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The Petersen Automotive Museum: Miracle Mile’s Ode to Car Culture

July 6, 2020
Peterson Automotive Museum car on display

For car lovers visiting Los Angeles, the Petersen Automotive Museum, one of the world’s largest automotive museums, is a must. Its collection boasts over 300 vehicles and immersive experiences — who doesn’t enjoy a racing simulator, right? And you can’t miss the eye-catching building if you’re driving down this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard known as “Miracle Mile.”

The museum underwent a $90 million renovation fairly recently (2015), and the result is a striking red building with stainless steel ribbons woven around it, meant to evoke the movement of a car. Inside, you’ll find cars that are just as futuristic.

What to see at Petersen Automotive Museum

antique car display in LA museum

Founded by magazine publisher and car aficionado Robert E. Petersen (who naturally published a number of car-themed publications), the automotive museum was originally located inside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles before moving into the current building, formerly a department store.

The museum’s display is organized to showcase “The History, Industry, and Artistry of the Automobile,” each on its own floor. In addition to the permanent collection, there are also temporary exhibits that rotate through the museum.

The artistry and industry of the automobile

radiator of a vintage car at the Petersen Automotive Museum

The first floor of the museum is for artistry. As you might expect, it shows the most artistic vehicles but also how automobiles have been used as a subject or canvas for art. There’s more than cars here — be sure to check out the Light Cycle from the movie “TRON.”

The second floor covers industry. The galleries will wow you with impressive technologies and design, from electric vehicles to hot rods. The third floor, dedicated to history, explores both the history of automobiles themselves and the storied past of Los Angeles and its cars. The museum has cars from throughout the 20th century, and there’s even a replica of the 1886 Benz — the world’s first practical car, a “motorwagen” that could reach the sensational speed of 10 mph.

“Cars” Mechanical Institute

If you’re traveling with kids, plan to spend a little extra time on the second floor inside the Discovery Center. Here, the “Cars” Mechanical Institute lets kids (and adults) have some hands-on fun. You can personalize virtual cars, race toy cars around a racetrack, build with Legos, and even paint your own “Cars” character to take home.

Forza Motorsport Racing Experience

Stairs at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles

Also on the second floor are 10 racing simulators that are customized to simulate a Forza Motorsport. There are Xbox kiosks with Forza racing games where you can race the cars that are displayed in the gallery. Forza Motorsport 7 was named the best racing game in 2020, so come ready for thrills. It’s a blast.

The Vault

True car lovers will want to check out the Vault. It’s an upgrade for your ticket, but it’s worth it if you want to see this exclusive underground collection of cars that finally opened to the public in 2018. It features more than 250 vehicles, including legendary cars such as 2015 McLaren P1 and a 1925 Rolls Royce Phantom I.

There are also celebrity-owned cars including Steve McQueen’s 1956 Jaguar XKSS. There’s even a Mercedes Benz owned by Saddam Hussein and a 1998 Cadillac built for Pope John Paul II to use when he visited Mexico City (he never did ride it, but he did bless the car).

Plan your visit to the Petersen Automotive Museum

Convinced you need to visit the Petersen here in LA? These are some answers to help you plan (and get excited for) your trip.

How much is the Petersen Automotive Museum?

Admission to the Petersen Automotive Museum costs $16 for adults ($14 for seniors and $11 for children). The museum also offers free admission to children under 4 years old and those who are active military. There’s an additional cost for the Vault Tour.

How long is the Petersen Vault Tour?

There are different tiers for the guided Petersen Vault Tour: a 75-minute tour for $20, a 120-minute tour for $20 and Tour of the Legends for $75. (During the pandemic, the museum is only offering a self-guided audio tour for $28, which is not timed).

Who designed the Petersen Automotive Museum?

Exterior of the Peterson Automotive Museum under a rainbow

The current transformation of the museum was designed by the architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, known for large-scale projects around the world like the Lotte World Tower (the tallest building in South Korea) and 30 Hudson Yards in Manhattan.

How much is parking at the Petersen Automotive Museum?

Parking at the museum is free for the first 30 minutes, but you’ll need more time than that. All-day parking is $17 ($21 if you enter before 8 a.m. on Monday-Friday), although you can get free parking if you spend $75 at the museum store. You may be able to find two-hour street parking spots in the area, but that won’t be long enough if you want to see everything the museum has to offer, including the Vault.

Petersen Automotive Museum: A car collection for a city of cars

Dashboard for a vintage car at the Petersen museum in LA

There’s enough to see and experience at the Petersen, from learning about history to admiring futuristic tech, that you should consider visiting even if you’re not a car aficionado.

It’s a great addition to your bucket list of museums in LA. There are a couple of other great museums worth visiting while you’re in the Miracle Mile area. Two of the best include the La Brea Tar Pits and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, both a must for your city tour of LA. Read about them on our list of favorite museums in LA.