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Explore These Awesome Museums

Where learning is more like recess

Who says learning can’t be fun? Hands-on exhibits and special activities at museums throughout San Diego County match education with entertainment.

Hands-On Learning, Special Exhibits and More!

Whether you've got a budding biologist, an aspiring artist or a scientist in the making, you can find a San Diego museum that fosters their individual passion. From toddler to teenager, discover the right mix of education and enjoyment for your whole family.

Downtown

USS Midway Museum

The USS Midway Museum pays tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Navy personnel who served their country aboard the historic aircraft carrier, and highlights San Diego's rich military history. Explore more than 60 exhibits and a collection of 25 restored aircraft. The self-guided audio tour, narrated by former Midway sailors, brings the carrier's history to life. Those who dare can "take to the sky" aboard one of the flight simulators. With their family sleepover programs, youngsters and their loved ones can experience "deployment" aboard the USS Midway. Overnight stays include tours, simulators, meals on the mess deck and sleeping in enlisted crew berths. The museum also hosts a range of school and youth programs aboard the ship.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

The floating Maritime Museum of San Diego features one of the finest collections of historic vessels in the world, including the fully restored Star of India, the world's oldest active sailing ship. The museum's collection also includes the 1898 steam ferry Berkeley, the 1904 steam yacht Medea and the HMS Surprise, an 18th-century Royal Navy frigate replica that was featured in the film "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." (The Surprise is currently closed for restoration.) And the museum boasts a full-sized, fully functional and historically accurate replica of the San Salvador, the flagship for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo when in 1542 he became the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States.

Fleet Science Center

There's something for children of all ages at the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. Those 5 and younger will want to spend time at Kid City, playing in the child-sized grocery store, learning the physics of movement via the mousetrap-like Ball Wall and feeding the correct shapes through the four-level factory. Toddlers will enjoy the block corner, and there's even an area specifically for infants. For older kids, the Science Center's 100-plus interactive science exhibits will stimulate their imaginations and teach scientific principles through activities such as free-form building using wooden KEVA planks, whisper disks that allow a secret conversation from across the room, constructing simple mechanical toys from recycled materials, and interacting with a simulated tornado. The Dome Theater, the first of its kind in the world, presents IMAX films and lively planetarium shows to add to the adventure.

Balboa Park Museums

In addition to the Fleet Science Center, Balboa Park houses 17 museums ranging from art and automobiles to photography and natural history. Of particular interest to families with younger kids are the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the largest museum of its type, with four enormous scale and model layouts; and the San Diego Natural History Museum (aka The Nat), which brims with exhibits on insects, dinosaurs, mammals, geology — everything connected to the natural world. For teen-agers, check out the San Diego Air & Space Museum, which features the actual Apollo 9 Command Module and the only real GPS satellite on display in the world; and the Museum of Photographic Arts, which is particularly strong in social-documentary photography and photojournalism. .

WorldBeat Cultural Center

Also located in Balboa Park, the WorldBeat Cultural Center offers classes in Brazilian capoeira, belly dance, Afro-Cuban percussion and West African drumming, drawing a steady crowd of local teens. Look for the center's all-ages concerts that showcase reggae and world musicians and benefit social causes around the globe.

The New Children's Museum

Downtown San Diego's New Children's Museum encourages children to think, play and create with innovative, hands-on art opportunities, classes and first-rate exhibitions designed by emerging and established contemporary artists. And it's not just for the little ones: Many of the art studios and activities are appropriate for kids of all ages. The museum also now has its first satellite location, the Art + Play Space at Del Mar Plaza in North San Diego County.

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

The MCASD's expanded and removed flagship location in La Jolla is a contemporary-art mecca with stunning views of the Pacific. Younger visitors will appreciate the energy, whimsy and inventiveness of the art in the museum's extensive collection, including key experimental works by the San Diego-connected sculptor and painter Niki de Saint Phalle. And admission for those 25 and under is always free at both the La Jolla museum and MCASD's location in Downtown San Diego.

Mission Valley and Old Town

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

San Diego history meets modern-day family entertainment (and education) at Old Town, site of numerous historic buildings and locations dating both to San Diego's first peoples and some of the earliest European settlements in the area. Such sites as the Casa de Estudillo and the (allegedly haunted) Whaley House help tell the story of San Diego in the 19th century, while the Iipay ~ Tipai Kumeyaay Mut Niihepok Land of the First People Area honors the legacy and traditions of the area's pre-European inhabitants. The state park is set amid a wider cultural zone that includes play spaces for kids, a vintage candy store, numerous family-minded dining spots and more.

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

It's not for nothing that San Diego schoolkids do a study unit on the history of California's missions, including this one: The missions played a major role (controversial as it may be) in laying the groundwork of modern-day California. Founded in 1769, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was the first Franciscan mission in the area and is still active today as a church and cultural center. Tours are offered on weekdays, along with daily Catholic Mass services, but non-religious visitors have plenty of options to enjoy as well. Stroll through the mission's magnificent gardens or admire ancient artifacts from the Kumeyaay peoples.

La Jolla

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps features more than 60 marine-life habitats, representing environments from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical seas of Mexico and beyond. At the three living tidepools, children can touch and learn about the inhabitants, including anemones, hermit crabs, mussels and sea plants. An enormous kelp forest tank and smaller shark reef tank will capture children's attention, as well as the "There's Something About Seahorses" exhibit, which showcases the various life stages of these captivating creatures. And the Beyster Family Little Blue Penguin habitat is the only place in the Western U.S. where you can see the world's smallest penguins.

South Bay

Living Coast Discovery Center

The Living Coast Discovery Center provides an inexpensive aquarium and nature experience from its location on the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Interactive exhibits revealing the geology, ecology and natural history of the wetlands bring the bay to life, including a 4,500-gallon shark and stingray pool, burrowing owl aviary, enclosed shorebird exhibit complete with integrated tidal slough, two bird-watching platforms and gardens focusing on plants that are drought-tolerant and attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds.

North Coastal

Museum of Making Music

Carlsbad's Museum of Making Music tells the story of how the music-products industry supplies the world with the instruments and other gear that we all use to make music. When you step inside, you'll see outstanding examples of musical instruments, many of them displayed in vintage music-store settings. You'll also hear some familiar tunes in audio and video clips, have many hands-on opportunities to pick up and play a variety of instruments, and discover the innovative ways that the industry has grown over the years. It's an insider's view of the world of making music.

California Surf Museum

The California Surf Museum in Oceanside honors the legends of surfing history with rotating exhibits and an excellent collection of vintage boards and surf memorabilia. Founded in 1986, the museum showcases the vibrant history of San Diego and California's surf-culture evolution. Young visitors will love browsing the eclectic exhibits of magazines, surfboards, trophies and more to learn how the sport has grown and changed throughout the decades.

North Inland

San Diego Children's Discovery Museum

At the San Diego Children's Discovery Museum in Escondido, whether playing musical instruments, discovering history in an archeological dig box, or exploring the amazing world of plants and insects in their garden, children can combine active learning with creativity for a fun educational experience all their own.

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