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Free museums in LA: Best art, history and more for free

Free museums in LA abound, and it's a beautiful thing. Most of the others are free at least some of the time. Read on to continue your life-long education.

Who says LA lacks culture? Aesthetes and culture vultures can get their fix for free in LA, from beachside Santa Monica to the hilltops of Los Feliz. Whether you prefer the greatest hits at LACMA or off-the-beaten-path museums, there is such thing as a free museum visit. Here are the best museums in Los Angeles that offer free admission and free admission days.  

RECOMMENDED: Full list of free things to do in LA

Getty Villa

In 1974, oil magnate J. Paul Getty opened a museum of his holdings in a 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 to be a beloved local attraction. In 1997, the decorative arts and paintings were moved to the Getty Center, and the villa closed while it was converted to a museum for Getty's collection of Mediterranean antiquities. When it reopened in 2006, both restored and transformed by architects Jorge Silvetti and Rodolfo Machado, the press was more kind.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 (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. And in room 108 stands a 1,900-year-old statue of Hercules, a real alpha male figure that reputedly inspired Getty to built the museum in the design of a Roman villa.

Upstairs, room 217 holds an eerie limestone statue of a Cypriot fertility goddess from around 3,000 BC, her six toes implying superhuman qualities. In room 213, there's a vivid table support depicting two griffins going head to head as they devour a fallen doe. But the highlight is room 212, where you'll find some intricate Roman gems and coins alongside an unnerving miniature skeleton cast in bronze.

The site also holds conservation laboratories, seminar rooms and a research library, plus temporary exhibitions. Note, though, that you'll need to book a timed ticket (free) in order to visit the museum: walk-ins aren't accepted. At peak times of the year, be sure to book well in advance and try to book your ticket for early in the morning in order to beat the crowds.

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Pacific Palisades

Getty Center

Los Angeles's hilltop acropolis was conceived as a home for the hitherto disparate entities 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 the landscaping) and $1 billion to complete. The end result is a remarkable complex of travertine and white metal-clad pavilions that resembles a kind of monastic retreat James Bond would visit. Its relative inaccessibility is more than compensated for with the panoramic views, from the hills and the ocean in the west to Downtown and mountains beyond in the east. Once you've parked at the bottom and taken the tram up the hill, one thing becomes apparent: it's a big place. To the west of the plaza is a café, a restaurant and the circular Research Institute, which houses one of the world's largest art and architecture libraries, and a roster of public exhibits. Beyond it is the Central Garden, designed by Robert Irwin. North are the other institutes (some off limits to the public) and the Harold M Williams Auditorium, where talks and symposia alternate with concerts and film screenings. And to the south, up a grand Spanish Steps-style stairway, is the museum lobby, an airy, luminous rotunda that opens to a fountain-filled courtyard surrounded by six pavilions housing the permanent collection and often-excellent temporary exhibitions, spanning everything from fashion in the Middle East to Cuban art.

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While LACMA's collections have long been the most impressive in the city, the 20-acre complex of buildings in which they've been housed has been quite the reverse. A bewildering jumble of architectural styles blighted further still by abysmally poor signage, they never really did the artworks justice. At last, though, things have improved. Funding difficulties and public outrage forced the museum to abandon Rem Koolhaas's original plans to rebuild almost the entire complex from scratch in 2002. However, Renzo Piano's subsequent blueprint for a less dramatic and less expensive redevelopment of the museum did get the go-ahead. The aptly named Transformation is still a work in progress, but the museum is already a lot more visitor-friendly (attendance increased from 600,000 in 2005 to nearly 1,000,000 in 2011). It all starts with the entrance: the BP Grand Entrance Pavilion gives the museum a proper focal point. The entrance includes the installation of Chris Burden's Urban Light, a piece made up of 202 cast-iron street lamps gathered from around LA, restored to working order.

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Los Angeles

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA

The city's premier showcase for post-war art, MOCA started life in a humongous bus barn on the edge of Little Tokyo. That's now the Geffen Contemporary—its spacious, raw interior designed by Frank Gehry in the 1980s—considered by some to be one of his gutsiest spaces. When MOCA's main building, designed by Japan's Arata Isozaki, was completed a block from the Civic Center on Grand Avenue, the museum was able simultaneously to mount ambitious survey exhibitions and showcase items from its fine permanent collection, which includes pieces by Rauschenberg, Rothko, Twombly, Mondrian and Pollock. MOCA stages the more mainstream exhibits (although such terms are relative; "mainstream" here means the likes of Louise Bourgeois), leaving the Geffen Contemporary to concentrate on more esoteric artists. Up to half a dozen shows can be viewed at any single time between the two galleries and the West Hollywood outpost at the Pacific Design Center.

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Norton Simon Museum

The Norton Simon's Gehry-helmed makeover in the late 1990s raised the museum's profile and it also helped it expand the range of its collection, giving it more space and creating a calm, simple environment in which to display it. And this is a beautifully designed museum, its collection sympathetically mounted and immaculately captioned. The museum is still best known for its impressive collection of Old Masters, notably pieces by 17th-century Dutch painters such as Rembrandt (a particularly rakish self-portrait), Brueghel and Frans Hals. The French impressionists are represented by, among others, Monet, Manet and Renoir. Other valuable holdings include a generous array of Degas' underappreciated ballerina bronzes, some excellent modern works — including a haunting Modigliani portrait of his wife, some Diego Rivera paintings, plenty of works by the so-called Blue Four (Feininger, Jawlensky, Klee and Kandinsky), and large collections of European prints, Far Eastern art and Buddhist artifacts. After you've checked out the temporary shows, head into the excellent sculpture garden. All told, a terrific museum.

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Autry National Center: Museum of the American West

You might expect this Griffith Park museum to be a kitschy exploration of the life and works of famous singing cowboy Gene Autry. Though there's often some sort of Autry memorabilia on display in the foyer, it's actually a very engaging exploration of the West, outlining its history and detailing the myths that came to surround it. The museum is bigger than it looks, spread over two floors with both permanent exhibits and temporary shows on the left. The ground floor galleries offer a collection of iconographic cowboy art, plus ephemera from the golden age of the Western. And the downstairs galleries tell the story of Western migration through the eyes of different communities, with illuminating exhibits on how they lived, what they hunted, where they settled and the like. Due homage is paid to the Spanish vaqueros, the original pioneering cowboys of the Old West whom Hollywood largely wrote out of the history books. However, fans of Western myth and legend will enjoy catching sight of Doc Holliday's revolver from the shootout at the OK Corral, John Wesley Hardin's business card (complete with imitation bulletholes) and the 200-strong Colt Firearms Collection.

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Los Feliz

Japanese American National Museum

The story of Japanese immigration to the US really begins in 1882, when bosses were barred from importing cheap Chinese labor by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Thousands of Japanese arrived to take their place; many settled in the San Joaquin Valley and became farmers. But the Japanese were then excluded from American life in much the same way as the Chinese had suffered before them: prevented from owning land in 1913, banned from immigrating in 1924 and sent to brutal internment camps during World War II. Only in 1952 were people born in Japan allowed to become American citizens. This museum, one of the city's best, tells the story of Japanese immigration to the US in lucid, engaging fashion. Even if you've no prior interest in the subject, you'll be drawn in to it by the perfectly pitched displays. 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. To cap it all off, there's a lovely gift shop. In 2006, the JANM opened the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy (111 N Central Avenue, 1-213 830 1880, www.ncdemocracy.org), an educational institute aimed at preserving and promoting democracy in the US. It's open only for group tours (by appointment only) during the week, but it's open to the public 11am-2pm on Saturdays.

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Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens

The bequest of entrepreneur Henry E. Huntington is now one of the most enjoyable attractions in the Los Angeles region. It's also not a destination that you should attempt to explore in full during a single day. Between the art, the library holdings and the spread-eagled outdoor spaces, there's plenty to see, and most of it is best enjoyed at leisure rather than as part of a mad day-long dash. Once you've paid your admission, you'll be close to the main library, which holds more than six million items and is open only to researchers (apply for credentials in advance of your visit). However, some of its most notable holdings, among them a Gutenberg Bible and the earliest known edition of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, are always on display in the adjoining exhibition hall, alongside regular themed temporary shows. The art collection is almost as notable as the library's collection. Built in 1910, the main house is home to a very impressive collection of British art, which includes Gainsborough's The Blue Boy alongside works by Blake, Reynolds and Turner. And over in the newer Scott and Erburu Galleries, you'll find a selection of American paintings. However, despite all these cultural glories, the Huntington's highlights are outdoors in its vast jigsaw of botanical gardens, arguably the most glorious in the entire Los Angeles region. The 207 acres of gardens, 120 acres of which are open to the public, are divided into a variety of themes: the Desert Garden, now a century old, is packed with cacti and other succulents; the Shakespeare Garden evokes a kind of Englishness rarely seen in England these days; the Children's Garden is a delightful mix of educational features and entertaining diversions; and the Japanese garden is quietly, unassumingly magical. Most recent is the Chinese-themed Garden of Flowing Fragrance, a delicate environment built in part by Chinese artisans. Like much of this fabulous place, it's best approached in slow motion.

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San Marino

Hollywood Bowl Museum

This fine little museum presents a lively account of the Hollywood Bowl's history, through archival film footage, audio clips, photography and all manner of other memorabilia.

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Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA)

The Westside's art scene continues to offer plenty of interesting shows, with new galleries cropping up at regular intervals. However, this contemporary art gallery is the most prestigious of the lot. Housed in a former trolley stop on the LA-Santa Monica red line, the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA) attracts sizable crowds to its openings, which herald lively temporary exhibitions by local and international artists. The only kunsthalle (non-collecting museum) in Southern California, SMMoA presents exhibitions and programs that reveal the vibrant, untold stories and pivotal moments in the history of contemporary art and culture. The institution and its longstanding executive director Elsa Longhauser are beloved by LA's veteran artists. Keep an eye out for sporadic special events (lectures, discussions, family-oriented days and the like) that accompany the shows. And don't miss the annual Incognito fundraiser auction: Place the winning bid on your favorite anonymously-created work of art and discover whether you've picked a Baldessari or a budding newbie. It's one of the most fun art events of the year.

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Santa Monica
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