California Science Center

Museum in Exposition Park & South LA

Top billing at the Science Center goes to the Space Shuttle Endeavour, one of only four space shuttles nationwide, but there's plenty else to see at this large, multistory, multimedia museum filled with buttons to push, lights to switch on and knobs to pull. A simulated earthquake and a giant techno-doll named Tess bring out the kid in everyone. Admission is free, but special exhibits, experiences and IMAX movies cost extra.

Behind its stately facade facing Expo Park, the enormous space is quite modern inside; part of the building was designed by LA's own starchitect Frank Gehry.

Among the many themed sections, upstairs on the left, World of Life focuses on the five life processes that unite living creatures from single-cell amoebae to 100 trillion-cell humans. On the human side, you can hop on a red blood cell for a computer fly-through of the circulatory system, visit the Digestion Diner to ask Gertie the waitress how long your insides really are, watch open-heart surgery, and learn about homeostasis from Tess, a giant talking animatronic body billed as ‘50ft of brains, beauty and biology.’

Creative World is all about the ingenious ways humans have devised to transport things and build structures. Meet a family of crash-test dummies, fly a virtual hovercraft and get all shook up during a fake earthquake. Ecosystems takes visitors through a variety of habitats: desert, river, island, urban and forest.

Aircraft and space travel take center stage in the SKETCH Foundation Gallery. Spirits will soar at the sight of a pioneering 1902 Wright glider; space capsules flown on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions; and a replica Soviet Sputnik, the first human-made object to orbit the earth in 1957.

But these days, the Space Shuttle Endeavour is the Science Center's star attraction (get it?). Exhibits leading up to it show one of the Mission Control centers (which operated here in LA County, no less!) and shuttles' inner workings from food prep to toilets. A remarkable time-lapse video shows Endeavour's much ballyhooed final voyage to its current location in 2012 – a meandering flyover of the city on the back of a Boeing 747, then its tow through city streets that lasted a couple days in the ultimate slow-speed chase (and this was with no traffic!).

When you finally get to see Endeavour, it dominates its pavilion, looking as it did after its 25th and last space flight, damaged heat-shield tiles and all. It will be kept in this temporary pavilion until its permanent home in the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center is built (the Science Center is in the midst of a fundraising campaign). Just outside is one of the external fuel tanks used for liftoff, which is even longer than the shuttle itself. The gift shop sells space goods and super-cute plush toys such as the space chimp. During peak periods and holidays, visiting Endeavour requires a timed-ticket reservation (fee $3).

To avoid crowds of schoolkids, arrive at the Science Center after 2pm on school days.

And save the $12 parking fee by riding Metro.