Los Angeles is full of excellent museums.
Whether you enjoy art, history, or science, this city has something for you. But what’s even better is the number of free museums in Los Angeles. In a city that can normally be quite expensive, it’s good to know you can visit a world-class museum for free.
In this article I’ve included the museums I’ve personally visited, so it’s not exhaustive. At the end I’ve listed other free museums that may interest you, and that I hope to visit someday. I’ve also added in a few places that offer free days.
The Broad has taken Los Angeles by storm. Opened in 2015, this large and impressive collection of contemporary art attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Admission has always been free, as is a selection of audio guides available through their app.
This museum houses the personal collection of Eli and Edythe Broad, and only a small portion of it is on view at any given time. I’ve visited twice, and will continue to go back regularly since there’s always something new to see. Among my favorite works are paintings by Keith Haring, Jeff Koons’ sculpture, Tulips, and Robert Therrien’s oversized work, Under The Table.
The Broad offers special exhibits which may have an admission fee. These currently include an exhibit by Shirin Neshat and an infinity room by Yayoi Kusama (though two of her infinity rooms are free).
Here’s the best way to experience the Broad; make an online, timed reservation in advance. If you’re visiting on a weekend you’ll likely need to make the reservation a few months in advance. Impromptu visits may result in a long wait in line. Parking is available under the museum.
Museum of Contemporary Art
It was big news in Los Angeles when the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) announced a large donation that would allow them to offer free admission starting in January of 2020. And since MOCA Grand Ave. is located across the street from the Broad, visitors can now check-out two excellent museums in one day for free (and only pay for parking once). There are two additional MOCA locations and all are free.
Currently MOCA Grand Ave. has a large exhibition from their permanent collection. This can sound a bit dull, but it wasn’t. 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. I especially enjoyed the section from the Pattern and Decoration movement which was comprised of quilts and sculptures from female artists around the world.
With all the press about free admission MOCA is busy on weekends, so getting there early is recommended. Parking is available under the Broad or the Disney Concert Hall.
The Hammer Museum
The Hammer has one of the most unique layouts I’ve ever seen for an art museum. A central, outdoor courtyard features large seating areas and a restaurant. Galleries on two levels open up to wide passageways, all with a view of the courtyard. This is not a stuffy space where patrons are encouraged to whisper. Instead, there are visitors of all ages walking and talking outdoors while strolling in and out of galleries.
Most of the Hammer’s exhibits are contemporary art. The museum describes its purpose as championing art and artists that challenge us to see the world in a new light. However, there is one gallery featuring works from the sixteenth through the twentieth century, mostly from Europe.
Weekends will definitely be busy here, but I’ve visited on different days and times and always found the number of visitors to be reasonable. Hammer Museum parking is available under the building, but only cash is accepted.
The Annenberg Space For Photography
The Annenberg Space For Photography is a lesser known and visited museum in Los Angeles, but well worth the trip. There are no permanent collections here. Instead there is one exhibit at a time. At the center of the museum is a circular theater featuring a movie about the current show and the surrounding galleries display the photos. Often the exhibit is curated by staff of the Annenberg, and therefore cannot be seen anywhere else. Once in a while, they host a traveling exhibit.
The current exhibit is called Vanity Fair: Hollywood Calling which features photographic portraits and multimedia installations that capture the glamour of the film industry. I haven’t seen this exhibit yet, but their two previous ones were excellent.
Typically the Annenberg Space For Photography isn’t too crowded. Parking is available in the nearby building and can be validated at the front desk--just be sure to bring your ticket with you.
This is my favorite free museum in Los Angeles! If you had to choose just one during your visit, go to the Getty.
The Getty Center is a combination of architecture, art, and gardens, and each part is worth exploring. Set up high on a hillside in West Los Angeles, the views alone are worth the visit. This place rivals many of the great museums of Europe. Even if you’re not interested in art, I’d encourage you to visit.
I’ve been to the Getty several times, and yet I feel like I haven’t seen it all, so allow a few hours for your visit. There are dozens of galleries displaying the permanent collection and there are several additional galleries for special exhibits--all are free. There is currently an exhibit, Unseen, of the museum’s photographs that have never before been displayed.
The Getty offers free audio guides and free docent led tours. I’ve experienced both of these and recommend them as a way to learn more about this remarkable institution.
Parking is available at the bottom of the hill. Allow time to park and then take the tram to the entrance. On the weekends the Getty will be very crowded, so arriving early is recommended.
Before there was the Getty Center, there was the Villa. Built by J. Paul Getty, this is a near replica of the Villa dei Papiri, which was rediscovered in the 1750’s in Italy. Here the focus is ancient art from the end of the Stone Age to the fall of the Roman Empire.
I’ll admit that I don’t get very excited by ancient art. So I especially enjoy the docent led tours offered so I can learn more than I might read on the signage. During my last visit I toured the gardens. Our guide was funny and informative, and made the whole trip worthwhile. Currently there is a special exhibit titled, Assyria: Palace Art Of Ancient Iraq. Whether or not you like ancient art, just exploring the villa and it’s gardens is enjoyable.
Admission is free, but you must make an advance, online reservation. Parking is available on site.
California Science Center
If you are looking for a place to take your kids or grandkids, then the California Science Center is perfect. But don’t worry, with hundreds of hands-on activities, adults can have plenty of fun here too.
The Science Center has several permanent exhibits including Ecosystems, World of Life, Creative World and more. If you want to focus just on the free parts of the museums, these exhibits will definitely keep you busy.
The Science Center always has at least one special exhibit available which is currently, The Art of the Brick--the world’s largest display of Lego art. The fees for special exhibits will vary, and can be very busy, so it’s recommended to purchase these tickets online in advance for a timed showing.
For an additional fee visitors can see an IMAX movie, or check-out the space shuttle, Endeavor.
The Griffith Observatory
Despite living in Southern California for thirty years, I’m embarrassed to admit that my first visit to Griffith Observatory was just one year ago. It’s a small museum that won’t take much time to explore, but in combination with seeing Griffith Park, it’s worth the trip. Add in the great view of Los Angeles from the East or West Terraces, and this is a great way to spend a day in LA.
The observatory has two halls; Wilder Hall of the Eye and Ahmanson Hall of the Sky. The first focuses on how we see space and the second on what’s in space.
The planetarium offers shows eight to ten times a day for a small fee. These tickets can only be purchased on sight and are first-come-first-served.
After exploring the inside of the museum, head out to one of the terraces to appreciate a great view of LA. Hopefully, it will be a clear day. Then spend some time exploring the rest of Griffith Park. If you’re feeling energetic, take on the hike to the Hollywood sign.
Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles
Technically, Hauser and Wirth Los Angeles is a gallery, not a museum. But I’m including it in this article because it’s shows are worthy of any world-class museum. This former flour-mill has been repurposed as a gallery, garden, bookstore, and restaurant, and I highly recommend a visit the next time you’re in the downtown LA area.
The first time I visited this gallery they featured Alexander Calder, an artist well known for his innovative mobiles. His work has appeared in museums all over the world. I’ve been back twice and there are always interesting and compelling exhibits.
Combine a trip to Hauser & Wirth with a walking tour of the murals in the DTLA Arts District and you’ll have the perfect day for any art lover.
America Tropical Interpretive Center
The America Tropical Interpretive Center might be one of the smallest museums you’ll ever visit, but if you’re near Olvera Street, be sure to stop in. The center was built to display David Siqueiros’ mural, America Tropical, which was originally painted in 1932. Siqueiros was one of Mexico’s Big Three muralists along with Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco.
The mural was nearly destroyed just six months after the unveiling when it was partially painted over. The political and business leaders of the day did not appreciate it’s anti-imperialism theme. It was rediscovered in the 1960’s, but restoration work did not begin until 2012.
Additional Free Museums In Los Angeles
I’ve lived in the Los Angeles area for over thirty years and I still haven’t made it to all of it’s museums--but I’m working on it! In the meantime, here are a few additional free museums in LA to check-out;
Free Museum Days In Los Angeles
If you have your heart set on visiting a museum that is not free, don’t worry, it likely offers free days throughout the year. Here are some excellent options;
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)--Second Tuesday of each month is free
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County--13 Tuesdays of the year are free
Autry Museum of the American West--Second Tuesday of each month is free