From dynamic entertainment industries and cultural treasures to amazing beaches and awe-inspiring natural wonders, California is full of excitement and new experiences at every turn.
With the most number of national parks in the country, varied landscapes, and a myriad of tourist attractions, it is arguably the most popular state for tourists.
Unsurprisingly, the Golden State isn’t short on art, history, and culture, which can be seen in the diversity of its museums and extensive galleries.
If you’re planning to visit the state soon, here are 20 of the best museums in California with Can’t-miss exhibits.
Best Museums in Western California
1. Autry Museum of the American West
Whether or not you’re a fan of the Wild West, the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park should be on your list of cultural places to visit.
Established in 1988 by none other than the Singing Cowboy Gene Autry, it features an extensive collection of over 500,000 pieces of art and artifacts on display that make it one of the best museums in California.
This includes rare Native American art, film memorabilia, historic firearms, paintings, and much more.
2. Museum of Western Film History – Lone Pine, CA
The Museum of Western Film History more than lives up to its name. The cultural center preserves Western film heritage with a permanent memorabilia collection from some of the most iconic Western films in the entertainment industry.
Visitors also get a chance to learn more about the history of Western films from the silent screen era to the present day and essential factors that have influenced and shaped the industry.
Best Museums in Central California
3. Yosemite Museum
The Yosemite National Park is full of surprises. One of them is the Yosemite Museum in the Yosemite Valley, and it was the first building converted into a museum within the national park back in 1926.
Among the best museums in California, it features artifacts that showcase the culture of the Ahwahnechee people who inhabited the valley. The building is constructed from indigenous building materials for a rustic look that blends with the natural surroundings.
4. The Meux Home Museum
The Meux Home Museum is a restored house and museum built in 1888 by Dr. Thomas Richard Meux. The 16-room Victorian Gothic mansion is a tribute to the architectural style of the era, giving visitors a taste of the 19th-century lifestyle.
The home museum features a beautiful garden and offers guided tours that take 45 to 60 minutes, allowing you to get to know the history and cultural significance of the place.
5. Reedley City Museum
Established in 1979, the Reedley City Museum is a historically significant spot in Fresno County. The building was Reedley’s first city hall.
This museum is home to an exquisite art collection comprised of Yokut American Indian relics. It features antique farm equipment that highlights the region’s history. The museum also hosts interactive exhibits from time to time that presents the ethnic and cultural diversity of the building.
6. Fresno Art Museum
For contemporary and modern art enthusiasts, few art museums stand out like the Fresno Art Museum. The gallery includes a collection of antiquities of Mexican/Mexican-American art and pre-Columbian sculptures.
This contemporary art museum organizes exhibitions that showcase visual art and traditions of North American ethnic groups native to the San Joaquin Valley. The museum comes from the Fresno Art League of the 1940s.
7. Sanger Depot Museum
Since opening its doors in December 1977, the Sanger Depot Museum has been the place for those who want to know about the rich, local history of the city.
The museum started as the Sanger Railroad Depot back in 1887, the hub of the small town’s growth. It is also the oldest building in Sanger.
8. Estrella Warbirds Museum
One of Central California’s most well-known museums is the Estrella Warbirds Museum. This non-profit historic site is committed to restoring and preserving military vehicles, aircraft, war memorabilia, and much more.
Apart from its vast collection of military artifacts, the museum also organizes enjoyable and enlightening family-oriented and special events in its event space.
9. California State Mining and Mineral Museum
Digging up dirt isn’t always a bad thing — at least that’s what you’ll learn at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. The museum, located in a state park, documents the state’s mineral resources and mining activities.
The museum’s massive collection includes over 13,000 minerals, gems, fossils, rocks, as well as historical artifacts in its permanent exhibit galleries. The site also owns a crystalline gold nugget called “Fricot Nugget,” which is close to around 200 pounds and the primary attraction for a lot of visitors.
10. Castle Air Museum
For those interested in seeing war memorabilia from World War II, one of the best museums in California is the Castle Air Museum. From uniforms and historical photos to military artifacts and historic aircraft, this museum has them all. Similar to the Field Air Museum in Riverside, it strives to document humanity’s aviation history.
This military aviation museum is among the largest aerospace museums in the USA. Among its more than 60 aircraft from World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, and the modern age, it also features the Douglas RA-3B Skywarrior, the longest-serving aircraft carrier in history.
Best Museums in Northern California
11. California State Railroad Museum
If you’ve heard of the “iron horse,” you must know about its role in connecting California to the rest of the United States. The California State Railroad Museum recognizes this significant linkage with a special tribute at the state park.
The museum boasts an impressive collection of 21 restored locomotives, some dating back to 1862. It showcases the influence of railroads on travel, commerce, and daily life and the diversity of people who work on railroads.
12. Computer History Museum
The Computer History Museum is among the most interesting sites in Mountain View, California; that has permanent exhibits on the history and growth of computers. The museum showcases the earliest artifacts of Silicon Valley and the rise of the technological age.
It’s an educational experience and an informative venue for people interested in computer science and is likely popular among kids.
13. Exploratorium – The Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception
The Exploratorium is one of San Francisco’s most extraordinary museums. It features exhibits related to science, technology, and the arts.
One of the best museums in California, it is self-described as a “public learning laboratory” with educational programs that boast interactive experiences, hands-on exhibits, and an interactive gallery. This encourages the personal exploration of science, art, and human perception, culminating in an immersive experience.
14. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Considered one of the best museums in California, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art features one of the country’s most prominent contemporary art collections. Featured artists include iconic greats such as abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat, pop artists Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, legendary architect Frank Gehry, and visual artist and sculptor Noah Purifoy. Families are invited to participate in hands-on “art studios” by local guest artists from time to time.
Among the best modern art museums, the venue features one of the largest collections of over 33,000 diverse artworks, including paintings, sculptures, photography, architecture, design, and media arts. It was the first exhibition on the West Coast to be dedicated to 20th-century art. With over 170,000 square feet of gallery space, it’s one of the largest museums of its kind in the US and the world.
Best Museums in Southern California
15. Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Blvd is the largest museum in the Western United States, with over 147,000 artifacts that showcase art from more than 6,000 decades from all over the globe.
Apart from being one of the best museums in California, it is also one of the most popular, attracting almost a million visitors every year. It exhibits a myriad of art from different perspectives that demonstrate the region’s rich cultural heritage.
16. Petersen Automotive Museum
The Petersen Automotive Museum is among the most extensive automotive exhibits globally, with over 250 cars on display, and remains one of the best museums in California. The site is a non-profit organization that specializes in automobile history.
This Southern California museum features over 100,000 square feet of gallery space and highlights the evolution of automobile engineering with its vast collection of cars. The automobiles on display draw large crowds of car enthusiasts every year.
17. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles in Exposition Park is one of the city’s oldest cultural institutions. It is also the largest natural sciences and historical museum in the Western United States.
The museum has a wide range of exhibitions, from the history of mammals and dinosaurs to the environmental transformation of LA. The museum explores the juxtaposition of nature and culture coming together.
Best Museums In Eastern California
18. Eastern California Museum
Founded in 1928, the Eastern California Museum collects, preserves, and interprets artifacts and knowledge about the Eastern Sierra and Inyo County’s natural and cultural history.
The museum is also home to over 27,000 historical photographs of the Eastern Sierra region. The museum has permanent exhibits where the artifacts and information are open for the public to interact with, offering an immersive experience. It also features special events from time to time.
19. Bowers Museum
Featuring more than 100,000 objects in its permanent collection, the Bowers Museum is an art museum in Santa Ana that’s considered one of the best museums in California.
The massive collection includes artifacts from pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, Native American art, and art from Asia, Africa, and Oceania. The museum also features California Plein air paintings.
20. Mission Inn Museum
Last but certainly not least on this list of the best museums in California is the Mission Inn Museum. The site exhibits the local history and art related to the century-old Mission Inn hotel and the immediate Riverside community.
The museum has a significant collection that showcases important milestones in Mission Inn’s development since 1876. It features exhibitions that demonstrate founder Frank Miller’s role in the development of Riverside and the importance of the Inn as a center of its civic life. There is also a gift shop where visitors can purchase products from the local Riverside community.
While most people visit California for its bright sunny weather and beautiful beaches, the state has a lot in store for its visitors. The rich culture and history of the Golden State are best seen in its wide range of museums, so make sure you check them out on your next trip to the West Coast.
Check out our other California posts to find out more things to do and see in this beautiful West Coast state.