We know museums in Los Angeles are pretty spread out and it’s always so nice outside; 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 L.A.’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 L.A. for a couple of days or longer, make sure you hit at least a few of these.
16 essential museums to visit in L.A.
Chris Burden’s Urban Light, a piece made up of 202 cast-iron street lamps gathered from around L.A. and restored to working order, has quickly become one of the city’s indelible landmarks. But you’d be selling yourself short if you don’t venture beyond the photo-friendly installation; LACMA’s collections boast modernist masterpieces, large-scale contemporary works (including Richard Serra’s massive swirling sculpture and Burden’s buzzing, hypnotic Metropolis II), traditional Japanese screens and by far L.A.’s most consistently terrific special exhibitions.
What’s now called the Getty Villa served as the decades-long home for the J. Paul Getty Trust’s extensive art collection. But in 1997, the Getty Center opened. The end result is a remarkable complex of travertine and white metal-clad pavilions that houses ornate French furniture, recognizable Impressionist pieces and rotating exhibitions. Its relative inaccessibility is more than compensated for by free admission and panoramic views, from the hills and the ocean in the west all the way around to Downtown in the east.
The bequest of entrepreneur Henry E. Huntington is now one of the most enjoyable attractions in the Los Angeles region. It’s also a destination that demands an entire day should you attempt to explore it in full: Between the art, the library holdings and the spreadeagled outdoor spaces, there’s plenty to see, and most of it is best enjoyed at lingering leisure rather than as part of a mad day-long dash. From a Gutenberg Bible to an exquisitely landscaped Japanese garden, nearly every inch of the estate’s grounds and collection is essential.
The NHM’s original Beaux Arts structure was the first museum building in L.A., opening in 1913 with Exposition Park itself. The more recent Otis Booth Pavilion welcomes visitors into the museum with a six-story glass entrance featuring a stunning, 63-foot-long fin whale skeleton. Highlights include the gem and mineral hall, spectacularly presented dinosaur and mammal fossils, the 3.5-acre urban nature gardens and “Becoming L.A.: Stories of Nature and Culture,” which examines the Los Angeles region’s history from Native Americans to the present day
Three words: Infinity Mirror Rooms. Downtown’s persistently popular contemporary art museum has two of Yayoi Kusama’s immersive, mirror-laden rooms (and the standy queue to prove it). Elsewhere in the free museum, Eli and Edythe Broad’s collection of 2,000 post-war works includes artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Jeff Koons. Outside, the museum’s plaza features a lovely olive tree grove that sits in from of Otium, the museum's signature restaurant from French Laundry alum Timothy Hollingsworth. Find out more in our complete guide to the Broad.
The vista from this hilltop landmark is stunning, particularly at night when Los Angeles twinkles below. Inside you’ll find a bevy of exhibits, including a Foucault pendulum (directly under Hugo Ballin’s famed mural on the central rotunda), Tesla coil and planetarium show. Give yourself plenty of time before the 10pm closing to gaze through the 12-inch refracting telescope on the roof, otherwise you can look through the far less crowded modern, reflecting telescope on the front lawn.
Miracle Mile was the first commercial development in L.A. designed expressly for the benefit of drivers, and so a former department store makes an apt home for this museum of car culture. A 2015 redesign has since turned the automotive history museum into a high-tech gallery with about 150 cars on display. There’s a glimpse into the rise of car culture in Southern California, but that mostly takes a backseat to a focus on the progress, dominance and dazzling good looks of the automobile. You’ll find a mix of famous Hollywood cars, sumptuously swooping vintage vehicles and high-performance supercars.
Permanent exhibit galleries at this kid-friendly Exposition Park museum explore life sciences, human innovation and powered flight (all with a decidedly ‘90s design flair). But the real attraction here is the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which was very pubicly paraded through L.A. to reach its temporary home at the Samuel Oschin Pavilion—a permanent structure slated to display the ship upright is in the works. While the rest of the museum is free, Endeavour requires $2 time tickets on weekends, a bargain to come face to face with one of this country’s most iconic engineering marvels.
This photography-only 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 helps 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.
Industrialist Armand Hammer founded this museum in 1990, primarily to house his own collection, and it opened just three weeks before he died. Now, the free, UCLA partner institution stages fascinating shows of modern art, photography and design, often with an epmhasis on local artists. The shows are supplemented by the Hammer’s public events calendar (arguably one of the best in the city), chock full of free lectures, concerts and screenings.