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7 Under-the-Radar Museums in Los Angeles

Go beyond the big-name institutions to explore collections that showcase the city’s diversity and eccentricity.

phil's diner neon sign, valley relics museum, los angeles
Hi, I'm Miriam!

Miriam Coleman is an Angeleno who recently returned home after two decades in New York City. A freelance journalist and author of dozens of children’s books, she’s always on the lookout for exciting things to eat, see, and do—with kids and without.

Though best known for its Hollywood glitz and glamor, Los Angeles also nurtures a rich and varied cultural landscape. In a sprawling metropolis where well-heeled art museums like the Getty Center and the Broad complement a range of smaller galleries and independent collections, there’s always something happening. Experience the eclectic side of Los Angeles by putting these under-the-radar museums on your agenda to enjoy the city’s unique blend of cutting-edge art, global roots, and unconventional intellectual pursuits.

1. Watts Towers Art Center

wire towers, watts towers art center, los angeles
See the result of 33 years of artistic labor at the Watts Tower Art Center.Foto: Walter Cicchetti / Shutterstock

View the world’s largest construction created by an individual.

Rising nearly 100 feet (30.4 meters) into the sky over South Central Los Angeles, self-taught artist Simon Rodia’s spires of salvaged steel encrusted with shells, pottery shards, and old mirrors took 33 years to build.

The structure had become a beloved monument by the time Rodia completed Watts Towers in 1954. Take a guided tour of this folk art masterpiece through the Watts Towers Art Center, which also offers exhibitions by contemporary artists from the local community and beyond, alongside a permanent collection of musical instruments from around the world.

Don’t miss: The Watts Towers Art Center Campus is also home to the Charles Mingus Youth Art Center, which hosts a range of classes, lectures, and events for people of all ages.

2. Valley Relics Museum

neon signs and other memorabilia, valley relics museum, los angeles
The Valley Relics Museum is a love letter to the residents of the San Fernando Valley.Foto: Logan Bush / Shutterstock

A loving shrine to the city’s recent past.

For an authentic slice of life in Los Angeles, you can’t do better than a visit to the Valley Relics Museum in the San Fernando Valley. Housed in two hangars near the Van Nuys Airport, the massive collection displays neon signs rescued from demolition, artifacts from beloved local restaurants, and movie memorabilia from the personal collections of the makeup artists, prop-makers, and actors who made their homes in the Valley. Highlights include the original Volkswagen bus from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and an array of BMX bikes.

Don’t miss: Relive your childhood with the collection of vintage arcade games like “Streetfighter,” “Miss Pac-Man,” and “Dance Dance Revolution,” all set to free play.

3. The Museum of Jurassic Technology

two people looking into a glass box with a mysterious object, museum of jurassic technology, los angeles
At the Museum of Jurassic Technology, not everything is as it seems.Foto: archivesusie / Tripadvisor

A puzzling collection of relics and artifacts, some real and some invented.

From its evocative yet misleading name to the dubious authenticity of many of its exhibits, the Museum of Jurassic Technology presents a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of Los Angeles museums wrapped up in a fanciful and mysterious package.

The collection, inspired by 16th-century cabinets of curiosity and accompanied by scholarly interpretive text, includes folk remedies from around the world, microminiature sculptures, dioramas of mobile homes, and portraits of dogs from the Soviet space program.

Don’t miss: Head upstairs to the tearoom to serve yourself Georgian tea from an elaborate samovar (a silver tea container) before exploring the serene rooftop garden.

4. Velaslavasay Panorama

woman in front of entrance to Velaslavasay Panorama, los angeles
Experience a vintage form of entertainment at the Velaslavasay Panorama.Foto: Mark B / Tripadvisor

Surround yourself with art.

From its home in a vintage movie theater in the West Adams Historic District, the Velaslavasay Panorama pays homage to a bygone form of popular entertainment when crowds would flock to gaze at massive, 360-degree paintings. Climb the winding staircase into the panorama’s viewing platform for a truly immersive art experience, enhanced by sound and light effects, as well as three-dimensional foregrounds.

Subjects have included pre-settlement Los Angeles, the Arctic, and the city of Shenyang as it looked a century ago. After taking in the spectacle, wander through the back into a verdant garden with hidden grottos and whimsical natural tableaux.

Don’t miss: Step into a recreation of a trading post in the Nova Tuskhut exhibit.

5. The Gamble House

the gamble house, los angeles
Many Los Angeles homes, including the Gamble House, are architectural masterpieces.Foto: Michael Gordon / Shutterstock

A shrine to the American arts and crafts movement

Los Angeles boasts a wealth of architecturally significant homes, from the elegant midcentury modernism of the Stahl House to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan-inspired Hollyhock House. Venture out to leafy Pasadena to marvel at a perfect example of the distinctly Californian Craftsman style at the Gamble House.

Designed down to the custom furnishings in 1908 by architects Charles and Henry Greene and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978, the stunning house is notable for its superb woodwork and art glass.

Don’t miss: Learn about the Gamble House’s history and craftsmanship on the standard guided tour, or go deep into the joinery and other techniques on a longer tour led by a woodworker.

6. Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum

people riding a minature train, Live Steamers Railroad Museum, los angeles
All aboard a miniature train in Griffith Park!Foto: Stuart C / Tripadvisor

Ride a miniature train in Griffith Park.

Both train lovers and kids will enjoy this chance to take a train trip through a miniature world, complete with scale-model towns, water towers, and bridges. Among the exhibits on railroad history and vintage train cars, you’ll also find Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn, the workshop where the animator (one of the museum’s founding members) built his own model railroad.

The barn, which originally stood in Disney’s backyard and was moved to the museum in 1999, is open to the public on the third Sunday of every month, while the museum is open for train rides every Sunday.

Don’t miss: If you haven’t had your fill of railroading, head next door to the Travel Town Museum, which features more than 40 historic locomotives and train cars.

7. LA Plaza Cocina

sign for LA Plaza Cocina, los angeles
It's all about Mexican food at LA Plaza Cocina.Foto: wireless_in_CA / Tripadvisor

Explore California’s culinary roots at the first US museum dedicated to Mexican food.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument is well worth a visit for its lively variety of cultural institutions, from the Chinese American Museum to Olvera Street’s Mexican marketplace. The newest addition to the district’s array of free museums is LA Plaza Cocina, a showcase for the city’s legendary Mexican food.

With exhibits exploring the history and use of Indigenous ingredients, culinary heirlooms, and family recipes, LA Plaza Cocina also features a teaching kitchen for classes and demonstrations and a shop selling Mexican ingredients and kitchenware.

Don’t miss: La Plaza Cocina is part of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a Mexican Arts and Culture museum whose immersive exhibit Calle Principal recreates Downtown Los Angeles’ Main Street during its 1920s heyday.

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