A weekly column dedicated to sharing the best sights and activities in San Diego at the best price – free! We have a great city and you don’t need to break the bank to experience it.
The Natural History Museum – Balboa Park
Address: 1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101 (Balboa Park)
Free Hours: First Tuesday of each month from 10 AM – 5 PM (Free for San Diego County residents and active-duty military, with ID)
Best For: Children, the naturally inquisitive, the curious, those looking for a break from the computer
The large white museum just off Park Boulevard in Balboa Park houses the San Diego Natural History Museum. If you’ve been to the zoo or museum campus of Balboa Park you’ve probably noticed the large structure and if you haven’t been inside yet you should take a visit. There is sure to be something of interest to you whether you are aged 5 years or 50.
I made my first visit to the museum the first Monday of this month and had low expectations. I didn’t know what to expect from a ‘natural history’ museum. Rocks? Dinosaurs? A diorama of native peoples hunting bears? I did find some dinosaurs, but struck out on the rocks and dioramas. In addition to the dinosaurs there was a variety of exhibits spaced throughout the four-story building.
The building is centered around a central courtyard that is topped with a glass roof, letting lots of sunshine fall through the museum. The exhibits when I visited included (from top level to bottom):
- Ansel Adams Photography – ringed around the top level, just below the glass roof was a series of photos from the most prominent photographer of California. I wanted to spend more time with these since I’m a big fan of nature and Adams’ photos of it, but wasn’t able to during this visit.
- Skulls – Comparisons of related species and the similarities between the construction of their skulls.
- Fossil Mysteries – Level 1 has a variety of animals large and small with skeletons and fossils on display, accompanied by life-size versions of the animals they are from. Theis is the most popular area among the 8-and-under set for certain.
- Chocolate – Now gone, this exhibit was an example of the quality at the Museum, and showcased the history of the cacao tree and production of the chocolate we now know and love. There were scents of chocolate piped-in to this exhibit or I dreamed them, as well as a chocolate shop at the conclusion. A great exhibit.
- Water: A California Story – My third favorite area of the museum after the Ansel Adams and Chocolate exhibits. This area has information about the challenges of water-sourcing in California and also has information on habitats and animals native to the Golden State.
- Dr. Entomo’s Palace of Exotic Wonders – An array of circus-themed displays featuring creatures of the creeping and crawling varieties including tarantulas, beetles, mealworms, and more. Amusing and a good stop before the cafe on the main level for a coffee.
If you visit on the first Monday of the month, the following museums are also free via the Residents Free program in Balboa Park.
- Centro Cultural de la Raza
- Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
- San Diego Model Railroad Museum
There were a lot of children at Balboa Park for the museums when I visited which isn’t surprising given the popularity of both the Natural History Museum and the Fleet Science Center for children. If you have children you are taking to the museums this would be a great day to go, but if you don’t another day might be more peaceful. I hope that your visit to the Natural History Museum is as surprisingly enjoyable as mine was.
John, just heard about the Marine museum off of Barnett – free; lots of history; gift shop. Do you know about it?
John Anderson says
Judi – I haven’t heard of it and was searching online for a website / information but couldn’t find anything. Is the name “Marine Museum” or maybe some other set of words I should be using? Thanks for the heads up – I’ll keep an eye out when I’m over there and maybe I can spot it in person if my googling continues to miss.
Hi John! Thanks for your review. Glad to hear we exceeded your expectations, I wanted to make one small correction, though. The photography exhibition is filled work inspired by Ansel Adams, not actually Ansel Adams photography itself. At least you didn’t miss out! The exhibition title is rather confusing, so I apologize for that.
John Anderson says
Hallie – thanks for the correction. Apparently I need to pay better attention! Wonderful visit and keep up the good work.