active military ($7); and children under 3 admitted free. Credit cards: AE, DISC, C, VISA.

Historical Preservation

Save Our Heritage Organization, 2476 San Diego Ave., Old Town (619-297-9327) [sohosandiego.org]. San Diego is blessed with many historically significant sites, landmarks and museums. Many of these are located in Old Town, which is considered “birthplace” of California. Preserving and promoting these sites has been the goal of Save Our Heritage Organization, or SOHO, for more than 40 years. Credit cards: AE, MC, VISA.

Also visit historic Marston House Museum & Gardens. It’s located at 3525 Seventh Ave. on the northwest side of Balboa Park (619-297-9327) [sohosandiego.org]. This circa 1905 estate home belonged to George W. Marston. He was called the father of Balboa  park.