I’ve been fascinated by history for as long as I can remember. When most kids played in a cardboard box pretending it was a car, I wrote Mayflower on the side of mine and pretended to sail to America. When I was in the seventh grade I went on a class trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and it pretty much blew my mind. Now I tend to plan a lot of my trips around seeing a museum or local historical site. A lot of people I know don’t like museums. But I think museums are a really fun way to spend a few hours, especially if it’s hot or raining outside, see some cool stuff and learn something new. Plus, a ton of museums are FREE. Easy budget friendly travel right there. Two of my favorite museums in Los Angeles, the Natural History Museum and California Science Center, happen to be right next to each other in Exposition Park on the campus of USC. The Science Center always has free admission, and the Natural History Museum often participates in Free Museum Day throughout the year.
California Science Center
I love this museum. It’s totally hands on, so it’s great for kids. You’ll see stuff you probably haven’t seen at other museums. They also have an IMAX movie theater that sells popcorn and has 3D nature movies. And, best of all, it’s the permanent home to the Space Shuttle Endeavor. (Seeing the Space Shuttle alone should entice you to get over here) The Science Center is divided into sections, each a different theme. The biggest is Ecosystems, with a different room for each ecosystem. There is lots to explore and learn in these rooms, but I think the biggest draw is the aquarium. A two-story aquarium gives visitors a live view into the “ocean”. You’ll find kelp, sharks, and of course a ton of fish swimming around in there – including the California state fish, the Garibaldi. You might even get lucky and see a diver in there, either cleaning the tank or feeding the fish.
On the second floor, the first exhibit you’ll come into is Air & Space that features actual spacecraft like the Mercury capsule that held Ham, the space chip, and the Gemini 11 that launched in 1966, as well as an Apollo spacesuit, other aircraft and a few satellites. Before heading into the hanger that holds the Endeavor, be sure to walk through the introduction exhibit. There is a replica of the Rocketdyne Operations Support Center that monitored every space flight from Southern California, a space potty (how do astronauts go to the bathroom in space?), a really interesting video about eating in space, and more.
To view the Endeavor you need to reserve a ticket ($2 plus a $2 service fee). Using the online reservation system, you to choose the date of your visit, then add tickets for special exhibits that have entrance fees, IMAX movies, and the Endeavor. If you buy an IMAX ticket ($9 for adults) your Endeavor ticket is included. Note: If you just want to visit the Science Center and not see any of the exhibits or the Endeavor, you don’t need a ticket.
The shuttle is housed in a separate building just behind the Ecosystems section of the museum. Walking into that hanger is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, even after multiple visits. The shuttle is bigger than life, and the fact that it carried dozens of astronauts thousands of miles above the earth and into orbit hits you the moment you set foot inside. It’s truly awe-inspiring. There are a few other things to look at besides the ship including a time line of the missions the Endeavor flew that runs the length of the building. It completed 25 missions from 1992 until being decommissioned in 2011.
Natural History Museum
I haven’t been to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, but from all the movies it’s been in I’d say it’s pretty similar to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. As soon as you enter the grand foyer, you’re greeted by two giant dinosaur skeletons locked in an eternal battle. To either side of this room are the Mammal Halls, North American and African. This is the part that is most like the American Museum of Natural History. The halls are dimly lit, with what are essentially shadow box dioramas lining both sides. These dioramas show the animals in their “natural” habitat with props and beautifully painted backdrops. Many of these pieces are very old, some collected as long as a century ago, so don’t worry too much about the potential controversy.
In the northeast corner of the museum is one of my favorite rooms, the Gem and Mineral Hall. This room is filled with displays of gems and minerals collected from all over the world. They range from common materials like gold and silver to very rare minerals. The displays are diverse in size and shape, depending on the way the mineral forms naturally. In the far corner is the vault where the precious gems are. Here you’ll find beautiful gemstones that have been cut at polished like they would be used for jewelry. The vault is a very small space so on crowded days they usually have a museum staff member keeping an eye on the capacity. When I was last there on Free Museum Day the line to look in the vault went all the way across the Hall.
The other big draw at the Museum is the Dinosaur Hall. It’s newly expanded to double the size of the old space and includes a ton of skeletons including three T-Rex skeletons in various stages of growth. My favorite exhibit – Becoming L.A. – is a relatively new addition to the museum. It covers the history of Southern California from the Spanish Missionary period to the present. It’s more history than natural history but it’s a really comprehensive timeline of how LA became LA. Even John Temple and his wife Rafaela Cota de Temple who built Rancho Los Cerritos in Long Beach make an appearance on the timeline.
A ticket for the Natural History Museum is $12 for adults, but they have free admission every first Tuesday of every month (except July and August), and every Tuesday in September. Reserve tickets in advance to make sure you get in as it’s a very popular museum to visit on these days. They also participate in Free Museum Days throughout the year. I usually find out about these days through Facebook, but there was one the last Sunday in January and September this year (2107).
Grab A Bite
Both the California Science Center and the Natural History Museum have dining options and the grill at the Science Center is actually pretty tasty and reasonably priced but I recently discovered another place on the other side of the 110 freeway that I highly recommend. Mercado la Paloma is an eatery/market in the style of Grand Central Market or the Original Farmer’s Market where many restaurants are housed under the same roof. There are seven restaurants, including different styles of Mexican food, Thai, a hamburger stand and Ethiopian. My friend, Molly, and I came here randomly when looking for Ethiopian and were pleased to discover all the other options.
Azla is vegan Ethiopian food and it was delicious. You can choose up to four entrees and each plate comes with either injera (Ethiopian flatbread) or brown rice. A one item plate is only $4! This left plenty of space in my belly for a second course of tacos from Taqueria Vista Hermosa. Three tacos, one each of carnitas, fish, and el pastor (what they are known for) with rice and beans plus a drink (I got jimaica) for about $9. Molly got a plate of pad thai that was equally good.
In addition to the market place, Mercado la Paloma supports the South Central community by providing affordable retail space, start up capital assistance for local business owners, public health services, and a space for local art, music, and dance performances.
Pro Tip: The Los Angeles Rams play at the Colosseum at USC which is just yards away from these museums. Before heading up on a Sunday afternoon in the fall, be sure to check if there is a game being held. Traffic is so terrible the Science Center actually alerts you that there will be a game when you try to purchase tickets. Do yourself a favor and pick a different day.