11 essential museums to visit in Los Angeles

Don't leave LA—whether you're a resident or a tourist—without seeing these truly great LA attractions.

Photograph: Michael Juliano
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Okay, Angelenos, it's time to come clean. We know museums in Los Angeles are pretty spread out, and it's always soooo nice outside, and sometimes it's just hard to choose indoor attractions in Los Angeles or dino bones at the Natural History Museum over a 75-and-sunny day at the beach. Except, you really should, because the caliber of museums here rivals that of Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York—without a doubt. To get you started (or to continue your education) we've narrowed down LA's long roster of museums to the essentials. Locals, consider this your must-see list (and if you've already visited them all, check out these great off-the-beaten-path museums). No short-on-cash excuses either—many of these are free museums and all of them offer free admission on select days. Visitors, whether you'll be in LA for a couple of days or longer, make sure you hit at least a few of these.

RECOMMENDED: Free things to do in LA

Natural History Museum

Critics' pick

The NHM's original Beaux Arts structure was the first museum building in LA, opening in 1913 with Exposition Park itself. Its massive collection spans more than 35 million objects and specimens, making it second in size only to the Smithsonian. It's an immense place, so it's worth planning your visit. The new Otis Booth Pavilion welcomes visitors into the museum with a six-story glass entrance featuring a stunning, 63-foot-long fin whale skeleton. Twelve new galleries and five exhibits have opened since the museum's 2013 renovation, including "Becoming L.A.: Stories of Nature and Culture," which examines the Los Angeles region's history from Native Americans to the present day. Othe highlights include the Gem & Mineral hall, dinosaur fossils and the Nature Gardens, a 3.5-acre urban wilderness.

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USC/Exposition Park

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Critics' pick

LACMA is truly a multi-day destination, given the size and scope of its collection. From Chris Burden's iconic entrance installation Urban Light, a piece made up of 202 cast-iron street lamps gathered from around LA, to the Pavilion for Japanese Art, a day at LACMA can span hundreds of years and thousands of miles. The Broad Contemporary Art Museum is home to a dazzling collection of modern works. Spread over three floors, the selection of pieces on display is strong on American artists—from Richard Serra's massive sculpture to another Chris Burden installation, the buzzing and hypnotic Metropolis II. Recent exhibitions at the Resnick Pavilion have included retrospectives by artists such as Alexander Calder, James Turrell and Tim Burton.

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Los Angeles

Griffith Observatory

Critics' pick

This iconic Art Deco building has sat overlooking LA for more than 80 years and is a popular destination for locals and tourists, especially at sunset. Marvel at the 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope, once again open to the public. The ground floor holds the Hall of the Sky and Hall of the Eye, a pair of complementary displays that focus on humans' relationship to the stars; a Foucault pendulum, directly under Hugo Ballin's famed mural on the central rotunda; and the handsome, high-tech Samuel Oschin Planetarium. It's easy to spend all of your time outside enjoying the view, but don't miss the Tesla coil and the seismograph machine downstairs.

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Griffith Park Free

Annenberg Space for Photography

This photography-only privately funded space in the middle of Century City takes an innovative approach to displaying digital and print works. Exhibitions at the Annenberg often incorporate videos, lectures and/or music. The free admission and $1 parking help attract a younger crowd to the otherwise more corporate neighborhood. (It's housed adjacent to the intentionally intimidating CAA offices.) From the titillating works of Helmut Newton to a gorgeous 125-year retrospective of National Geographic photography, engaging and specific exhibitions are the Annenberg Space's signature.

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Century City Free

Getty Center

Critics' pick

LA's hilltop acropolis was conceived as a home for the contents of the J. Paul Getty Trust, but that's the only straightforward thing about it. Architect Richard Meier was hired to build the museum in 1984, but it took 13 years, several additional designers (to work on the interior and landscaping) and $1 billion to complete. The end result is a remarkable complex of travertine and white metal-clad pavilions that resembles a monastic retreat with panorama views James Bond would dig. The museum's gardens are a highlight, as is the lobby, an airy, luminous rotunda that opens to a fountain-filled courtyard surrounded by six pavilions housing the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions.

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Brentwood Free

California Science Center

The undisputed standout at the California Science Center is also the museum's most recent acquisition: Endeavour. The final ship to be built in NASA's space shuttle program, Endeavour inspires a reach-for-the-stars ambition unlike any other museum in the city. The museum's permanent galleries—World of Life, Creative World, and the SKETCH Foundation Gallery—explore life sciences, human innovation and powered flight, albeit with a decidedly '90s flair. Other highlights include the Kelp Tank with 1,500 fish, kelp and other marine life; and the ever-popular High-Wire Bicycle, which allows the brave and the trusting to ride a bike along a one-inch wire some 43 feet above the ground in order to demonstrate the power of gravity.

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USC/Exposition Park Free

MOCA Grand Ave

The main branch of LA's Museum of Contemporary Art houses thousands of artworks crafted from 1940 to today, and it's an excellent primer on modern art. Spend half an hour or an entire afternoon absorbing contemporary pieces from lesser known artists, punctuated by sightings of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock works. For just $12 ($7 for students and seniors), you can have your run of the place, including a free audio tour and access to outdoor installations. If you plan your visit for a Thursday night between 5pm and 8pm, admission is on the house. (Already been to this museum? Bonus points if you get to MOCA's two other locations.)

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Downtown

Japanese American National Museum

Critics' pick

This museum, one of the city's best, tells the story of Japanese immigration to the US in a lucid, engaging fashion, from early restrictions on property ownership to the brutal internment camps during World War II. Only in 1952 were people born in Japan allowed to become American citizens. Aside from the permanent exhibition, the museum stages an engaging roster of documentary and art exhibitions, including a wrenching yet beautiful display of images and artifacts from the aforementioned internment camps. Another recent exhibition showcased Japanese tattoo traditions with awe-inspiring full-body photographs.

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Downtown

Pasadena Museum of California Art

Pay tribute to local talent at the PMCA. An open-air staircase beautified by moody lightplay from an oculus above it creates a striking entrance into this three-story facility, dedicated to California art and design from the last 150 years. The museum often runs several temporary exhibitions simultaneously in its straightforward gallery spaces: you might find a collection of paintings by Pasadena impressionist Benjamin Chambers Brown alongside a show devoted to toy culture. The PMCA also runs the California Design Biennial, featuring the best design from across the state.

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Pasadena

Hammer Museum

Critics' pick

Industrialist Armand Hammer founded this museum in 1990, primarily to house his own collection, and it opened just three weeks before he died. Now, under the ownership of UCLA, the Hammer stages fascinating shows of modern art, photography and design, from video installations to American comic art. The shows are supplemented by the Hammer's public events calendar (arguably one of the best in the city)—chock full of free lectures and talks, concerts, films and screenings, performances, parties and more. And, as if this museum couldn't get any more friendly to the public, the Hammer now offers free admission every day.

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Westwood Free

Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits

Bubbling tar, bones and a dose of prehistoric LA history is what you'll get at the Page Museum. In 1875, amateur paleontologists discovered animal remains in the tar pits, and the pros are still at work here, having found more than 3.5 million fossils since then. Many are now on display in this delightfully old fashioned museum. Most are bones—of jackrabbits, gophers, skunks and a 15,000-pound Columbian mammoth, plus a wall of 400 wolf skulls—though there are also early cave drawings and human artifacts from the real LA natives. Outside, the pits still bubble with black goo and you can watch paleontologists at work in Pit 91.

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Los Angeles

Comments

1 comments
Elizabeth B
Elizabeth B

For Jesus Eff's sake, where is the comprehensive weekly list of all gallery shows and all museum shows, WITH DURATION DATES, that I can scroll through, read blurbs,  and make my own effing decisions rather than have idiotic filtered "best of" and "lists" shoved in my face by you CRETINS? This site is USELESS.