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 L.A. Griffith Park is a popular spot for a variety of reasons, and the Observatory is chief among those. From its fun exhibits to the Art Deco architecture to the great views of LA, Santa Monica, Hollywood, and beyond. Since originally posting this a couple of years ago, we’ve visited Griffith Park many, many times, and have updated this post with new info on August 9, 2017.
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. We love it so much that it’s one of the places to visit on our 1-Day Los Angeles Highlights Itinerary. Seriously, Griffith Observatory is not to be missed…
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…
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.
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.
When you visit Griffith Park and Observatory, plan to park in one of the lower lots just after you enter Griffith Park in Los Feliz. As of 2017, parking in the main lot in front of the Observatory, as well as West and East Observatory roads, and Western Canyon Road each charge $4 per hour for parking, whereas the lower lots offer free parking and a convenient shuttle.
Parking is still free before noon or after 10 p.m., which is great for those doing sunrise hikes or late nights in Griffith Park, but this change to paid parking was–unfortunately–necessary. On our most recent visits, congestion had brought traffic to a standstill, as people waited for parking spots to free up.
Even if you only plan to be up at Griffith Observatory for an hour or two and don’t care about the money, we recommend using the free lower lots. 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 a good spot.
For a closer view, you can actually hike to the Hollywood Sign from Griffith Observatory. Charlie Turner Trailhead is the starting point for most of these, including other hikes that lead to the Dante’s View summit of Mount Hollywood. These hikes vary in difficulty, but most offer beautiful views of Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Some also offer views into the Valley, including the studios in Burbank and Glendale.
The Hollywood Sign hike is definitely the most popular. While there are a number of routes starting from other locations, if you search Google Maps for “Hollywood Sign,” it’ll direct you to Griffith Park. We’ve done this hike a number of times, and it’s pretty easy, albeit a bit long at around 6 miles roundtrip.
If you are considering the Hollywood Sign hike from Griffith Observatory, note that the hike takes you behind the Hollywood Sign, and not in front of it. (There is no way to get up-close, directly in front of the sign.) The viewing area is adjacent to the Los Angeles Communications Center, which is closely monitored by the LAPD. Don’t even think about breaking the rules by climbing the fence, flying a drone, etc. We’ve seen the cops come out and confront visitors on a number of occasions.
Fortunately, even if you have no desire to hike, you can see plenty from the deck of Griffith Observatory.
In addition to the Hollywood sign and Los Angeles skyline, you can see Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean.
I highly recommend arriving to Griffith Observatory about an hour 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?!
This way, you can park and get up to the Observatory in time to 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.
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.
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.
There are viewing stations (some of which work, some don’t) so you can look into the city. That’s definitely neat to have, but I’d also recommend packing your telephoto lens–many of my photos in this post were shot at or around 200mm.
Another cool thing: 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. Griffith Observatory usually holds public viewings for major events–there’s one for the partial solar eclipse!
One time when we visited, 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. Other days, we’ve gone early in the morning for sunrise and found athletic clubs having makeshift meetings on the lawn. Since it’s a prized park for Angelenos, you’ll find Griffith Park is just as much a hangout spot for locals as it is a tourist destination. (And in our experience, the people at Griffith Park and Observatory are incredibly friendly.)
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.
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.
Have you been to Griffith Observatory? What do you think of it? Do you consider Griffith Observatory–and Griffith Park as a whole–to be one of the best things to do in Los Angeles? Any tips of your own to add regarding things to do at Griffith Observatory? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!