The Getty Center is not just for art lovers. Perched in the hills above West Los Angeles, the main branch of the world-class museum may look like an elevated modernist city. Its dramatic buildings house galleries filled with masterpieces that might intimidate those not familiar with 17th-century Baroque art—or with the sculptures of Henry Moore or Isamu Noguchi.
But herein lies the beauty of the Getty Center: Whether you go for art or for the free Friday night concerts, and whether you need to kill an afternoon with the kids, entertain out-of-town guests, or just find the perfect place for a relaxing picnic lunch, the Getty Center has something for everyone. Even better? Admission is free. (You just need to pay for parking.)
Designed by renowned architect Richard Meier, the main Getty Center complex includes the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Research Institute, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Harold M. Williams Auditorium, two cafés, a full-service restaurant, and more than 34 hectares of landscaped gardens and terraces to explore. About 22 kilometres away—in Pacific Palisades, near Malibu—the Getty Villa focuses on ancient Greek and Roman art, housed in a Roman-style country house.
Overall, the Getty features the personal collection of businessman and art collector J. Paul Getty, who saw art as a civilising influence in society and sought to make it more widely available to the public. Through the work of the J. Paul Getty Trust after his death, the Getty museum now consists of five two-story pavilions featuring hundreds of pre-20th-century European paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, and decorative arts. It also houses 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century photographs that the public can visit for no more than the cost of parking.
Read on for our guide to this world-class museum. Come and explore the amazing art collection at the Getty Center, but also bring the kids to explore the hands-on exhibits in the Family Room. Sign up to take one of the museum’s daily architecture tours. Come after hours for music and drinks at Off the 405. Or grab a sunset dinner reservation at the Getty’s The Restaurant.
Looking for a little more as you explore the Getty Villa gardens and exhibits? Take a guided tour for in-depth information and behind-the-scenes details from a museum expert. These tours are offered free to the public at various times through the week. Check the current calendar to see which tours will be offered during your visit; then meet at the Tour Meeting Place outside the Museum Entrance. For more free talks and tours at the Getty Villa, check out the Villa’s Tour page.
While the Getty Villa houses more than 44,000 Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities, the Villa is a work of art on its own, modeled after a first-century Roman country house. The 40-minute Architecture Tour highlights various architectural elements of the Villa and offers insights into daily life in the ancient world. Offered multiple times every day.
Explore the Villa’s four gardens and learn about the ancient Roman gardens that inspired them. This 40-minute tour highlights the garden’s sculptures, fountains, and reflecting pools, along with its 300-plus plant varieties. Foodies may opt for the 30-minute Culinary Garden Tour instead, which specifically focuses on the garden’s edible plants, herbs, and fruit trees and their connection to cooking in antiquity; it’s available on Thursday and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. The Garden Tour is offered multiple times every day.
Collection Highlights Tours
Want to see the Villa’s greatest hits? First-time visitors to the Getty Villa might consider this tour, available once a day on weekdays and twice a day on the weekend. This 50-minute tour highlights many of the major works on display from the Museum’s collection. Offered at 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday–Sunday; also at 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Short on time? Explore the richness of the ancient art housed in the Getty Villa in this 20-minute gallery talk that takes an in-depth look at one major work in the museum’s collection. Offered once a day; see calendar for times.
The Observant Eye
From mythology to death, nudity to wine, key topics in the ancient Greek and Roman world—and their expression in the museum’s collection of art and artifacts—are examined in the 50-minute Observant Eye tour. Offered Monday and Friday at 2:00 p.m.
In between exploring the Getty Center’s indoor exhibits, head outside to visit the museum’s expansive grounds and gardens. From carefully curated gardens to eye-catching sculpture displays (there’s even a garden devoted entirely to the humble cactus), the Getty’s outdoor spaces are both gorgeous and fascinating. To enrich your exploration, download the Getty Center’s audio tour podcast to listen to while you’re at the museum.
Fran and Ray Stark Sculpture Garden
Before hopping on the tram—between the parking structure and the main part of the Getty Center—take time to explore the serene Fran and Ray Stark Sculpture Garden. This collection of modern and contemporary sculptures was donated to the Getty Center by the trustees of the late film producer Ray Stark and his wife, Fran, and includes sculptures like Henry Moore’s Bronze Form and Isamu Noguchi’s The Tent of Holofernes. This is also a nice spot to relax (there are secluded seating areas), thanks to the fountains and skyline views.
The most popular garden at the Getty, the 12,450-square metre Central Garden was created in 1997 by installation artist Robert Irwin. This is the perfect place to take a break, enjoy a picnic, and participate in another kind of art experience the Getty offers: With more than 500 varieties of trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers, the Central Garden is a constantly evolving exhibit that highlights the relationships between nature, experience, and design. From the natural ravine and the tree-lined walkway to the bougainvillea arbours, meandering stream, and a central pool, all of the plants and structures were selected to accentuate the interplay of colour, light, and reflection. Be sure to make it to the garden plaza to find Irwin’s quote carved into the stone floor: “Always changing, never twice the same.”
Lower Terrace Garden
After exploring the Central Garden, head west to the Lower Terrace Garden, which overlooks the city. Especially fun for younger visitors, this garden features six sculptures, including Walking Flower, The Jousters, and the movable, wind-activated Three Squares Gyratory.
Celebrate the king of eco-friendly vegetation at the Getty Center’s South Museum Pavilion: Walk along the raised path to view dozens of cacti of different sizes, shapes, and colours that contrast with the cityscape behind them. If you’re visiting on a clear day, the view beyond the Cactus Garden may extend all the way to the Pacific Ocean!
Sure, the Getty Center is a sophisticated, world-class museum, but it also has plenty of kid-friendly appeal—for children and frankly for anyone who likes looking at art with childlike wonder. On most Saturdays throughout the year, there are special family-centered activities at the Getty Center, with additional opportunities in the summer (check the Getty Center family calendar). But here are a few family-friendly activities you can (and should) do any day at the museum.
Pick up a GettyGuide
While you’re wandering around the museum, keep the kids occupied with a GettyGuide, the free multimedia guide accessible on your smartphone or on an iPod touch; you can check one out for free (with photo ID) from the GettyGuide desk in the Museum Entrance Hall. GettyGuides provide video and audio clips along with additional details about works of art around the museum, to keep kids of different ages interested and engaged. For younger kids, choose the Family Tour, which shares fun facts about art enhanced with music and sound effects. Tweens and teens will dig the Demons, Angels, and Monsters audio tour, which highlights the use of the supernatural in the museum’s collection.
Visit the Family Room
For some hands-on fun, take a trip to the Family Room, located in the Museum Courtyard by the East Pavilion. Here, kids of all ages can enjoy hands-on activities like building a tube sculpture, decorating a giant illuminated book page, or playing with camera lenses and a wall of mirrors. When they’re tired, kids can grab a book and lounge on the giant luxurious bed, reclining just like one of the 18th-century French aristocrats seen in paintings.
Get Art Detective Cards
Make your museum trip more interactive by adding this treasure hunt: The self-directed activity leads kids on a scavenger hunt through the West Pavilion, encouraging them to find specific paintings and to look more closely at the art. The four activity cards encourage kids to use their detective skills, uncovering clues hidden in paintings to solve the mystery. Art Detective Cards are available outside the Family Room or at the Family Cart in the Museum Entrance Hall, in either English or Spanish. There’s another Art Detective game, too, for the outdoor sculptures in the Central Garden.
Planning on spending a full day at the Getty Center? It’s not hard—not only is there plenty to see, but there are more than three meals’ worth of dining options at the Getty to keep you fed. Here are our picks, along the budget spectrum.
Cheap eats: BYO picnic
One of the most economical ways to refuel during an art-filled day at the Getty is to bring your own picnic. The Getty Center allows visitors to bring their own food and drinks to enjoy at locations on the Getty grounds. Set up at the picnic tables at the lower tram plaza if you need to return coolers and supplies to the car; or bring a blanket and lounge on the lawn near the Central Garden. While you can’t BYO, beer and wine are available for purchase at the coffee carts.
Grab-and-go: Coffee carts
If you just need a quick bite between exhibits, look for one of the coffee carts located at the Getty Center (one in the Museum Courtyard and one near the Tram Arrival Plaza). Choose from the collection of sandwiches, salads, soups, and snacks, plus espresso drinks, juice, wine, and beer—then relax on the Getty Center grounds.
Mid-range meals: the Garden Terrace Cafe and the Cafe
If you’re looking for something a bit more substantial than the coffee cart, head to one of the Getty Center’s two on-site cafés. The Garden Terrace Cafe is located on the lower level, underneath the Exhibitions Pavilion. Here you’ll find quick eats in a casual outdoor setting overlooking the Central Garden. Closer to the tram Arrival Plaza, you’ll find the self-service Cafe with hot and cold meals, international cuisine, seafood, pizzas, and options from the grill.
Fine dining with a view: The Restaurant at the Getty Center
For an elegant lunch or dinner with one of the best views in Los Angeles, head up to The Restaurant, with seasonally inspired menus, a distinctive wine list, and a full bar. Try out the four-course banquet menu inspired by the current exhibit or indulge in The Restaurant’s Sunday Brunch. Inside the 150-seat dining room, you can check out the large, mixed-media art installation by L.A. artist Alexis Smith or snag one of the 75 seats on the outdoor terrace that boasts views of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Reservations are recommended (available through OpenTable or by calling the Getty directly); limited same-day reservations may be available at the door or at the Museum Information Desk.
While there are no entrance fees for either the Getty Center or the Getty Villa (though you need to request a free ticket for the Villa online), you do have to pay $15 for parking when visiting. While that covers the whole car—a good reminder to carpool—there are a few other ways to maximise that parking fee at the Getty.
Visit after 3 p.m.
Don’t need all day at the museum? Visit the Getty Center or Getty Villa after 3 p.m. and pay only $10 for parking. While the Villa closes at 5 p.m. most of the year and the Getty Center at 5:30 p.m., both locations stay open later during the summer months on certain weekend days. The Getty Center remains open until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and the Villa is open until 9 p.m. on Saturdays.
Bike, bus, Uber, or Lyft
Avoid the parking fee altogether by taking public transportation, a bike, or a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft to the Getty. Bicyclists can park for free on the entry level of the parking structure. Visitors using Lyft or Uber can be dropped off at the designated turnaround area, located outside of the parking structure. See the Getty Center and Getty Villa pages for the specifics on buses and light rail options.
Visit both in one day
Visitors planning to hit both the Getty Center and the Getty Villa in one day can get a same-day parking coupon, good for parking at both locations, for just one $15 fee. (Or $10, if you’re arriving after 3 p.m.) Just visit the Museum Information Desk at either the Getty Center or the Getty Villa to pick up your complimentary same-day parking pass. (One hitch: The offer is not valid on Mondays or Tuesdays.)