The 15 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
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
Photograph: Michael Juliano Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

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.

15 essential museums to visit in L.A.

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

La Brea Tar Pits and Museum

icon-location-pin Miracle Mile

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 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.

MOCA Grand Ave
Museums, Art and design

MOCA Grand Ave

icon-location-pin Downtown

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. 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.

Norton Simon Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Norton Simon Museum
Museums, Art and design

Norton Simon Museum

icon-location-pin Pasadena

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.

Things to do

Japanese American National Museum

icon-location-pin Little Tokyo

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.

Marciano Art Foundation
Photograph: Michael Juliano
Museums, Art and design

Marciano Art Foundation

icon-location-pin Central LA

The Marciano Art Foundation has taken over an old Masonic temple on Wilshire Boulevard and turned it into a massive contemporary art museum. Guess co-founders Maurice and Paul Marciano have birthed a free museum that balances traditional white-walled gallery spaces with cavernous halls whose only limitation is an artist’s creativity.

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