Dinos to diamonds, bears to beetles, hissing roaches to African elephants – this museum will take you around the world and back, through millions of years in time. It’s all housed in a beautiful 1913 Spanish Renaissance–style building that stood in for Columbia University in the first Toby McGuire Spider-Man movie – yup, this was where Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive arachnid. There's enough to see here to fill several hours.
Special exhibits usually draw the biggest crowds, but don’t miss out on a spin around the permanent halls to see such trophy displays as the Dinosaur Hall, featuring the world's first T. rex growth series (baby, juvenile and adult). There are the requisite dioramas of animals from North America and Africa, as well as the bird hall and a gallery of Aztec and Latin American artifacts. If diamonds are your best friend, head to the Gem and Mineral Hall with its walk-through gem vault and a Fort Knox–worthy gold collection, including the world's second-largest-known gold nugget.
Kids will have plenty of ooh-and-aah moments in the spruced-up Discovery Center, where they can assemble a T. rex puzzle, handle bones, antlers and minerals and get close to tarantulas, scorpions and other creepy-crawlies. Other interactive programs include the Nature Lab, which encourages local kids to survey their neighborhoods for biodiversity, and a bug-sorting lab.
One of the newest permanent exhibits, Becoming Los Angeles, takes a serious look at the region from the native Gabrieleño-Tongva peoples through the missions, Mexican independence, joining the US, movies, aviation and innovations such as the catalytic converter and solar panels.
Outside are 3.5 acres of nature gardens, including native plants, and a seasonal pavilion showcasing butterflies or spiders (not at the same time!).
For grown-ups, the museum turns up the volume during its First Fridays event series, which combines brainy lectures, live music and KCRW DJs in the African Mammal Hall, bars and late-night access to the exhibits, which are all bathed in nocturnal light. Check the website for upcoming dates. The $18 charge includes museum admission.
Parking is $12.