Free attractions in LA: Best places to visit for free
Make a pit-stop at these free attractions in LA—from wallet-friendly cultural centers to iconic sites in the city.
Explore the many free attractions in LA—from museums to iconic landmarks and lesser-known sites, we’ve listed the best places to visit on a budget. Whether you’re looking to get outdoors, spot celebs or explore a new neighborhood, read on for must-see LA attractions. Plus, you can even get some post-eating and drinking ideas for your next wallet-friendly date night.
RECOMMENDED: Full list of free things to do in LA
In 1974, oil magnate J. Paul Getty opened a museum of his holdings in a faux villa in Malibu, based on the remains of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. Derision from critics and ridicule from art experts followed, but no matter—the Getty grew into a beloved local attraction. In 1997, the decorative arts and paintings were moved to the Getty Center, and the villa was closed for conversion into a museum for Getty's collection of Mediterranean antiquities. When it reopened in 2006, part-restored and part-transformed by architects Jorge Silvetti and Rodolfo Machado, the press was rather kinder.There are roughly 1,200 artifacts on display at any one time, dating from between 6,500 BC and 500 AD, and organized under such themes as Gods and Goddesses and Stories of the Trojan War. If you're a novice, start in the Timescape room (numbered as room 113), where a wall-mounted frieze maps the different civilizations along with the art and statuary they created.You could easily spend a few hours idly wandering through the galleries, but some exhibits really stand out. In room 101C, look for an amazing Greek perfume container that dates back to around 400 BC: it's incredibly elegant and, despite its age, entirely intact. Room 101 holds a collection of disparate items relating to Greek gods, among them a 2,500-year-old monumental statue of Aphrodite in limestone and marble, and some delicate painted oil jars. The outlandish, stag-spouted drinking horn in room 105 is gloriously absurd.
Witness an 80-year old LA tradition—and hear some great music—at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, just east of Downtown. Since the 1930s, mariachi bands have gathered here, decked out in their charro (traditional Mexican horsemen) suits, waiting to be hired to play at parties or restaurants. Take note of the historic 1889 Boyle Hotel, better known as “Mariachi Hotel,” where many of the musicians live.
Back in 1875, a group of amateur paleontologists discovered animal remains in the pits at Rancho La Brea, which bubbled with asphalt from a petroleum lake under what is now Hancock Park. Some 130 years later, the pros are still at work here, having dragged more than 3.5 million fossils from the mire in the intervening years. Some are up to 40,000 years old; the museum estimates that about 10,000 animals, dipping their heads in search of water before becoming trapped in the sticky asphalt that bubbles from the ground, met their deaths here.Many of these specimens are now on display in this delightfully old-fashioned museum, which can't have changed much since it opened in 1972. Interactivity is limited to several windows on to the labs where scientists work on bone preservation; the bulk of the museum is made up of simple, instructive displays of items found in the pits. Most are bones – of jackrabbits, gophers, a 160lb bison, skunks and a 15,000lb Columbian mammoth, plus an extraordinary wall of 400 wolf skulls – though there are also early cave drawings and human accoutrements such as bowls and hair pins. Outside, the pits still bubble with black goo; in summer, you can watch paleontologists at work in the excavation of Pit 91 and inhale the nasty tang of tar in the air.
- Mid-City West
Just inland from the Pacific Coast Highway and easy to miss when you're rushing to catch the sunset, the mystical, mysterious Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine is run by a non-denominational order that welcomes visitors but doesn't proselytise to them. Set on a ten-acre site that was used as a film set during the silent era, the lovely gardens evoke old Hollywood: look out for the Dutch windmill chapel, the Mississippi houseboat and a number of gliding swans. The East, meanwhile, is represented by a gilded lotus gate enclosing a shrine that contains some of Gandhi's ashes.
- Pacific Palisades
This 160-acre park at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains has one main loop, plus a bevy of dirt hiking trails. It's also got one of the friendliest off-leash dog policies. The sea of buff trainers and their sleek, sweaty clients can get to be too much during the busy morning and weekend workout traffic, but you'll be rewarded with some of the best views of the city (and, if you're lucky, a chance to gawk at power-walking celebs). The southern entrance is at the end of Fuller Avenue in Hollywood; the northern entrance is off the 7300 block of Mulholland Drive.
Specializing in photography, this privately funded space takes an innovative approach to displaying its digital and print works. More than just images on a wall, exhibits at the Annenberg often incorporate videos and/or music, creating a more dynamic experience for the visitor. The free admission and $1 parking attract a younger crowd to the otherwise more corporate neighborhood. (It is housed adjacent to the intentionally intimidating CAA offices.) Bring a date on a Saturday evening and spend 30 minutes wandering through the gallery before catching a movie across the street at the Century City AMC. During the summer, Saturday evening concerts in partnership with KCRW turn the space into vibrant hot spot.
- Century City
Buried in the heart of Downtown LA is this European-style food hall, which has been operating on the ground floor of the iconic Homer Laughlin Building since 1917. Some food vendors merit more praise than others, though Mexican- and South American-themed stalls offering treats like pupusas, carnitas tacos and aguas frescas remain some of the most popular.
After oil heiress and philanthropist Aline Barnsdall bought this cute little hill after the end of World War I, she engaged Frank Lloyd Wright to build her a group of buildings at its summit. The complex was designed to include a cinema, a theater and an array of artists' studios alongside Hollyhock House, Barnsdall's proposed home, but it was never completed and she never moved in. Barnsdall went on to donate the house, guest house and 11 acres of the land to the city on the premise that they be used as a public art park. More than eight decades later, the site still fulfills that role, with exhibitions in a variety of different gallery spaces. Reservations for tours of the restored buildings—now a Historic National Monument—aren't required unless you're in a group of ten or more. In the summer, the park hosts a variety of alfresco cinema nights, wine tastings and cultural events that bring out a nice mix of singles, couples and young families.
"If every person could look through that telescope," declared Griffith J. Griffith, "it would revolutionize the world." More than 70 years after this iconic building opened, the world remains unrevolutionized, and the city smog means that the views are not as crystal-clear as they were in Griffith's day. However, after a five-year program of renovations at the observatory, the 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope is once again open to the public, providing the crowning glory for this wonderful old landmark.You could comfortably spend a few hours here just taking in the exhibits and the shows. 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. And downstairs, accessible via the campy displays of space-slanted jewelry in the Cosmic Connection Corridor, you'll find a number of other new exhibits. At the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, you can see a short film about the history and resurgence of the observatory. Pieces of the Sky documents, brightly and informatively, the impact made on Earth by meteorites and other falling debris. The Gunther Depths of Space contains crisp descriptions of the planets, a bronze of Albert Einstein and a vast, 2.46-gigapixel image of the night sky taken from the Palomar Observatory in San Diego County.
Designed by Bertram Goodhue, completed in 1926 and renamed after the city's former mayor in 2001, the city's main library is worth a look even if you have no interest in borrowing books. The exterior is a Beaux Arts beauty, topped with a dramatic, tiled pyramid tower and decorated with bas-reliefs by Lee Lawrie.The main lobby features an unexpectedly colorful ceiling mural by Venice artist Renée Petropoulos; other highlights include a frieze that retells Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (International Languages Department) and a series of murals dedicated to California history (Children's Literature Department). There's also a fine program of lectures and discussions in the Mark Taper Auditorium (for details, see www.lfla.org/aloud).