Oh, sure. You could go to the Getty and look at its world-class collection of photographs, or hang out in the incredibly popular "Urban Light" installation at LACMA, but can either of those possibly compete with a severed head or a spiritual diorama? If you're looking to visit an off-the-beaten path Los Angeles museum that's a little more quirky, we're here to help. Though LA has lost a couple of its favorite funky museums—farewell Banana Museum and Lingerie Museum!—there are still plenty of fascinating, offbeat institutions and free museums that deserve a visit.
Off-the-beaten path Los Angeles museums
Don't be fooled by the name, this is not some kind of Spielbergian dinosaurland. It's far more interesting than that. Hidden behind an unassuming, windowless storefront, David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology presents itself as a repository of curiosities, scientific wonders and artistic miracles. Which exhibits, if any, are bona fide? Which, if any, are satirical? A subversive, witty and brilliant enterprise, the museum challenges the very nature of what a museum is or should be, while also taking its place as one of the most fascinating attractions in the entire city.
A giant topiary bunny announces your arrival at one of LA's few remaining truly nutty institutions. This private museum—the lovechild of Pasadena couple Candace Frazee and Steve Lubanski—is perhaps the greatest example of cutesy gift-giving run amuck. Starting with the first present of a stuffed bunny, the couple made a tradition of exchanging hare-themed tokens, which have multiplied in a completely crammed house filled with more than 28,000 rabbit items—including several freeze-dried pet bunnies! Yes, there are live ones, too, that visitors can hold.
It may not be Jamestown, but LA’s own living history museum chronicles the development of the region from 1850, when California achieved statehood, to 1950. This collection of five homes, a barn, a train depot and a former church—all built before 1900—form a miniature community where tour guides in period costumes detail day-to-day life. The museum’s many on-theme events are a highlight. In October, the Mourning Tours aim to spook modern-day visitors with firsthand accounts of the death and mourning rituals of the gloomy Victorian Era. At Christmastime, many of the buildings are beautifully lit.
Welcome to Hollywood’s original glam factory: the Max Factor building, where the eponymous makeup artist made Marilyn a blond and Lucy a redhead. Visitors can still see the dedicated rooms where those transformations occurred, along with other Golden Age artifacts including costumes, props, film stills, scripts and even one of the original pairs of ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz. Iconic objects and sets from more recent movies include Pee-Wee Herman’s red tricycle and Hannibal Lecter’s jail cell from Silence of the Lambs.
Go behind the badge at the city's oldest surviving police station, built in 1925, where you can check out everything from Charles Manson’s booking photo to an array of vintage cop cars. True crime fans will appreciate the exhibition detailing the 1997 North Hollywood Bank of America holdup, with the original vehicles and disguises used by the perpetrators. If you’re thinking of committing a holdup, try scaring yourself straight by taking a mug shot and sitting in one of the jail cells. More interested in pretending to be part of the LAPD? The museum allows visitors to climb aboard a police helicopter or CHP motorcycle and imagine themselves as part of the action.
Part of the appeal of this Torrance museum is its location in a hangar on Louis Zamperini field—you get to feel like a pilot as soon as you walk onto the airfield. The other part is the strong collection of military aircraft built by the local aerospace industry. Highlights include the Northrop YF-23A, a supersonic stealth fighter, and the Northrop F-5, a lightweight supersonic stealth fighter that the U.S. military supplied to friendly nations, and one of only three Northrop JB-1's in existence. Also known as “The Bat,” it was a precursor to America’s first cruise missile. Not into war craft? Check out Steve McQueen’s bright yellow bi-plane.
The northwest corner of Griffith Park is the destination for train enthusiasts and curious kids. Travel Town is a "railroad petting zoo" full of historic rail stock like an 1880 Southern Pacific locomotive and an 1881 Union Pacific caboose that also does a good job explaining how the railroads helped build Southern California. Lovers of things that go choo-choo should be sure to visit the park on a Sunday, when the neighboring Los Angeles Live Steamers section is open for railheads.
Step out of the sun and take in a bit of California history in a restored 1894 house that was originally built for the son of the founder of Santa Monica. Though the house itself—devoted to the Victorian period—is worth a look, rotating exhibitions on topics related to the region are the real draw. Recent shows have focused on surfboard design, California fruit box labels and Hawaii’s influence on the local lifestyle. The museum is at its busiest on Sundays, though only outside: it hosts a hugely popular farmers' market every Sunday morning.
Formerly located on the edge of Skid Row, MONA has relocated its collection of vintage, LA-based neon signs to a glowing Glendale home. Make sure to check out its popular Neon Cruise; the city becomes your museum on these popular double-decker bus tours that take you past illuminated Los Angeles landmarks. Sitting on the top of the bus will put you eye-to-eye with the gorgeous vintage theater signs on Broadway.
Walt Disney used to ride his own 1/8th scale live-steam railroad—the "Carolwood Pacific Railroad"—around his home in the Holmby Hills until he shifted his focus to a much bigger project: Disneyland. Though Walt and his private railroad have since passed, in 1999 the red barn that he used as his workshop was moved to Griffith Park's Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum. Every third Sunday of the month, you can visit the barn to find a collection of train models and memorabilia. Free parking is available in the lot off Zoo Drive.