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The best free museums in Los Angeles

An art lover’s guide to California’s star-studded city

The courtyard of The Getty Center
The courtyard of The Getty Center
Image: Tripadvisor/GabyVM
Siobhan Reid
By Siobhan Reid12 Mar 2024 5 minutes read

Los Angeles has always been more associated with the easy-breezy SoCal lifestyle than serious art. But in the last decade, the city’s cultural scene has really upped its game to the point where I, an art-loving New Yorker, would take regular trips out west just to check out the emerging galleries and new art fairs. While the cross-country flights weren’t cheap, the free entry at some of the city’s top museums made it all balance out (#girlmath).

These institutions not only provide good value, they also showcase a wide range of different styles and genres of art—from ancient Greek statues and contemporary photography to cutting-edge science exhibitions. And the museums that do charge admission usually have free days, so if you time your visit right, you won’t have to crack open your wallet. Here are my favorites.

Getty Villa

The Getty Villa in the Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles
The Getty Villa in the Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles
Image: Tripadvisor/fredraymond522

Perched on a hill in the Pacific Palisades and set inside a replica first-century Roman villa, this museum and educational center is known for its show-stopping surroundings: verdant gardens, ocean views, trickling fountains, and a Roman pool. But you can’t drive all the way up here and not wander through its halls, which are filled with some 1,200 works of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities—from sculptures and jewelry to pottery and rare coins. In addition to the permanent galleries, there are also temporary shows throughout the year.

Tip: Ok, I know I just said that the Getty Villa is more than its photogenic setting, but there’s something so magical about visiting during golden hour, when you can wander through the outdoor gallery of Roman sarcophagi (burial chests) when the light is picture-perfect. Book a timed ticket for free admission.

The Broad

The Los Angeles Philharmonic gets ready at Walt Disney Concert Hall
The Los Angeles Philharmonic gets ready at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Image: Tripadvisor/Paul Tam

Together with the Walt Disney Concert Hall, this art museum is considered the cultural jewel of downtown Los Angeles. Designed by renowned architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, The Broad houses the private collection of philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, plus an active program of rotating installations. General admission is free with a reservation and grants you entry into the museum’s best-known exhibits: Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away and Longing for Eternity. Other featured artists include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Chuck Close, and Jenny Holzer.

Tip: For the best chance to see the Infinity Mirrored Room, consult the museum’s ticket release schedule and be sure to visit the website at 10 a.m. PT on the day of the monthly ticket drop.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

A light installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
A light installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Image: Tripadvisor/Mary Tizi

You can’t come to California and not visit LACMA, the largest museum in the western United States. Although admission normally costs $25 (or $20 for LA residents), the institution offers free entry every second Tuesday of the month from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. After you’ve taken a selfie at Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation—which comprises 202 restored antique street lamps that illuminate Wilshire Boulevard from sunrise to sunset—head indoors to peruse more than 140,000 objects that span centuries and include masterworks by the likes of Ai Weiwei, Picasso, Utagawa Kunisada, and Barbara Kruger.

Tip: LACMA is located on a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that’s called “museum row” due to its high concentration of world-class art institutions. So, if you have enough energy, continue onto impressive neighbors like the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, the Petersen Automotive Museum, and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Hammer Museum

The outside of the Hammer Museum
The outside of the Hammer Museum
Image: Tripadvisor/Management

Championing “the art and artists who challenge us to see the world in a new light,” the Hammer features special exhibits and permanent collections by some of the greatest artists of all time: Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Monet, Rembrandt, Van Gogh… the list goes on. The museum’s popular biennial highlights contemporary art since the 1960s and is a great way to discover work by emerging and under-recognized artists.

Tip: The Hammer puts on nearly 300 public programs annually, including film screenings, musical performances, family-friendly workshops, mindful meditations, and more. It’s worth checking out the calendar before visiting to make sure you don’t miss out.

Getty Center

The gardens at the Getty Center
The gardens at the Getty Center
Image: Tripadvisor/Carlos N

This famous complex isn’t just for art enthusiasts—it’s also an architectural masterpiece and a must-visit for gardeners. In the hills above west Los Angeles, the Getty Center is a modernist marvel designed by celebrated American architect Richard Meier and surrounded by more than 86 acres of manicured landscapes, including a cactus garden that floats above the city’s tangle of freeways. Inside, you can wander through galleries filled with everything from 2,500-year-old Etruscan statues to Noguchi sculptures and photography by Walker Evans.

Tip: There’s a lot to see at the Getty Center. I flew through it in four hours, but plan for a whole day here if you really want to take it all in. To catch the highlights, join the free daily tour or the 40-minute architecture or garden tours, both of which are available four times a day.

California Science Center

Space Shuttle Endeavor display at California Science Center
Space Shuttle Endeavor display at California Science Center
Image: Tripadvisor/Management

One of the many museums in LA’s Exposition Park, the California Science Center features more than 100 displays dedicated to space travel, human biology, and the natural world. I always enjoy the decommissioned 132-foot Endeavour space shuttle, which arrived at the museum in 2012 after its 25th journey among the stars. Other space exploration artifacts include the 1975 Apollo command module, a 1902 Wright brothers’ glider, and the Velie Monocoupe 70, one of the first planes ever built for private fliers. Bring your kids along, too—they can run solar-powered cars and learn about earthquake-safe buildings in the Creative World room.

Tip: There’s free access to the permanent galleries, but the IMAX theaters and special exhibits are worth the extra $10. And for a couple bucks, you can also ride the High Wire Bicycle that floats three stories above the museum’s airy atrium.

Griffith Observatory

The Griffith Observatory at sunset
The Griffith Observatory
Image: Tripadvisor/Management

You may recognize this iconic observatory for its cameo in films like La La Land and Rebel Without a Cause. Less known is the fact that it’s one of the best places to learn about astronomy thanks to cutting-edge equipment like the 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope and the 75-foot planetarium dome (one of the world’s largest). Interested in more? Wander through the Wilder Hall of the Eve, which is home to a Tesla coil and a camera obscura, or the Ahmanson Hall of the Sky, where you can learn about moon phases and tides. Note: There’s a small fee to see the programs in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium.

Tip: There’s limited parking at the top of Griffith Observatory; I recommend hiking up instead. Start on Fern Dell Drive (where there are plenty of free spots) and embark on the half-mile trek up dirt trails, stopping to take in breathtaking views of the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Museum of Contemporary Art

A colorful art display at The Museum of Contemporary Art
A colorful art display at The Museum of Contemporary Art
Image: Tripadvisor/Mike-Magucci

Fans of modern art flock to MOCA to browse its 7,000 objects, 90 percent of which were donated by private collectors and the rest by the artists themselves. It’s the only artist-founded museum in LA and has one of the nation’s most renowned permanent collections, with recent acquisitions by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly and Louise Bonnet.

Tip: The pieces are split between three locations in LA and one in the Nevada desert. If you only have time to visit one branch, make it MOCA Grand, a red sandstone building in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, across the street from the Broad Museum.

Siobhan Reid
Siobhan is a writer and editor based in New York City. Previously, she was an editor at Travel + Leisure, where she covered culture, style, and wellness. Before that, she wrote hotel reviews and travel articles for Jetsetter, a TripAdvisor Company. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, The Washington Post, and Condé Nast Traveler.