California is a big state with lots of beautiful cities and even more museums! But if you’re in the state for only a short time, then you really need help figuring out which museums are worth your time.
That’s where we come in, with this detailed guide to the ten best museums in California. So, whether you are here with your family, or traveling solo in the USA, we picked out the most popular museums in all of California. We give you several options no matter which city you’re visiting! Whether you’re into art, natural history, maritime museums, or even cable cars, you’ll find all the top California museums right here in this guide!
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is one of the many museums on LA’s Museum Row. It was founded in 1961 by splitting from the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art. The museum’s permanent collection grew significantly in the 1980s, and today it is the largest art museum in the western United States!
LACMA gets about a million visitors every year, which makes it one of LA’s most popular museums. Its permanent collection includes works from some of the most prominent artists who have ever existed, including Picasso, Goya, Eakins, Magritte, Caldera, and many others.
The museum’s collection boasts art that spans all the different periods, from ancient times to the present day. With more than 150,000 works of art on display, it takes hours just to see a fraction of LACMA’s fascinating collection. If you’re an art lover traveling through California, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art should be one of your first stops in the state!
Petersen Automotive Museum is another interesting museum on LA’s Museum Row. It’s one of the largest automotive museums in the world and a must-stop for all car buffs in LA.
The museum was founded in 1994 by Robert E. Peterson, and it was initially situated within the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It was eventually moved into a historic department building, which underwent extensive renovations in 2015.
The Petersen Automotive Museum boasts an impressive collection of around 100 cars that are displayed in its 25 galleries. And those are just the cars that are on display – the rest are secured in a vault in the basement of the museum.
Some of the cars you can see in this unique museum are the Batmobile from Batman Returns, NASCAR Herbie from Herbie: Fully Loaded, the DeLorean from Back to the Future, and many others!
California State Railroad Museum is situated in the Old Sacramento State Historic Park. It’s dedicated to interpreting the role trains had in connecting California to the rest of the US.
Train buffs will absolutely love this museum, considering they get to see 21 restored locomotives and train cars. The museum exhibits also explore the ways in which trains changed American society, as well as how they influenced the daily lives of people in the US.
The California State Railroad Museum is certainly interesting and educational, so it’s one of the top museums to visit if you’re in the Sacramento area.
USS Midway Museum is a maritime museum situated on the USS Midway naval aircraft carrier. The museum is in downtown San Diego, and it’s easily one of the top attractions in this stunning city.
The USS Midway Museum boasts an extensive collection of aircraft, a lot of which were constructed in Southern California. A ticket to this museum buys you access to all the quarters of the aircraft carrier, as well as an audio self-guided tour of the entire museum.
You’ll also get the opportunity to climb into the cockpits of certain aircraft and try out flight simulators, which is as exciting as it sounds. With so many fun and interesting things to do and see in this California museum, it’s no wonder that it gets more than a million visitors every year!
The San Francisco cable cars are absolutely iconic, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is an entire museum dedicated to them. The Cable Car Museum is a free museum, and one of the top attractions in a budget tour of San Francisco!
This museum features historical and educational exhibits on San Francisco’s cable car system. You can see a few of the older cable cars that were once transporting people all around San Francisco, and this even includes the only surviving car from the first-ever company to make them.
In addition to some of the first cars used in the city’s cable car system, you can also observe its evolution through photographs. The museum also offers a detailed look into the underground equipment that transports the cars throughout the city, which might just be the most fascinating thing in it!
Griffith Observatory is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles. It offers a stunning view of the Hollywood sign, but also of the downtown LA skyline. The observatory is free to enter, making it a must-see attraction for anyone who is trying to explore Los Angeles on a tighter budget.
It’s worth noting that the observatory’s benefactor, Griffith J. Griffith wanted it to be a free museum precisely because he wished to make astronomy accessible to the general public. The Griffith Observatory is also an absolute must for anyone who is at all interested in astronomy. It boasts a wide array of exhibits related to space and science, including a large Tesla Coil.
The Getty Center is one of the two locations of the famous Getty Museum. It’s known for its beautiful architecture, stunning gardens, and one of the best panoramic views of downtown LA.
The center branch of this famous art museum includes European paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, manuscripts, and photographs. The famous fine art museum is home to quite a few masterpieces, including Irises by Van Gogh, Spring by Édouard Manet, The Abduction of Europa by Rembrandt, and many others.
Some of the most popular sculptures of the museum are displayed in its terraced gardens, so you get to enjoy spectacular art with a side of panoramic LA view. If you’re at all into art, this is certainly one of California’s art museums that you absolutely must visit!
California Academy of Sciences is a natural history museum and a research institute in San Francisco. It is one of the world’s largest natural history museums, with more than 46 million specimens in its collection.
Situated in the San Francisco Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences boasts a plethora of interesting things to see and do. The Steinhart Aquarium is one of the most popular attractions in the museum, with more than 900 species of different exotic fish.
Other popular places in the museum include the Osher Rainforest, the African Penguin Colony, The Morrison Planetarium, and the Living Roof. The last one is the museum’s rooftop, which is absolutely fascinating to see in person. It’s entirely covered with plants and grass, and it even features hills with circular skylights!
The Museum of Contemporary Art is LA’s only artist-founded museum. It has two locations in the greater Los Angeles area – MOCA’s main branch is at Grand Ave in downtown LA, while the museum’s original space is situated in the Little Tokyo district.
MOCA boasts a collection of mostly contemporary European art created in the latter half of the 20th century. This is LA’s only museum that is exclusively dedicated to contemporary art, so it’s an absolute must for all art lovers who want to discover something different in LA. It’s worth noting that admission into the museum is free, so it’s also a good option if you’re trying to explore LA without breaking the bank.
Additionally, LA’s Museum of Contemporary art is most popular for its rotating exhibitions, which feature some of the most renowned modern artists of our day and age.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art boasts an internationally recognized collection of modern art. It was the first-ever museum on the west coast to be entirely dedicated to 20th-century art, with a huge collection that is displayed on some 170,000 square feet. This also makes it one of the largest museums in the United States, so it’s definitely worth your time if you’re ever in SF.
SFMOMA’s current collection boasts some 33,000 works of art, which includes paintings, sculptures, media arts, photographs, and architectural works. They’re mostly from the 20th century, although some of the works displayed at this fascinating museum do venture a bit into the 21st century as well.
Some of the most important modern artists have had their first museum shows at the SFMOMA. This includes Jason Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Arshile Gorky. Also, the San Francisco museum boasts a collection of works from some of the most famous artists to have existed, including works by Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Jean Metzinger, and many others. If you’re a lover of modern art, this is definitely one of the best museums in California for you!
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!