I love museums and over the years I’ve visited dozens all over the world. What I’ve discovered is that we have some really good museums right here in Los Angeles. Now this isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for LA visitors, but it should be and I’m on a mission to make that happen.
The rankings in this article are completely mine. I’ve often read lists of “the world’s best museum” or “top museums in the U.S.” and sometimes I agree with the author, other times not. But after much research, here is my list of Best Museums in Los Angeles.
Table of Contents
Best Photography Museum–Annenberg Space for Photography
I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to finally visit the Annenberg Space for Photography. It’s been open for almost ten years, and yet I kept putting it off. That ended when I read about the Photo Ark exhibit, a vast collection of animal photos by Joel Sartore. It’s Sartore’s goal to capture every animal species living in a zoo or aquarium anywhere in the world. Many of these animals will soon be extinct, and he hopes this work will bring attention to the issue of accelerating extinction rates. Unfortunately, this exhibit will be leaving soon, but check out their website for upcoming plans.
Located in Century City, this museum offers validated in parking in the adjacent structure. While it doesn’t offer any dining, the Westfield Mall is one block away and has many great options for a full meal or snack.
Best Museums in LA–The Getty and LACMA for Art
In the art world there is a fancy term called “encyclopedic museum.” This means it doesn’t specialize in one genre, but instead has a very large collection representing art throughout history and across genres. That term applies to both The Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Both are excellent places worthy of a whole day each to explore.
Let me begin with The Getty which is located in West Los Angeles. In addition to its vast art collection, the architecture of the buildings themselves is beautiful, as are the gardens. If they rented out apartments here I’d move in tomorrow.
The layout of the galleries within several buildings encourages visitors to take their time and relax whenever needed. See a special exhibit and then grab a coffee in the courtyard. Or browse several galleries, stroll through the gardens and then sit down for lunch. If you’re here on a weekend, there may be musical or dramatic performances outside to enjoy. There is no need to rush here, so allow plenty of time at The Getty.
The permanent collection alone is impressive at The Getty and features pre-20th century European paintings and drawings and 19th and 20th century American photographs and sculpture. There’s always at least one special exhibit and right now that is Renaissance Nudes.
If you’re looking for free museums in LA, then you’ll be very happy with The Getty since it doesn’t charge admission. Audio tours and docent-led tours are also free of charge. This museums remains one of the most popular in Los Angeles, so on the weekends get here early. Paid parking is available below the museum. Dining options include a full service restaurant, two cafes, and an outdoor coffee cart.
First time in LA? Then check out this 3 Day Los Angeles Itinerary.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art or LACMA, located in Miracle Mile, has long been seen as the art museum in LA, and for good reason. Its collection is vast and excellent special exhibitions are frequent. But in recent years they added an expansive outdoor area featuring large-scale sculptures. There is no charge for this portion of the museum and it makes for some great Instagram photos.
But if you appreciate art at all, it’s worth paying the admission of $25 per adult (there are several discount options as well). Currently there are nine special exhibits on view, some of which were assembled from the museum’s own collection. One of my favorite sculptures is called Miracle Mile by Robert Irwin, a collection of 66 colored fluorescent tubes mounted on the wall.
Paid parking is available across the street from LACMA. Dining options include Ray and Starks’, C+M (for Coffee+Milk) and the LACMA Cafe.
Best Downtown LA Museums–The Broad for Contemporary Art
The opportunities to see contemporary art in LA have exploded in the past five years. And for me, the best place in the city to see this is at The Broad in downtown LA. This museum is the vast private collection of Eli and Edythe Broad. Even if you think contemporary art isn’t for you, this museum is still worth the visit. Some of my favorite art pieces here include the Tulips by Koons and Under The Table by Therrien. But there are many other well-known contemporary artists displayed including Haring and Warhol.
Again, this is one of several free museums in LA. However, it’s still very popular, so I recommend making reservations in advance through their website and avoid the long lines outside. Instead of offering audio guides, the Broad has a free app that includes several audio guides about the collection and the building, and even one for kids.
Paid parking is available below the building, and dining is offered next door at Otium.
Honorable Mentions–The Hammer and the Museum of Contemporary Art
A few years ago I would not have said I appreciated contemporary art, but that has changed. Over time, after visits to several excellent museums, I have developed an appreciation for this genre. If you enjoy contemporary art as well, then I have two additional recommendations; Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Looking for a cool museum in LA? Then look no further than the Hammer Museum located in West Los Angeles. Hammer is affiliated with UCLA, which becomes obvious when you see all the students studying in the large outdoor space and cafe. This is in fact, why I like this place so much. I like when the idea of “stuffy” museums is challenged. This space combines contemporary art exhibits with a stylish and accessible space for relaxing. I don’t know how often students wander into the exhibits, but I like that it’s a possibility.
Not all of the Hammer’s exhibits are contemporary. Part of their permanent collection includes American and European paintings from the 16th through 20th century with recognizable artists like Monet, Pissarro and Sargent. A selection of this collection is usually on display in one gallery.
The Hammer does not charge admission and paid parking is available in an adjacent lot or on the street. The only dining here is the cafe (which has a very limited menu), but Westwood surrounds the museum and there are plenty of places to eat.
Earlier this year the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) announced they would no longer charge admission. As a result, many Southern California residents like myself hurried to see the newest of Los Angeles' free museums. I had been here just once before, over twenty years ago, so I had no idea what to expect. Fortunately I loved it. Following a trend in the museum world to display art in new ways, MOCA has grouped works in this exhibit by themes, movements, and materials, not chronologically or by artist.
MOCA is across the street from The Broad, so I'd recommend planning visits to both places to make the most of your time.
Best Museums for Kids in LA
There are several museums for kids in Los Angeles, but I’d like to highlight my two favorites; the California Science Center and the Petersen Automotive Museum.
California Science Center is next to downtown LA in Exposition Park. We’ve been taking our kids here for years. Most recently my extended family joined us here for the King Tut exhibit, which was excellent. They regularly offer special exhibits and we’ve seen many good ones over the years.
But another highlight of this museum is the space shuttle Endeavor. Everyone in LA was very excited when in 2016 the California Science Center was chosen as the home of the retired space shuttle. The ability to walk around and even under the shuttle is a cool experience that kids of all ages enjoy. Timed tickets are required for this special exhibit on weekends and holidays.
Admission to this museum is free, but special exhibits and the IMAX theater are not. So check-out their website in advance to see what interests you and plan accordingly. Paid parking is available next to the museum and there is a nice food court with several dining options.
The Petersen Automotive Museum was a pleasant surprise for me, my husband and son. A museum about cars didn’t sound interesting to me, but I ended up having a blast here. The top floor is full of vehicles from movies and television shows. It was so much fun to pose next to the Thelma and Louise Ford Thunderbird and one of the Batmobiles.
The two levels below have rotating exhibits that will be of interest to different people. My favorite was a smaller exhibit on lowriders. There were just a few of these colorful vehicles displayed, but plenty of interesting information about the history and culture of lowriders. For families with younger children, there is a great kids room on the second floor with hands on activities.
For avid car lovers, the Petersen offers a Vault tour of their most valuable cars. This is an additional $23. General admission is $16. Paid parking is available in a lot behind the Petersen, and there is a high-end restaurant on site.
Best Museum For Music–Grammy Museum
I finally made it to the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live and really enjoyed it. Right now they are undergoing a major renovation, so exhibits are limited, but it's still worth a visit. According to their website the renovations will be completed by November of 2019.
It's recommended that guests start on the top floor where there's a collection of memorabilia as well as listening stations. Here's where you can see Michael Jackson's red jacket from Thriller, a shirt worn by Elvis Presley, and a dress from Whitney Houston. Headphones are available to listen to a wide range of music genres including punk, rock, country, classical, etc. Also on this floor is an exhibit called Take Me Out To The Ball Game that examines the connection between America's favorite sport and popular music.
On the second floor is an exhibit, Face The Music. Photographer Richard Erlich captures the facial expressions of artists listening to music that has impacted their life. The subjects included Herbie Hancock, Sheryl Crow, Ringo Starr, Quincy Jones, and many others. The exhibit includes a brief bio about each artist and the three songs they selected for this experience.
Admission is $15 per person with discounts offered for children, students and seniors. There is no food at the museum, but since its located at L.A. Live there is a great selection of restaurants right around the corner.