As LEGOLAND California in Carlsbad gets set to open its first-ever miniature version of San Diego — part of the park’s signature MINILAND USA exhibit — this seems the perfect time to celebrate some real-life mini marvels around the region.
So let’s get small. Let’s explore 10 of San Diego’s Real-life Mini Marvels, and remember: It’s cool to be minuscule.
Little Penguins and Littler Dragons at the Birch
The Birch Aquarium at Scripps is doubling down on teeny wonders. The aquarium overlooking the sparkling Pacific in La Jolla recently debuted its Beyster Family Little Blue Penguins habitat, home to a mini-colony of the world’s smallest penguins. And now the Birch is also celebrating the birth of some 70 weedy seadragon babies, each just an inch long and weighing about as much as a paper clip. It’s no small feat: weedy seadragon births are extremely rare in captivity.
Balboa Park’s Tiny Trains
Balboa Park, San Diego’s cultural heart, boasts a four-decade-old institution that celebrates little locomotives: the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. The largest indoor museum of its kind in North America (and one of the biggest in the world), the SDMRM showcases intricately crafted, fully operational train models. The trains run daily, and kids 12 and under get in free. Not far from the park, in San Diego’s University Heights neighborhood, there’s another locomotive location to check out: Frank the Trainman is the oldest model-railroad shop in the nation, offering trains and accessories in all gauges. Next door, under the same ownership, is the J.A. Cooley Museum, which exhibits an expansive collection of model railroads and much more.
Bugs at the Zoo’s Basecamp
And one more landmark of the little in the Balboa Park area: The San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, the family-minded, 3.2-acre discovery zone that opened in 2022. The Basecamp features lots of mini marvels in its McKinney Family Spineless Wonders building. Check out the itty-bitty invertebrates in the leafcutter-ant colony; the bees in the pollinator experience (with a view inside active hives and honeycombs); and such diminutive oddities as stick insects.
Pop’s Liquor Cabinet
How intimate is this bantam bar squeezed into Downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter? Here’s a hint: Its maximum capacity is 12. But while it may be little, Pop’s offers big fun, with a full range of specialty cocktails and (somehow) even a jukebox.
San Diego boasts plenty of great pocket parks, and cozy Calumet Park offers the added benefit of overlooking the ocean in the Bird Rock neighborhood of La Jolla. Its scenic location above Rockpile Beach means the park is often used for weddings and other events. But not big ones: The park can only be permitted for a maximum of 80 people.
Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum
Sometimes tiny things can spring from enormous passions and talents. That’s the case with the amazing array of miniature creations at this decade-old museum in Carlsbad. The museum’s showcase exhibit is the Paul and Paula Knapp Collection of Internal Combustion Engines, featuring intricate models of engines from rotary to radial to inline – even jet turbines. The museum also houses model boats, locomotives, even (shades of Pop’s Liquor Cabinet) a miniature pub.
Nautical History Gallery and Museum
Another place that celebrates the craft of model miniatures, this newly opened museum in Point Loma’s Liberty Station houses a veritable armada of small ships, including such famous vessels as the USS Constitution and the USS Maine. Exhibits track major advances in naval engineering, from the Age of Sail to the modern aircraft carrier. And the location is entirely fitting: Liberty Station was formerly the Naval Training Center, which readied generations of Navy recruits for service.
Model Yacht Pond at Mission Bay
The rectangular pool nestled into Mission Bay’s Vacation Isle Park might look like an odd place for a regatta — but not if the boats involved are small enough to fit in a backpack. The Model Yacht Pond hosts numerous races and other events, and it’s a fun place to watch miniature vessels — both power and sail — ply this tiny inland sea. With a wide expanse of grass and lots of shade trees, the pond area is also a fine place to picnic as you spectate, or even try out your own model boats.
The Mini Donut Co.
If you find yourself famished from touring all of these small wonders, stop into a Mini Donut Co. shop for some tiny taste treats. The company’s little bites are a big deal here, with locations at Liberty Public Market, the Little Italy Food Hall and the Windmill Food Hall in Carlsbad. And they come in no small variety of creative flavors, from Apple Pie to Root Beer Float to Bubble Gum Sprinkles.
Tiny House Block on Mount Laguna
Honey, I shrunk the house! The tiny-house movement has established a key beachhead (although it’s a pretty long way from the beach) on Mount Laguna in San Diego’s beautiful backcountry. As compact as it is, the Tiny House Block still boasts its own on-site restaurant, the Pine House Tavern. Several of the cozy houses here are available as vacation rentals, making this an ideal place to stay a bit and breathe the mountain air, maybe play a lazy game of horseshoes and contemplate the big benefits of small living.