Fantastic Free Museums in Los Angeles

On the terrace at The Getty Center Museums South Pavilion in Brentwood, Los Angles, California, USA
On the terrace at The Getty Center Museum's South Pavilion in Brentwood, Los Angles, California, USA | © Steve Tully / Alamy Stock Photo
Juliet Bennett Rylah

Los Angeles has over 100 museums, running the gamut from vintage trains to waxworks and contemporary art. Fortunately for the frugal, a great deal of LA’s museums are either very affordable or, in some cases, totally free. Here are the must-visit attractions in the city that let you learn about art, history, science and even TV – all without cracking open your wallet.

Banning Residence Museum, Wilmington

The Banning Residence is a 23-room Greek Revival home once occupied by Phineas Banning, a businessman who founded the city of Wilmington. The home was built in 1864 and was acquired by the City of Los Angeles in 1927. After years of neglect, the home was restored and now serves as a living-history museum where guests can learn what life was like in the late 1800s. Admission is free, though there is a $5 suggested donation for adults or a $1 suggested donation for children. Events held at the residence include murder mystery dinners, lunches and teas.

The Broad, Los Angeles

Though visitors do need to reserve a ticket to The Broad in advance, general admission is free. Opened in 2015, this contemporary art museum contains some 2,000 pieces, including Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog and the wildly popular Infinity Mirrored Room by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Food and cocktails are available at next-door Otium, a stylish restaurant specializing in contemporary American cuisine.

California African American Museum, Los Angeles

The California African American Museum launched in the early ’80s and has been in its current building, designed by architects Jack Haywood and Vince Proby, since 1984. The museum seeks to collect and preserve African American culture, with a focus on California and the western United States. Guests will find a massive research library, a permanent collection of over 6,000 pieces of art and historical items, and a rotating selection of exhibits among three gallery spaces. Past shows have included a photography exhibit on West Coast hip-hop; an exhibit surrounding black motorcycle culture; and a collection of photos and documents from the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin during the Third Reich, in which black Americans won 14 medals.

California Science Center, Exposition Park Drive

The family-friendly California Science Center, just a few steps away from the California African American Museum within Exposition Park, features a variety of interactive exhibits exploring life sciences and technology. You can even check out the Space Shuttle Endeavor, which has been on-site since 2012. Admission to the museum’s permanent exhibits is free, but tickets are required for their IMAX Theater and special exhibits. Reservations to see Endeavor are free – but first-come, first-served – at the box office, or can be reserved for $3 online or by phone.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles

UCLA’s Fowler Museum focuses on global art and culture, with an emphasis on works from Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Americas. Exhibitions have included jewelry from India’s Thar Desert, fashion and dance from Johannesburg, modern Cuban posters, and a collection of over 250 silver objects from around the world.

The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, Los Angeles

While access to the nearby George C. Page Museum will cost adults $12 and $5 for children, visiting the La Brea Tar Pits is as simple as arriving and walking around. The pits are thousands of years old and consist of natural asphalt that seeps up from the ground below. Scientists have excavated over one million bones from the pits since 1906 and are still excavating in the area today – look out for scientists at work during your visit. Tours are available for free, along with a 3D-movie experience entitled Titans of the Ice Age.

Edmund D. Edelman Hollywood Bowl Museum, Los Angeles

This museum, opened in 1984 and rebuilt in 1996, celebrates its namesake: the amphitheater known as the Hollywood Bowl, opened in 1922. This free museum features exhibits on the Bowl’s history, architecture and past performances. Find past programs and postcards, as well as photographs and clippings from The Beatles’ 1964 and 1965 shows.

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) was founded by Holocaust survivors in 1961. The survivors met in an English class at Hollywood High School and, through conversation, discovered that each of them had at least one item, be it a photograph or uniform, from that time period. Visitors will encounter information and photographs documenting the rise of Nazi Germany, a recreation of a train car used to move groups to concentration camps, and a model of the Sobibor extermination camp in occupied Poland. The latter is presented with a video from survivor Thomas Blatt, who explains the conditions of the camp and how he escaped.

Forest Lawn Museum, Glendale

This museum can be found within the sprawling, 300-acre Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale. Dr. Hubert Eaton, who took over management of the cemetery in 1917, believed that Forest Lawn should be aesthetically pleasing as opposed to grim, like many other graveyards. As such, the cemetery itself features fountains and gorgeous landscaping, while the museum offers art, history, and religious exhibits, as well as a permanent collection of stained-glass windows and statues.

Hammer Museum, Wilshire Blvd

The Hammer Museum at UCLA, designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, opened in 1990. Exhibits include work from artists of all mediums, showcased alongside a program of lectures, film screenings, concerts and readings. Permanent collections include European and American paintings donated by Hammer Museum founder Armand Hammer; the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden; and the Grunwald Center Collection of 45,000 prints, drawings and photographs dating back as early as the Renaissance. The Hammer Museum’s public programs are all free, though some may require a ticket. They can be acquired on a first-come, first-served basis from the museum’s box office as early as an hour before the program.

Center for Land Use and Interpretation

Founded in 1994, the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a research organization that aims to explore how humans use and interact with land. CLUI can be elusive in scope and purposefully vague, yet their work can also be a fascinating rabbit hole to explore. Entering their nondescript building will allow guests to peruse their multimedia exhibits which have previously documented things such as underground storage facilities and monuments memorializing US presidents. Prefer to do land research from home? CLUI maintains a huge online database of interesting sites across the United States.

Travel Town Museum, Los Angeles

Travel Town Museum can be found on the northwest edge of Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. Established in 1952, Travel Town is dedicated to the history of transit and boasts a large collection of trains and vehicles. The museum’s very first piece was provided by Southern Pacific Company president DW Russell, who donated a 115-ton locomotive at the request of Parks Department employee Charles Atkins. While admission to this cab train and the museum is always free, short train rides are available for $3.50.

FIDM Museum and Galleries, S Grand Ave

As well as a highly rated college where students learn the ins and outs of the fashion business, FIDM (the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) is also home to a fascinating museum. The collections include various pieces of significant clothing and accessories, high-fashion couture, photos, textiles, swatch books and embroidery samples dating back as far as the 18th century. Rotating exhibits have explored California fashion and costume design in film.

The Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles

The Annenberg Space for Photography was the first cultural venue to showcase exclusively photographic works in Los Angeles. Visitors can view both print and digital images by photographers from all over the world. The digital gallery alone contains thousands of images, while a reading room allows guests to leaf through numerous books on photography.

The Paley Center for Media, Beverly Hills

The Paley Center for Media documents television and radio programming throughout the past century. Its New York location has been around since the 1970s, while its Los Angeles base opened in 1996. Visitors can browse a massive digital collection of over 160,000 TV and radio programs – recent additions include its African American, Hispanic and LGBT collections – then watch or listen to them in individually or in groups. Guests may also check out what’s screening in the center’s theaters. In addition, the Paley Center hosts events and exhibits, such as the offsite PaleyFest, where fans can attend panels packed with the stars of popular modern TV shows. Admission is to the Paley Center for Media is free, though those that wish to may contribute a suggested donation of $10 per adult and $5 per child.

Wells Fargo History Museum, Los Angeles

Wells Fargo has numerous history museums across the United States; its Los Angeles museum contains both an original Concord Stagecoach and a replica that guests hop on board, in addition to old maps of Los Angeles and an operational telegraph. This museum is typically only open during traditional banking hours on weekdays, though it does open one Saturday every three months.

J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The Getty Center, designed by architect Richard Meier, opened in 1997. It’s located high on a hill in the Santa Monica Mountains, allowing breathtaking views of the city below. Visitors take a tram up the hill and have the option of traversing the gorgeous gardens, browsing the exhibits, or enjoying a meal in the restaurant and café. In addition to rotating exhibits, the Getty’s collection includes photographs, sculptures, rare books, drawings, manuscripts and numerous European paintings. Though admission is free, parking is $15, or $10 after 3pm.

Los Angeles Maritime Museum, San Pedro

From 1941 until 1963, a ferry system transported passengers to the various industries and military bases on the now mostly abandoned Terminal Island. The Municipal Ferry Terminal now serves as the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, where guests can learn about the history of the LA Harbor and the fishing and canning industries. The museum houses model ships, artwork made by sailors, and a functioning radio station. Admission is free, though there is a suggested donation of $5 per adult.

The Wende Museum, Culver City

Founded in 2002 by Justinian Jampol, the Wende Museum focuses on the Cold War and showcases a collection of over 100,000 artworks, films, documents and other artifacts from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1991. In German, ‘wende‘ means turning point and is used to describe the period of time surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Oran Z’s Pan African Black Facts & Wax Museum, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd

At Oran Z’s, guests will find wax figures of black historical icons and celebrities, including Barack and Michelle Obama, Michael Jackson, Malcolm X, and Frederick Douglass. The figures complement a large collection of artifacts from African American and African art and culture: postcards, dolls, photographs and masks. The collection also boldly documents the history of racism in America and features artifacts dating back to slavery and items affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.

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