With so many museums in California, choosing which to visit can be overwhelming. From art to natural history and science, there are endless options for museums to choose from.
I mean, the draw is obvious. Even just in the art world, California exhibits some of the best past and contemporary art collections in the country. Think 18th-century pastels at the Getty Center and original Picasso pieces at Norton Simon.
I’ve lived in California my whole life and have seen some of the greatest California museum exhibits, one of my favorite things to do in California. To help you on your museum hunt, I’ve listed out these best museums in California, each one as great as the last.
Table of Contents
- 11 Best Museums in California
- FAQs About the Best Museums in California
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11 Best Museums in California
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
One of the most popular LA museums that offers visitors photoshoot opportunities around every corner
One of the most popular museums in California, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA for short) is a huge maze of world-renowned art and holds an impressive collection of eccentric sculptures. LACMA is located on Museum Row and is also the largest museum on the west coast.
Incredibly famous among LA locals, LACMA is one of the top things to do in Los Angeles. The extensive collection at LACMA consists of over 149,000 objects that span over 6,000 years.
Current exhibits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art include Afro-Atlantic Histories, Revolutionary Graphics from Mexico and Germany, The Modern in Korea Art, and Photography and the Language of Advertising, among others.
If you’re not too tired from browsing the hundreds of art installation pieces at LACMA, also check out the free jazz concerts at LACMA held every Friday from spring-fall.
Palm Springs Art Museum
An artsy desert gem that also displays modern science exhibits and live performances
The Palm Springs Art Museum is undoubtedly one of the greatest things to do in Palm Springs. The modern, desert-dwelling building blends in perfectly with the San Jacinto Mountains in the background.
The Palm Springs Art Museum showcases much more than just art. It also displays natural science exhibits and is a performing arts center in the low desert.
Currently on display at the museum is a light installation, a western “Bridles, Saddle, and Spurs” exhibit, and contemporary African art pieces.
👉 Pro Tip: Thursday nights are free at the art museum from 5-8 pm so go at this time to save some money. This is also when Palm Springs does their famous Thursday Night street fair, VillageFest.
A luxurious art museum with surreal views of the surrounding LA cityscape and the Los Angeles hills
The Getty is another Los Angeles icon. With a bird’s-eye view of LA and grand architecture, this is one of the most luxurious modern museums in California and admission is completely free (although parking is $20).
Not to be confused with the travertine stone walls and Greco-Roman architecture of the Getty Villa, the Getty Center is the sister museum and showcases art from the Middle Ages to today.
Take a regal stroll through the Visualizing the Virgin Mary and Codice Maya de Mexico exhibits or familiarize yourself with the serene outdoor garden. Be sure to reserve an entry time before your arrival or you may be turned away.
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
Get ready for information overload at this LA natural history museum
Rivaled only by the Natural History Museums in New York and San Francisco, the Museum of Natural History of Los Angeles is one of the most extensive museums of its kind in the United States. It is the largest natural history museum on the west coast and has around 35 million specimens in its collection.
Explore over 4.5 billion years of history with a trip to the affordable Museum of Natural History in LA. You will learn about the natural sciences like never before through a series of interactive exhibits and informative presentations.
Adults and children both enjoy various exhibits like the Dinosaur Hall, Age of Mammals, Becoming Los Angeles, and the Gem and Mineral Hall.
Cable Car Museum
A San Francisco must-see for history buffs or visitors who love to ride down the hilly SF streets in style
San Francisco and cable cars are synonymous. As the first elaborate cable car system in the U.S. (thanks to Walt Disney for the help), cable cars in San Francisco are a nostalgic way to commute in the big city.
The San Francisco Cable Car Museum commemorates over 100 years of cable car history in the hilly city. The historical exhibits in this Nob Hill museum include cable car models, photographs, mechanical displays, and a gift shop.
It’s hard not to pass up a free museum, especially in a city where almost nothing is free. After you learn about the interesting history behind the cable cars, hop on one right outside of the museum. This fun activity is one of the best things to do in San Francisco.
USS Midway Museum
This unique museum is inside an old naval aircraft carrier on the San Diego waters, the longest-serving carrier of the 20th century
Spice up your San Diego beach vacation with a historic afternoon at the USS Midway Museum. Visit an old naval aircraft carrier in the heart of San Diego.
The USS Midway Museum is located inside the decommissioned ship where you will see an extensive collection of aircraft on display as well as the old living quarters and galleys of the sailors.
This unique wartime battleship museum is a one-of-a-kind experience in Southern California. Check out the official website before your visit to see if any special events are happening like concerts on the ship or commemorative ceremonies.
👉 Pro Tip: This is also the site of the giant, 25-foot kissing sailor couple statue, a famous San Diego landmark.
California Academy of Science
Explore space, marine life, the rainforest, and more at this Bay Area science museum
One of the top scientific research institutes in San Francisco, the California Academy of Science also houses the largest display of natural history in the world, making it one of the best museums in San Francisco.
The California Academy of Science is more than a museum. It is also a planetarium, aquarium, rainforest, and natural history institute. Located in the heart of the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the academy is one of the most visited museums in the big city.
Exciting exhibits include Bugs, Natural World Photography, Gems and Minerals Unearthed, and The Swamp among many others. Activate your child’s curiosity with the hands-on exhibits also on display like the Naturalist Center and the Wander Woods exhibits.
Norton Simon Museum
A romantic Pasadena museum with an impressive collection of European and Asian art and a delicious garden cafe
This Pasadena museum is one of the most relaxing museums in Los Angeles County. Its inviting garden, benches, quiet atmosphere, and Garden Cafe welcome art lovers to spend an entire afternoon in tranquility at the museum.
Norton Simon offers guests audio tours and parking is free, two major pluses of this museum. The museum houses a large concentration of European art from the Renaissance to the 20th century but also has a stellar collection of South and Southeastern Asian art.
Famous artists showcased in the museum include Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt, and Goya. Norton Simon invites you to stay a while and contemplate the art through the ages.
🛏️ Need a Hotel? Here are some of the best hotels in Pasadena near the Norton Simon Museum.
de Young Museum
An almost-150-year-old San Francisco museum that features a unique virtual reality exhibit
de Young Museum is a budget-friendly activity in San Francisco. It is one of the top fine arts museums in town and its Northern African-style architecture makes it one of the most unique.
Open since 1875, the de Young Museum houses American, African, Oceania, and Southern American art that dates back to the 17th century. Current exhibitions include Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs, Hung Liu: Golden Gate, and Michelle Erickson: Wild Porcelain.
One of the most unique aspects of this museum is its Ramses & Nefertari: Journey to Osiris virtual reality exhibit. This 10 ½-minute swivel chair adventure takes visitors to Abu Simbel and Nefertari’s tomb, two of the most impressive constructions during Ramses’ time.
La Brea Tar Pits
This museum is unlike any other, with fossils of now-extinct mammals from tens of thousands of years ago
What kid or child-at-heart doesn’t like dinosaurs, or at least huge animals that very well resemble dinosaurs? La Brea Tar Pits is a paleontological research center in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles where the bones of trapped animals have been preserved for tens of thousands of years.
More than 1 million bones have been uncovered at La Brea Tar Pits since the early 1900s. Ice Age animals and plants have been trapped in asphalt, keeping them brilliantly preserved today. This unique museum gives visitors a rare look into the past without having to venture far outside of the major urban city.
Among the huge fossils at the tar pits are wooly mammoths, saber-tooth cats, dire wolves, and giant bison. Visit the famous tar pits museum today for a Los Angeles excursion you won’t forget.
🛏️ Need a Hotel? 1 Hotel West Hollywood is one of the best places to stay in Los Angeles. It’s near the tar pits and features a rooftop swimming pool and lounge area, ceiling-to-floor windows in every room, and marble bathrooms.
Observe the starry night sky from a huge telescope, catch an informative presentation in the planetarium, or simply soak in the views of Los Angeles below
Welcome to a galaxy far far away. No, not Disneyland California, but the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The view from the observatory is worth the trip alone, even if you have no desire to view the museum. The best 360-degree views of Los Angeles can be seen from this starry establishment, not to mention that the Hollywood sign is within walking distance.
This Griffith Park observatory hosts live presentations in its planetarium, over 60 galactic exhibits, and a chance to look out of the ginormous LA telescope. This is one of my favorite pastimes in LA and a great way to spend an afternoon in the park with friends.
One of the best parts about the Griffith Observatory is that it’s completely free! Parking, however, is $4 per hour but you can pay with a credit card.
Want more California inspiration? Watch Jericha’s California Youtube guides:
FAQs About the Best Museums in California
How many museums are in California?
There are over 1,000 official museums in California. From fine art museums to air museums and cultural galleries, museums are a great pastime in California.
What museums in Los Angeles are free?
The Getty Villa, Hammer Museum, The Broad, MOCA, and the Griffith Observatory are free museums in Los Angeles.
Is Griffith Park Free?
Griffith Park, Los Angeles is free but there you must pay for parking.
The eclectic mix of museums in California contributes to what makes the state an entertainment hub. Up next, check out this awesome guide to when to visit California for more vacation planning tips!
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