San Diego's Best New Museums, Galleries, and Performing Arts Venues

The capital of sun and surf is riding the crest of a cultural wave.

The Rady Shell orchestra performance space in San Diego
The Rady Shell, a new performance space for the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Photo: John Francis Peters

In 1996, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra filed for bankruptcy. Frankly, no one was really surprised. California's third-largest metropolitan area, the home of the state's oldest Spanish mission and its youngest baseball team, had never been known as a center of culture. In many ways, it still isn't: beach volleyball, yes; craft beer, yes; braised-beef tacos, absolutely. But art, music, design? Not in Ron Burgundy's town.

And yet without losing its sandy, sun-damaged charm, San Diego is stepping up its game, and is now home to several impressive new cultural venues.

This summer, right on the scenic waterfront, acclaimed conductor Rafael Payare will lead the SDSO in a series of performances at the Rady Shell, a captivating bubble of a building that seems to float on the gentle harbor tide. "That's the beauty of being on the marina," says Payare, who's been packing the bandshell since its debut last August. "People can be out for their morning jogs and stop to listen." Revived in the early 2000s, the orchestra is now doing better than ever — and just announced plans to begin a $125 million restoration of its historic 1929 home downtown, the Jacobs Music Center.

Two photos showing arts and culture facilities in San Diego, California
From left: A performance space at the Mingei International Museum; Pleasure Point, a 2006 sculpture by Nancy Rubins, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. From left: Nic Lehoux; Ian White

From the Rady Shell, visitors can make use of the newly expanded trolley system to get to the Mingei International Museum, which houses one of the country's most remarkable collections of folk art and crafts. The Mingei just completed a $55 million renovation, transforming its aging Spanish Mission–style building in Balboa Park into a radiant, ultramodern showcase.

The architect overseeing the project, Jennifer Luce, is a longtime San Diegan, and she turned to a group of distinguished friends to help equip the museum with one-of-a-kind fixtures and furniture, including tactile wooden benches by New York–based architect Billie Tsien and translucent curtains by Dutch textile designer Petra Blaisse. "I had an intuitive desire to integrate art and architecture," Luce says.

Her impulse feels like the perfect response to the genre-busting work on display. The 25,000 objects at Mingei also seem to have informed the building's overall openness and accessibility. The ground floor has an elegant bar and restaurant and serves as a public gathering space that connects two sections of Balboa Park. "We want to invite in people who don't normally go into museums," Luce says.

Just a little farther up the coast, in the tony enclave of La Jolla, yet another museum is poised to help with the city's artistic maturation. After a lengthy closure, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego opened this spring in a building that was dramatically expanded by international architecture heavyweight Annabelle Selldorf. (The museum's downtown outpost, adjacent to the train station, has remained open during the construction.)

A quartet performing on stage at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in San Diego
The Miró Quartet plays at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center. Michael Godbaum/Courtesy of La Jolla Music Society

When the project started in 2016, Selldorf says, her clients had a very specific objective in mind. "The collectors on the board wanted to say, 'We're not just a local museum. We want to think about culture in a broader way.'" Selldorf's design has given the institution room to do just that, with more than 46,000 square feet of additional exhibition space cascading down a tricky hillside site that faces westward toward the Pacific. Double-height spaces accommodate oversize sculptures (including a few by the late Niki de Saint Phalle, subject of an inaugural exhibition and herself a sometime La Jollan). Overall, the expansion gives MCASD a fresh, up-to-date look — yet harmonizes perfectly with the existing historic structure.

"Like a lot of museums now," Selldorf says, the new-and-improved MCASD "is coming out of this more introverted state, trying to connect with people and show them why art matters." That seems like an especially fitting mission in a place like San Diego, as it begins to assert itself on the regional and global stage.

From dance and music — the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, also in La Jolla, opened in late 2019 — and food (four Michelin-starred restaurants and counting) to international trade and finance (its position strengthened by the proximity of fast-growing Tijuana, Mexico, the two basically functioning now as twin cities), San Diego seems ready to take on the world.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "San Diego Serenade."

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