Top things to do in Los Angeles
Flying into LAX, with the vast city spread out before you, the prospect of trying to see it all can be daunting. With beaches as far as the eye can see and a downtown area that’s popping, Los Angeles offers so much more than just Hollywood.
Getting around this sprawling metropolis is an issue for most visitors. As the Interstate Highway System took shape, the once world’s largest electrified rail system fell by the wayside and freeways became an integral part of the LA landscape, sometimes four levels high. LA has been playing catch up ever since and although the public transport network is expanding, it can be limiting if you want to travel off the beaten track.
Hiring a car is still the best way to explore (although there are plenty of tours hitting all the tourist hot spots). With two or more people on board you can use carpool lanes. Download a map from Google Maps onto your phone and you’ll have your own satnav without the necessity for Wi-Fi or expensive roaming charges. Just remember that navigation chews up the battery, so invest in a portable charger to ensure you can still snap photos to your heart’s content. Plan your journey and avoid peak hour traffic. Uber is alive and well here too.
Located close to the Mexican border and with a significant Latino influence (Spanish is spoken here as widely as it is in Mexico and Miami), Los Angeles reaps all the benefits of its sunny, southern coastal possie. Eat, shop, soak up the city’s unique culture and enjoy the great outdoors, as ‘it never rains in Southern California’. Well almost never.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Los Angeles.
Settled in 1781, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciúncula) soon became known simply as Los Angeles, and began the long transformation from tiny outpost to the second largest city in the United States.
The film industry took hold in the early 1900s, attracting people and investment which helped cushion LA against the losses other cities sustained during the Great Depression. The Hollywood Walk of Fame lacks the glitz and glamour you may be expecting – unless of course there’s a star ceremony. More than 2,500 stars dedicated to the who’s who of Hollywood over the decades grace Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. There’s a cool rooftop bar and restaurant called Mama Shelter a block back on Selma Avenue. So after a quick photo stop on the walk, drop in for brunch or afternoon cocktails.
Nearby, the Hollywood Museum houses 100 years of Hollywood history in the historic Max Factor building. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is scheduled to open in Downtown in 2018.
Constant discoveries at the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum piece together a much earlier history when mammoths reigned supreme before disappearing completely – only to be rediscovered millions of years later in Downtown.
The Los Angeles Conservancy walking tours offer an in-depth look at the city’s history from the perspective of its changing architecture.
For top cultural things to do in Los Angeles, Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises is housed at The Getty Centre – where a permanent collection is complemented by changing exhibitions. The centre is surrounded by stunning gardens created by artist Robert Irwin. Entry is free (although parking is $15). If you’re heading up to Malibu, grab a coupon to avoid paying for parking again and pop into the Getty Villa on the Pacific Coast Highway. Modelled on a first century Roman villa, it houses a fabulous collection of antiquities.
In Downtown, nestled between 1st and 3rd Streets, you’ll discover a collection of museums and entertainment venues. The free advance tickets for The Broad contemporary art museum, which are released on the first of the month for the following month, go quickly. Check out their Twitter feed (@thebroadstandby) for updated waiting times in their standby line if you miss out. Whilst museum hopping, refuel at the Grand Central Market with its almost endless selection of fresh cuisine.
LA is the spiritual home of the TV chat show. Secure a ticket before you leave home and you could be dancing with Ellen or laughing with James Corden. You’ll need to register on their websites. Submit a photo for Ellen and tell James Corden why you love him! Lodge your ticket requests well in advance.
It’s impossible not to get caught up in the atmosphere as passionate and vocal locals support their beloved baseball, basketball, American football or ice hockey teams, depending on the season. You’ll spot more celebs in the crowd at an LA Lakers basketball game at the STAPLES Center than peering at high-walled compounds on a celebrity homes tour (but each to their own!).
Heading north on the Pacific Coast Highway, the drive to Geoffrey’s Malibu will land you where tables hug the coast as the sea laps against the shore. Their brunch menu will have you agonising over the choices. You don’t get more Californian than this. The crabcake Eggs Benedict is a fitting start to the day, while the three course set dinner is the perfect way to finish it. The food, service and setting are all impeccable.
At Malibu Seafood the seafood is straight from the ocean to your table. Sit on the patio dipping your fish and chips into homemade tartar sauce or slurping down one of the best clam chowders you’ll ever taste.
Mélisse in Santa Monica is Michelin-starred dining at its best. Their prix fixe tasting menus are billed as contemporary American with French influences. If you’re looking for the WOW factor – this is it. The food is almost too pretty to eat. The policy of jackets preferred (but not required) says it all!
For smart casual dining try Coast at Shutters on the Beach overlooking the Santa Monica Pier, for perfectly grilled swordfish and a glass of Sancerre. The terrace sits right on the beach, shaded by palm trees.
Koreatown (KTOWN) is smashing it with amazing restaurants and bars. Here’s Looking at You blends two of California’s foremost cuisines, Japanese and Mexican. The menu is deliciously inventive with seasonal cocktails you’ll find nowhere else. Start or top off the perfect evening with the cocktail tasting experience at The Walker Inn. Bookings are accepted two weeks in advance.
With locations all over the city, Il Fornaio has a happy hour from 4.30 to 6.30pm Monday to Friday and Sundays from 8 to 10pm that’s worth a try. As they do at some places, the portion sizes here don’t change so it’s great value. Try the wafer thin beef carpaccio and lightly dusted calamari piled high with a delicious spicy marinara sauce – the tomatoes and spices blended to perfection.
In LA’s Fashion District over 1,000 independently owned stores will have you filling your suitcase with bargains at ridiculously discounted prices. Don’t miss the sample sales when wholesalers open their doors to the general public on the last Friday of most months. Cash only sales are the order of the day.
Most well-known global chain stores offer sales throughout the year for one reason or another, or for no reason at all. You’d be hard pressed to have to pay full price for an item, unless of course you are heading for the luxury boutiques lining Rodeo Drive. If so, refresh at the rooftop lounge Above SIXTY Beverley Hills on Wilshire Boulevard. As with most outdoor dining areas in LA, opening times vary according to the season.
Outlet malls in the States are where you’ll definitely snare a bargain. You’ll find the brands you love at Citadel Outlets, and even they have sales!
The Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena has been hosting games and concerts since 1902, and on the second Sunday of each month it’s home to one of the best flea markets around.
For relaxing things to do in Los Angeles, just head for the beach. Hiring a bike is the best way to explore the beachfront from Santa Monica to Marina Del Rey and beyond, with paved bike paths making the journey easy. Jay’s Rentals at Venice Beach will get you sorted for the day for $20. If the surf’s up, they’ll also kit you out with a surfboard and wetsuit. Venice to Santa Monica is a twenty-minute ride.
High above the palm trees, the High Rooftop Lounge at the Erwin Hotel on Venice Beach beats them all for sunset views. As the music creates the vibe, the crowds gather around street performers down on the boardwalk while skateboarders practice their moves. Venice Beach is the place for souvenirs, while further north at Santa Monica the iconic pier juts out into the Pacific, complete with a ferris wheel and roller coaster. Tame by LA theme park standards.
Speaking of which – Universal Studios Hollywood will get the heart racing as you cast your spells with Harry Potter or get Fast and Furious. Fork out for the VIP Experience and head to the front of the queues and behind the scenes.
No visit to LA is complete without a visit to Disneyland, especially for the kids and the young at heart. Walk through the story books of Walt Disney, loop through the darkness in Hyperspace Mountain or shake hands with Mickey Mouse. The original, and some may argue, the best Disneyland, along with California Adventure Park across the way, will keep you occupied for a couple of days. Unless you are planning on staying at a Disneyland resort, pass over Anaheim for more interesting LA addresses near the beach or Downtown.
Fifty miles of hiking trails weave through Griffith Park, one of the largest urban green spaces in North America. Head up to the Griffith Observatory, where on a clear day you really can see forever over Downtown, the beaches beyond and the Hollywood sign straddling the Santa Monica mountains in the distance. The Hollywood sign is an iconic landmark that can be viewed from a number of places.
And finally, Sunglow Yacht Charters in Long Beach, home of the legendary Queen Mary (now a hotel and entertainment venue), will have you California dreamin’ on a three-hour sailing lesson, or sipping champagne on a 90-minute skippered sunset sail. Heaven.
Five tours we love
Why stride when you can ride? Hit the pavement on two wheels and experience Southern California beach culture – famous for surfers, body builders and exhibitionists!
Find out what goes on behind the scenes and between takes on one of LA’s most famous lots.
Enjoy a decadent two-hour stroll around Beverly Hills’ top chocolate shops.
Channel your inner-cowboy and get up close to the most famous sign in the world.
Learn more about the stars of the big screen past and present on this fabulous four-hour guided tour.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Los Angeles? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
As a travel blogger and photographer, Neil Brook travels the world looking to meet interesting people, taste great food and find different angles from which to cover his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore and London. Currently living in Bangkok, Neil splits his time between Thailand and London. He would be in heaven joining the Bizarre Foods team, having tried horse meat tartare in Tokyo, lobster sashimi in Manila and the perfect ceviche in Havana. More a traveller than a tourist, he prefers to mix it with the locals, learn their history and culture and walk the back streets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise on the global stage or quiet moments of private reflection.