Griffith Observatory Review & Tips

Posted on Nov 22, 2016 by Tom Bricker  •  Attraction Reviews  •  11 Comments

Griffith Observatory is an observatory, planetarium, and astronomy museum in California with great views of Los Angeles and the Hollywood Sign. This post offers a review, photos, and some of my tips for visiting Griffith Observatory, which is one of the top things to do in Los Angeles. Griffith Observatory is a popular spot for a variety of reasons, from the fun exhibits to the walking trails around Griffith park to the great views of LA, Santa Monica, Hollywood, and beyond.

Of course, there’s one main reason everyone goes to visit Griffith Observatory. You know what I’m talking about: Terminator. Obviously, when you visit California, you’re going to want to tour the great filming locations of the Terminator films, from that one mall where John Connor plays arcade games to that one concrete basin where the Los Angeles River ran to the alley where naked Terminator appeared to, yes, even Griffith Observatory. Now, I’m not going to pretend that it’s as exciting as some random alley, but Griffith Observatory is pretty awesome.

Kidding, of course. Well, sorta. Terminator is awesome, and it’s always cool to see a filming location from that epic series, but the draw of Griffith Observatory goes far beyond Terminator. It turns out that Griffith Observatory (and Griffith Park, which surrounds it) has a lot to offer to visitors, making it a must-visit place (even if you only have 1-day in Los Angeles).

Let’s start by taking a quick look at some of the history of this top destination for locals and tourists alike in Los Angeles…

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In the late 1800s, baron Griffith J. Griffith (that name just sounds like a Bond villain, right?!) donated 3,015 acres to Los Angeles to create what is known today as Griffith Park, which is a sprawling public park that is home to Griffith Observatory.

The baron donated an additional $100,000 for the construction of the observatory, and a public works program allowed the original construction of Griffith Observatory to be quite lavish, and much of the artwork and original Art Deco style of the building survives today, even after a $93 million renovation in the mid-2000s.

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Griffith Observatory was built to make astronomy accessible to the public, and compete with some of the best mountaintop observatories already existing along the West Coast. Inside the exhibit area of Griffith Observatory today, you can see comparisons to some of these observatories today; part of me wonders if Griffith Observatory is still competitive on the astronomy front given all of the light pollution (and regular pollution) from modern-day Los Angeles that must impact it.

You can still see a ton of stars at Griffith Observatory on a clear night, but I wonder how it compares with observatories in more remote locations.

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When you visit Griffith Park and Observatory, plan to park on one of the random side roads just before the main parking area on your way up to the Observatory. This is pretty far from the actual Observatory, but it’s a beautiful walk (you can actually hike Griffith Park if you want–the areas I’ve explored offered stunning panoramic views). Lazy people will be driving around the main parking area waiting for people to leave, but you are far better off just parking and walking, as traffic backs up waiting for the main parking area (and on weekends police will be there directing traffic). Los Angelenos are used to waiting in traffic, but if you’re impatient like me, you won’t want to mess with this.

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Thanks to the recent $93 million refurbishment, the exhibits themselves are modern and illuminating, providing bite-size pieces of information view graphics throughout the main hall that are supplemented with interactive displays and other captivating items. Nothing is especially deep or probing in the first floor area, but it’s all pretty cool, and a fun way to learn about some of the basics of astronomy. What’s doubly nice about this area is that it’s all free. I’d recommend setting aside about an hour to explore the interior exhibits, maybe only 30 minutes if you just want to breeze through.

There’s a cafe at the Observatory, but I recommend eating before or after your visit, as the food there looked overpriced and very basic. Definitely not the best you can do for a meal in Los Angeles. The gift shop is marginally better, with some Griffith Observatory logo items, but mostly generic, overpriced items you could find much cheaper online.

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When you arrive, make sure to check the times for the Tesla Coil demonstration, as it is awesome. When asked why an observatory has a Tesla coil, the employee operating the coil said: “Because we were offered one, and when you are offered something cool like a Tesla coil, you don’t turn it down.” Fair enough!

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The exhibits focused on actual astronomy are significant, but the art of Griffith Observatory is just as key. The rotunda’s ceiling is the highlight, featuring original art by Hugo Ballin illustrating what humans once made of the sky and its mythos. Below that rotunda is the Foucault pendulum, which is a huge, strung ball that was conceived as an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the earth.

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Below the rotunda are eight murals portraying scientific advances that led to greater enlightenment through the work of metallurgists, engineers, and mathematicians over the course of time in art showcasing a classical depiction of an anthropocentrist universe.

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The views from Griffith Observatory are the other main draw. If you want a great view of the Hollywood sign and Los Angeles, this is the spot.

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In addition to the Hollywood sign and Los Angeles skyline, you can see Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean.

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I highly recommend arriving to Griffith Observatory just before sunset unless you intend upon seeing one of the paid exhibits currently showing at Griffith Observatory. You will want to visit on a weekday, if possible, as weekend crowds at sunset are insane. Midday in the week is the least crowded time, but why on earth would you want to visit an observatory during the middle of the day?!

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This way, you can watch the sunset, then head into the Observatory to check out some of the exhibits, then head back outside to see the skyline lit up at night, as well as the stars of the night sky above. Where else in Los Angeles are you going to see stars at night? (Celestial stars, not Hollywood ones.)

Since you will be able to see stars on a clear night, if you’re not used to seeing night skies (city slickers!) I recommend downloading a star gazing app before your visit to get more out of the experience.

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Griffith Observatory can get busy in the late afternoon, especially on weekends or during astronomical events, but there is a ton of room on the viewing decks, and multiple levels. The inside doesn’t have quite as much room, but it seems to clear out pretty well later in the evening.

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Besides the aforementioned Terminator, Rebel Without a Cause also filmed at Griffith Observatory, with both the inside and outside being featured fairly prominently. As such, there’s a James Dean bust memorializing the Observatory’s depiction in film.

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There are viewing stations (some of which work, some don’t) so you can look into the city, and depending upon when you visit, you might find amateur astronomers setting up telescopes on the lawn in front of the Observatory to gaze into the sky. When we visited recently, there were 5 such amateurs there with telescopes, all of whom were happily allowing other guests at the observatory to look through their telescopes. Your mileage may vary on this, but I thought it was pretty cool to see random strangers so happily sharing their hobby with others.

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Overall, I can’t say enough positive things about Griffith Observatory. Out of the places I’ve visited in Southern California, it’s one of my favorites, and absolutely belongs on any itinerary to Los Angeles, regardless of how much time you have in the city. It’s an understatement to think of it merely as an observatory, because it really brings so much more to the table than that, from its art and architecture to the stunning views to its cultural significance in Hollywood. In a city where you can spend a lot of money, it’s principal offerings are all free, which is another huge plus. The exhibits mostly take the accessible approach of a children’s science museum, but there is enough of substance in them to make them appealing to adults, as well. With the variety of exhibits, plus the great view, and interesting walking trails, Griffith Observatory is high on our list of things to do in Southern California.

All photos in this post were taken by me. For these photos of Griffith Observatory, I used my a Nikon D750Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 LensNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRand Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Fisheye, plus my MeFoto travel tripod.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. To see more photos, check out my Travel Photo Galleries, which includes additional shots I have taken in Southern California and Los Angeles. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.

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Your Thoughts…

Have you been to Griffith Observatory since the big refurbishment? What do you think of it? Any tips of your own to add? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!



11 Comments

  1. Isabel
    Feb 23, 2015

    I can never say enough about how much I love Griffith! Always think your photography is stunning. Clear views out to the Pacific is not always the norm though, haha.

    If I have one tip… There’s a program called “All Space Considered” every first Friday night of the month, often with brilliant guests. It’s free, first come first served, and pretty interesting/accessible to the general public while still educational. Probably not the biggest draw if vacation time in LA is limited, but a really fun option, even as a date night, for anyone who has an interest.

    • Tom Bricker
      Feb 23, 2015

      Thanks for the tips! Yeah, I can only imagine how bad things are on a particularly smoggy day…or during the height of summer when oceanic haze is at its worst.

      I will have to check out All Space Considered.

  2. Augie De Blieck Jr.
    Feb 27, 2015

    It should be mentioned that the drive up to the Observatory might be scary for some. My wife and daughter white-knuckled it the entire way up. You’re driving on narrow roads on the side of a cliff without a barrier to the steep drop-off, really, besides a small curb for most of the way. If you’re with someone who’s afraid of heights, make sure they take a nap on the ride up the hill. =)

  3. Erik
    Mar 3, 2015

    Having recently visited Griffith, I really enjoyed this article. Great photos!

  4. Joe Spencer
    Mar 5, 2015

    I just went to the Observatory on Friday and Monday (Came back Monday because it was too cloudy on Friday to see out the Zeiss Telescope) Fantastic place, especially at the price. Plus, if you’re into engineering/unintentional comedy, I HIGHLY recommend the film about the history and remodel of the Observatory in the Leonard Nemoy Theater.

    • Tom Bricker
      Mar 9, 2015

      Oh man, I love unintentional comedy. Engineering, not so much, but I guess I like learning new things, so that might be cool, too. Thanks for the tip!

  5. SBOBET
    May 7, 2015

    This place is really fantastic and I loved it.

  6. Joe
    Mar 28, 2016

    Question. How late are the grounds open during the week? Not the observatory, just to get a night view.
    Thanks

  7. Elizabeth
    Jan 25, 2017

    Thank you for great coverage of Griffith observatory and excellent pics! I have very fond childhood memories of frequent visities while growing up in Glendale in the 60’s. Hoping to visit again next month!

  8. Angie DiSalvo
    Feb 19, 2017

    Tom,

    My wife and I absolutely love your Disney blog and have had amazing trips to WDW based on your recommendations. We often ask each other, “Well, what did Tom say?” Anyway, we are wanting to try out Disneyland this year instead, and I’d like to spend at least one day doing non-Disney things. Is it possible to do both a studio tour (I was eyeing the Warner Bros. one) and check out the observatory all in one day? We plan to stay at a hotel within a mile or so of Disneyland and not get a rental car. But should I think about a rental car for our non-Disney day? Or would Uber do the trick?

    Thanks so much for any advice and for all the hard work you put into both blogs!

    • Tom Bricker
      Feb 19, 2017

      You should definitely get a rental car–unless you’re afraid of driving in Los Angeles traffic. There’s a rental car agency on-site at Disneyland (Alamo in Downtown Disney), so it’s really easy to do a 1-day rental.

      The reason I recommend this is because of traffic. No matter how you plan this trip, you’re going to run into traffic, and the cost of sitting in LA traffic in an Uber can add up. (Plus, the studios in Burbank are a lot farther from Anaheim than you might expect–that’s a $60+ Uber ride even in clear traffic.)

      As for strategy, I’d recommend doing the studio tour first thing in the morning (beat rush hour traffic up to Burbank), and then going to Griffith Observatory for sunset/evening. By the point you leave there, you should have clear(er) traffic back to Anaheim at night. Also, make a point of having a couple of meals in LA. I love the inexpensive places in Chinatown and Little Tokyo, but you can’t really go wrong anywhere. Have fun!

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