Anyone who says Los Angeles is a city without culture has clearly never been here. (Or maybe they came, but never left the pool at the San Vicente Inn.) While everyone recognizes L.A. as the movie capital of the world, people are often surprised to learn that it’s also home to more museums and theaters than any city in the United States (take that, NYC!). Throw in a dynamic music and gallery scene, and you’ve got a happening town that’s as ripe in culture as it once was in orange groves.
Here are just a few things you’ll want to save time for during your next visit to L.A.
Mural art is an integral part of Los Angeles culture, and since the 1970s the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs has commissioned thousands of these public treasures through the Citywide Mural Project. With works spread out in various parts of the city — created by such diverse artists as Diego Rivera, David P. Flores, José Clemente Orozco, and Mr. Brainwash (who designed the cover art for Madonna‘s Celebration and the masterpiece pictured right) — Los Angeles is often called the Mural Capital of the World (despite having banned the art form from 2002 to 2013). Whether you opt for a mural tour that’s guided or self-guided, be sure to check out one of L.A.’s earliest murals, David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Tropical America, which was painted above Olvera Street in 1932, then whitewashed in 1938 only to be rediscovered, restored, and rededicated in 2012.
While we all have our secrets, most of us don’t have actual bodies buried in the backyard. (At least we hope not.) Thankfully, the area known as the La Brea Tar Pits does. Since 1901, geologists and scientists have been excavating the more than 100 asphalt pits located in the center of the city. The remains of over 650 species of animals and plants have been pulled from the gooey tar, including saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, mammoths (pictured), and ground sloths — and many are on display at the George C. Page Museum. Boasting an impressive collection of more than three million Ice Age specimens, the La Brea Tar Pits is a unique experience that shouldn’t be missed.
The Huntington is home to an impressive collection of European and American art dating from the 1690s to the 1950s as well as a massive research library with over 420,000 rare books — but if you’re like many people, you’re likely to be so mesmerized by the breathtaking gardens that you’ll never make it inside. Spread across 120 acres and featuring 15,000 plant varieties, the 12 gardens can be viewed at your own pace or with a variety of tours. Dining and tea options are also available.
If your trip to L.A. falls between May and September, you must see a concert at the legendary Hollywood Bowl, the largest natural outdoor amphitheater in the U.S. Since 1920, the Bowl has hosted under-the-stars performances by numerous gay faves, everyone from Judy Garland and The Beatles to Elton John and Kylie Minogue. Coming up in 2015: Lana Del Rey, Neil Diamond, Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, and a sing-along screening of The Sound of Music. For some shows, a bench seat ticket in the back will set you back only one dollar. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Come early, bring a picnic, and buy yourself a bottle of wine or two for an unforgettable experience.
Don’t worry if you can’t make it during Bowl season. This architectural marvel, designed by Frank Gehry and considered an L.A. icon, is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale. While its wavy stainless steel exterior is a veritable feast for the eyes — the outside alone is worth a trip downtown — inside, the auditorium provides incredible acoustics and a real feeling of intimacy with the audience surrounding the orchestra.
Located just a stone’s throw from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hollywood Museum features more than 10,000 showbiz artifacts spread out over four floors in the gloriously restored historic Max Factor Building. Showcasing authentic wardrobe worn by Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, and others; a Harry Potter exhibit; a salute to TV legends (just seeing Barbara Eden’s Jeannie bottle is worth the price of admission!); and a Dungeon of Doom boasting Hannibal Lechter’s cell. And be sure to visit the makeup rooms (each painted and lit to showcase a specific hair color), where Max Factor created looks for some of classic Hollywood’s greatest beauties.
No trip to Los Angeles would be complete without a visit to the J. Paul Getty Museums at the Getty Center in Brentwood and the Getty Villa in Malibu. At the former, you’ll find exquisite European paintings, drawings, sculptures, decorative arts, and an extensive collection of photography. The latter space (pictured) showcases more than a thousand Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. The architecture at each location is as breathtaking as the collections they house. Best of all, admission is always free. (But appointments are recommended.)