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
15 essential museums to visit in LA
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.
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 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 ever-growing grounds and collection is essential.
The NHM's original Beaux Arts structure was the first museum building in LA, opening in 1913 with Exposition Park itself. 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. Other highlights include the Gem & Mineral hall, spectacularly presented dinosaur and mammal fossils, and the Nature Gardens, a 3.5-acre urban wilderness.
LA's newest contemporary art museum, the Broad, is the public home for Eli and Edythe Broad's collection of 2,000 post-war works. You'll find familiar pieces from the likes of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, as well as spectular installations like Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrored Room." 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. The museum is free, though reservations are highly recommended. Find out more in our complete guide to the Broad.
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. The 13-year-long, $1 billion project open in 1997 with 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. Make sure to check out the museum's original home, the Getty Villa, which now houses Greek and Roman antiquities.
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.
Miracle Mile was the first commercial development in LA 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 more of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The museum's most exciting exhibitions take place at the nearby Geffen Contemporary, while interior design buffs will want to visit their outpost at the Pacific Design Center.
The Norton Simon's Gehry-helmed makeover in the late 1990s raised the museum's profile, but it also helped to expand the range of the museum's collection, giving it more space and creating a calm, simple environment. The museum is still best known for its impressive collection of Old Masters, notably pieces by 17th-century Dutch painters such as Rembrandt, Brueghel and Frans Hals. The French impressionists are represented by, among others, Monet, Manet and Renoir. After you've checked out the temporary shows, head into the excellent sculpture garden.
This museum 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. Recent exhibitions have ranged from an awe-inspiring showcase of Japanese tattoo traditions to a Hello Kitty retrospective.
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.