Film buffs instantly recognize this streamlined Art Deco observatory in L.A.'s rambling Griffith Park from the climactic scenes of the 1955 James Dean classic film Rebel Without a Cause. My kids, however, know it from the climactic scenes of the 1999 Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger. But so what if they don't get the Rebel Without a Cause reference? Who could fail to dig this white stucco complex with its three bronze domes, slung into the south side of Mount Hollywood with a killer panorama of Los Angeles spread out below? In the daytime, the lawn of the observatory is one of the best places in the city to view the famous Hollywood sign; on warm nights, with the lights twinkling below, the Griffith Observatory's wide terrace is one of the most romantic places in L.A. And if you manage to steer the children inside to do a little stargazing while you're up there at night, you're ahead of the game.
This Hollywood Hills landmark was built in 1935 in the vaguely Mediterranean style studio moguls of that era favored, and underwent a major renovation during 2003–06. A white obelisk in front honors six great astronomers of the past: Hipparchus, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Herschel. The large central dome houses a state-of-the-art planetarium, where narrated projectors display the stars and planets that are nearly impossible to observe outdoors, what with all the smog and light pollution of the L.A. metro sprawl. Like most planetariums, it also screens various multimedia shows of varying scientific seriousness. We generally skip the planetarium, however, and head straight into the adjacent exhibits on galaxies, meteorites, and other astronomical subjects, which include cool objects such as a mechanical orrery, a Tesla coil, and scales where you can check your weight on different planets. A Foucault pendulum mesmerized my boys as it methodically swung in the main rotunda, demonstrating the earth's rotation, and detailed 6-foot topographical models of the earth and the moon provide focal points in the side galleries.
The observatory's two flanking domes each house a telescope -- in the west one, a triple-beamed solar telescope trained on the sun for daytime visitors, in the east one a 12-inch refracting telescope. On clear nights visitors can climb to the roof and wait their turn to gaze through it at the moon and planets. This is, after all, an observatory, and although it has never had the astronomical prestige of its California neighbor Palomar Mountain, it does attend to sky matters.
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles International.
Where to Stay: $$$ The Beverly Garland Holiday Inn, 4222 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood (tel. 800/BEVERLY [238-3759] or 818/980-8000; www.beverlygarland.com). $$ Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd. (tel. 800/950-7667 or 323/466-7000; www.hollywoodroosevelt.com).