Museums are portals — transporting visitors into the realms of curiosity and offering glimpses into the past, present and future. Whether history or science, art or culture, they open the doors of the imagination, answering questions and allowing us to pose new ones. Big or small, old or new, we love discovering museums no matter where they’re located. Here are six of our favorite West Coast gems.
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry - Portland, Oregon
A 219-foot submarine floating on the Willamette River that's yours to explore. (It’s the USS Blueback, and you may have seen it in the 1990 film “The Hunt for Red October.”) A planetarium that shines a light on galaxies light years away. A full-fledged paleontology lab that brings prehistoric creatures to life. You can find all this and more at OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. What started in 1903 as an odd collection of artifacts is now one of the best science museums in the country, and a great place to visit for adults and children.
Columbia Gorge Discovery Center & Museum - The Dalles, Oregon
From the Ice Age to the Space Age, this beautiful museum at the mouth of the Columbia Gorge covers it all. Inside, visitors will find a life-sized Columbian Mammoth, while the 54 acres surrounding the museum contain evidence of human habitation dating back at least 11,000 years, along with sections of both the Lewis and Clark and Oregon Trails. Hiking trails, native plants, and a raptor discovery program all await eager visitors.
Portland Art Museum - Portland, Oregon
The largest art museum in the state, the Portland Art Museum covers almost a quarter of a million square feet in the heart of downtown. Founded in 1892, the PAM contains more than 40,000 works of art. A particularly fine Asian collection of around 4,000 pieces includes a print of Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The museum’s newest addition is the Rothko Pavilion, which when completed will hold a rotating collection of major works, on loan from the artist’s children.
Maryhill Museum of Art - Goldendale, Washington
A town of 3,500 people in south-central Washington may not be where you’d expect to find a full-size replica of Stonehenge, yet here it is. Businessman Samuel Hill chose this spot overlooking the Columbia River Gorge to build a mansion before converting the structure to a museum, which was dedicated in 1926 by his good friend, Queen Marie of Romania. The Stonehenge replica is a memorial to the servicemen of Klickitat County who died in World War I, but it’s far from the museum’s only attraction. More than 80 works by French sculptor Auguste Rodin can be found here, along with 400 intricately detailed chess sets, a collection of Orthodox icons, and a sculpture park containing large-scale works by some of the top artists in the Pacific Northwest.
The Whale Museum - Friday Harbor, Washington
This “killer” museum was the first in the country dedicated to a living wild species — orcas, which are often referred to as “killer whales.” The museum promotes stewardship of all whales, with a special focus on the orcas of J, K and L Pods living in the Salish Sea, the inland waters around the San Juan Islands. Visitors can “adopt” an orca, hear whale calls, and marvel at the enormous whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling. Don’t forget to check out the sightings map for the most recent locations where whales have been seen.
Museum of Pop Culture - Seattle, Washington
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen founded the Experience Music Project in 2000 but since then it’s branched beyond music, morphing into MoPOP. A celebration of all things pop culture, from television to tattoos, the museum is ensconced in a futuristic Frank O. Gehry-designed structure that sits below the city’s iconic Space Needle. Among the show-stopping artifacts to be found here are the guitar Jimi Hendrix shredded at Woodstock, Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, and the fedora worn by Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
The Getty - Los Angeles, California
Constructed for a whopping one billion dollars in 1997, the Getty’s striking building, gardens and panoramic views are worth a trip on their own merits. But after they step inside, visitors will find an astonishing collection of treasures from medieval to modern — and all for free. (Timed admission tickets are required.) The permanent collection includes Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 masterpiece Irises, and a self-portrait by Rembrandt. The Getty Villa, near Malibu, also has a world-class collection of ancient Greek and Roman art, housed in a Roman-style house that was modeled on a villa buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
California Academy of Sciences - San Francisco, California
The name sounds dry, but the nation’s largest natural history museum is anything but dull, bursting with experiences to delight every interest. A 90-foot-tall dome protects a lush butterfly-filled rainforest, and the Steinhart Aquarium houses more than 1,000 species and conducts cutting-edge conservation research. A towering Tyrannosaurus rex presides over the Kimball Natural History Museum, and the Morrison Planetarium is simply out of this world.
Palm Springs Art Museum - Palm Springs, California
It’s famed for being a hideaway for Hollywood stars and renowned for its well-preserved mid-century modern buildings, but the city in Coachella Valley also boasts an incredible museum that focuses on art, architecture, and design. Established in 1938, highlights of the permanent collection include glass creations by Dale Chihuly, sculptures by Henry Moore, and works by Alexander Calder, David Hockney, and Marc Chagall.