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Explore Museums and More During Kids Free San Diego in October

Special events, new exhibitions, and more!

By San Diego Museum Council September 25, 2021

From toddlers to tweens, there is so much for kids to discover – for FREE! – in October.

The San Diego Museum Council has partnered with the San Diego Tourism Authority for one of the most popular family promotions of the year – Kids Free San Diego. From October 1-31, kids 12 and under receive FREE admission with a paid adult to many of San Diego’s favorite cultural institutions throughout the County, including museums, historic sites, aquariums, gardens, and more.

Wondering where to begin enjoying these awesome discounts? Keep reading and discover the more than two dozen San Diego museums offering special deals for kids in October.

To participate, simply download a coupon for each participating museum at SanDiego.org and get ready to explore!

πŸ’‘ Look for the lightbulb emoji for additional tips for planning your visits (including ideal ages, what’s new, special events, and about how much time to spend at each attraction. TIP: Special Kids Free offers may vary by museum, so take note of the details/restrictions and be sure to check each museums’ websites for their days/hours (which may have changed due to COVID-19).

  • Balboa Park
  • Downtown San Diego
  • Along the Coast
  • North County
  • East County and South Bay
  • More San Diego County Gems

Balboa Park

As always, there is lots of museum fun to be found in San Diego’s Crown Jewel, Balboa Park. Kids Free offers a great opportunity to explore one or more museums in a single day or plan multiple visits.

πŸ’‘ Make a day of it: Pack a picnic, bring your skates or bikes, explore hiking trails, toss a frisbee on the grassy lawns, and let the kids run off some energy at the Pepper Grove Playground in between stops. Here are some must-see museums in the Park.

Following a dramatic three-year renovation, The Mingei International Museum reopened on September 3 with beautiful folk art and craft exhibitions and two new dining experiences. Coming soon: The return of Nikigator, the beloved mosaic alligator sculpture by French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (Great photo opp!).

πŸ’‘ From the Mingei: Our space is ideal for kids age 7-12, but we also offer monthly and bi-monthly events geared towards younger kids like Mini Mingei (ages 2-5) and Family Sunday (5+). Families typically spend one to two hours here. Cool tip: The museum offers free admission for anyone 17 years old and under year-round.

πŸ’‘ October Events: On Sunday, October 17 (12 to 5 p.m.), Mingei will host a free hands-on art-making program for kids to create a sugar skull piñata in honor of Day of the Dead. On October 1 and October 15 (10 a.m.), Mini Mingei programs will feature toddler-centered art-making activities and storytime.

The San Diego Air & Space Museum is always a family favorite, with a 3D/4D theater and interactive exhibits, including MaxFlight® simulators and an interactive kid zone.

πŸ’‘ From the San Diego Air & Space Museum: Our space is best for kids age five and older. Families will typically visit for about two hours.

The Museum is located next to Palisades Plaza, a beautiful new public space with seating, which offers a great spot to stop for a picnic lunch or snack.

Car- and motorcycle-loving families will want to make a visit to San Diego Automotive Museum, also located in this area, where you’ll find a wonderful selection of vintage and classic American and European vehicles. (Note: The Museum will be closed Oct. 15-17 for a special event.)

πŸ’‘ Fans of Back to the Future? Don’t miss the opportunity to see the DMC DeLorean currently on display. Kids can climb inside for a photo! 

Kids love the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, which (fun fact!) is the world’s largest accredited model railroad museum, with five enormous scale model layouts depicting railroads of the Southwest, as well as a Toy Train Gallery with an interactive Lionel layout for children.

πŸ’‘ From the San Diego Model Railroad Museum: Most of our guests are families with children between the ages of two and 10, especially two and six. Families typically spend two hours at the museum.

Have an aspiring young artist or photographer? You won’t want to miss exploring The San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Photographic Arts.

Did you know that The San Diego Museum of Art’s collection includes more than 20,000 objects from across the globe, ranging in date from 3,000 B.C. to the present? Whether kids already have a favorite artist or are brand new to the world of fine art, they will find something that inspires them in SDMA’s stunning collection of paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and photography. 

πŸ’‘ From The San Diego Museum of Art: The Museum is always free for guests under 17 and the Sculpture Garden is a great place for kids to get their wiggles out. Panama 66 restaurant is a favorite spot for a casual lunch and live music on the patio. On October 31, the Museum will be hosting a spooky Halloween-inspired performance in the Garden in conjunction with the San Diego Shakespeare Society.

They say a photo is worth a thousand words, so get ready for some fun conversations with your kids as you explore the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) and learn how people of all ages express themselves creatively through photography. After your visit, why not go on your own photo-taking adventure around Balboa Park’s many picturesque spots to capture new family memories on your camera or smartphone?

πŸ’‘ From the Museum of Photographic Arts: Our younger guests love the annual youth exhibitions, which are now on view. The unique show combines imaginative artworks responding to two separate thematic calls for submissions: Growing Up and Space. Families typically spend about 30 minutes to an hour in our space. Tip: MOPA offers a voluntary pay-what-you-wish pricing model year-round to make its exhibits more accessible to everyone.

Kids Free is the perfect time for kiddos with a passion for science and nature to visit the popular Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat)

πŸ’‘ From the Fleet Science Center: Don’t miss Mechanics Alive!, a brand-new exhibition that explores small, surreal worlds through fantastical and amusing mechanical sculptures known as automata (they come to life at the push of a button or pull of a lever!). Digital Me is another brand-new exhibition, exploring today’s digital world through larger-than-life exhibits in technology, art, play and media, presented from a powerful new perspective. Both experiences open on October 9th. 

πŸ’‘ From The Nat: Animal lovers should check out the Living Lab, a new exhibition featuring live animals from the Museum’s Vivarium. You’ll get up to close some of our region’s not-so-cuddly residents, like an impressive red diamond rattlesnake, an observation beehive, a Gila monster, several centipedes, and arachnids, and more. Families spend an average of two to three hours in the museum, depending on the little lizard or dinosaur enthusiast in their lives. Generally longer visits involve watching a film. Films are not included with the Kids Free offer but can be added on for an extra $5.

Finally, no day in the park is complete without a visit to the beautiful Japanese Friendship GardenExplore the upper gardens and tree-lined canyon, check out the Bonsai collection, stone garden, dragon bridge, and (everyone’s favorite!), the majestic koi ponds. In October, you can also see the photography exhibit, Hokusai Wave, inspired by the artwork of the acclaimed Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai. The Garden also offers a free scavenger hunt activity that kids love!   

πŸ’‘ From the Japanese Friendship Garden: Our garden is great for anyone 12 and under. Families will typically spend about 45 to 90 minutes here.

Outside the Park

There is so much more to San Diego’s diverse museum scene than Balboa Park alone! Kids Free is the perfect time to venture into a different neighborhood to discover a new favorite museum. Here are some family adventures to enjoy in every corner of San Diego County! 

Downtown San Diego

In downtown San Diego (and now North County too!), The New Children’s Museum is a much-loved destination for families with little ones (ages two and up).

New and noteworthy: The museum recently launched its first stand-alone satellite location, a 2,000-square-foot Art + Play Space in the Del Mar Plaza shopping center. At the downtown location, guests can experience the Museum’s new art installation, El Más Allá by international artist Panca, featuring vibrant murals, a 40-foot slide, giant foam blocks, and geometric sculptures. Also, check out the new outdoor installation, In the Balance, a play structure in which visitors are invited to carefully walk on different balancing beam paths.

πŸ’‘ From The New Children’s Museum: The ideal age range to visit our space is 2-10 years. Children under two are free and we have two toddler-specific installations (Wobbleland and tikitiko) for ages three and under to enjoy. Don’t miss Toddler Time every Friday at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. We also host facilitated art-making workshops in our Innovators LAB for kids ages six to 13. Three hours is plenty of time for families to enjoy the entire museum.

Note: The Museum is offering one free child admission with the purchase of one full-priced adult ticket. Redeem this offer when buying a ticket online with code KIDSFREE2021.

Families can also enjoy free admission and self-guided tours at the Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House, the oldest building in downtown San Diego, which has been used as a county hospital, military barracks, private residence, and has ties to Prohibition and WWI espionage history.  In the Museum’s Pocket Park, check out the statues of “Bum,” San Diego’s first and only town dog, and “Bobby,” another famous local canine.

Along the Coast

Because there is no better way to enjoy a beautiful San Diego day than by (or on) the water! We have several options up and down our local coastline.

Wildlife-lovers are in for a real treat, with the chance to explore two of San Diego’s zoological gems, Birch Aquarium in La Jolla and the Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista. 

At Birch Aquarium at Scrippskids will enjoy Tide Pool Plaza, the Giant Kelp Forest and Seahorse & Seadragons exhibits, as well as Oddities: Hidden Heroes of the Scripps Collections, a comic book-inspired exhibit that highlights the astonishing adaptations (aka superpowers) of ocean species.  

πŸ’‘ From Birch Aquarium at Scripps: We recommend families spend an hour and a half here. The aquarium is broken into three loops that take about 30 minutes each. Note: Reservations must be made online in advance for a specific date and time using our coupon code BOGOKID. The aquarium sells out most days and is not able to accommodate walk-ups.

Located at the southern end of San Diego Bay is the Living Coast Discovery Center, a zoo/aquarium dedicated to connecting families with coastal wildlife native to our region. Get face-to-face with endangered sea turtles, explore Raptor Row and Eagle Mesa (featuring hawks, falcons, owls, and even an American Bald Eagle!), touch-friendly rays in the Shark and Ray Experience, and see all types of fish, octopuses, jellies, reptiles, and amphibians in the Aquarium Galleries.

πŸ’‘ Don’t miss the special weekend presentations and up-close animal encounters. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy at the scenic overlooks, take a stroll on the walking trails, and rent binoculars (or bring your own) to go birding on the national wildlife refuge on Sweetwater Marsh.

More museum fun can be found along the beautiful San Diego waterfront at the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the USS Midway Museum.

The Maritime Museum of San Diego is offering a special Buy One Get One Free deal in October that includes admission to all of the Museum’s historic vessels plus dozens of below-deck exhibits and galleries. The Museum’s fleet includes popular sailing ships like the Star of India (the world’s oldest active ship), H.M.S. Surprise (featured in the film Master and Commander), Spanish galleon replica San Salvador, steam-powered boats (including the Victorian-era Berkeley and 1904 yacht Medea), Naval research submarine USS Dolphin, PCF 816 Swift Boat and more.  

πŸ’‘ Halloween Fun: From October 29-31, kids can help solve the mystery of the ghost ship Mary Celeste, which has stumped researchers, maritime history buffs, and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author/creator of fiction’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes) for almost 150 years! (This unique experience is free/included with general admission to the Museum. One lucky winner will sail away with a Tall Ship Adventure Sailing Four-Pack aboard the topsail Schooner and official tall ship of the state, Californian, valued at $400.)

Don’t miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore a historic aircraft carrier. The USS Midway Museum has activities for all ages including self-guided audio tours, theater, flight simulators, climb-in aircraft, ejection seats and cockpits, guided tours of the bridge, and more. 

πŸ’‘ From USS Midway Museum: With so much to see and do, we recommend at least three or four hours onboard. It is recommended to bring your own headphones if you plan to do the audio tour. For your safety, we recommend comfortable, closed-toed shoes and layered clothing as temperatures vary around the ship.

North County

Following a complete renovation, The Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad has reopened to the public and October is the perfect time to see what’s new! Families will find hundreds of instruments on display from the last 150 years and experience an immersive panoramic multimedia display and multiple hands-on opportunities. Music-lovers young and old will enjoy hearing a vast sampling of musical styles from yesterday and today, from the marches and rags of the early-1900s, through the evolutionary sounds of jazz, folk, rock ‘n roll, and pop, to the cross-cultural expressions of today’s connected world. 

San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas has three areas designed just for kids – the Hamilton Children’s Garden (the largest on the West Coast, home to Toni’s Tree House, mountain stream, and bird and butterfly garden), Seeds of Wonder (for early learners, with model trains), and the Junior Quail Trail (an immersive area to play and explore). 

πŸ’‘ On Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays (10 a.m. to 12 p.m.), kids can participate in the SAPLinGs (Science, Art and Play in Garden Spaces) program. Ask for a copy of the Garden’s fun scavenger hunt, always available at admissions

Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside tells the story of our nation’s frontier past and the heritage that helped form California. Explore the grounds of this National Historic Landmark and check out the Museum’s displays of original art and artifacts that bring the Mission Era to life.

Dig this! Kids (ages 5-12) visiting the San Diego Archaeological Center in Escondido during October will receive a free Kids Dig Archaeology activity book and can complete activities to earn a Junior Archaeology Badge. 

San Diego kids love playing in the ocean, especially catching waves while lying on their bellies. The California Surf Museum has a whole exhibit to show the history of the ever-popular Boogie Board. See Let’s Boogie! Tom Morey and the Evolution of the Boogie Board during your visit to this Oceanside favorite. 

José Guadalupe Posada is a legendary printmaker of Mexico, and California Center for the Arts, Escondido is showing his work this fall season. Posada’s satirical skeletons (calaveras) are instantly recognizable!

πŸ’‘ Did you know: The CCAE Museum hosts four to six art exhibitions each year to provide North County San Diego with access to relevant, thought-provoking, and wide-ranging exhibitions that highlight contemporary artists and artworks. Each show is accompanied by a dedicated Student Gallery Wall as a commitment to supporting young artists in the community.

South Bay and East County

Join the Lemon Grove Parsonage Museum on October 9 (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) for family fun at the Treganza Heritage Park Dedication and Museum Open House. The free event celebrates the history of this whistlestop town (known for the iconic “Big Lemon”) and will feature an antique auto show, taco truck, lawn games, and activities for kids.

The Barona Cultural Center & Museum in Lakeside is a great place to learn about local Kumeyaay-Diegueño culture. The Museum’s collection represents thousands of years of history – some objects dating as far back as 10,000 years! – and demonstrates the artistry and skill of the hemisphere’s first inhabitants. 

πŸ’‘ Museum admission is always free. Kids visiting in October will receive a free goody bag.

October is also a great time to visit the Bonita Museum & Cultural Center. From October 9-23, they will be celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Chula Vista Art Guide in the main gallery. On October 15-16, they will be featuring floral arrangements by the Bonita Gallery Garden Club, and on October 29-30, visitors will find Día de los Muertos ofrendas by local artists.  

While in South Bay, plan a visit to the Tijuana River Estuary in Imperial Beach, the “most southwesterly city in the contiguous United States.” It is always free to visit this National Estuarine Research Reserve and Visitor Center, which features hands-on, interactive activities for all ages to learn all about the biological diversity of our coastal wetlands.   Go on a guided nature or bird walk or explore the kid-friendly hiking trails on your own. Afterward, stroll over to the Imperial Beach Pier for some ice cream.

More San Diego County Gems

Did you know San Diego has a museum dedicated to contemporary quilts and textile arts? Visions Art Museum in Liberty Station is offering kids who visit during October a free mini-loom kit (including a cardboard loom, mini-balls of yarn, a feather, lace and/or ribbon). 

πŸ’‘ Check out the Museum’s “Stir Crazy” page for fun crafting projects for all ages year-round.   

Take a step back in time at the J.A. Cooley MuseumThis hidden gem in University Heights features two dozen historic automobiles from 1886 to 1933, including a 1910 Hunt Special, the only car made in San Diego/National City. (Fun Fact: The Hunt Brothers were the first auto dealership on the Mile of Cars.) There are more than 25 different collections to explore, including the Millennial Challenge, featuring the Museum’s telephone, camera, and Edison collections.

Take a family road trip to Warner Springs (in Northeast San Diego County) for a visit to the Warner-Carrillo Ranch House. Built in 1857, the property served as the Butterfield Stage Stop and was California’s first regular overland stage connection with St. Louis. With its multilayered history, the adobe ranch house tells the story of the emigrant trail, the overland stage, and the prominent ranching history of the area.

We hope we inspired some exciting adventures for your family to enjoy during Kids Free San Diego!