Do you never seem to remember when a museum offers their free monthly admission day? It happens to the best of us. While those days can certainly be worth the wait, there’s a long lineup of museums in San Diego County that are always free of charge and change. From a botanical museum dedicated to all things green and growing to a hotel brimming with rock star memorabilia, here are 16 free museums and exhibits that’ll leave your art and culture budget at ease.
These establishments may not collect admission fees, but donations are how many of them are able to stay open in the first place. So, if you like what you see, consider making one!
Timken Museum of Art
Stuck in the office during Balboa Park’s Free Tuesdays? Don’t fret, you can still take advantage of Balboa Park attractions that are always admission-free. These include the Timken Museum of Art, which displays European and American masterworks, including Russian icons. Don’t be turned away by the museum’s dry and dated façade - the Putnam Foundation Collection makes up the museum’s permanent display and spans nearly 600 years of Western art, from early Italian altarpieces to mid-19th century French landscape paintings.
Another free and spectacular attraction in Balboa Park is the Botanical Building. Built for the 1915-16 Exposition, the Botanical Building is one of the largest plank structures in the world and most photographed scenes in Balboa Park. Be prepared to wander among 2,100 permanent plants, including collections of ferns, orchids and cycads. Whenever I visit, I make a beeline for their ’scratch-and-sniff’ section, where I love lingering over the “chocolate” mint leaves.
Barona Cultural Center and Museum
Next time you head over to Barona Valley Ranch Casino in Lakeside, don’t pass up the chance to check out one of East County’s coolest cultural attractions. The Barona Museum and Cultural Center uncovers the story of the local Barona Band of Mission Indians. Representing more than 10,000 years of history through 2,000 artifacts, listening alcoves of California’s first music and diorama cases unfold many fascinating stories of the Native American experience. You’ll leave brimming with newfound respect for an enterprising tribe that now owns one of the most successful gaming centers in California.
Seeley Stable Museum
Giddy up! This huge, two-story barnlike structure was the Yuma/San Diego stop in for the stage coach carriages running between LA and San Diego in the 1850s. Stage coaches were deemed obsolete after the coming of the railroad in 1887. Today, Seeley Stable Museum houses an impressive collection of vintage carriages and transportation memorabilia.
La Casa de Estudillo
Built in 1827 as the home of a Spanish aristocrat, this large adobe house features 13 rooms, a garden courtyard and was once considered one of the finest homes in Mexican California. Today, La Casa de Estudillo is one of the oldest surviving examples of Spanish architecture. Explore this piece of San Diego’s history - it is now a museum in the middle of Old Town’s main square and all rooms have been furnished with early 19th century finery.
San Diego Union Museum
Hear ye, hear ye! Revisit the early days of San Diego journalism at the first office of the San Diego Union newspaper (now called the San Diego Union-Tribune, of course). This restored structure shows the newsroom as it was when the paper first printed on October 20, 1868, with the original Washington press and editor’s office. You’ll leave pondering how far newspapers have come since then, with comprehensive Web sites and on-the-spot Twitter exclusives.
San Diego County Sheriff’s Museum
The San Diego Sheriff’s Department has been around 160 years, longer than California has been a state. The department’s long history of criminal activity, court trials and heroic saves is on display at the museum, where you’ll find guns, badges, handcuffs, uniforms, a patrol car, helicopter, motorcycle, jail cell and courtroom. The museum sits along San Diego Avenue, less than a block before you hit the bustling Café Coyote and Old Town Mexican Cafe, but it’s still easy to miss when driving into visit Old Town. Turn the car around, as this place, and the chance to honor local law enforcement, is worth the visit.
The Flying Leathernecks Aviation Museum
Aircraft aficionados should definitely not miss taking advantage of the always-free admission to the Flying Leathernecks Aviation Museum at MCAS Miramar. The museum features a collection of more than 30 vintage aircrafts, including jets and helicopters, that you can admire and climb into. Afterwards, check out artifacts that date back to the earliest days of Marine Corps aviation. Interesting fact - the name Leathernecks comes from the U.S. Marines’ early uniforms that featured large leather collars to prevent injuries from sword slashing. This nickname was then popularized with the feature film, The Flying Leathernecks, starring John Wayne.
The Marine Corps Recruit Depot Command Museum
What makes a Marine? Guts, guile and an ongoing homage to the fearless Marines that came before. Experience the legacy of the U.S. Marine Corps at the most extensive display of corps historical items in the nation at the MCRD Command Museum. The more than 5,000 artifacts include uniforms from the Spanish-American War to the present, edged weapons, a WWI ambulance, WWII-era jeep and cargo trailer and medals. Since you’re on base, you may also be lucky enough to witness Marines in the making during boot camp drills.
Omni San Diego Hotel
When a hotel’s next door neighbor is a major league baseball stadium, it better step up to the plate with its own homage to the sport. When dressing the hotel’s interior, Omni definitely didn’t disappoint. Encased in glass throughout four floors of the property, you can feast your eyes on a private collection of baseball memorabilia from the San Diego Padres former owner, John Moores. Notable items include Babe Ruth’s 1932 contract, a vintage gray-flannel Negro League jersey, a baseball bat autographed by Mickey Mantle and a pair of 1941 cleats that Joe DiMaggio sported during his famed 56-game hitting streak. Ask the hotel for a guide to the collection and relive winning moments in baseball history.
Hard Rock San Diego
It’s all about the music at Hard Rock San Diego in downtown. The property is filled to the rafters with music memorabilia including personal lyrics written by the Beatles, a bustier worn by Madonna and a Walk of Fame lined with instruments and other collectables from legends such as Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. Don’t let the piped-in rock’n'roll rush you along. Stop in and linger over the memorabilia by these music legends, mostly found on the first floor lobby or second floor public space.
Rancho Guajome Adobe
This sprawling, 20-room ranch in Vista is a example of Anglo-Hispanic architecture built on an original Mexican land grant. Distinguished as a National Historic Landmark, this hacienda was built with huge profits from the 1850s, when it bustled with extravagant fiestas, lively rodeos and constant visitors. Today, it’s a lot less lively, and most likely you’ll be one of a few visitors there. The adobe may not be a sole reason to drive up, but if you’re already in Vista or San Marcos, it’s definitely worth a stop to explore a piece of San Diego history.
San Diego Archaeological Center
If you’re fascinated with what dusty remains of yesteryear can be found deep within San Diego soil, put down that shovel and instead make a visit to the San Diego Archaeological Center. Located in San Pasqual Valley just 1.3 miles from the Wild Animal Park, the center highlights 10,000 years of history in the San Diego region with 627 collections and 5,000 boxes of artifacts dug up in San Diego. Items include pottery used by Kumeyaay Indians, children’s toys and other household items from the early 19th century as well as shells founds in areas of San Diego that were once underwater. Admission is free, but they suggest a $2 donation per person or $5 for one family.
Gem and Mineral Society Museum
Treasure seekers and gem lovers alike can find worthwhile eye candy at this small Fallbrook museum, located near one of the most productive tourmaline gem stone mines in the county. You’ll find specimens of the colorful semi-precious stone and other rare gems collected from these local mining operations, a fluorescent mineral display aglow with ultraviolet light and even ancient fossils of ammonites and mammoths. For those itching to sift for their own gems, the mines are still open to visitors for about $60 per adult at the Oceanview Mine in Pala. http://www.digforgems.com/pics.htm
Classic Rotors: The Rare and Vintage Rotorcraft Museum
Chopper chasers can find their own sky-high thrill at one of only three rotorcraft museums in the world. Located at the Ramona airport, Classic Rotors houses one of the largest collections of historic helicopters and vintage rotorcraft. Fill up on the various designs of rotor technology, including co-axial, convention and tip-powered. The museum is only open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Due to airport security measures, visitors should enter through the Chuck Hall Aviation entrance and dial 760-650-9257 on the gate keypad for access.
The Philippine Library and Museum
I couldn’t end this list without mentioning the small museum dedicated to preserving my own culture! Tucked away and easily unseen between two Irish bars in a busy section of the Gaslamp Quarter, is a green door leading to the Philippine Library and Museum. Occupying the basement level of the Lincoln Hotel Building on Fifth Avenue, the museum features wood carved furniture, old photographs of the island when it was a Spanish Colony, mountain tribal gear, old currency, stamps and paintings of the Philippine landscape. A highlight of the museum is its impressive exhibit on Dr. Jose Rizal, a brilliant visionary and the island’s first national hero who was executed when he was 35 for his outspoken calls to end the violence and human rights violations under Spanish rule. The quaint and well-kept museum has irregular opening hours, so take a moment to step in to explore if you’re in the Gaslamp Quarter and happen see their door open. It is located on Fifth Avenue, between Market and Island.