Who says L.A. lacks culture? Aesthetes and culture vultures can get their fix for free in L.A., with some of the best things to do 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—especially if you have a library card. Here are the best free museums in Los Angeles, whether they offer free admission year-round or free museums days.
RECOMMENDED: See the full list of free things to do in L.A.
Free museums and museum days in Los Angeles
Free with reservation.
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.
Free admission; parking entry between 10am–3pm $20, after 3pm $15, after 6pm $10.
What’s now called the Getty Villa 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.
Free every second Tue 11am–5pm. L.A. County residents Mon, Tue, Thu 3–5pm; Fri 3–8pm.
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.
This photography-only space in the middle of Century City takes an innovative approach to displaying digital and print works. Exhibitions at the Annenberg often incorporate videos, lectures and/or music. The free admission helps attract a younger crowd to the otherwise more corporate neighborhood. (It’s housed adjacent to the intentionally intimidating CAA offices.) From the titillating works of Helmut Newton to a gorgeous 125-year retrospective of National Geographic photography, engaging and specific exhibitions are the Annenberg Space’s signature.
Free first Thursday of the month with advance ticket.
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.
Free every Thursday 5–8pm; free with juror ID.
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.
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.
Free admission with timed ticket; parking entry between 10am–3pm $20, after 3pm $15, after 6pm $10.
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, 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.
The Institute for Contemporary Art Los Angeles, or ICA LA, is the new home for the former Santa Monica Museum of Art. The new facility in the Arts District occupies 12,700 square feet of warehouse space.
Free Thu 5–8pm or daily with juror ID.
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 and spectacle installations.
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Locals, consider this your must-see list (and if you’ve already visited them all, check out these great off-the-beaten-path museums). 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.