Free museums and museum days in Los Angeles
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.
Museum free every first Tue (except July and Aug), every Tue in Sept 9:30am–5pm; L.A. County residents Mon–Fri 3–5pm; tar pits area always free.
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.
Free every first Tue (except July and Aug) 9:30am–5pm, L.A. County residents Mon–Fri 3–5pm.
The NHM’s original Beaux Arts structure was the first museum building in L.A., opening in 1913 with Exposition Park itself. The more recent Otis Booth Pavilion welcomes visitors into the museum with a six-story glass entrance featuring a stunning, 63-foot-long fin whale skeleton. Highlights include the gem and mineral hall, spectacularly presented dinosaur and mammal fossils, the 3.5-acre urban nature gardens and “Becoming L.A.: Stories of Nature and Culture,” which examines the Los Angeles region’s history from Native Americans to the present day.
Permanent exhibit galleries at this kid-friendly Exposition Park museum explore life sciences, human innovation and powered flight (all with a decidedly ‘90s design flair). But the real attraction here is the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which was very pubicly paraded through L.A. to reach its temporary home at the Samuel Oschin Pavilion—a permanent structure slated to display the ship upright is in the works. While the rest of the museum is free, Endeavour requires $2 time tickets on weekends, a bargain to come face to face with one of this country’s most iconic engineering marvels.
Free every Thursday 5–8pm and all day every third Thursday of the month.
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.
Free first Friday of the month 5–8pm.
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.
Free every second Tuesday of the month.
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.
Before construction on this Old Bank District destination is complete, the Main Museum is previewing its L.A. artist-focused programming as part of Beta Main.
Free every Thursday.
Something of a local powerhouse, the Skirball aims to look at connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and different communities around L.A. 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; parking $6 per hour.
The vista from this hilltop landmark is stunning, particularly at night when Los Angeles twinkles below. Inside you’ll find a bevy of exhibits, including a Foucault pendulum (directly under Hugo Ballin’s famed mural on the central rotunda), 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.
Looking for more art?
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.