When one thinks about traveling to Los Angeles, Hollywood is often the first thing that comes to mind. The name “Leonardo” is more likely to conjure up images of DiCaprio than da Vinci. LA has a thriving art scene that often gets overshadowed by other attractions, but take the time to visit some of its top museums, and you’re likely to be wowed by its treasures. I certainly was.
We set up camp in the swanky La Peer Hotel right in the heart of West Hollywood. The Intercontinental property is an artsy boutique hotel with lots of modern touches and the kind of bathtub/shower you wish you had every day. Its hip vibe makes it a popular choice for mixers, private parties and networking events.
There are many high-end restaurants in the area, too, if you want to ditch the car, walk around and breathe in some of LA’s most eclectic culture. Visit the iconic gay bar, The Abbey, if you’d like to experience the long-established West Hollywood culture. LA has quite a few hidden bars that are very interesting as well.
There’s no better place to start your artistic journey than the Getty Villa. Admission is free, but you still have to make a timed reservation prior to your arrival. The villa was once owned by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (based on a design from ancient Herculaneum) as a place to house the overflow of his art collection. The Italian-inspired grounds might make you feel as if you’ve been transported to Europe. The villa houses some amazing sculpture and contains mostly Roman, Greek and Etruscan antiquities. Make sure you check out The Getty Bronze, a Greek bronze statue that dates back between 300 and 100 BCE. The villa is a great place to spend your morning.
There’s a second location of The Getty (it's also free) that offers some of the most beautiful views of Los Angeles. This collection is composed of hundreds of amazing paintings by the likes of Rembrandt and Van Gogh as well as an extensive Egyptian archaeological exhibit. There’s an outdoor sculpture exhibit and a 7,000-square-foot Center For Photographs. The Getty Museum is about a 20-minute drive from the Getty Villa and located in the Sepulveda Pass. There’s a tram and elevator to take you to the museum perched on the hill. It’s a completely different experience from the villa. You can use your free ticket from the Getty Villa to visit The Getty. It might seem a little confusing, but it makes sense once you arrive.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens not only has the longest name compared to any other museum but also is home to one of LA’s most famous paintings, "The Blue Boy." I thought I’d just run through the museum, snap a photo of this masterpiece and be done with my visit, but soon discovered the complex wasn’t just a one-trick pony. The library is full of treasures like a Gutenberg Bible, and the original manuscripts of Nicholas Nickleby, Jack London, and Mark Twain. The museum section has a ton of Old Masters displayed in a much more intimate setting than you’ll find in larger galleries. The expansive botanical gardens were painstakingly created by their founder and cover many themes and an unrivaled variety of flora. The Chinese gardens are more beautiful than much of the landscaping I’ve seen in China. You can relax in the garden with a Tsing Tao beer and feel like you’re thousands of miles from LA. This museum can keep you entertained for hours. It's my favorite collection in Los Angeles.
LACMA is huge. It's five buildings spread out with a permanent art collection and feature many temporary exhibits. In addition to the Warhol, Magritte, Picasso, O’Keefe, Pollack and Rothko paintings, there’s an entire building dedicated to 3D film technology and stereoscopic art. One building on my visit featured Sri Lankan art and other historical items from the region. One of the larger building’s lobbies was full of floating Mylar balloons. Was it art or leftovers from a kid’s birthday party? Who knows? LA culture is a little zany to begin with, but add giant screens showing random video clips and massive sculpted installations that look like objects you can’t quite place and you’ve got the LACMA. You can easily spend a day here if you look at every exhibit, or break up your tour into a couple visits. The most iconic installation is outside the museum and features scores of street light posts lined up in rows. Don’t miss the 340-ton boulder suspended between two concrete walls. It may seem like an Indiana Jones movie prop, but it’s a piece of art called "Levitated Mass."
The Norton Simon Museum is the least known of these galleries, but it boasts a respectable collection of Van Gogh, Renoir, and Degas. There are also some medieval altar pieces and an underground level with ancient archaeological stone pieces. The museum is located in Pasadena on the Rose Parade route. Formerly the Pasadena Art Institute, it received some financial backing from art collector Norton Simon in 1974. In addition to taking over the museum's debts, he moved his collection into the museum, quadrupling the number of exhibits. It’s a nice intimate space that you can view in an hour or two— compared to a museum like LACMA, which can be overwhelming.
These museums will definitely take a couple days to visit, but there’s plenty of great restaurants and funky bars in between.