Exploring: What to See in Los Angeles (a Local's Perspective)


It's been 12 years... I'm a local now but remember very well the excitement of visiting Los Angeles from Ohio while in high school and college, then making it more permanent. I saw some of the same landmarks on subsequent trips just because those things were/are iconic and exciting. Over time, though, the expense and housing market hurdles have altered the perceptions I once had of this grand city. The tradeoff comes in the form of opportunities. Some are there for you every day, and some you have to find by keeping your eyes open. Organized by west to east, this is where you should start... Table of Contents: Places to See Places to Skip Other Things to Do Getting Around Safety Tips What to Pack

Saving Money

 
PLACES TO SEE:
 

1. Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Pier during a busy day - photo by KilmerMedia

You've seen it in photos, TV shows, and movies. It features a roller coaster and ferris wheel and is jam-packed with visitors on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Weaving around inattentive selfie-takers is aggravating, but that isn't enough to ruin the fun at this iconic spot. The pier also marks the western end of the historic Route 66 highway, which began in Chicago. 2. Venice Beach

Venice Beach, California panoramic view - photo by KilmerMedia

You can knock out two recommended sites with ease by taking a few hours to stroll along the beach path from the Santa Monica Pier to Venice Beach and back. Venice is rich with flair, although part of its quirkiness ("charm" didn't feel like the right word) vanished when the billionaire "tech bros" from Silicon Valley started buying and leasing office spaces here. Although the Venice Beach Freakshow attraction is no more, plenty of artists and entertainers continue to "Keep Venice Weird," as the t-shirts say. Keep in mind, this area gets a little dicey after dark.

3. Venice Canals

Venice, California canals - photo by KilmerMedia

This doesn't normally show up on "must-see" lists, but it's near Venice Beach and worth a mention. In 1905, Venice was founded by a man named Abbot Kinney. His vision was to develop "Venice in America," with the look and feel of its namesake in Italy. Thirteen canals were dredged and, as more people began buying cars, seven of the canals were eventually filled in and became streets. These days, the houses lining the remaining canals are sought-after (i.e. really expensive) properties, and it's nice taking a stroll along the public sidewalks between the houses and these remaining waterways.

4. Getty Villa

Getty Villa in Malibu - photo by KilmerMedia

Heading north up the coast (a little beyond Santa Monica) is the lesser-known Getty Museum - the Getty Villa. It's devoted specifically to the art and culture of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria, but man, oh man, what a beautiful campus. Admission is free, but reservations are mandatory. 5. Getty Museum

Central Garden of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles - photo by KilmerMedia

While on this same topic, the main Getty Museum is a few miles (as the crow flies & a 13 mi. drive) to the northeast. It's the massive campus of white buildings you see perched atop the mountain while heading north on the 405 highway from Santa Monica. This art museum is regarded as being one of the best in the world and features something for everyone - ancient statues, photos, gardens, city views, oil paintings by names like van Gogh, Rembrandt, Monet... and the list just goes on and on and on. Visiting this museum is free, but a reservation is mandatory. There's a fee to park in the garage, which I seem to remember being reasonable during my last visit.

6. Hollywood Star Walk

Hollywood Walk of Fame overhead view - photo by KilmerMedia

Hollywood is grimy and gross but full of character. It reminds me of Athens, Greece, with street art (and graffiti) covering most of the standing surfaces, and the thing visitors most want to see is up on the hill. The "glitz and glamor of Hollywood" has long been only a concept, instead of a statement having literal meaning. Despite the grittiness, visitors love seeing the stars along the sidewalk, and it's fun seeing how the size of your hands compare to the handprints left by stars in front of the Chinese Theatre. Especially these days, don't forget the hand sanitizer! 7. Hollywood Sign (also see the "All the Views of the Hollywood Sign" post)

Tourists view the Hollywood sign from a distance - photo by KilmerMedia

It's easy to catch glimpses of the sign throughout Hollywood. If you're checking out the Star Walk, the best view is the one above, from the Ovation Hollywood complex (better known by its former name, Hollywood & Highland). 8. Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles - photo by KilmerMedia

This popular sight is east of Hollywood sign and located high up on the same mountain range. Admission to the grounds, museum, and public telescopes is free. Parking can be a headache and, unfortunately, is no longer free along the nearby canyon roads. Check out the observatory's website for detailed parking and event information. Also, take a look at their calendar: in normal times, Star Parties are held one Saturday per month, during which local telescope groups lug out their equipment and show visitors interesting objects across the sky.

9. Urban Light

Urban Light display in Los Angeles - photo by KilmerMedia

You've likely seen this display in movies and TV shows. It's a special, but often busy, place. I used to live nearby, and it felt kind of magical late at night, when the lights were still burning and the tourists had moved on.

10. Petersen Automotive Museum

Petersen Automotive Museum in Miracle Mile - photo by KilmerMedia

Across the street from Urban Light is this car lover's dream. I visited on my birthday one year and also took the vault tour (an additional fee). The museum features all kinds of stuff - prototypes, movie cars, custom motorcycles, race cars, a helicopter, a Batmobile, a DeLorean time machine from "Back to the Future," etc. We weren't allowed to take photos on the basement/vault tour. In that space, we saw Steve McQueen's green Jaguar, one of Saddam Hussein's Mercedes limos smuggled out of Iraq under mysterious circumstances, and a gorgeous 1952 Ferrari convertible, among a couple hundred other rare and expensive vehicles.

11. La Brea Tar Pits

Depiction of a mammoth stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits - photo by KilmerMedia

Just down the street from the auto museum is this recognizable spot. The main feature is the lake pit (shown), which started as an asphalt mine. Eventually, it filled with debris and water, creating the lake as we know it today. No admission is required to walk around this beautiful park, and be aware, the smell of tar can really waft and become nauseating on a hot summer day. 12. Grand Central Market

Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles - photo by KilmerMedia

This food hall is about what you'd expect among one of the great cities of the world - stalls selling spices, various types of wonderfully-aromatic bread, cheese, and full meals, draft beer, and desserts to enjoy on-site. The market has been around since 1917 and offers something for everyone, spanning a city block between S. Broadway and S. Hill St.

13. Angels Flight

Angels Flight Railway in downtown Los Angeles - photo by KilmerMedia

Directly across the street from the north side of the market is this tiny funicular railway that's been around since 1901. Angels Flight was originally located half a block down the street, until being disassembled in 1969. The two cars then sat in a warehouse for decades, before resuming operation at this new location in 1996. As of 2022, a one-way ride costs $1, or $.50 using prepaid funds stored on a Metro TAP card.

14. Bradbury Building

The Bradbury Building interior is shown in downtown Los Angeles - photo by KilmerMedia

Across the street from the south side of the market is the Bradbury Building. Step inside to see the Victorian-style architecture featuring wrought-iron balconies and exposed elevators, often bathed in light from the skylight roof. You may recognize this building from movies like Blade Runner, Chinatown, 500 Days of Summer, and countless TV shows, commercials, and music videos. It's free to stop in and admire the unique interior design from ground level.

15. Walt Disney Concert Hall

public domain photo courtesy of Jon Sullivan, via Wikimedia Commons

The wavy metal of the concert hall makes it unmistakable as a Frank Gehry design. The exterior is fascinating to look at from all angles. I haven't yet been inside, but free tours are available, and the concert hall acoustics and design have garnered international acclaim. 16. The Broad

The Broad contemporary art museum in downtown Los Angeles - photo by KilmerMedia

Located just a block away from the concert hall, this contemporary art museum opened in 2015 and offers free admission for each time slot. Part of the collection here includes original works by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and many others. 16. Olvera Street

Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles - photo by KilmerMedia

If you're into history and Latin culture, this is a place you'll want to visit. It was the first establishment in Los Angeles, dating back to the 1820s, when California was still part of Mexico. Along the street, you can buy a bunch of "basura" you don't need - piñatas, ukulele-size guitars ("vihuelas"), lucha libre masks - you get the idea. The couple of Mexican restaurants we've been to on Olvera Street were on the pricey side but, both times, we left feeling stuffed and happy. Some people with too many opinions feel Olvera Street is a sanitized depiction of Mexican culture and should be shut down as tourist destination. I wouldn't take it that far, but the only thing Olvera Street can faithfully represent is a little slice of Los Angeles that hasn't been a part of Mexico since 1848. Still, it's a neat little area, with interesting, old buildings and a vibe that's different from the rest of L.A. 17. Union Station

Union Station in downtown Los Angeles interior in 2018 - photo by KilmerMedia

This is the city's central transportation hub and happens to be the largest railway passenger terminal in the Western U.S. Opened in 1939, the building is renowned for this art deco design - both inside and out. This is also a cultural hub, often being featured in films, TV shows, music videos, and more. The facility even hosted the Oscars awards show in 2021.


A beautiful, Art Deco restaurant space is located near the front entrance. Unfortunately, the previous tenant, Imperial Western Beer Company, folded during the pandemic (went there once and enjoyed it). In that same space now (as of 2022) is a brewpub called Homebound Brew Haus (haven't been there yet but plan to visit one of these days). Hopefully the vibe of the space is no different than before.

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PLACES TO SKIP:
 

1. Third Street Promenade This is an outdoor, pedestrian-only stretch of shops in Santa Monica. Patagonia, Sunglass Hut, Apple, Victoria's Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch - it's a beautiful, clean avenue, lined with the same stores you will find along shopping districts with pricey rents all across the world. For that latter reason, there isn't much that's authentically L.A. about the promenade. 2. Rodeo Drive

If you end up in the vicinity of Beverly Hills, you might want to take a drive down Rodeo Drive. The shopping district is short, spanning just two city blocks. The architecture is nice, and you'll probably see some really cool cars parked along the street. As for stopping and shopping, though, I don't recommend it and can think of so many better uses for your money. What's more fun is the Sprinkles cupcake ATM just a block away. It's like being at the bank, but with a sweeter withdrawal, and it's entertaining to watch the robotic arm retrieve your cupcake on the ATM screen. 3. The Playboy Mansion I used to drive friends and family visiting from out of town past the iconic mansion. It's very private, tucked behind foliage and gates, so there isn't much to see. With Hef no longer with us, in my opinion, catching a tiny little glimpse of the chimney through the trees no longer has any appeal.

4. The (Spelling) Manor If you decide you want to drive by the Playboy Mansion anyhow, so you can tell people you've seen it, you might as well check out The Manor, as it's right down the street. This ridiculous monstrosity was built by since-departed TV producer Aaron Spelling. It's the largest house in Los Angeles County, measuring 56,000 square feet, and it set a record in 2019 for the highest sale price of a house in California history, at $119 million.


5. Pink's Hot Dogs This place is an institution, which started as a hot dog cart in 1939. The lines are often long and not because the hot dogs are amazing. The dogs are fine, but it's the hype machine that keeps the place popular. Both times I've been there, it was no more than a mediocre experience. 6. Levitated Mass

Levitated Mass boulder on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art - photo by KilmerMedia

This is a rather large, 340-ton boulder that was slowly moved 106 miles from a quarry in 2012. "Levitated Mass" is considered to be a public art sculpture and cost an estimated $10 million in private donations to complete. Yes, the boulder is massive. Yes, moving it was a feat in itself. Regarding the final product, though, maybe my imagination is just lacking, since I can't imagine something being "levitated" that's clearly supported on two sides. What this display has going for it is the location - it's next door from the La Brea Tar Pits and across the street from the Petersen Automotive Museum... and at least no admission is required to visit the rock. 7. Madame Tussauds With 7 locations in the U.S. and 19 more across the world, looking at wax figures isn't the best use of limited time. Creating them is certainly an art, but looking at them isn't an integral part of the L.A. experience.


8. The Grove

Like the Third Street Promenade, this outdoor mall features a bunch of big brands like Nike, Gap, Coach, and Banana Republic - at L.A. prices. Adjoining the property is The Original Farmers Market, which I do recommend. It features shops and an abundance of food stalls that offer something for any palate.

9. L.A. Live Located in downtown, next to Staples Center (do we really have to call it Crypto.com Arena?) and the convention center, there's no reason to make a special trip here. The big, corporate, chain restaurants can be convenient, but they are jam-packed before events next door.

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OTHER THINGS TO DO:
 

1. Escape from L.A. Maybe you'll be in the area for an extended stay, and the big city isn't your style. If you like wine, consider a quick getaway to Paso Robles, to the northwest. To the south, Temecula has surprisingly good wine, too. Also in that direction is San Diego. Palm Springs and Joshua Tree are to the east. To the west (okay, technically it's directly south) is Catalina Island, which doesn't offer a ton of activities but is still worth looking into for a nice recharge.


If you want to stay in the area, consider checking out LAist. That site is run by one of our public radio stations, and they post a weekly "Best Things to Do in LA and SoCal" list. 2. TV show tapings During the COVID-19 pandemic, shows that previously had live studio audiences were forced to change course. In 2022, audiences have returned to some shows, with vaccination requirements in place. If it's anything like how it used to be, tickets for tapings go fast, so check ASAP to see if there might be any upcoming availability for your favorite comedy or late-night talk show. 3. Whale watching We've had the most luck spotting whales during winter and early spring. However, different species migrate at different times throughout the year. Keep your eyes peeled for gray whales from Dec. - May, blue whales from June - Aug., and humpback whales from Sept. - Nov. We have also spotted plenty of dolphins from the beach. 4. Concerts and Musicals Every major concert tour and musical comes through L.A. Consider this as an option, especially if one of your favorite acts will be performing at one of the historic venues (Hollywood Bowl, The Wiltern, Whiskey a Go Go, The Forum, etc.) 5. Themed Restaurants

In 2018, we ate at "Saved by the Max," which was a temporary recreation of the diner in "Saved by the Bell." L.A. is also home to some restaurants and bars with fun themes, like "Scum and Villany Cantina" (Stars Wars), Beetle House LA (Beetlejuice/Tim Burton), and Clifton's (uhh, a bunch of themes throughout). There are also steampunk, pirate, and tiki bars across the city.

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GETTING AROUND:
 

Los Angeles is known for its reliance on cars and awful traffic jams during rush hour. At times, taking the bus can be helpful (been there, done that) and, depending on where you're going, taking the subway can be super helpful (been there, done that so many times). Did you know there's a subway? At first, I didn't. It's not an amazing system, but it's getting there. I've used that option mostly to skip rush hour freeway traffic, in order to get from the North Hollywood to the other side of the mountain - Hollywood - or downtown, which is even further in the same direction. If you're driving, the peak of rush hour(s) during the week is around 7-10 AM and 4-7 PM. Sports and other big events can make traffic even worse, especially downtown. If you have any reservations, start checking your navigation app of choice well before you think you might need to leave. Uber and Lyft are widely used in Los Angeles, but there are times when a taxi is more convenient and at a comparable cost.

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SAFETY TIPS:
 

Like in any big city, be alert and be smart. The huge population here means there's a huge population of all types of people, both trustworthy and not. To counter the untrustworthy, be proactive.


1. Don't leave bags or boxes or anything visible in your car that might invite curiosity. If you do have belongings to put in the trunk, it might be best to do so before parking in a public area. 2. Don't leave anything out that might invite a snatch-and-grab theft. Bad choices include hanging purses on the back of chairs or keeping a camera or phone on the table while you're seated at a restaurant.


3. Don't keep anything in your back pockets. After Super Bowl LVI, we met a man who had his phone stolen before the game, while walking through the crowd outside the stadium. Be aware, be smart, lock up your valuables, and use a money belt if that's what feels right. If you're an international visitor, make sure you keep a paper copy or scan of your passport that's kept separate from the original version. 4. Don't wander out alone in the city after dark. Keep in mind, crime rates vary throughout the big city, but some persistent areas of greatest concern these days are Skid Row, Compton, Venice Beach, and South Central.


5. Do use the hotel room safe, if one is available. Use it to safeguard some of your cash and a paper copy of your passport, if you're traveling one. 6. Do consider using a money belt. The only gift you should be giving a pickpocket is a used hankie. 7. For the sake of your health, be aware of the Air Quality Index (AQI), especially during summer. On some days, especially during wildfire season, the recommendation is to stay indoors with the windows shut.


8. In the unlikely event you encounter a life-threatening emergency, the phone number to dial for help in the U.S.A. is 911.


The number of non-life-threatening city services (Parking Enforcement, traffic light outages, potholes, etc.) is 311.

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WHAT TO PACK:
 

Hey, guess what? I'm not gonna try to sell you any products - I'm just going to tell you what I know. As of this writing, it's February, and it's a cold night. I'm wearing a hoodie, sweatpants, and thick socks. A couple days ago, I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. At this time of the year, the temperature is generally pretty mild during the day and chilly at night (it will be in the high 30s tonight). Springtime and autumn are beautiful and summer can be stifling hot. I know, I know, I'm not helping with packing, so just keep an eye on the forecast and averages. Moreso, I can't recommend what to pack because we have so many different climates. The L.A. basin (downtown, Hollywood, Santa Monica) is often about 10 degrees F cooler than the San Fernando Valley (North Hollywood, Burbank, Northridge). The temperature also varies in the Santa Clarita Valley, San Gabriel Valley, in the mountains, and in the deserts. Oh, hey, though - you should pack a water bottle. Selling water as a commodity is one of the worst businesses on earth, and the water here is potable. Use a portable filter if you prefer (we use a standard Brita filter at home). You shouldn't have to pay for bottled water, which is subject to less regulatory standards than is required for tap water in the USA.


Also, we get a lot of sun here, so be sure to use sunscreen.



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SAVING MONEY:
 

1. Eat and drink during happy hour. As expected, most deals will be found on weekdays, spanning the late afternoon to early evening. However, some places have "happy hour" items all day, every day... which then just becomes the regular price, hmm. A special opportunity for deals at an impressive number of restaurants happens a couple times a year, during Dine LA Restaurant Week (normally spanning two weeks). Food trucks to Michelin-starred restaurants offer special menus, and prix fixe options sometimes provide a good opportunity to try some places that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.

2. Consider using a rewards credit card for all of your travel purchases, if you're not an impulsive spender. If you're disciplined and able to pay off all, or most, of your credit card debt every month, earning points while avoiding interest charges is like getting a small discount on every purchase.


3. Expand your airport search. Most flights in the vicinity are to and from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). However, there have been times when flying out of Burbank (BUR) and Long Beach (LGB) has made more sense for my situation. Ontario (ONT) and Orange County (SNA) are other airports to consider, but then you have to consider the additional travel time just to get into L.A.


4. Consider taking a taxi. Uber and Lyft are convenient, but we've seen driver shortages during the pandemic. Outside the Burbank Airport on a summer day in 2021, we waited 30 minutes for a Lyft driver to be available in the area. We gave up and hopped in a cab, which had been at the airport the whole time. The price was about the same as what the Lyft ride would have been. During surge pricing, taking a taxi might be the cheaper option.


5. Consider public transportation. Plot out your "must-see" list, and determine if any of those sights connect via the subway (like Hollywood and downtown, for example). I like the subway and avoid taking buses in L.A., since those get stuck in the same rush hour traffic as all the cars. The L.A. Metro "TAP" card costs a couple bucks, and you can load a single fare to it at a time, or even a day- or monthly pass. Simply tap the card at the turnstile on the way to the subway platform, and you're all set... and even if you see an open gate on the way, be sure to go through that turnstile instead, as we've seen Metro Police checking TAP cards and issuing tickets for fare evaders on the subway. During a domestic trip in 2021 (Seattle), we were shocked by how crazy-expensive it had become to rent a car, due to low inventories. Our workaround was to rent a car for a few days, then turn the car in and rely on public transit for the rest of the trip. It saved a lot of money, so consider if a hybrid approach might work for you.


6. Buy airfare in advance. As of 2022, the general guidance among travel sites is that you'll find the best domestic deals on flights between one and three months before your trip; for international travel, it's two to eight months in advance. It's always subject to change and sort of like buying stocks. At some point you just have to commit to making the purchase.


7. Don't mess with your phone while driving. We have a hands-free law here, so even holding your phone during a speakerphone conversation can result in a fine. Additionally, pay close attention to signs posted nearby when parking on a city street. L.A. vowed to simplify parking restrictions a few years ago, after a photo went viral that showed 7 separate parking restrictions posted on the same sign. Additionally, some neighborhoods have street sweeping restrictions, which usually means you can't park on one side of the street for a couple hours once a week. Where applicable, that info is also posted on signs along the road. Finally, for this category, some neighborhoods require permits for street parking. If you're staying with a resident, they might have an extra placard. Otherwise, the city allows you to buy a temporary permit in some neighborhoods.


 

"Exploring: Los Angeles (a Local's Perspective)" Written by Justin Kilmer, Edited by Janine Kilmer All images and media on this site are © by Justin Kilmer, unless otherwise noted.


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