Content originally written for the Let’s Go: USA & Canada Guide by our researcher-writer, Graham Bishai.
USS Midway Museum
910 N Harbor Dr.; (619) 544-9600; www.midway.org; open daily 10am-5pm
Climb on board an aircraft carrier, and see what life is like onboard the largest kind of ship in the naval fleet. This behemoth vessel served from 1945 to 1992, and its retirement home is in the San Diego harbor, open for crowds to come onboard and explore. The museum is largely self-guided with electronic audio guides, but docents are stationed throughout the ship, some of whom served in Midway or in Vietnam. You’ll see why aircraft carriers are called cities at sea. When functional, the ship welcomed 4,500 people onboard, and everything from a barber shop to a jail. Today, there’s a few added amenities, like a Starbucks and beer for sale. You can explore at your own pace. See the city: the living quarters, the command center, the dining rooms or chapel, and then head up to the flight deck where you can get up close and personal with fighter jets. You can’t jump in and fly it off the carrier, though. Even if you’re not a history or military buff, you’ll think this place is cool. Budget at least three hours for your visit.
Admission $23, student $17; tours must be booked ahead; free audio tour; last entry 4pm; wheelchair accessible
Museum of Man
1350 El Prado; (619) 239-2001; museumofman.org; open M-F 10am-5pm, Sa-Su 10am-7pm
Have an existential crisis at San Diego’s thought-provoking Museum of Man. Housed in an extra-on-the-outside, unpretentious-on-the-inside 1915 building, this museum will force you to face the big questions of humanity. Why do we eat what we do? Why have we domesticated some animals, but not others? Why has race continuously divided human beings? Don’t miss the PostSecret exhibit, where you can see other people anonymously spilling the tea on their weirdest, funniest, or saddest secrets, revealing the taboo things we humans have in common. Head up to the California Tower observation deck on top for commanding views of San Diego and Balboa Park if you want to feel omniscient. (Then question the dynamics of human power altogether, of course.) Anthropology is made fun, easy, and fascinating here. What it lacks in flashiness or digital flare, it makes up for in its captivating content and casual accessibility.
Admission $13, students $10; wheelchair accessible
Air and Space Museum
2001 Pan American Plaza; (619) 234-8291; sandiegoairandspace.org; open daily 10am-5pm
Let your curiosity soar at the Air and Space Museum, with halls packed full of planes other pieces of aviation history. See not just a replica Spirit of St. Louis, but also a replica Charles Lindbergh, who talks, which is actually a little creepy. Get your wings and try the flight simulators. The planes aren’t all exhibits either. The museum is right on the approach to San Diego International, so, every few minutes a plane swoops overhead. Get a great view of them from the outdoor café. But there’s more than just planes—see a GPS satellite, the only one on display in the world, or a police car preserved with the damage it acquired on 9/11. Despite being jam-packed with a wide variety of stuff, the museum will welcome you with its casual and unpretentious charm.
Admission $20, students $17; occasional tours; last entry 4:30pm; wheelchair accessible
Graham left behind the stressed-out chaos of Cambridge for the laid back life on the West Coast. A refreshing change of pace, he assumed, until the line for coffee on his first morning took 2 mins longer than he’s used to, and the Northeast nasty jumped out. Starting in Vancouver, Graham meandered south, toning his calves being a pedestrian on San Francisco’s hills and by navigating the monstrosity that is Los Angeles using just his feet and public transit (only resorting to Uber twice!) Graham’s love for the West Coast life only increased as he sat by the Puget Sound in Seattle, sipped kombucha in the crunchy cafes of Portland, climbed into a waterfall in Yosemite and stayed in an abandoned opera house in Death Valley. By the time he hit upper 80s sun of San Diego, buff calves and sun tanned, the words “West Coast, Best Coast,” almost slipped out of his mouth. Identity crisis looming, he figured it was time to go home.