The sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles is known for its entertainment attractions. Yet beyond the celebrities and film sets, it also boasts a well-rounded museum scene, with exhibits featuring significant contributions to the worlds of art, science, aviation, music, history and yes, even the movie industry, thanks to a new museum that opened last year.  

Because of the city's sprawling layout, many of these museums are far apart, but a few of the major ones are clustered around Museum Row, the stretch of Wilshire between Fairfax and La Brea Avenues, making it easy to visit at least two in one day, maybe even three. Even better, most museums are free, and almost all of them have free days. 

Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, all museums require individuals ages 12 and up to show proof of full vaccination or a negative test result before entering. All visitors must wear masks. To confirm entry requirements, check the museums' websites and social media for the latest updates before you go. 

Whether it’s your first time to the city or a return visit, here are the best museums in Los Angeles to discover.

Film aficionados should check out the Academy Museum

Los Angeles’ newest museum was in the works for decades, but now that it’s open, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures encapsulates what many visitors come to LA to learn more about – the history of the filmmaking industry. Designed by architect Renzo Piano and located at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax Boulevards, the museum spans across the former May Company department store and a brand-new globe-shaped building with a thousand-seat movie theater. 

In the first building, the anchoring attraction is Stories of Cinema, a three-floor exhibition showcasing the diverse oeuvres of moviemakers from around the world, from some of the very first movies to today’s technological marvels. Here’s where you’ll find Judy Garland’s famous red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, props from Citizen Kane, make-up and prosthetics from Bombshell, costumes from a range of iconic movies, stars' Oscar-night outfits and even the Oscar statues themselves. 

With an official pledge to “address the history of cinema in truthful and inclusive ways,” the museum also confronts cinema’s long history of excluding diverse voices, via several exhibits that strive to build empathy, point out accountability and show visitors a more equitable future in cinema. 

The museum also offers the Oscars Experience, where, for an additional $15, you can be filmed “accepting” an Oscar statue. You’ll receive a download of the 15-second clip within minutes, but in the age of masks, the experience doesn’t seem quite worth it.

The Academy Museum is located right next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Museum Row, making it easy to visit both in one stop. Tickets range from $15 to $25 and require an advanced reservation, but if you’re traveling with children, all visitors under 17 are free. 

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Three people taking a selfie in front of the Urban Light installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Aside from its vast indoor collection, LACMA has permanent exhibits outdoors as well, the most famous being Chris Barden's

Los Angeles County Museum of Art houses the city's best art

If there’s one museum to visit in Los Angeles, this will be it. LACMA, as it’s called, is the largest art museum in the western United States, featuring more than 147,000 objects spanning 6000 years. Its permanent collection includes major works from European painters, such as Picasso, Matisse and Lichtenstein, as well as pieces from important American, Latin American and Asian artists and Greek, Roman and Etruscan artifacts. Rotating exhibitions often deal with more contemporary subjects, such as an art and augmented-reality series created in partnership with Snapchat. 

Aside from its vast indoor collection, the museum has permanent outdoor exhibits too, the most famous being Chris Barden's Urban Light sculpture, a cluster of street lamps facing out toward Wilshire Boulevard. Behind the museum, there's also Levitating Mass, a 340-ton boulder sitting atop a long trench that people can walk through and take photos, making it look like they're holding up the rock.

LACMA’s 20-acre campus has been undergoing construction for a few years, so be sure to check what’s open before you go. The good thing is that the museum is across the street from the Petersen Automotive Museum and adjacent to the famous La Brea Tar Pits, so it’s easy to make a day out of your visit here.

Tickets for those who live outside of Los Angeles County range from $21 to $25, but residents of Los Angeles County can visit for free after 3pm on weekdays. All visitors must purchase a timed-entry ticket in advance.

Petersen Automotive Museum celebrates LA's love of cars

Los Angeles loves cars just as much as movies, and the Petersen Automotive Museum does a thrilling job of detailing the history of the automobile, from its earliest incarnations to prototypes for the future.

With flashy steel ribbons wrapped around a cherry-red exterior, the museum is hard to miss from Wilshire and Fairfax. Inside, you’ll find classic and rare cars from the past century, including those made famous in movies such as Back to the Future, Batman and the James Bond series, as well as futuristic, extreme and electric vehicles from this century. There’s also a Forza Motorsport racing experience and an interactive storytelling exhibit for children, featuring characters from the  Disney/Pixar movie Cars.

For even more vehicular action, the basement-level Vault by Hagerty features 250-plus rare and iconic cars, motorcycles and trucks from six regions of the world. Entry requires a separate ticket, and children under 10 are not allowed. 

General admission ranges from $12 to $17, while tickets for the Vault are an additional $25. 

The Broad is a work of art in itself

If you want to see the latest in the art world, head downtown to the Broad, which features 2000 pieces of postwar and contemporary art by big names such as Jeff Koons, Jasper Johns, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barbara Kruger and Roy Lichtenstein. 

The Broad building itself is also a work of art. Designed by architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro (MoMA, the High Line) and opened in 2015, the museum features a novel concept called “the veil and the vault.” The vault is where artwork is stored when it's not being displayed, though it's not completely out of sight – there are viewing windows within the stairwells, so museum-goers can catch a glimpse of pieces awaiting placement. And the veil is the honeycomb-like structure surrounding the building, allowing natural daylight to stream in through the galleries. 

General admission to the museum is free but does require a timed ticket. Special exhibits may have a separate fee.

A person looking at a diorama at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
The Natural History Museum houses more than 35 million specimens and artifacts, as well as wildlife dioramas providing a life-size look at African and North American animals © Hayk_Shalunts / Shutterstock

Kids love the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

For families seeking indoor-outdoor fun, head to the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, just south of downtown. Children can see dinosaur bones and other nature-themed exhibits inside, then run around the gardens out back; there's even a dedicated Get Dirty zone, where kids can dig in compost bins and play inside a house made from willow branches.

But the NHM will appease all nature enthusiasts, not just young ones. One of the oldest museums in Los Angeles, it's expanded several times over since it first opened in 1913, and it now houses more than 35 million specimens and artifacts as well as wildlife dioramas, much like those at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The scenes are spread across two floors and provide a life-size look at African and North American animals, such as gorillas, lions, and elephants. The dioramas are nearly a century old, but new specimens are added each year. 

And for architectural buffs, the museum’s original rotunda – surrounded by marble columns and topped with a stained-glass dome – still stands as one of the most striking gems in the city.  

Tickets range from $7 for children to $15 for adults. 

California Science Center will wow space enthusiasts

Just a quick skip over from the Natural History Museum is the California Science Center, where older children can participate in interactive exhibits on science, biology, ecosystems and space. There’s a discovery room where smaller kids can play, but this museum is best for school-age children who can better understand the exhibits. 

Despite the IMAX 3D movies and the exhibits' fun attractions, the star of the science center is the massive Endeavour space shuttle, housed in the Samuel Oschin Pavilion. This was the final shuttle built for NASA’s Space Shuttle program, and its journey from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to Los Angeles was a mission of enormous undertaking, detailed in an accompanying exhibit to the shuttle’s display. 

Tickets to the science center are free, but there is a separate ticket required to see Endeavour and to watch the IMAX shows. Advance reservations are also required. 

Music lovers get behind the scenes at the Grammy Museum

The Grammy Museum is a fun stop within the LA Live entertainment complex downtown. Its permanent collections take visitors behind the scenes of the music industry’s annual awards show, featuring winners and their music, but also handwritten lyrics, instruments, records, videos and costumes, including outfits worn by Taylor Swift, the Jackson Five, Kanye West and Jennifer Lopez. Rotating special exhibits accompany the permanent ones, often giving a deeper, introspective look at a recording artist or a particular moment in music history. 

The museum also has interactive stations where visitors can bang out their own renditions of popular songs and, of course, a bunch of actual Grammy awards to ogle. 

Tickets are $12, and a timed entry is required. 

Artist-founded Museum of Contemporary Art is ever-evolving

True to its name, MOCA collects and displays various forms of media created after 1940. As the only artist-founded museum in Los Angeles, it's dedicated to preserving the art of today, but also to expanding the ever-evolving definitions of art. In short, much of what you’ll see here is unlike what’s found in any other museum in town. If you want to spend a day thinking about the future of art and creative expression, here’s where to do it.

The museum and its 7000 pieces of artwork are split between two buildings, MOCA Geffen, in Little Tokyo, and MOCA Grand. While both buildings feature contemporary art, the main building on Grand Ave tends to display more traditional forms of art like paintings and photography, whereas MOCA Geffen has space for more cutting-edge works of art, such as large murals and projections.

Tickets to both buildings are free, but timed reservations are required. 

People looking at art in a gallery at the Getty Museum
Inside the Getty Center, visitors can explore a vast collection of European paintings, drawings, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, decorative arts and photography © Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

Going to the Getty is a whole experience

The entrance to the Getty Center begins at the bottom of the Santa Monica mountains, past the frenetic 405 freeway in Brentwood, where you’ll hop on a three-car funicular and ride about 900 ft to the start of the museum’s sprawling 600-acre campus.

Inside, there's a vast collection of European paintings, drawings, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, decorative arts and photography to explore, while beyond the art are several gardens and fountains, including the 134,000-sq-ft Central Garden, designed by artist Robert Irwin and featuring more than 500 varieties of plants. 

While the ocean can be spotted from the Getty Center on a clear day, the Getty Villa, perched above the Pacific Coast Highway at the edge of Malibu, has prime Pacific Ocean views. A replica of a Roman villa built in the 1970s, this oceanside museum now features art from ancient Greece and Rome, dating from 6500 BCE to 400 CE. Four gardens surround the villa, and there’s also a 450-seat classical-style outdoor theater, where art-related performances are often held.

For both museums, general-admission tickets are free but do require a timed entry.  

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 04: An American flag is hung as people celebrate the Fourth of July at Coney Island on July 4, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. This year’s celebrations including, the annual Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, and the Macy’s 4th of July fireworks display, are happening at full capacity following smaller or mostly virtual celebrations in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.  (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
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