Entertainment & Events
“SD on the Cheap” — Model Railroad Museum, Balboa Park
There is something about toy and model trains that can transform a grown man into a version of his 10-year-old self — wide-eyed, goofy-grinned, literally bursting with excitement.
I’ll admit it: Growing up, I used to love when my father set up his childhood trains around the holidays. I would sit for hours watching the Lionel train snake through a toy village, mesmerized by the roar of the engine and the sound of the whistle — all the while eagerly waiting for my turn to operate the train.
But now as a grown woman, the wonder has waned. And so when I heard that there was a museum dedicated to model railroading right here in San Diego, I was dubious. An entire museum? The prospect of spending time inside on a beautiful day staring at trains did not sound entertaining; I just didn’t understand the draw.
That is, until I went.
After entering the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, I rediscovered what had captivated me as a child. Within minutes, I became a version of my 10-year-old self — wide-eyed, goofy-grinned, bursting with excitement. I found myself just short of running from exhibit to exhibit, searching for the trains, almost giggling when they passed by.
Whether you are a model railroad hobbyist, a parent with train-happy kids, someone looking to relive childhood memories or just plain curious, this unique museum is definitely worth checking out.
Inside the museum, you’ll find the largest indoor model railroad display in the world (at 27,000 square feet). There are four main exhibits that depict railroads of the Southwest in O, HO and N scales (that’s model railroad speak for size), as well as a toy train gallery with the ever-popular Lionel type trains. Each exhibit is designed, constructed and operated by a separate volunteer club. Many are works in progress, so you’ll often find club members working on the models, always ready to chat with visitors about the project or model railroading in general.
But perhaps even more impressive than the trains chugging along on their tracks are the lifelike scenes around them. The craftsmanship and attention to detail are incredible: miniature people mill about outside their houses; classic cars and trucks sit in diner parking lots and gas stations; intricate trestles fill massive gorges; trees cover the distant mountainsides. The scenery in each of the exhibits is truly a work of art.
And as you wander through the museum, you’ll pass collections of rare cars, model railroad paraphernalia and displays celebrating the hobby’s history. The museum also includes a children’s educational and entertainment area, and a separate library stuffed with books, magazines and photographs related to prototype and model railroading.
The stated mission of the San Diego Model Railroad Museum is to preserve the heritage of railroading. It certainly does that and so much more…
The Model Railroad Museum is located in the heart of Balboa Park, on the lower level of the Casa de Balboa on the Prado.
Admission is $6.00 for adults; $5.00 for seniors (65+); $3.00 for students with ID; and $2.50 for active military with ID. Children under 15 years of age get in free when accompanied by an adult.
San Diego County residents, visit the museum on the first Tuesday of the month and get in free. Out-of-county residents pay regular admission prices.
The museum is open on Tuesday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The kids’ educational area is open every Tuesday and Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., except on the first Tuesday of the month.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
1649 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101