Seeing Stars on a Budget at Griffith Park Observatory

Jennifer Stern October 11, 2010 No Comments

Griffith Park Observatory Hollywood California

Griffith Park Observatory

Let’s face it. Financially, times continue to be tough right now for many of us. No one feels the squeeze of economic hardship more than my family and I. What with the move to an expensive urban area, three rapidly-growing boys and two dogs to feed, sometimes a big expensive family vacation just isn’t in the cards. Sometimes, we just need cheap entertainment.  

Luckily, we have found that we needn’t break the bank when it comes to new places to go and things to do with the kids. There are plenty of nearby day trips in Southern California that are either low-cost or completely free.  

One of our favorite places to go when we get the urge to commune with nature, see the stars, (no, not celebrities–the other kind of stars) and watch our pennies in the process is the Griffith Park Observatory. Since Griffith Park is only a 15-minute drive from our house, it was one of the first destinations we decided to explore after moving to “beautiful downtown Burbank.”  

One of Southern California’s most popular attractions as well as a national leader in public astronomy, the Observatory is located on the southern slope of Mount Hollywood, just above the uber-hip L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz. The winding, meandering drive up to the top of the Hollywood Hills is a delight in itself–you will pass by the Travel Town museum, the Los Angeles Zoo, many beautiful homes, people on horseback, bikers, joggers, and picnickers. You are treated to 360-degree panoramic views of L.A. on all sides (okay, well, depending on the level of smog that day).  

You will begin encountering traffic as you approach the observatory–the best thing to do is to look for parking on the side of the road, as the parking lot is likely to be full, especially on the weekends. Just be mindful of the signs–you don’t want to get a ticket and ruin a perfectly lovely day!  

Griffith Park Observatory James Dean Statue

Rebels Without a Cause

Once you get out and start walking, make sure you look to your right. You and your family will have the best view of the world-famous Hollywood sign you will ever have. Of course, like millions and millions of people before you, you will want to pose for numerous photos in front of the sign to show everyone back home that you were, indeed, in Hollywood. (Unless, of course, you live here, in which case you’re probably over it…)  

Keep walking, and you will pass ever-so-conveniently located public restrooms–great for a quick pit stop–and you will also see a bust of actor James Dean (his classic 1956 film Rebel Without a Cause was partially filmed on the grounds of the Observatory, as you will discover when you read the engraved plaque). It’s a fascinating bit of trivia for movie buffs, and, of course, another great photo op.  

If you have a pocket full of change, drop a few quarters into one of those coin-operated binocular/viewfinder/telescope thingies at the perimeter of the grounds and you’ll get to take a closer look at downtown L.A. and the Hollywood sign for a couple of minutes. I like to bring extra change because my boys will fight over who gets to look first, who got the longest turn, I-can’t-see-anything-because-it’s-out-of-focus…you get the idea.  

The stately copper-domed Observatory, which opened to the public in 1935, is an impressive and beautiful example of Art Deco architecture. In 2002 it closed for a $93-million dollar renovation and expansion and re-opened to the public four years later, with most of its original features intact and many more new bells and whistles, bringing this classic building into the 21st century.  

Fascinating exhibits inside the Griffith Park Observatory

Fascinating exhibits inside the Observatory

The Observatory’s Samuel Oschin Planetarium is the only attraction for which there is a fee. Three different shows are run every 60 to 90 minutes, and ticket prices are $7 for adults; $5 for students and seniors; and $3 for kids ages 5-12. One important caveat to note if you have really little ones: Children under age 5 are admitted only to the first planetarium show of the day, and must sit on an adult’s lap.  

If you think your kids are old enough to pay attention and will enjoy it, you might consider taking them to one of the free programs at the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon, which is a new 200-seat multimedia theater that was added during the expansion and renovation. Leonard Nimoy (yes, “Mr. Spock” himself) narrates a short film on the history, renovation, and new features at the observatory. Honestly, with younger kids, I think I’d skip it and just go directly to the exhibits themselves.  

Once a month the observatory holds what it calls Public Star Parties, from 2 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. They are a great opportunity for the whole family to get up-close and personal with the sun, moon, planets, and other celestial bodies, to try out a variety of different telescopes, and to speak with knowledgeable amateur astronomers about the sky and their equipment.  

We like to wander the exhibits including the Gunther Depths of Space Hall, the Edge of Space Mezzanine and the Ahmanson Hall of the Sky. All feature interactive exhibits that kids will enjoy, including getting a chance to peer through one of the largest public solar telescopes in the United States. Our boys always get a big kick out of the exhibits featuring special scales that tell you how much you would weigh on the moon and on different planets. For some strange reason, it doesn’t hold the same thrill for me…  

We always round out our observatory outings with a visit to the Cafe’ at the End of the Universe, located on the lower level between the Gunther Depths of Space exhibit hall and the Gottlieb Transit Corridor. Overseen by the iconic chef Wolfgang Puck (okay, well, allegedly–I’ve never actually seen him there), the cafe features cool drinks, coffee, sandwiches, snacks and desserts. You can sit either inside or out, enjoy the spectacular view, and often, live music. It’s always a relaxing and refreshing little break and not too terribly expensive. (Oh, a word of caution–the dreaded GIFT SHOP is right across from the cafe’–if you’d like to keep this trip on the cheap, you’ll have to do some fancy maneuvering to avoid it!)Hollywood Sign Southern California  

Sometimes it’s just such a beautiful day that we simply can’t bear to spend it all inside the dark observatory. We like to go up onto the rooftop observation deck to take photos and ogle the spectacular city and hill views.We always like to bring a Nerf football or some type of toy to toss around on the huge expanse of green lawn in front of the observatory. My 8-year-old delights in running around and petting the dozens of dogs (with permission, of course,) whose owners are walking them around the grounds. One thing you will want to leave at home, however, is your kids’ bikes, skateboards, or scooters, as all manner of wheeled toys are forbidden on the grounds (a fact we found out the hard way when our boys attempted to skate there).  

You really can make a whole day of it at the Observatory, rain or shine, and not tax your wallet too much in the process. And you’ll be able to say you saw the stars in Hollywood!  

The Observatory is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and open from noon to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends.

avatarAbout the Author:

Jennifer Stern is a mom of three teen boys, who provide her with constant inspiration to write. She is also a fitness professional/junkie who teaches everything from Spinning to Zumba. A New Jersey native, this is her second time living in Southern California. She loves the L.A. lifestyle, but does miss eating decent pizza and bagels--so she consoles herself with excellent Mexican food. She and her family live in Burbank.

Tags: , , Reviews

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.