In 1955, James Dean made this place famous, as one of the most iconic scenes of Rebel Without a Cause was filmed right here at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. Since then, it has become a symbol of Los Angeles, being used to represent the city in dozens of films and nearly a hundred television shows. But it is still both a planetarium and observatory first and foremost, and one of my favorite spots here in my hometown City of Angels.
In 1896, Griffith J. Griffith donated the land that would become his namesake park to the city of Los Angeles. (Click here to read about Griffith Park.) As one of the conditions of the land grant, Griffith mandated that two buildings be constructed here for public use: a Greek-style theatre and an observatory. The theatre became the aptly named Greek Theatre (click here to read more about it). In 1935, after two years of construction, the second building opened to the public, the Griffith Observatory.
It was the country’s third planetarium, and one of the first large telescopes to grant public access. During the first five days of operation, more than 13,000 visitors were logged. To date, more than seven million people have gazed through the twelve inch telescope here, and it is still free to do so nearly every night. (Free admission was one of Griffith’s conditions on the observatory’s construction.)
The building itself is stunning, a series of three domes (the largest central dome is the planetarium, while the smaller side domes house the telescope and a set of solar instruments) done in a mix of Greek revival and art deco styles.
Inside, exhibit highlights include a working Tesla coil, actual meteorite fragments, and scales one can stand on to weigh oneself on different planets. (Hint: for self esteem purposes, don’t visit Jupiter.) Planetarium shows are varied, though not free.
For me, one of the best places to see inside is the central atrium, which holds a pendulum that demonstrates the rotation of the planet as it gradually knocks over a series of dowels. While it is captivating, make sure to look upwards at the incredible mural covering the ceiling.
Even if you aren’t interested in space, a visit to the Griffith Observatory is worthwhile just for the view. From out in front, the grounds offer one of the best lookouts on the Hollywood Sign, and the rampart walk around the outside of the building gives vistas of much of the Los Angeles basin. I only wish there was signage explaining what one was looking at.
Admission to the Griffith Observatory is, as mentioned, free, although planetarium shows have a fee. So, too, does parking, a whopping $10 per hour (prepaid). To avoid this, some visitors choose to park at the base of the hill and hike up. From a trailhead near the Greek Theatre, it is about a 30-45 minute walk.
When people come to visit me in Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory is one of the top places I suggest visiting. The exhibits are cool, the history is fascinating, and the view is one of the best in the city. Combined, these make for a worthwhile day for locals and tourists, alike.
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