Who says L.A. lacks culture? Aesthetes and culture vultures can get their fix for free in L.A., from beachside Santa Monica to the hilltops of Griffith Park. Whether you prefer the greatest hits at LACMA or off-the-beaten-path museums, there is such thing as a free museum visit. Here are the best free museums in Los Angeles, whether they offer free admission year-round or free museums days.
RECOMMENDED: Full list of free things to do in L.A.
Free museums and museum days in Los Angeles
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. The free museum is an exciting addition to LA's roster of institutions; visitors should appreciate its encyclopedic survey of contemporary art, complete with a handful of spectacle pieces. The Broad opened with an inaugural exhibition featuring Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Barbara Kruger, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring and more rockstars of the 20th century—plus a whole lot of Jeff Koons.
Free with reservation.
Los Angeles's hilltop acropolis was conceived as a home for the hitherto disparate entities of the J. Paul Getty Trust, but that's the only straightforward thing about it. Architect Richard Meier was hired to build the museum in 1984, but it took 13 years, several additional designers (to work on the interior and the landscaping) and $1 billion to complete. The end result is a remarkable complex of travertine and white metal-clad pavilions that resembles a kind of monastic retreat designed for James Bond. Its relative inaccessibility is more than compensated for by the panoramic views, from the hills and the ocean in the west all the way around to Downtown in the east.
Free admission; $15 parking.
While LACMA's collections have long been the most impressive in the city, the 20-acre complex of buildings in which they've been housed had been quite the reverse. At last, though, things have improved thanks to a few exquisite focal points: Chris Burden's Urban Light, a piece made up of 202 cast-iron street lamps gathered from around LA, restored to working order; the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the Renzo Piano-designed home to a dazzling selection of modern work; and Levitated Mass, a 340-ton boulder commissioned by Michael Heizer that "floats" above a pathway.
Free second Tuesday of the month and select holidays; free after 3pm Monday—Friday for LA County residents
The main branch of LA's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) houses thousands of artworks crafted from 1940 until now. 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. For just $12 ($7 students and seniors), you can have your run of the place, including a free audio tour and access to outdoor installations.
Free every Thursday 5-8pm; free with juror ID.
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.
Free first Thursday of the month with advance ticket.
In 1974, oil magnate J. Paul Getty opened a museum of his holdings in a faux villa on a Malibu clifftop. Eventually the decorative arts and paintings were moved to the Getty Center, and the villa was closed for conversion into a museum for 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, and organized under such themes as Gods and Goddesses and Stories of the Trojan War. Even if you're not interested in the art, the palatial courtyards and manicured gardens are worth the visit.
Free admission; $15 parking.
Serving Torrance and the rest of the South Bay since 1960, the Torrance Art Museum's two gallery spaces focus on modern and contemporary work from both local and world renowned artists. The museums also hosts a number of educational programs throughout the year, including artist talks, lectures and symposia.
The city's premier showcase for post-war art, MOCA started life in a humongous bus barn on the edge of Little Tokyo. That's now the Geffen Contemporary—its spacious, raw interior designed by Frank Gehry in the 1980s—considered by some to be one of his gutsiest spaces. MOCA stages the more mainstream exhibits, leaving the Geffen Contemporary to concentrate on more esoteric artists. Up to half a dozen shows can be viewed at any single time between the two galleries and the West Hollywood outpost at the Pacific Design Center.
Free every Thursday; free with juror ID.
The NHM's original Beaux Arts structure was the first museum building in Los Angeles, opening with Exposition Park itself back in 1913. Its massive collection spans more than 35 million objects and specimens (not all of them are on display at any one time), making it second in size only to the Smithsonian's. It's an immense place, so it's well worth planning your visit. Those with only a little time to spare should head directly to the truly dazzling collections in the Gem & Mineral Hall; the revamped dinosaur and mammal halls, as well as "Becoming L.A.: Stories of Nature and Culture," fill out the rest of the museums worthwhile spots.
Free the first Tuesday of every month (except July and August).
Industrialist Armand Hammer founded this museum, primarily to house his own collection. Now, under the ownership of UCLA, the Hammer stages fascinating themed shows of modern art, photography and design. The former have included everything from video installations to American comic art; the latter are often drawn from UCLA's Grunwald collection of graphic arts.
A fusion of two longstanding prior facilities, the California Science Center opened in 1998 in a bright, airy building directly in front of the Rose Garden in Exposition Park. Permanent exhibit galleries explore life sciences, human innovation and powered flight. But the real attraction here is the recent addition of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which was very pubicly paraded through LA to reach its temporary home at the Samuel Oschin Pavilion—a permanent structure is slated to open in 2018. While the rest of the museum is free, Endeavour requires $2 time tickets, a bargain to come face to face with one of this country's most iconic engineering marvels.
You might expect this Griffith Park museum to be a kitschy exploration of the life and works of famous singing cowboy Gene Autry. Though there's often some sort of Autry memorabilia on display in the foyer, it's actually a very engaging exploration of the West, outlining its history and detailing the myths that came to surround it.
Free every second Tuesday of the month.
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 more than 3.5 million 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—in summer, you can watch paleontologists at work in the excavation of Pit 91 and inhale the nasty tang of tar in the air.
Museum free first Tuesday of every month (except July and August) and free every Tuesday during September; tar pits area always free.
Even with no prior interest in the subject, you'll be drawn in to the story of Japanese immigration by the perfectly pitched displays, such as a reassembled interment barrack from the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming, where approximately 10,000 Japanese Americans were held. Aside from the permanent exhibition, the museum stages an engaging roster of temporary documentary and art shows. To cap it all off, there's a lovely gift shop at the end to explore that's full of quirky keepsakes and cultural curios. Continue the conversation with a group tour at the JANM’s adjacent National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, an educational institute aimed at preserving and promoting democracy in the US.
Free every Thursday 5-8pm and all day every third Thursday of the month.
Something of a local powerhouse, the Skirball aims to look at connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and different communities around LA. Those with an interest in Jewish history will get the most from some of the exhibits, but this is an egalitarian enterprise that should interest most visitors with a sense of cultural adventure. Little ones will love Noah's Ark, a wonderful kid-oriented exhibit that explores cultural differences through a retelling of the old animals-two-by-two tale.
Free every Thursday.
The largest maritime museum in the state contains a potted history of fishing in California, the story of San Pedro's canning industry, and an array of model boats and ships. Check online for details of temporary shows, which cover related topics. The handsome 1940s Streamline Modern building that houses the museum once acted as a ferry terminal.
Free, $5 suggested donation for adults.
"If every person could look through that telescope," declared Griffith J. Griffith, "it would revolutionize the world." More than 80 years after this iconic building opened, the world remains unrevolutionized, but the vista is no less stunning, particularly at night when Los Angeles twinkles below. Inside you'll find a bevy of exhibits, including a Foucault pendulum, 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.
More than just images on a wall, photography exhibits at the Annenberg often incorporate videos or music, creating a more dynamic experience for the visitor. The free admission and $1 parking help attract a younger crowd to the otherwise more corporate neighborhood. Bring a date on a Saturday evening and spend 30 minutes wandering through the gallery before catching a movie across the street at the Century City AMC. During the summer, Saturday evening concerts in partnership with KCRW turn the space into a vibrant hot spot.
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.
Free first Friday of the month 5-8pm.
MOLAA might be located on land that once housed the Balboa Amusement Producing Company, the most productive silent film studio of its day, but history is conspicuous by its absence: from the building in which it's housed to the art contained within it, this is a forward-thinking enterprise. The core of the permanent collection is in the Long Gallery, with work by one artist from every Latin American country.
Free every Sunday and the fourth Friday of every month between 5-9pm.
Art and artifacts from Asia and the Pacific Rim are displayed in the historic Grace Nicholson Building, a recreation of a northern Chinese palace with a charming Chinese Garden Court to match. Taken from the museum's collection of 14,000 items, the permanent displays include both contemporary and traditional Asian arts; they're supplemented by temporary shows, which tend to run for roughly four months at a time.
Free second Sunday of every month.
Housed for two decades in a school gym, this popular interactive children's museum moved to a new site in 2004 after an $18-million funding drive. There's a wide variety of exhibits and entertainment, from the Kaleidoscope entrance to the educational gardens and the Splash Dance water feature in the central courtyard, the perfect way to cool down on a baking valley afternoon. Pasadena's young 'uns are lucky to have it on their doorsteps.
Free first Tuesday of every month from 4-8pm.
Partially intended for the academic viewing purposes of students at the adjoining college, the FIDM museum's impressive collection has included nineteenth century hats, vintage couture pieces, wardrobe samples from movies and hit TV shows (Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire, Pan Am), and even a fragrance archive.
Set in a historic theater in the West Adams neighborhood (worth a look around for its streets lined with Victorian houses), the Panorama aims to pay tribute to the tradition of 18th- and 19th-century 360-degree panorama paintings, which were once a form of popular entertainment. The Ancillary Salon hosts changing exhibits. Outside, a deceptively lush garden features a scary Carnivorous Plant and Sinister Foliage exhibit.
Contemporary artworks representing cultures from all over the globe are the focus at this gem of a museum, tucked away on UCLA's sprawling campus. From animal figurine collections to Tibetan Buddhist prints to illustrated ethnographies—pretty much every exhibit here is guaranteed to teach you at least one thing about the world you didn't know before.
An earnest exhibition compiled by a young, Cold War–obsessed academic, this small collection is somewhat appropriately located in an anonymous office park, making it feel like an undercover operation. There are Stasi artifacts here, along with propaganda posters, remnants of the East German counterculture and segments of the Berlin Wall. “Wende” is the German word for “turning point,” referring to the period from the fall of the Wall to reunification, though the museum focuses more closely on the Cold War period in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. So why is it in LA? According to founder Justinian Jampol, the geographic remove lends critical distance.
While Beverly Hills has the Museum of Tolerance, the Fairfax District is now home to the Museum of the Holocaust, which opened in October 2010. The subect matter is, naturally, dark, but the museum treats it in a sensitive manner, providing audio guides that lead visitors through a succession of rooms detailing the rise of the Nazis through concentration camps, the Holocaust and its aftermath. Guided tours and talks from survivors are also given on a regular basis, while temporary exhibitions round things out.
LA's only public showcase devoted to contemporary craft and community-based folk art continues to broaden its programming. Shows could take in anything from Venetian glassmaking to American printmaking, the circus-themed dioramas of Sonny King to a retrospective of work by Hungarian designer Eva Zeisel. With the launch of its sister community outreach program, Folk Art Everywhere, CAFAM bridges the gap between global and local cultures.
Pay what you can on Sundays.
For an unflinching look at black history and Americana, check out Oran Z’s massive collection of African-American artifacts, including everything from slave shackles to once-popular "Mamie" cookie jars to a flag signed by Barack Obama. The President is also present in a more concrete form, as a crude wax figure standing alongside the First Lady. Other significant black political figures (Malcolm X, Frederick Douglas), entertainers (Scott Joplin, Dorothy Dandridge) and inventors (George Washington Carver) are rendered in wax—constituting a slightly bizarre looking honor guard—and placed in dioramas throughout the building. If you’re lucky, Oran Z himself will conduct your tour.
Both a gallery and a center of study, CLUI researches and chronicles all forms of land use, from uranium cell disposal sites to views from highways. From their website: “We believe that the manmade landscape is a cultural inscription, that can be read to better understand who we are, and what we are doing.” It’s a mandate that’s at once all-encompassing and somewhat obscure. The best way to understand it may be to go on one of the center’s popular bus tours where knowledgeable guides might explain, say, the cultural impact of the world’s largest Frito Lay factory.
The northwest corner of Griffith Park is the destination for train enthusiasts and curious kids. Travel Town, open all week, is a "railroad petting zoo" full of historic rail stock like an 1880 Southern Pacific locomotive and an 1881 Union Pacific caboose; the museum also expertly explains 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.
It's a drive, but the Long Beach Museum of Art keeps its locals entertained with a cultured roster of temporary exhibits. The extensive video library is now in the hands of the Getty, but the museum's permanent collection still includes some notable Californian pieces. The building is an intriguing one: completed in 1912, it was designed and originally used as a summer home by philanthropist Elizabeth Milbank Anderson.
Free from 3-8pm Thursdays and all day Fridays.
Bigger than it looks from the outside, this handsome museum, conference center and research library focuses on the artistic and historical achievements of African Americans. The permanent exhibit loosely tells the story of African Americans' journey from Africa, through emancipation and into the 21st century, using an assortment of paintings, textiles, photographs, ceremonial objects, personal testimonies and other memorabilia. In addition, there are other curated and traveling exhibitions throughout the year, as well as occasional screenings and workshops.
Formerly the Museum of Television & Radio but now renamed after its co-founder, former CBS president William S. Paley, this Beverly Hills institution boasts a permanent collection of more than 140,000 TV and radio programs. Designed by Getty architect Richard Meier, this is the place to go if you love TV.
Free, $10 suggested donation for adults.
Constructed in 1922 by radical Austrian architect Rudolf Schindler, this landmark is a dazzling combination of concrete walls, redwood partitions, rooftop 'sleeping baskets' and outdoor living rooms. Tours of the modest house are offered on weekends, but, in keeping with Schindler's adventurousness, the building also hosts a variety of exhibitions, talks and concerts based on decidedly non-mainstream themes.
Free Friday afternoons from 4-6pm and on R.M. Schindler’s birthday, Sept 10.