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Los Angeles museum guide: Best off-the-beaten path museums & attractions

Looking for something different to do? From car culture to Cold War propaganda, our offbeat Los Angeles museum guide reveals the city's best lesser-known attractions.

Photograph: Courtesy California Heritage Museum
Los Angeles museum guide: California Heritage Museum

Oh, sure. You could go to the Getty and look at its world-class collection of photographs, or hang out in the incredibly popular Urban Light installation at LACMA, but can either of those possibly compete with a severed head or a spiritual diorama? If you're looking to visit a Los Angeles museum that's a little more quirky, Time Out is here to help. Though LA has lost a couple of its favorite funky museums—farewell Banana Museum and Lingerie Museum!—there are still plenty of fascinating, offbeat institutions that deserve a visit. Here are our Top 20.

Los Angeles Police Museum

Go behind the badge at the city's oldest surviving police station, built in 1925, where you can check out everything from Charles Manson’s booking photo to an array of vintage cop cars. True crime fans will appreciate the exhibition detailing the 1997 North Hollywood Bank of America holdup, with the original vehicles and disguises used by the perpetrators. If you’re thinking of committing a holdup, try scaring yourself straight by taking a mug shot and sitting in one of the jail cells. More interested in pretending to be part of the LAPD? The museum allows visitors to climb aboard a police helicopter or CHP motorcycle and imagine themselves as part of the action.

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Highland Park

Heritage Square Museum

It may not be Jamestown, but LA’s own living history museum chronicles the development of the region from 1850, when California achieved statehood, to 1950. Recently designated as a Historical Cultural Landmark, this collection of five homes—including an octagonal house!—a barn, a train depot and a former church, all built before 1900, form a miniature community where tour guides in full period costume detail day-to-day life. The museum’s many on-theme events are a highlight. In October, the Mourning Tours aim to spook modern-day visitors with firsthand accounts of the death and mourning rituals of the gloomy Victorian Era. At Christmastime, many of the buildings are beautifully lit. Check the excellent website for upcoming events.

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Hollywood Museum

Welcome to Hollywood’s original glam factory: the Max Factor building, where the eponymous makeup artist made Marilyn a blond and Lucy a redhead. Visitors can still see the dedicated rooms where those transformations occurred, along with other Golden Age artifacts including costumes, props, film stills, scripts and even one of the original pairs of ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz. Iconic objects and sets from more recent moves include Pee-Wee Herman’s red tricycle and Hannibal Lecter’s jail cell from Silence of the Lambs.

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Petersen Automotive Museum

Critics' pick

Come see what makes this city go: cars, cars, and more cars! Established by Robert Petersen, who made his fortune on an auto magazine empire, this gleaming museum is an especial favorite with chrome-obsessed kids who scramble aboard antique trolleys and an Indy racecar in the Discovery Center. Grown-up gearheads will appreciate the vintage motor scooters, original Model T and souped up super cars, but even those who couldn’t care less about things that go vroom will be interested in the historical dioramas and such movie mobiles as Herbie the Love Bug and Steve McQueen’s Indian motorcycle. The Petersen cemented its place in hip-hop history in 1997, when the Notorious B.I.G. was shot and killed moments after he left an event at the museum (he was riding in a GMC Suburban).

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Miracle Mile

Western Museum of Flight

Part of the appeal of this Torrance museum is its location in a hangar on Louis Zamperini field—you get to feel like a pilot (or at least like a private jet passenger!) as soon as you walk onto the airfield. The other part is the strong collection of military aircraft built by the local aerospace industry. Highlights include the Northrop YF-23A, a supersonic stealth fighter, and the Northrop F-5, a lightweight supersonic stealth fighter that the U.S. military supplied to friendly nations, and one of only three Northrop JB-1's in existence. Also known as “The Bat,” it was a precursor to America’s first cruise missile. Not into war craft? Check out Steve McQueen’s bright yellow bi-plane.

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California Heritage Museum

Step out of the sun and take in a bit of California history in a restored 1894 house that was originally built for the son of the founder of Santa Monica. Though the house itsel—devoted to the Victorian period—is worth a look, rotating exhibitions on topics related to the region are the real draw. Recent shows have focused on surfboard design, California fruit box labels and Hawaii’s influence on the local lifestyle. The museum is at its busiest on Sundays, though only outside: it hosts a hugely popular farmers' market every Sunday morning.

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Santa Monica

Travel Town/Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum

The northwest corner of Griffith Park is the destination for train enthusiasts and curious kids. Travel Town, open all week, is a "railroad petting zoo" full of historic rail stock like an 1880 Southern Pacific locomotive and an 1881 Union Pacific caboose that also does a good job explaining how the railroads helped build Southern California. Lovers of things that go choo-choo should be sure to visit the park on a Sunday, when the neighboring Los Angeles Live Steamers section is open for railheads. Kids clamor to come here again and again to ride a miniature train around more than a mile of track. The whimsy extends to the museum’s “buildings,” which are actually restored full-size train cars like the bright red 1929 Santa Fe Steel Caboose (which houses the caretaker’s residence) and the 1956 Union Pacific Sleeper Car (where official meetings are held). On the third Sunday of every month the museum puts its Stationary Steam Plant into operation for a live demo of turn of early 20th century steam technology. LALS train rides are from 10:45am-3pm every Sun; closed the Sun before Memorial Day and the 1st Sun of Oct; $3 (suggested donation) for train rides; Travel Town is open from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri; 10am-6pm Sat, Sun; Travel Town entrance is free, $2.50 ticket for train rides.

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Griffith Park

Paley Center for Media

Formerly the Museum of Television & Radio but now renamed after its co-founder, former CBS president William S. Paley, this Beverly Hills institution—designed by Getty Villa architect Richard Meier—boasts a permanent collection of more than 140,000 TV and radio programs. This is the place to go if you love TV. Every September, the Paley Center hosts previews of all the new fall shows, followed by panels with the creators and stars; there are similar evenings throughout the year for favorite hits like How I Met Your Mother. Even better: Call up quality recordings of historical broadcasts like FDR’s fireside chats or the Beatles’ debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. It's a feature that may seem dated, now that everything’s on YouTube, but the Paley Center’s screens and earphones have your laptop beat. Want memorabilia? Check out Daisy Duke’s actual daisy dukes!

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Pasadena Bunny Museum

A giant topiary bunny announces your arrival at one of LA's few remaining truly nutty institutions. This private museum—the lovechild of Pasadena couple Candace Frazee and Steve Lubanski—is perhaps the greatest example of cutesy gift-giving run amuck. Starting with the first present of a stuffed bunny, the couple made a tradition of exchanging hare-themed tokens, which have multiplied in a completely crammed house filled with more than 28,000 rabbit items—including several freeze-dried pet bunnies! Yes, there are live ones, too, that visitors can hold.

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Museum of Death

Intense and macabre, this Hollywood museum doesn’t flinch at life’s inevitable end. Its grisly Charles Manson and Black Dahlia crime photos are almost tame compared to the guillotined severed head of Blue Beard (the Parisian murderer) and the actual death videos. It’s not all doom and gloom—serial-killer John Wayne Gacy’s clown portraits are colorful distraction, right? If you feel yourself getting woozy, you’re in good company—visitors pass out so regularly that the owners have taken to calling it a “falling down ovation.”

Bonus: Buying a ticket here includes a peek at the live Siamese turtle living (!) next door at the Chaos gallery.

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you might also want to try the silent black and white films on fairfax near beverly