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The Getty
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

The 16 best museums to visit in Los Angeles

Don’t leave L.A.—whether you’re a resident or a tourist—without visiting these truly essential museums

By Michael Juliano and Time Out contributors
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Skim through the must-visit attractions in Los Angeles and you’ll notice a trend: It’s a lot of outdoorsy fun. So committing to a day inside of a museum might pose a tough undertaking. In fact, choosing anything over a 75-and-sunny day at the beach is a hard ask—especially if you’re visiting from a country with a colder climate. 

But here’s the thing: No matter how good the weather, visiting L.A.’s museums is essential. Among the city’s best things to do, Los Angeles museums rival those in Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York—without a doubt. And, lucky you, a whole bunch of them have stunning outdoor campuses, with hilltop views, sculpture gardens and sunny courtyards.

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. And sure, these spots might be spread out but that’s nothing a Metro trip or ride service can’t solve. Just plan your day trip wisely and you’ll be hopping about with ease.

16 essential museums to visit in L.A.

Urban Light at LACMA
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Ruben Gutierrez

1. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Museums Art and design Miracle Mile

Timed tickets required. Free for L.A. County residents weekdays after 3pm. No tickets are required to see outdoor sculptures Urban Light and Levitated Mass

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.

Just a heads up: The eastern half of LACMA’s campus (home to its permanent collection) is mostly closed as it gears up for a massive redesign due to be completed in 2024, but you’ll still find about a half-dozen sizable special exhibitions located in the Resnick Pavilion and BCAM. 

Getty Center
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

2. Getty Center

Museums Art and design Westside

Free reservations required.

What’s now called the Getty Villa (a coastal mansion filled with antiquities that’s absolutely worth a visit, too) 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.

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Huntington Library
Photograph: Michael Juliano

3. Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens

Things to do Event spaces San Marino

Timed reservations required on weekends, recommended on weekdays.

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 Broad
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Sam Poullain

4. The Broad

Museums Art and design Downtown

Free timed tickets required. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms temporarily closed

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.

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Natural History Museum
Photograph: Michael Juliano

5. Natural History Museum

Museums Natural history USC/Exposition Park

Advance tickets recommended; free for county residents from 3–5pm.

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.,” which examines the Los Angeles region’s history from Native Americans to the present day

Hammer Museum
Photograph: Michael Juliano

6. Hammer Museum

Museums Art and design Westwood

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.

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Museum of Contemporary Art, MOCA
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

7. MOCA Grand Ave

Museums Art and design Downtown

Free timed tickets required.

The main branch of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art houses thousands of artworks crafted from 1940 to today, and it’s an efficient primer on post-war 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. Some of the museum’s most exciting exhibitions take place at the nearby Geffen Contemporary; both locations notably switched to free admission in 2020.

Getty Villa
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

8. Getty Villa

Museums History Pacific Palisades

Free timed tickets required.

In 1974, oil magnate J. Paul Getty opened a museum of his holdings in a faux villa. Eventually the decorative arts and paintings were moved to the Getty Center, but the villa remains as the home of Getty’s collection of Mediterranean antiquities. Today, there are roughly 1,200 artifacts on display at any one time, dated between 6,500 BC and 500 AD. Even if you’re not interested in the art, the palatial courtyards and manicured gardens are worth the visit.

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Griffith Observatory
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Jaredd Craig

9. Griffith Observatory

Museums Science and technology Griffith Park

The museum at the Griffith Observatory is currently open Friday through Sunday. The surrounding grounds are open daily.

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.

Take a guided hike around the Hollywood Hills.

Endeavour
Photograph: Michael Juliano

10. California Science Center

Museums Science and technology USC/Exposition Park

Timed tickets required. There’s a small service fee; you can skip the fee by buying tickets on-site at the box office, but time slots are limited.

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 $3 time tickets on weekends, a bargain to come face to face with one of this country’s most iconic engineering marvels.

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Petersen Automotive Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum

11. Petersen Automotive Museum

Museums Transportation Miracle Mile

Timed tickets required. Health care workers and first responders receive free admission.

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.

Book a private tour of the museum.

Museum of Latin American Art
Photograph: Courtesy MOLAA

12. Museum of Latin American Art

Museums Art and design Long Beach

Timed tickets required.

Located on land that once housed a productive silent film studio, everything about this museum is a forward-thinking enterprise, from its modern and contemporary-driven collection to its building. The core of the permanent collection is in the Long Gallery, with work by one artist from every Latin American country. Swing by on Sundays for free admission.

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La Brea Tar Pits
Photograph: Courtesy Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

13. La Brea Tar Pits and Museum

Museums Natural history Miracle Mile

The outdoor pits are free to visit. Advance tickets for the indoor museum recommended.

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 140-plus years later, the pros are still at work here, having dragged millions of fossils from the mire in the intervening years. Many of these specimens are now on display in this delightfully old-fashioned museum. Outside, the pits still bubble with black goo—you can watch paleontologists at work in the excavation of Pit 91 and toil away at the fossils waiting to be found as part of Project 23.

Norton Simon Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Norton Simon Museum

14. Norton Simon Museum

Museums Art and design Pasadena

Advance tickets recommended.

The Norton Simon’s Frank 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.

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Photograph: Courtesy Japanese American National Museum

15. Japanese American National Museum

Things to do Little Tokyo

Advance tickets recommended.

This museum tells the story of Japanese immigration to the US, from early restrictions on property ownership to the brutal internment camps during World War II. 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.

Photograph: Michael Juliano

16. Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles

Art Galleries Downtown Arts District

Though technically a gallery, Hauser & Wirth basically feels like a museum. Much of that is owed to the international gallerist’s massive footprint, a 116,000-square-foot former flower mill. The restored complex houses up to three exhibitions at a time, with a mix of post-war contemporary icons and of-the-moment working artists.

Some more reopening news

The Autry reopened March 30 for members and April 6 for the general public. Admission is free through April 18.

– The Grammy Museum reopens May 21.

– The California African American Museum reopened March 27 with five new exhibitions

ICA LA is currently open by appointment only.

Craft Contemporary reopened May 9.

– The USC Pacific Asia Museum reopens May 29.

– The Long Beach Museum of Art reopened on April 1.

Heritage Square is open on weekends for outdoor self-guided walking tours.

– Both the Los Angeles Zoo and the Aquarium of the Pacific are open again. Reservations are required at both.

Here’s how else you can visit a museum for free

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