Petersen Automotive Museum is a tribute to California’s car culture, set along Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile. This review offers photos from inside its exhibits, tips for visiting, and pros and cons of spending some time at Petersen Automotive Museum instead of other nearby museums in L.A.
The museum is located directly across the street from the eventual home of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum, which is itself adjacent to the LACMA and La Brea Tar Pits. This puts visitors to Petersen Automotive Museum in position for a full-day of museum exploration without ever moving their cars, which is a definite plus (however ironic).
In terms of other basics, Petersen Automotive Museum costs $16 per adult (plus another $20 if you want to tour their vault) and is open 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily. Unlike other museums in Los Angeles, Petersen does not have a free day of the week or month. That’s disappointing given the steep entry fee, but the good news is that the museum is a non-profit, and is worth every penny of that admission cost.
The first thing you’ll notice about Petersen Automotive Museum is the whimsical exterior, a fluid mess of lines and steel that evokes the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s flashy and quite pretty at night, backlit with recessed red lighting. Upon closer inspection, the illusion starts to fade away, and you can see the steel is artifice, attached to an ordinary red big-box building.
Perhaps this symbolizes the car body on a chassis, giving a nod to when fancier Lexus designs are attached to Toyota frames? Either way, the exterior is a style-first approach, and I’m still not sure whether I like it. It’s definitely different, and perhaps should score some points for that. Then again, the PT Cruiser was different and I don’t think that went so well.
Inside, you’ll immediately be greeted by a host of sleek automobiles, ranging from classics to concepts. I was still skeptical at this point. The $30+ we dropped to enter was a steep price for two people who have, at best, only a passing interest in cars. Don’t get me wrong, every time a Ferrari or Lamborghini pulls beside me at a light (an increasingly common experience), my eyes are drawn to it.
However, I’m not a serious enthusiast. I never had car posters as a kid. Despite my bad being a mechanic, I never once worked on a car (beyond mindlessly helping him and once changing my own oil). I couldn’t tell you the first thing about any model of vehicle. Heck, I’ve confused a Chrysler 300 for a Bentley more than once.
Nevertheless, we headed up to the top floor–the History exhibit–as is suggested by staff at Petersen Automotive Museum. The museum features three themed floors: History, Industry, and Artistry.
Visitors are encouraged to visit in that order, with the goal of appreciating the cultural impact and application of the automobile.
The History exhibit is well done, and it’s wild watching the progression of the automobile from something that’s more a glorified tricycle to a sleek high-tech machine that’s basically the real-life Batmobile.
(Oh, and the movie Batmobile up there is pretty cool, too.)
This floor is also where the California connections are most pronounced. There’s a long lineup of cars from Hollywood productions (all of which you can get surprisingly close to–you’re basically able to peak inside some windows), which is pretty cool.
There’s also a variety of background on LA’s car culture, including a look at how vehicle use has shaped the topography of Los Angeles, and even a beautifully-reproduced mural that once graced Western Ave.
The Industry floor offers a peak under the hood at all phases of the production process, from conception and design to engineering to customization, and more.
It feels like a science or children’s museum in terms of presentation, offering a mix of hands-on, cut-away, and multi-media presentations. It’s an engaging mix, and makes it easy to learn something about cars no matter your interest level or how you absorb information. Beyond that, all of the displays just flat-out look cool.
As cool as the other floors were, Artistry is what gave me greater appreciation of automobiles. Not only are there extensive collections from BMV, Porsche, and Ferrari, but there’s accompanying explanation about their evolution.
As the title suggests, you really appreciate the artistry of these vehicles, the thoughtful design, and their attention to detail. Certainly a far cry from our Kia Sorrento.
The last thing before leaving is an art gallery, showing how people have customized their cars, essentially turning them into unconventional art canvases.
The handiwork done by hobbyists on these vehicles is truly impressive, and these pieces could just as easily be featured in the nearby LACMA.
In terms of tips, our main one would be to allocate roughly 2 hours to the museum.
Don’t worry so much about timing–even though Petersen is relatively popular, it doesn’t draw the large crowds or huge school groups like some of the other museums in Los Angeles.
Two hours is also perfect in terms of time because that’s how long you can park along the street in the nearby neighborhoods. This is what we always do to avoid the exorbitant parking fees at the Miracle Mile locations, but your mileage may vary on finding a spot.
Alternatively, you can pay a $13 flat rate fee at Petersen’s garage, which is a good option if you’re visiting multiple museums in the area, or don’t want to hassle around with street parking. (There are also other garages around that charge ~$10.)
We never had the chance to visit the “old” incarnation of Petersen Automotive Museum prior to its massive overhaul a couple of years ago, but in perusing image online, it appeared more quaint and, in some cases, charming. For many of the Hollywood vehicles, there’s themed scenery, which is a fun touch.
On the other hand, the new interior design feels much sleeker, and a more fitting tribute to the automobile. It’s also reminiscent of a crisp and sterile collector’s vault (even the non-vault floors), and has a cool style. It’s impossible for me to compare this version of the museum to something I never visited, but I like the sleek look. It feels modern and works well with a lot of the cars on display.
Overall, I cannot say enough positive things about Petersen Automotive Museum. While we went in with trepidations about the entry fee and concerns that we wouldn’t be the target audience for this museum, we found it to be totally engrossing and one of the best absolute best museum experiences in Los Angeles. Petersen Automotive Museum successfully marries several concepts: one part cars-as-art gallery, one part history museum, and one part science museum. It’s also distinctly Californian, paying tribute to the car culture that has shaped the state. When visiting places as a tourist, I always like to focus on those that are unique to, and inform, their location and Petersen most definitely fits the bill in that regard. Petersen Automotive Museum is definitely one of the top draws in Los Angeles.
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 Petersen Automotive Museum? If so, what did you think of experience? Was it worth the pricey admission fee? Do you think it’s a worthwhile museum for people who aren’t car buffs? Any additional tips to add that we didn’t cover? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!