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.
15 essential museums to visit in L.A.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.