The Getty Center Review & Tips

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The Getty Center is a free museum in Los Angeles, and one of the top attractions in California. This post offers our review of the Getty, along with some tips for making the most of your visit. If you’re a tourist who is thinking, “oh, it’s just a museum–I should do something better with my time in California,” please read on. The Getty Center is so much more than a museum.

Let’s start with a bit of background. Officially known as the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, this is an art museum on the northwest side of Los Angeles, nearer Santa Monica and Malibu than downtown Los Angeles, that houses European paintings, photography, drawings, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, and decorative arts from international sources.

Bequeathed to Los Angeles by oil magnate J. Paul Getty (one of the wealthiest Americans in history), the museum exists and operates free of charge thanks to the J. Paul Getty Trust. This is the world’s wealthiest art institution, with an endowment north of $7 billion. (I share that in case you were thinking a free museum cannot possibly be that great.) Now, for a review of the Getty Center. This is pretty easy, actually…

The Getty Center is one of the absolute best attractions in Southern California, and one of the best museums we’ve been to anywhere in the world.

Actually, calling it a museum does not do it justice, even if that is the most apt term. The experience of the Getty Center is exceptional in all regards from start to finish, and the price (free!) is right. It belongs on your short list of things to do on any visit to Los Angeles.

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Part of what makes the Getty great is the above-mentioned start to finish experience. Parking at the Getty Center is about a mile from the actual museum, which is by design.

This allows for a fun approach via monorail, which reminds me a bit of Magic Kingdom’s approach at Walt Disney World—arriving becomes part of the experience.

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Once you’ve arrived, simply being there is part of the experience. The Getty Center isn’t just a museum with an exceptional art and artifact collection, it’s one of the best public parks in Southern California, with beautiful views of the Santa Monica and Los Angeles skylines, as well as the surrounding mountains.

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Beyond the meticulously maintained grounds, fountains, and inviting public spaces, the modern architecture of the Getty Center is impressive. This makes the outdoor areas great for just grabbing a coffee or sandwich (and there are a number of places at the Getty to do exactly that) and enjoying the nice Southern California weather. If we lived or worked nearer the Getty, I could see visiting without even going inside the exhibits; it’s that pleasant of a park environment.

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This is a lot of praise before we even get to the galleries, and it’d be irrelevant if they were lacking. Fortunately, the main substantive draw of the Getty is likewise exceptional. Not only are they exceptional, but there are a lot of them.

This is not a situation like the Louvre where you could (supposedly) spend months and not see everything, but if you wanted to tour the Getty Center and do so thoroughly, you could not do it in a single day. You’re looking at a 3-day experience, minimally.

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Of course, most visitors don’t have that kind of time (and I’m certainly not recommending that you devote half of your SoCal vacation to a single museum), but the point is worth making to illustrate how expansive—and good—these galleries are at the Getty Center.

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For adults, the Getty is an exceptional art museum. I’m not sure whether it would hold the same appeal for small children. The number of interactive and tactile exhibits is fairly limited, but the galleries have a good amount of diversity in terms of the art styles and the way it’s presented.

In today’s age where everything must be a 2 minute or less YouTube clip to hold people’s attention, this is (sadly) important. We’ve seen a lot of younger-aged school groups (think K-5) there, and they always seem to be having a good time, for what that’s worth…

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Now for some tips and strategy. As one of the most popular attractions in Los Angeles, the Getty Center can get pretty crowded on weekends, holidays, and even random weekdays when large schools in the area decide to take field trips (which is pretty much always happening). Given this, a good strategy for experiencing the Getty is recommended.

There are two approaches you can take to do the Getty efficiently. Our recommendation is arriving first thing in the morning, and parking 30 minutes before the Getty opens. By doing this, you’ll arrive up at the museum right as it opens, and can start your day before the crowds arrive (you also should avoid L.A. traffic with this strategy).

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You’ll start by entering the Museum Entrance Hall, where many visitors stop to ask for info. This is understandable, as the Getty is large and contains multiple halls; the first time you’re there, it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

Don’t stop for info here (we’ve got you covered in that regard)–just stop for a map and a headset so you can do a self-guided audio tour. These headsets are (shockingly!) free; all you need to do is leave a driver’s license and they’ll give you a headset.

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After this, your first destination should be either the upper level of the Exhibitions Pavilion for whatever the current special/temporary exhibition is (currently “Bouchardon: Royal Artist of the Enlightenment”) or going directly all the way to the back of the Getty and going to the upper level of the West Pavilion (Art after 1800).

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Which you choose really depends upon your interest level in whatever the special exhibit is when you visit. Personally, I skew towards the West Pavilion. This is where most of the Getty collection’s highlights are on display, including works by Van Gogh, Manet, and Rembrandt.

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It’s no secret that the Getty Center’s highlights are on display in galleries W201-205. If you stop in the Museum Entrance Hall for recommendations, this is where the staff will suggest going. Heck, the Getty Center map even lists its highlights, and a good portion is in the West Pavilion upper level. Later in the day, it will be by far the most crowded area.

Regardless of which you do first, the West Pavilion (upper level only) and Exhibitions Pavilion should be your first two stops. After that, it doesn’t really matter.

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Arriving first thing in the morning allows you to spend around 4 hours at the Getty (which is still not enough time to see everything, but if you’re a visitor, you have to make compromises) before leaving for lunch and to head to the Getty Villa in Malibu. These are only a few miles from one another, and traffic should not be too bad in mid-afternoon.

The big upside to doing both in the same day is that you’ll only pay for parking once (be sure to get a voucher for free parking at the Getty Villa before leaving the Getty Center). The other upside is that you’ll be in Malibu once rush hour hits.

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I’ll have a separate post on the Getty Villa soon, but for now I’ll say that both are absolutely worth doing. They are complimentary experiences, each bringing something unique to your trip.

The Getty Villa doesn’t take nearly as much time to see (in my opinion), and also leaves you a stone’s throw from El Matador State Beach in Malibu, which is a great way to end the day. (You’d also be relatively close to the more touristy Santa Monica Pier, but El Matador is the far superior beach.)

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Alternatively, you could choose to arrive after 3 p.m. on a weekend, by which time crowds tend to die down. Schools leave by early afternoon, and most people aren’t arriving that late.

The problem with this is that it only gives you a couple hours to see as much as you can before the Getty closes.

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Two hours is not enough time to see the West and Exhibition Pavilions properly, let alone anything else. Moreover, you’re also hitting rush hour traffic on the north side of L.A. when you leave, which is problematic unless you’re going up to Burbank (or in that vicinity).

In terms of other tips, as you might’ve surmised based upon the above, the Getty Center charges for parking. It’s currently $15 (or $10 after 3 p.m.), which is about par for the course in Los Angeles.

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There are multiple places to eat at the Getty (3 restaurants and a few coffee carts), and if you’re following our plan of doing both the Getty Center and Getty Villa in the same day, this (or packing a lunch—which is a great option with so many picnic areas at the Getty!) is your best option for the sake of efficiency.

There are also several excellent restaurants between the two (our recommendation would be Tivoli Cafe, which offers a good intersection of convenience and quality).

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Large backpacks are not allowed at the Getty nor are tripods. Flash photography is prohibited across the board, and photography is prohibited in some locations (some of the items in the special exhibition are on loan from other museums, which prohibit photos of their art.

To my knowledge, The Getty doesn’t prohibit photos of anything in its collections. Consult the Getty website for a list of current rules and that sort of thing.

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Ultimately, you cannot go wrong with a visit to the Getty. It ranks very highly (probably top 5) on my list of things to do in Southern California, and scores even more points for being a free activity. The overall experience is so much more than “just” the galleries that are on display. The caliber of the art collection coupled with the inviting atmosphere makes the Getty one of the finest museums I’ve ever visited, and a place I would not hesitate to recommend to all visitors. It’s a great way to spend a half-day or more. As a local, I could go back again and again without ever tiring of the experience.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. If you enjoyed this post, please use the sharing buttons above to help spread the word via social media. I greatly appreciate it! 

Your Thoughts

Have you visited the Getty Center? If so, what did you think of the whole experience, from start to finish? Did you enjoy the galleries? What were the highlights for you? Would you recommend the Getty Center to others? Any other tips or recommendations? If you haven’t done the Getty Center, is it something that interests you? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

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11 replies
  1. Karyl
    Karyl says:

    I can vouch for your readers that your review is not hyperbole — the Getty is the must-do of Los Angeles and the best museum we’ve ever explored. We visited opening week and have been back many times since. (And I loved that you photographed “Wheatstacks” — my absolute favorite painting in the whole museum. That light!) I can vouch for small children enjoying the museum. There is so much to do outside in the gardens and they love the “furniture rooms” that display furniture and art from different historical eras. Just be sure to have small ones buckled into strollers while you visit those rooms. It makes the guards (understandably) nervous if the wee ones are on the loose in those areas. And I was so happy to see water in the fountains in your photographs. When we last visited (November 2015), the fountains were empty due to the drought, we were told. Their absence really took away from the beauty of the gardens. It’s nice to see everything back to the way it was designed to be. Thanks for sharing your beautiful photographs!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      The entire wall where Wheatstacks is located is full of ‘heavy-hitters’. It’s really amazing to see so much beautiful art in one place (I cannot fathom how many millions of dollars worth of art are in that room), and up close.

      With the drought being more or less over in Southern California, the water in most fountains that were previously dry has been turned back on. The hillsides are also a vibrant shade of green right now–I’m so used to seeing them all look dead and brown!

      Reply
  2. Adrian
    Adrian says:

    A close second to Griffith Observatory for non-Disney SoCal attractions during our CA trip two years ago! We had a 7 and a 9 year old, and they enjoyed it as well. Both the Getty Center and the Villa have a great little card activity the kids can do where they look for works of art to help answer questions in certain rooms. We enjoyed our time here 1000x more than our time in Hollywood (and that statement is not as hyperbolic as it may sound…).

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I have a tough time choosing between Griffith Observatory/Park and the Getty Center. They are dramatically different (and there are some great hikes around Griffith), so I’d prefer just to cop out and call both of them ‘top 5’ attractions.

      I more or less agree about Hollywood, but having a chance to experience more in the area as a local has given me more of an appreciation for it. The touristy areas suck, though.

      Reply
  3. Isabel
    Isabel says:

    Fantastic overview Tom. The Getty is one of my favorite places and a must-do whenever I have friends visiting Southern California. I make it a point to take them there (or the Villa if they’re like me and have a stronger affinity for classical history and art) even over Disney parks.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      The two places we take everyone who visits us are Griffith Observatory and Victoria Beach in Laguna. We might add the Getty to that list.

      Disneyland depends upon their budget and interests.

      Reply
  4. wwcpd
    wwcpd says:

    The Getty Center and Getty Villa are both wonderful places, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to visitors. I particularly enjoy trying to find fossils in the limestone at the Center, but have to give a tiny edge to the art at the Villa, mostly because I dig Greek and Roman stuff. Both are extremely enjoyable outings.

    Beautiful photos again – thanks!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      That’s the tough thing. There’s easily a month of worthwhile attractions and things to do in Los Angeles, but most people have a week or less here. A good problem to have, I suppose!

      Reply

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