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19 Cool California Museums

Add these cultural treasure troves to your next trip

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With its rich history, diverse cultures, and cutting-edge arts community, it’s no surprise that California boasts world-class institutions. Whether you want to see fine art, experience hands-on science, or explore history in contemporary ways, the Golden State has a thought-provoking, fun way to do it.

1. California Museum, Sacramento

Housed in the State Archives Building, this multimedia museum illuminates California’s history through video and oral-history kiosks, along with traditional art and artifact displays. Signature exhibits focus on different communities—from Native American tribes to the contributions of Chinese-Americans—while the California Hall of Fame celebrates innovators from John Muir to Tony Hawk. (more)

2. Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento

In 1872, the Crocker family—helmed by a State Supreme Court Justice—turned part of their Sacramento mansion into a gallery. Today it’s the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi. The family collected a lot of 19th-century paintings, but the collections have since expanded to include later artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Ansel Adams. (more)

3. The Haggin Museum, Stockton

The stately museum in Stockton’s Victory Park has a solid base of fine art, including a Renoir and a selection of Albert Bierstadt’s gorgeous paintings of Yosemite Valley. But it also has a flair for pop culture: Its permanent collection includes baseball memorabilia and many works by iconic advertising illustrator J.C. Leyendecker. (more)

4. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

This huge, airy museum off Union Square offers a breathtaking backdrop for its collection of modern and contemporary art. Even the staircases, which narrow at the top, are meant to subtly challenge your perspective. It boasts 33,000 works and features a who’s who list of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Frida Kahlo. Get close to see (and smell) the Living Wall on the SFMOMA’s third-floor terrace, featuring 19,000 plants, many native to the Bay Area. (more)

5. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

The LEED Platinum–certified museum complex inside Golden Gate Park boasts four attractions in one: a natural history museum, aquarium, planetarium, and rainforest. Choose from a range of exhibits, from the three-eyed chameleon in the rainforest to the albino alligator in the aquarium. Stargaze in the Morrison Planetarium, which displays a digital universe on its 75-foot dome screen. (more)

6. Oakland Museum of California, Oakland

This Oakland museum has been a trendsetter for its interactive “environments”—like the hands-on Nature Studio where you can create habitats by combining natural materials and sounds. The museum’s three California-themed galleries (History, Natural Sciences, and Art) feature kiosks that invite you to learn about Golden State topics such as Spanish colonialism, Mount Shasta, and moviemaking. (more)

7. Computer History Museum, Mountain View

This Santa Clara County museum devoted to the history of high tech relocated in the 1990s from Boston to—where else?—the heart of Silicon Valley. With galleries and multimedia experiences detailing everything from slide rules to the smartphone, this is arguably the most significant collection of computing artifacts in the world. Interactive experiences let you see how different apps work, or you can try your hand at coding. (more)

8. Museum of Western Film History, Lone Pine

Lone Pine’s collection of moviemaking artifacts is set in the Alabama Hills, where hundreds of movies and TV shows have been filmed. Browse the memorabilia, including a 1928 Lincoln camera car, then pick up brochures to explore Movie Road, where Gladiator, Iron Man, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier were filmed. It’s a key stop on this movie locations road trip.

9. Route 66 Mother Road Museum, Barstow

You can drive only part of this iconic route these days, but you can still see plenty of artifacts and photos from that historic era of development. Even the San Bernardino County museum’s 1911 building is part of the story: It was originally a hotel, built by the railroads to cater to a new generation of travelers. This list of 14 Must-See California Museums includes more unique museums, like the Cable Car Museum and the Yo-Yo Museum.

10. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation, Santa Barbara

The playful spirit of Santa Barbara’s hands-on museum is evident from outside—it was designed to look like a sandcastle. Inside, the all-ages museum invites you to explore topics such as sound, speed, and magnetism—for instance, little ones can crawl inside a giant guitar while older kids learn how strumming sounds are made. (more)

11. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley

This Ventura County complex celebrates the life and times of the 40th U.S. president, and sits on 100 hilltop acres, with sweeping views that stretch to the ocean. Artifacts, photos, and video clips tell the story of his Hollywood career and impact on history, while other exhibits explore the Berlin Wall and the Secret Service. Step inside a retired Air Force One airplane, then enjoy lunch in the pub named for Reagan. (more)

12. The Getty Center, Los Angeles

Designed by architect Richard Meier, the dramatic hilltop complex sits on 86 acres, including gardens that are works of art themselves. The permanent collection is composed of works spanning the 17th–21st centuries, and include some by masters such as Rembrandt and Van Gogh. To see an extensive collection of antiquities, head to the Malibu branch set in oil tycoon J. Paul Getty’s former villa. (more)

13. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

This sprawling property in downtown Los Angeles boasts pieces by Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera, and Catherine Opie. Focus your visit on one of the rotating exhibits, but don’t miss the outdoor collections—like a mesmerizing installation of streetlamps. (more)

14. The Broad, Los Angeles

This architectural stunner in downtown Los Angeles—the name rhymes with “road”—is the culmination of one couple’s contemporary art collection. See works by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and more, and don’t miss the Infinity Mirrored Room, with its seemingly endless LED light display. It’s free, too, with online reservations. (more)

15. Palm Springs Art Museum

This sleek museum embodies Palm Springs’ flair for elegant design, with its collection of modern art, studio glass, and photography—including Bill Anderson’s timeless images of desert-loving movie stars. The collection even includes full-sized mid-century modern architecture: Albert Frey’s glass-and-steel masterpiece Frey House II sits on the hillside above the museum. Make the museum part of your explorations of Palm Springs’ mid-century modern landmarks.

16. Riverside Art Museum, Riverside

Located in downtown Riverside, the Inland Empire’s biggest museum is home to works by Toulouse Lautrec, Marc Chagall, and Alberto Giacometti. Starting in 2021, the museum will also debut The Cheech, a collection of Chicano art and culture from the extensive collection of Cheech Marin, spanning from pre-Columbian art to modern murals. (more)

17. Robert & Francis Fullerton Museum of Art, San Bernardino

Fascinated by ancient Egypt? You’ll love this museum of global art, artifacts, and ceramics set on the Inland Empire campus of Cal State San Bernardino, which has one of the largest displays of Egyptian antiquities in the western U.S. As a bonus, admission is free. (more)

18. USS Midway Museum, San Diego

As home to a large naval fleet, San Diego is a natural spot for this museum housed on a historic aircraft carrier. Climb inside the 30 aircraft on deck, then peek inside the former sleeping quarters, engine room, and jail. Head to the Battle of Midway Theater for an authentic account of the World War II battle, then take one of the virtual-reality flight simulator rides, including one that recreates aerial combat. (more)

19. Museum of Us, San Diego

You could spend weeks exploring Balboa Park’s 17 museums—from the Old Masters at The Timken Museum of Art to the awe-inspiring Fleet Science Center. Be sure to include this fascinating museum, formerly known as The Museum of Man, which explores the human experience through creative exhibits—about monsters, beer culture, even cannibalism.

The safety of both visitors and residents is a top priority in the Golden State. Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you plan to visit. We also encourage everyone to check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub as well as the latest Travel Updates.

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