The Getty Villa is an art museum in Malibu, California with antiquities from ancient Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans. Located a few miles from the Getty Center in Los Angeles, it’s a perfect counterpart to the main museum. This post reviews the Getty Villa, and offers my tips for visiting. (Updated April 23, 2021.)
After being closed since last year, the Getty Villa is now open! The museum and grounds are operating with social distancing and safety measures in place, based on guidance from Los Angeles County public health officials.
Based on the guidelines for reopening indoor museums, the number of visitors will be limited each day, and each visitor to the Getty Villa will need a free, timed reservation in advance (click here to reserve free timed entry tickets). Face masks and social distancing will be required, and visitors will have their temperatures checked on arrival…
As with the Getty Center, architecture and outdoor spaces play a significant role at the Getty Villa. The museum is modeled after a first-century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy. Buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79, much of the Villa dei Papiri remains unexcavated (much of what has been excavated is intact to varying degrees).
Consequently, the architect tasked with designing the Getty Villa (who worked with J. Paul Getty himself beginning in the 1960s) based many of the Museum’s architectural and landscaping details on elements from other ancient Roman houses in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. It’s worth watching the short film at the front of the Getty Villa for further insight into its design with interviews from the original architect himself.
Opinions of the Getty Villa vary depending upon who you ask.
Art critics have derided the Getty Villa and the way it can blur the line between actual antiquities and faux reproduced environments. To some scholarly types, it’s viewed as a decadent exercise in excess.
Arguably, there is some merit to these critiques. In some ways, the Getty Villa does feel distinctly Californian: Hearst Castle meets Valley McMansions with “classical” styles. Is it a fantasy land, or is it a museum?
Along those same lines, you could make the argument that In-N-Out serves a weak burger. I mean, it’s “only” mass-produced fast food. Such an argument would be wrong, though. Just because an argument is vaguely conceivable does not make it a compelling argument.
The public, on the other hand, loves the Getty Villa. Unless you’re really cynical and believe people are total morons, I think you have to give the benefit of the doubt and assume visitors will be able to distinguish between the real antiquities and the themed environments.
Anyone who has the ‘super power’ of literacy will be able to do exactly that, as there are placards indicating as much throughout the museum.
Based upon the above, it should be pretty obvious where I side in this debate. I find the Getty Villa not just to be beautiful and inviting as a themed environment, but also thought-provoking and elegant.
First and foremost, it’s a museum–and one with an impressive collection of antiquities. Second, it’s a themed environment that attempts to enhance the visitor experience, but without compromising the integrity of the exhibits.
In fact, most of the exhibit rooms are low-key, presenting the antiquities on display in traditional museum environments that allow them to take center stage and speak for themselves.
Beyond the exhibit halls, you’ll find the lavishly themed architecture and gardens.
I find the particular theme that was chosen to be very fitting for a museum housing the antiquities that it does. The Getty Villa does not feel like self-aggrandizing, nor does it strike me as tacky.
My only minor quibble would be that it does feel a bit too much like a new location simulating an old one (more effort could’ve been to age the buildings), but that’s minor. The counter point could be made that the newness of the grounds makes the distinction between what’s part of the collection and what’s part of the environment easier.
I will say that I find the architecture at the Getty Center to have more merit as art unto itself, whereas the Getty Villa is more akin to simulating architecture found elsewhere. Hence my calling it a ‘themed museum.’
In my non-expert estimation, this works for the Getty Villa. Moreover, the diverging styles of each Getty location help distinguish them (beyond just the galleries they house), making them unique and distinct experiences. Suffice to say, I’m a fan of the Getty Villa’s approach.
In terms of the galleries, this is a more intimate experience than the Getty Center, but there still are over 1,000 antiquities on display, and you could spend hours perusing these galleries. There are coins, jewelry, household wares, and even statues on display.
There are also some interactive displays, which are pretty well done and engaging.
As far as strategy goes, I covered the bulk of my strategy for The Getty Villa in my The Getty Center Review & Tips post. The itinerary of Getty Center in the morning and early afternoon followed by The Getty Villa from around 3 p.m. until it closes is, in my opinion, the absolute best approach.
Upon arriving, you’ll want to head to the audio guide desk, which is tucked into a corner to the left side of the inside front door (adjacent to the info desk). As with the Getty Center, the audio guides are free at the Getty Villa; you just need to provide a driver’s license or other ID.
Even if you don’t do The Getty Center, I think a late afternoon arrival to the Getty Villa is a sound strategy. Not only will this give you a mostly crowd-free tour of the Villa, but it’ll also provide you with a nice afternoon glow on the outdoor gardens and the stunning architecture.
Beyond that, it also makes for an easy transition from The Getty Villa to one of Malibu’s stunning beaches. Previously, we recommended El Matador Beach, which is about 30 minutes from The Getty Villa in moderate afternoon traffic (the kind you’re likely to encounter).
Depending upon the season, enjoying sunset on the beach followed by dinner somewhere like Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market (on the cheap end, they’re known for their fish & chips) or Malibu Farm Pier Cafe.
This will delay your return to Los Angeles or Orange County enough to avoid the bulk of rush hour traffic.
Another thing you’ll want to know is that advance tickets to the Getty Villa are “required.” Those are air quotes, and this is because they aren’t really necessary (in fact, we did not have them when we visited). At the time of this post, it’s the heart of spring break season in Southern California, and I could “order” a free ticket for 7 minutes from now, and for every half hour thereafter for the rest of the day.
There are probably times when this is an issue, and I’d recommend playing it safe by ordering the tickets from the Getty Villa site before you go, but don’t fret if you need to adjust your schedule on the day-of. It really should not be a problem.
All things considered, I prefer the Getty Center to the Getty Villa. Getty Center is a top 5 SoCal experience for me, whereas Getty Villa is probably top 15 or top 20. The former houses a more robust and diverse collection of art, and deserves mention among the elite art museums of the world.
By contrast, the Getty Villa is more narrowly-focused but also laid back and atmospheric. (It may sound odd, but the Getty Center feels very L.A. and the Getty Villa has a Malibu vibe.) However–and I cannot stress this enough–it should not be an either/or scenario. These two art museums are perfect counterparts to one another, and make for an excellent way to spend a day in Southern California. I’d highly recommend doing both.
If you’re planning a trip, check out our Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles or our California category of posts. For even more things to do, The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas is an exceptional resource, which is written by other locals. If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you visited the Getty Villa? If so, what did you think of experience? Did you enjoy the ‘themed’ environment of the Villa? If you’ve visited both the Getty Center and Getty Villa, which did you prefer? Did you enjoy the antiquity galleries? Would you recommend the Getty Villas to SoCal visitors? Any other tips or recommendations? If you haven’t done the Getty Villa, is it something that interests you? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!