The preternaturally good weather; the vapid, plastic veneer of Hollywood; the über-rich, fedora-clad vegans hustling juice cleanses on the West Side—they have everyone distracted. Most people think Los Angeles is the most basic place on earth. But the 500-plus-square-mile city is actually very weird.
Folks call it the City of Dreams but fail to point out that most of those dreams end up broken. Get together a bunch of people with untapped talent and creativity and sadness over what could have been, and you’ll end up with a pretty bizarre culture. Don’t believe me? Go spend some time hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard.
One acute example of this is the city’s museums—and I’m not talking about the expected ones like MOCA or the Broad. LA contains an entire ecosystem of weird exhibitions; you just have to reach past the stereotypes and know where to look. Whether they’re honoring bunnies or death, these museums show you a different side to the city—and capture its true strangeness and charm—in ways a visit to the Getty never could.
Museum of Neon Art
It wouldn’t be Los Angeles without a reverence for shiny objects. In Glendale, they even glow. The small city in the northeast of LA County holds the world’s only museum dedicated to neon. For over three decades, the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) has housed a mixture of historic signage dating back to 1920, plus fine art from 1970 onwards, including work by Michael Flechtner, Mundy Hepburn, Dani Bonnet, and Larry Albright, among others. MONA also holds open studio visits and classes where you can learn the basics of bending neon.
Nearby Eats: Din Tai Fung
The museum is across the street from the Glendale Galleria, one of LA’s premiere shopping destinations. On the edge sits Din Tai Fung, a legit international chain known for having some of the best soup dumplings in the city.
The Bunny Museum
Kids are welcome at The Bunny Museum, but this is not a petting zoo. Don’t let the quirkiness fool you: The museum is a serious space dedicated to the history of bunnies in art, advertising, entertainment, fashion, and everyday life. The two-story building is chock-full of bunny paraphernalia, with more than 35,000 toys, figurines, and art (and three live bunnies). Husband-and-wife team Steve Lubanski and Candace Frazee founded it (and, at one point, ran the museum out of their home) in 1993, when Steve gave his then-girlfriend a bunny stuffed animal. Now they are featured in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most bunny stuff.
Nearby Eats: Fox’s Restaurant
Walk to local favorite Fox’s, a retro diner opened in 1955 by another husband-and-wife team. Nowadays, you’ll order omelets, burgers, and sandwiches oﬀ a standard printed menu, but there was a time when the owners wrote out their offerings by hand (and when ﬁsh and chips cost $2.25).
Museum of Death
It may seem like Hollywood’s exact brand of macabre, but the planet’s first museum dedicated to death actually launched in San Diego in 1995 before moving to LA four years later. Beware: This spot is hardcore and not for everyone. There are many graphic photos and videos covering atrocities, like death cults, beheadings, and mass murders. (A brief respite is a room dedicated to insect and animal death.) But it’s not gore for gore’s sake. There are skull and casket collections meant to deeply explore the cultural history of death and make us confront our own ideas around mortality.
Nearby Eats: Musso & Frank Grill
As classic as death is Musso and Frank’s, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. The joint is famous for its impeccable steak, superb service, and old-school décor. Even better is the history: Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, and Marilyn Monroe all considered the restaurant one of their haunts.
Museum of Jurassic Technology
It’s almost impossible to describe the Museum of Jurassic Technology. The New York Times called it a place “where the persistent question is: what kind of place is this?” It calls itself “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic”—intentional gobbledygook that makes more sense when you realize many of the exhibits are dreamed up by founder David Wilson. But that’s part of the point, as you try to make sense of decaying dice, microminiatures carved out of hair, and mosaics made from butterﬂy wings. There’s nothing else like it.
Nearby Eats: The Tula Tea Room
Make sure you head up to the roof, where the museum has recreated Tsar Nicolas II’s study from the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The Tula Tea Room offers visitors free tea and cookies in a gorgeous, old-world setting that includes the company of multiple live doves.
La Brea Tar Pits
In the middle of LA is a stretch of land that’s had many unexpected identities: ancient forest, ranch, oil ﬁeld, natural asphalt supplier. But it’s most famous for being the fossil site where more than 1,000 excavations have given us a sense of the plants and animals that have lived here for the past 50,000 years. The museum contains remains of Ice Age animals like saber-toothed cats, mammoths, and sloths, and, outside, you can chill by a bubbling tar lake or even excavate a bit yourself.
Nearby Eats: Fanny’s Cafe & Restaurant
Head to Fanny’s, a California cuisine restaurant named after Barbra Streisand’s character in Funny Girl. Imagine it’s still the golden age of Hollywood in a 10,000-square-foot space by late architect Osvaldo Maiozzi.