27 Fun Museums in San Diego
1. Motor Transport Museum
The Motor Transport Museum in Campo sits as a crumbling testimony to days long past. Here you will find a collection of automotive vehicles dating back over a century. In their own words “We supply physical evidence of what once was, for the tourist and the young, a glimpse into the too soon forgotten past.”
Located in the historic Feldspar Mill, this museum is the final home for over 200 transport vehicles. They range from old belt drive machinery, single cylinder engines, electric generators, quarry mining equipment, rain makers, olive presses, anti-aircraft searchlight and even a custom built Model A log splitter.
2. Centro Cultural de Raza
San Diego’s Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park was founded in 1970 as a Chicano Community Cultural Center and functioned as an alternative space that encouraged and facilitated artistic growth and cultural interchange in the San Diego/Tijuana region. The Centro’s mission is to promote preserve and create Mexican, Chicano, Indigenous and Latino art and culture.
3. San Diego Chinese Historical Museum
San Diego’s historic Chinatown, is an eight-block district adjacent to and in part overlapping with the Gaslamp Quarter Historic District. The APTHD is bounded by Market Street on the north, 2nd Ave. on the west, 6th Ave. on the east and J St. on the south. 22 structures are considered historically contributing.
The San Diego Chinese Historical Museum was built in 1927 elsewhere and was originally a Chinese consulate. It was moved to its present location in 1996. Murray K. Lee, curator of the museum, is as of January 2011 preparing a book about the history of Chinatown
4. Desert View Tower
On this road alone you will find this tower, a boulder park with carved animals, a UFO repair stop, hot springs and endless abandoned homes/buildings. It is a truly unique experience. The desert tower exceeded all of my expectations. Inside is like an oddities shop.
You will want to spend a decent amount of time here so plan your day accordingly. Pay the $2 so you can walk the 4 or 5 stories to the top (this also gets you access to Boulder Park). It’s completely worth it. Each floor has more oddities and unique artwork.
5. Grape Day Park
Grape Day Park was built in the 1930’s and is the city’s oldest park. Since its early days it has been the center for community events and activities. Every year from 1908 to 1950, people from as far away as Los Angeles came to celebrate the annual Grape Day Harvest, a major industry in the Escondido valley.
The park continues its tradition as the center for community gatherings. It is a registered landmark and home to a turn-of-the-century working barn, Santa Fe Railroad depot, blacksmith shop, and other historic buildings, museums, and monuments.
6. House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
The International Cottages were built in 1935 as part of the California Pacific International Exposition. The exposition was formed as a way to help boost the local economy during the Great Depression.
Today the cottages house 32 groups promoting multicultural goodwill and understanding through educational and cultural programs. Every Sunday from noon-4pm every, a different country is showcased where they present traditions from their land. March through October starting at 2 you can experience featured music, dance, traditional costumes, arts, crafts and ethnic foods.
7. La Casa de Estudillo
La Casa de Estudillo, located in Old Town, is one of the oldest homes in San Diego and oldest surviving examples of Spanish architecture in California. It is a National Historic Landmark along with many other homes in the park.
It was built in 1827 by early settler, José María Estudillo and his son José Antonio Estudillo. The home is noted for being associated with Helen Hunt Jackson's popular novel Ramona, which is one of 3 homes in the state with ties to the novel. Another home tied to the book is Rancho Guajome in Vista.
8. Leo Carrillo Ranch
Leo Carrillo Ranch is the historic homestead of the Cisco Kid actor. The 27-acre ranchero contains beautifully restored adobe buildings, antique windmills, a reflecting pool and other structures that call up memories of California history.
9. La Casa de Machado Y Stewart Musem
La Casa de Machado y Stewart Museum is one of many free museums that you can visit at Old Town State Park. Descendants of the family lived on the premises until 1966. In 1973, California State Parks restored the home, and converted it into a house museum representing a Mexican era adobe. It is one of five historic adobes in the park.
10. Marston House & Garden
Marston moved his way up from being a clerk at the Grant Hotel to founding The Marston Company which became the only major department store in the city at the time. The stores were eventually sold to The Broadway in 1961.
11. Mason Street Schoolhouse
Built in 1865, the Schoolhouse was the first publically owned school in San Diego County. The building was a one-room, wood-frame, shingle-roofed structure with a ten foot high ceiling. A pot-bellied iron stove heated the room, and a water bucket and dipper provided the only indoor plumbing. All eight grades were taught in the single room.
In 1873, the school was moved to Taylor and Whitman Streets, and a two-story school was erected there. it was later razed; the original school was returned and reconstructed on this site. The Schoolhouse was operated by the San Diego Historical Days Association until 2013 when it was given to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.
12. Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center
Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor's Center is a great stop-off before heading into the park. Here you can learn about the Kumeyaay people and further educate yourself about their culture, beliefs and traditions.
There is also a 94-seat theater that runs 4 educational shows about the park and its history daily. There is a collection of taxidermied animals of some of the creatures that live in this area, an art gallery, artifacts found in the area and more. I imagine the exhibits change occasionally giving reasons for revisits.
13. Oceanside's Heritage Park
Oceanside’s Heritage Park is a representation of what the area looked like over a century ago. The park was created in the 1970’s as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration and is open to the public with several museums and a beautiful gazebo perfect for events.
TIP: If you're enjoying this post, make sure to check out our list of Hidden Gems in Orange County next!
14. Pacific Southwest Railway Museum
The Pacific Southwest Railway Museum is a railroad museum in California controlled by the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association located in Campo, on the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway line. The museum also owns and manages a railroad depot located in La Mesa.
The museum also has several historic railroad cars and locomotives on display, including five steam locomotives, seventeen diesel locomotives and many other pieces of rolling stock. A large display building houses part of the railroad equipment collection which allow visitors to view or walk through the equipment.
15. Mission San Antonio de Pala
The Mission San Antonio de Pala was founded on June 13, 1816 as an asistencia (“sub-mission”) to Mission San Luis Rey de Francia. It is the only historic mission facility still serving a Mission Indigenous tribe.
The mission was built by forced labor of the Pala band which is a mix of Luiseño and Cupeño people. The two bands were expelled from their ancestral homes in the early 20th century.
16. Rancho Buena Vista Adobe
The Rancho Buena Vista Adobe is a 160+ year old adobe and one of the best-preserved land-grant ranchos. It has since been turned into a museum for the public to enjoy!
The original Buena Vista land grant of where the Rancho Buena Vista adobe now sits was issued in 1845 by Gov. Pio Pico to Felipe Subria. Felipe was a Luiseño man who was "awarded" the land grant due to converting to Christianity at the Mission San Luis Rey.
17. Rancho Guajome Adobe
Rancho Guajome Adobe is an historic 19th-century hacienda (and now a historic house museum) located in Vista. Built in 1852-53, it is a well-preserved but late example of Spanish-Mexican colonial architecture and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
18. Rancho Penasquitos Adobe
The Rancho Peñasquitos Adobe is located within the Los Peñasquitos Canyon and is most notable as the second oldest colonial structure in San Diego County. Built in 1823, the adobe was the recipient of the first Mexican land grant in San Diego County, given in 1823 to Francisco María Ruiz. This is probably where the Camino Ruiz trail got its name, which is connected to this canyon.
19. Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center features more than 100 interactive science exhibits in eight galleries, as well as major traveling exhibitions. Visitors can create colored shadows, design images with a sand pendulum, examine the vibration of guitar strings and get their hands on a variety of intriguing scientific phenomena.
19. Sikes Adobe Historical Farmstead
I was really surprised when I first learned about the Sikes Adobe Historic Farmstead. It is literally across the street from the popular Westfield Mall in Escondido, which was my shopping center growing up. I had no clue this quaint, historical home sat quietly across the street.
If you’re into visiting well-preserved homes from the early pioneer era in San Diego, definitely add this one to your list. Best of all, it’s free to tour!
20. Seeley Stables
The 1974 reconstructed Seeley Stables houses a fine collection of 19th-century overland transportation gear and vehicles, including a carreta or ox-drawn cart, mud wagon, Concord stage, and huge tow-wagon freighter. Most of these rare artifacts were given to California State Parks by Roscoe E. “Pappy” Hazard, a former rancher and retired highway contractor.
21. The Heritage Ranch
The Heritage Ranch is home to the San Dieguito Heritage Museum which was founded in 1988. The museum’s goal is to help preserve the history of Leucadia, Encinitas, Olivenhain, Cardiff, Solana Beach, Del Mar, and Rancho Santa Fe.
You will get the opportunity to explore several historic homesteads, view ancient artifacts from the Kumeyaay and see old belongings once owned by early pioneers.
22. Stonewall Mine Museum
The remains of the 19th century Stonewall Mine and its former workers’ community are located at the northern end of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. This spot is open to the public daily and has a parking lot, restroom and picnic tables.
23. Valley Center Historical Society
The Valley Center Historical Society's mission is to seek, accumulate, preserve, and display facts and knowledge relating to the history of Valley Center and the surrounding area.
24. Warner-Carrillo Ranch House
For those that are interested in getting a glimpse into San Diego’s fading history, the Warner-Carrillo Ranch House is a must-visit spot for your checklist. The Warner-Carrillo Ranch House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
The property holds the remnants of the 1849 adobe ranch house and the restored 1857 Carrillo adobe and barn which was the original Butterfield Stage Station and Trading Post.
25. World Beat Cultural Center
The World Beat Cultural Center is one of Balboa Park’s most treasured spots. It is a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote, present and preserve both African and Indigenous cultures. They do this through unique events surrounded by music and dance, educational classes, delicious food and displays within the center.
26. Japanese Friendship Garden
The garden sits on a 12-acre plot. It offers a variety of educational programs, exhibits, and festivals as well as accredited horticultural classes to enhance and deepen visitor appreciation for Japanese culture. As a valued community resource, it is well known for its unique setting, stone arrangements, koi ponds, water features, sukiya-style buildings and landscape.
27. Mingei Museum
The Mingei International Museum is one of the most posh museums at Balboa Park in my opinion. Beautifully displayed, and now with a delicious new restaurant called Artifact.
The museum displays pieces by anonymous craftsmen of ancient times, from traditional cultures of past and present and by historical and contemporary designers. Their rotating exhibits have never failed to disappoint over the years and I always leave with a sense of uplift and inspiration. There are SO many talented artists out there!