Whether you want to see classical masterpieces, gripping photos of American history, or a plaster cast of Sasquatch’s footprint, California has a museum to inspire and delight. Insider tip: On January 28, you can visit more than 30 Southern California museums for free as part of the Museums Free-For-All.
On your next trip through the Golden State, make a stop at one of these compelling cultural treasures, listed north to south.
1. National Yo-Yo Museum
Sure, it’s tucked within a toy store, but this Chico museum has serious street cred: It’s home to the world’s largest display of yo-yos and memorabilia, as well as the Guinness Book of World Record holder Big-Yo, a 265-pound version of the famed No-Jive 3-in-1.
2. Willow Creek-China Flat Museum
This little museum along Highway 299 offers a fascinating look into Humboldt County history, including the Native American tribes that have lived here and one other (possible) denizen: Big Foot. Peruse photos of the mythic creature, supposed footprint casts, and all manner of Sasquatch-related memorabilia. The museum is hard to miss, too, guarded by a 25-foot redwood sculpture of the big guy out front.
3. Cable Car Museum
This free museum and working powerhouse in Nob Hill is a magnet for both kids and retro-techie types: Not only can you see antique cable cars from the 19th century, but you can also watch the elaborate mechanical system in action, which powers today’s still-thriving cable car network.
4. Computer History Museum
Go back in tech history at this Silicon Valley museum in Mountain View: Look at the giant computers from the 1950s, play some Pong, and learn about Ada Lovelace, a revolutionary nerd girl from the 19th century. Forward-looking exhibits, meanwhile, let you get hands-on with coding and driverless cars.
5. Crocker Art Museum
This Sacramento institution can boast of being the first public museum west of the Mississippi—launched in 1885 in an Italianate mansion—and it is still a big star on the West Coast. Bask in the Dutch, Flemish, and Italian paintings that the affluent Crocker family acquired during their European travels, then wander the contemporary addition, with works by Ansel Adams and Dale Chihuly.
6. Lone Pine Film History Museum
The rugged landscape near Mount Whitney has starred in countless movies over the decades—from old-school westerns to blockbusters like Iron Man. Explore this Inyo County museum—with props and costumes from those flicks—then drive the self-guided tour along “Movie Road” in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area, lined with locations from films such as Gunga Din and Rawhide.
7. The Haggin
Where else can you see a Renoir as well as a World War II Jeep named Willy? Home to the largest collection of fine art in the Central Valley—including a Renoir—this museum in Stockton’s Victory Park also has a wealth of California culture. Check out the history-rich California Room, as well as the Trunk of Emma LaDoux (a chilling true-crime story). Plus: Don’t miss the gorgeous wall-size paintings of Yosemite Valley by Albert Bierstadt, a pioneer of western art.
8. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum
Located near his beloved home ranch, this institution covers the life of the 40th president, from his career in Hollywood to his role in ending the Cold War. Highlights include an actual Air Force One that you can walk through and a salvaged piece of the Berlin Wall.
9. The Getty Center
There are multiple reasons this striking museum is a bucket-list destination, starting with the tram ride to the grounds, which are perched on a hill in the Santa Monica Mountains. The modernist building by Richard Meier is an architectural masterpiece in itself; and once inside, you’ll have a full day’s worth of art to see, from medieval tapestries to contemporary David Hockney paintings.
10. Grammy Museum
The central part of Los Angeles boasts fine art at The Broad and LACMA, but downtown also has this testament to the entertainment industry. Play with instruments, try sound-mixing, ogle memorabilia (such as famous guitars and Michael Jackson’s glove), then check out the museum’s calendar for live performances.
11. Riverside Art Museum
The Inland Empire’s largest museum—which houses works by Toulouse Lautrec, Marc Chagall, and Alberto Giacometti—will also be home to the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture and Industry in 2020. (Yes, that Cheech. He’s also a noted philanthropist and art collector.)
12. Route 66 Mother Road Museum
Here, exhibits displaying artifacts and pictures of early trails and famous road trips trace the development of the iconic route. Even the building, located in Barstow, is a part of the history: The former Casa del Desierto was one of the hotel complexes built by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company.
13. International Surfing Museum
You don’t have to be a surfer to appreciate this small museum in Huntington Beach, one of the coastline’s main surfing magnets. In fact, the woman who launched the museum is not a surfer herself, but has helped amass the rotating collection of boards, photos, and memorabilia, including a rare electric surfboard.
14. Fleet Science Center
Equal parts planetarium, science center, and IMAX theater, this museum is a cornerstone of the museum-rich Balboa Park. (The next big thing headed to Balboa is the Comic-Con Center for Popular Culture, due to open with rotating exhibits in 2018.) At the Fleet, kids will love the hands-on areas like the Tinkering Studio, the energy-centric So Watt, or the nanotechnology-made-fun in the Nano area. IMAX offerings include sweeping looks at the national parks and huge engineering feats, such as the Great Wall of China.