Perhaps the words "culture" and "world-renowned museums" may not come to mind when you think of Los Angeles (we know that more often your first thoughts are of Hollywood movies, beautiful beaches, surfing and Walt Disney), but culture and world-class museums are an important part of the very fabric of this city with the sunny disposition. From the huge Getty Center perched high up in the Santa Monica Mountains (and its sister museum in Malibu, the Getty Villa) to the iconic Los Angeles Museum of Art (LACMA) on the Miracle Mile of museums on Wilshire Boulevard, then on to downtown's California Science Center and Natural History Museum and all the way to the fantastic Griffith Observatory and Autry National Center, L.A. has so many different types of world-class museums it is actually a bit mind boggling. Each one has its own unique personality, focus and ambiance, so be sure to plan to devote plenty of time to seeing every one on this list. Then make a plan to delve deeper, for only naming ten museums does not do the city justice; there are at least ten more that are equally grand. You could easily spend a whole week in the City of Angels just visiting terrific museums!
Norton Simon Museum
With its curved exterior and dramatic, Frank Gehry-designed interior, the building that houses the Norton Simon Museum is a work of art in itself. The museum, home to businessman Norton Simon's incredible private collection, features top-notch European art from the Renaissance to the 20th century, as well as an incredible trove of works from Asia that spans more than 2000 years. Be sure to search out the three stunning Rembrandt paintings housed here, as well as the Goya paintings and the over 100 Degas works on display. And don't miss the sculpture garden, where the natural beauty is just as impressive as the man-made works throughout. (626-449-6840)
If you believe, like Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, in the transformative power of observation, then the Griffith Observatory is the L.A. museum for you. Located in the park that also bears that philanthropist's name, the observatory was recently renovated completely (it originally opened in 1935), but it still offers free public telescope viewing on every clear night in the city. Look up into the universe with the historic Zeiss telescope, the historic coelostat (solar telescope) or the portable telescopes on the lawn and a whole new perspective opens up. Be sure to visit the Samuel Oschin Planetarium for one of the in-depth shows, but note that there is an admission fee for those. Everything else, including parking, is free at the Griffith Observatory. (213-473-0800)
Autry Museum of the American West
The Autry National Center in Griffith Park is the brainchild of Gene Autry, the famed singing cowboy of film, radio and television. Autry believed that the experience of the taming of the American West had an impact on the whole world and he created this museum to celebrate that heritage. With tremendous collections of cowboy memorabilia, Western art and sculpture and Native North American handiwork (think pottery, beadwork, carvings, etc.), the museum's ever-changing exhibitions are sure to spark the imagination of both young and old. Learn the history of the Wild West as well as more modern lore here; and don't miss the annual November American Indian Arts Marketplace, featuring works by over 200 artists from over 40 different tribes. ((323) 667-2000)
Petersen Automotive Museum
The Petersen Automotive Museum anchors the eastern end of the famed "Miracle Mile," that length of Wilshire Boulevard that boasts numerous world-class museums. Located on the corner of Fairfax Avenue since 1994, the museum's collection encompasses over 300 vehicles of all types – inculding one of the Batmobiles! Five galleries house changing exhibitions of the collection (but don't expect to see more than about 150 of the autos at any one time), while other galleries display automotive memorabilia. Don't miss the Discovery Center where kids can learn basic car fundamentals in the interactive hands-on learning center. There's a whole exhibition devoted to Hot Wheels toys, too, which is a bit like heaven for car-loving kids. (323-930-2277)
California African American Museum
The California African American Museum (CAAM), founded in 1977, explores the African-American artistic and cultural experience, with a particular focus on California and the western U.S. Stroll through the permanent and continuously changing exhibits, including a current rich display celebrating the achievements of African-American women. The museum also offers educational programs and workshops featuring music, film and fine arts. Admission to CAAM is free, but for a fascinating tour led by an experienced docent (offered four times each day, Tuesday throught Saturday), the charge is $3 for adults and $2 for students under 17). Check out the once-a-month Target Sundays where you'll find concerts, a chance to create your own art and much more. (213-744-7432)
Museum of Contemporary Art
Since 1979, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) has been the only museum in Los Angeles devotely solely to contemporary art. The museum has three locations (MOCA Grand Avenue; MOCA Pacific Design Center; and The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA on Grand Avenue, which is currently closed, but expected to reopen in 2015. All offer permanent and temporary exhibits, featuring works by well-known artists like Jackson Pollock, Claes Oldenburg, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Frank Stella and Piet Mondrian. Emerging artists are also represented. Special activities aimed at kids, adults and teens are offered regularly. Enjoy free admission every Thursday evening and and admission to the MOCA Pacific Design Center is always free. (213-626-6222)
California Science Center
One way or another, this museum of science and technology has been in operation since 1912, when it began as the State Exposition Building. It was remodeled in 1951 and rechristened the California Museum of Science and Industry, then it was finally completely revamped in 1998 and became the California Science Center. Admission is always free and the four permanent exhibitions are Creative World; Ecosystems; World of Life; and Air and Space, which has housed the Endeavour space shuttle since 2012. Many of the exhibits are hands on, which means both children and adults really get the chance to understand the basic principles of science and technology. (323-724-3623)
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles boasts a 14,000-square-foot Dinosaur Hall, an incredible gallery with those not-to-missed dinos including the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops and Stegosaurus. Well-known for its detailed exhibits of North American and African mammals, the museum also has a fascinating marine life exhibit that includes Megamouth, the rarest shark in the world (only 17 have been found since 1976). Don't miss the Hall of Birds, the insect zoo, or the Discovery Center, which offers lots of hands-on activities for kids. Grownups will enjoy First Fridays, when visitors can come to have a drink, roam the Dinosaur Hall after hours, enjoy a concert and a DJ spinning tunes. Tickets always sell out, so buy yours early. (213-763-3466)
The Getty Center is the legacy of billionaire J. Paul Getty, a gorgeous paean to the arts. Perched high in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Richard Meier-designed complex is stunningly beautiful both outside and in. The museum's vast collection includes works by Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne and many other artistic masters, as well as ancient antiquities, modern sculptures, illuminated manuscripts and more. The gardens are particularly inviting and the Restaurant at the Getty offers up locally sourced fare with an amazing view. The permanent collections are always on view as well as constantly changing special exhibitions. Admission is always free, but note that parking is $15. (310-440-7300, 310-440-6810)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the Western United States. Its large complex houses a permanent collection that spans the globe, covers every historical era and features everything from European to Asian and Islamic art. Don't miss the impressive Latin American collection, which showcases pre-Columbian masterpieces, as well as works by modern and contemporary artists like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Jose Clemente Orozco. Regularly rotating temporary exhibits, constantly changing film programs, lectures, courses and special events mean that there is always something new and fascinating going on at this top-notch museum. And don't miss the giant boulder, artist Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass," a marvel of engineering. (323-857-6000, 323-857-0098)
About Jenny Peters
Jenny Peters – aka Jet Set Jen – is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, editor and party columnist specializing in travel, entertainment, film, food, wine, fashion and the other good things in life. She is a founding/voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, who present the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards every January. Her favorite places to be are on the beach in Southern California playing volleyball, scuba diving with the sharks in warm tropical waters or strolling the streets and soaking in the atmosphere of one of the world's great cities (New Orleans and Florence are her favorites).
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