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11 Under-the-Radar Museums in San Diego

From historical to spooky, these lesser-known San Diego museums are where to get your cultural fix.
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Aimee is a writer, editor, and brand consultant based in San Diego. Her work focuses on travel, food, and adventuring with kids. When she’s not behind her laptop, she’s busy planning her next trip, testing out a new recipe, or hiking with her pup. You can read more of her work here.

A true vacation city, San Diego is known for its idyllic weather and sought-after surf. Every year, tourists flock to the area's biggest attractions and top-notch museums like the National History Museum, the Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Museum of Art. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll discover plenty of under-the-radar experiences that offer a new perspective and an even better understanding of San Diego’s rich cultural history and laid-back vibe. Here are 11 fun and quirky museums to visit in America’s Finest City.

1. ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) North

San Elijo Lagoon, San Diego
The San Elijo Lagoon sits below this under-the-radar San Diego museum.Photo Credit: Marcel Fuentes / Shutterstock

Home to resident artists.

Nestled on a hill above the San Elijo Lagoon in Encinitas, ICA North showcases the work of resident artists. A typical visit includes the opportunity to engage in open dialogue with the artists for insight into their creative processes.

This San Diego museum also provides a dynamic "living laboratory of art and ideas" with both indoor and outdoor areas to explore. Take a leisurely stroll through the gardens to admire native plantings and observe the 11 site-specific art installations along the sculpture trail. Plus, admission is free through ICA's pay-as-you-wish initiative.

Don’t miss:The Glacial Erratic by Beatrix Cortez, an installation located behind the Artist Pavilion.

2. Timken Museum

Timken Museum exterior
The Timken Museum is free to visit.Photo Credit: Sherry V Smith / Shutterstock

Old masterpieces hung in a mid-century modern setting.

Located in Balboa Park, this small but stunning museum spotlights American and European works from as early as the 1300s. And in addition to its hung masterpieces, the building itself is a work of art. Drafted by Frank Hope Jr., it features modern glass, bronze, and travertine elements and is considered one of San Diego’s finest examples of mid-century modern architecture. Gain a quick lesson in art history by following the galleries clockwise to notice connections and transitions as art styles developed through time. Even better? Timken is the only free museum in Balboa Park.

Don’t miss: Rembrandt's sole painting in Southern California, Saint Bartholomew.

3. The Whaley House San Diego

period rooms in old house, Whaley House, San Diego
Yes, the Whaley House might be haunted.Photo Credit: Artazum / Shutterstock

A California Historic Landmark, a museum, and a paranormal hot spot.

Known as San Diego's most haunted house, the historic Whaley House, constructed in 1857, stands on the site of a former gallows in Old Town. Step back in time with a self-guided tour to experience life in the city's oldest neighborhood between 1868 and 1871, when the property served as the Whaley family residence, San Diego's first commercial theater, the county courthouse, and the General Store.

The Greek revival–style home has garnered its haunted reputation thanks to several tragic events that took place within its walls. Prepare to witness the eerie occurrences firsthand, as both visitors and workers have reported hearing footsteps and vaudeville music, as well as catching whiffs of holiday meals and French perfume.

Don’t miss: The old family photo album in the general store; each photo is creepier than the last.

4. California Surf Museum

vintage surfboards lined up at the California Surf Museum
Learn about one of California's favorite pastimes at the Surf Museum.Photo Credit: Patti W / Tripadvisor

Ride the crest of a cultural wave.

This local North County gem, located just a few blocks from the Oceanside Pier, is dedicated to all things surf. However, you don’t need to be a surfer to appreciate the museum’s permanent and rotating exhibits.

One of its most popular exhibits is Courageous Inspiration. It’s the story of Bethany Hamilton, the 13-year-old surfer who survived a shark attack and made a remarkable and inspiring comeback in competitive surfing. (Her surfboard, complete with the bite mark, is even on display.) In addition to collections devoted to the history of surfboards and the science of surfing, the museum hosts regular book signings, documentary viewings, and other special events.

Don’t miss: The Secret Spot, a mural by local surf cartoonist John Lamb in the small courtyard behind the museum.

5. Mingei Museum

museum buildings on street with fountain
The Mingei Museum is one of the 17 museums in Balboa Park.Photo Credit: Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock

For celebrating folk art and design.

Unlike fine art, the Japanese concept of Mingei celebrates the artistry of everyday products such as pottery, textiles, and furniture. But despite its major renovation in 2021 and impressive collection of 25,000 objects from 140 countries, this cultural hub in Balboa Park remains relatively undiscovered compared to its more popular neighbors.

Learn about everything from the history of surfboard design to the latest Japanese ceramics through the Mingei Museum’s permanent and traveling exhibits. Cap off your visit at ARTIFACT cafe, inspired by ancient cooking methods, spices, and botanicals. The restaurant is on the museum’s Commons Level (main floor), which is always open and free to the public.

Don’t miss: The stunning view of the Plaza de Panama from the museum’s two new rooftop gardens.

Related: Visiting San Diego for the First Time? Here's What To See and Do

6. Comic-Con Museum

mayan revival building with poster for comic con museum
Can't make it to Comic-Con? The Comic-Con Museum is the next best thing.Photo Credit: Roaming Panda Photos / Shutterstock

The ultimate fan destination for comics, movies, and sci-fi.

Founded in 2021, this creative and unique museum is dedicated to recreating the thrill of San Diego's largest and most beloved convention: Comic-Con. Participate and share vibrant experiences featuring your favorite comics, video games, anime, and science fiction themes. Exhibits change seasonally, and dynamic programming is introduced regularly, so there’s always something new to explore.

Don’t miss: The POPnology exhibit, where you can play around with sci-fi technology like driverless cars, robots, and drones.

7. Museum of Us

gallery wall with movie posters about cannibals
The Museum of Us demonstrates the shared human experience through cultural anthropology.Photo Credit: Adam Kassel / Tripadvisor

Learn how we’re all connected.

At its core, the Museum of Us is a cultural anthropology museum that illustrates the intersection of shared human experience. Explore traditional exhibits and immersive, interactive experiences where people can be expressive about personal, cultural, and societal topics. This intimate museum encourages self-reflection and offers perspectives that spark dialogue.

Don’t miss: An opportunity to climb a staircase (that was hidden from the public for decades) to the top of the California Tower for 360-degree views of San Diego.

8. The Women’s Museum

pop art pictures of women
Women are in the spotlight at the Women's Museum.Photo Credit: Women's Museum of California / Tripadvisor

A must for all visitors, not just women.

The Women's Museum has been around for almost 40 years and recently found a new home at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation in Southeast San Diego in 2022. The new space is devoted to representing women whose stories haven’t been told, with the aim of inspiring an upcoming generation of activists. Explore and discuss exhibits, such as Crafting Feminism: Textiles of the Women's Movement, and digital exhibits such as The Women of the Goldrush.

Don't miss: The Free Feminist Library, which is open to the public on Saturdays.

9. The Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum

display case of miniature machines
Marvel at miniature machines at the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum.Photo Credit: Ritu Manoj Jethani / Shutterstock

Packed with small-sized marvels.

This true hidden gem is located in a discreet business complex in North County, San Diego, and is virtually unknown even to locals. The Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum, inspired by founder Joe Martin's passion for artisans and their meticulous attention to designing and building models, is a treasure trove of miniature wonders.

Engage with friendly and knowledgeable docents who are happy to explain the history and workings of every piece. World War II enthusiasts will appreciate the 1/6 scale model of a 1932 Duesenberg and several aluminum cutaway models of WWII fighter planes.

Don’t miss: The miniature version of the US capital is a highlight.

10. Museum of Making Music

white building with blue trim and palm trees
The Museum of Making Museum is packed full of hands-on fun.Photo Credit: Rosamar / Shutterstock

Connect to music with hands-on interactivity.

Located just across from the Flower Fields in Carlsbad, this museum is an insider’s view of the world of making music. Step into one of four newly renovated galleries to fully explore the music industry and how it’s evolved. The Museum of Making Music is a hands-on space where music lovers can try out a variety of instruments like a harp guitar, the theremin, and a synthesizer board. It also hosts special events and artist appearances.

Don’t miss: Play DJ by mixing your own tune on one of the turntables.

11. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum

model train enginges
You can find the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park.Photo Credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock

Celebrates the history of locomotion.

One of the world’s largest accredited model railroad museums, many visitors still don’t realize this spot is located in Balboa Park. To access the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, walk down the corridor in Casa de Balboa and past a small café. You’ll see stairs leading to a lower level and two signal flags implying what’s down beneath—this confirms you’re in the right spot.

Feel the nostalgia of traveling at a slower pace through exhibits like the Tehachapi Pass and the Toy Train Gallery, a collection of rare Lionel and American Flyer cars from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Don’t miss: The museum’s checklist of things to look for before you begin so you can get the most out of your visit.

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