As you fly into LAX over the vast city of Los Angeles, the prospect of attempting to see it all can be daunting.
These days Los Angeles offers visitors so much to do beyond experiencing Hollywood and its obsession with stardom. With shimmering golden beaches, a fast developing and hugely exciting culinary scene, dynamic new cultural attractions, dizzying shopping opportunities and a downtown area that’s on the rise as a destination in its own right, you’ll have your work cut out for you!
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. The city has been playing catch up with public transport ever since, and using it can be limiting if you want to go beyond the main thoroughfares. Hiring a car is the easiest and most flexible way to explore, and use of the designated carpool lanes is permitted if there are two (sometimes three — check signs) or more people on board. Ridesharing is another option, so hit the App Store or Google Play if you’re not set up already.
Located close to the Mexican border and with a significant Latino influence (Spanish is spoken here as widely as it is in Mexico), Los Angeles reaps all the benefits of its sunny, southern coastal possie. Revel in the great outdoors during your stay, because as the song goes: ‘it never rains in Southern California’. Well, almost never.
This Los Angeles city guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.
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The development of LA as we know it today, began with a name change.
Settled by Mexican families in 1781 and named El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciúncula) by the then Spanish governor of California, the town soon became known simply as Los Angeles. So began its transformation from a tiny, far-flung settlement to the second largest city in the United States of America.
The film industry took hold in the early 1900s. It attracted 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 happening. 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. Do a quick photo stop on the Walk, then drop in to Mamas for brunch or afternoon cocktails.
Constant discoveries at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum piece together a much earlier history. Mammoths reigned supreme here, before disappearing completely — only to be rediscovered millions of years later beneath Downtown. Book your tickets in advance online.
The Los Angeles Conservancy’s popular walking tours offer an in-depth look at the city’s history from the perspective of its changing architecture.
Top cultural activities in Los Angeles
There’s no shortage of attractions in Los Angeles that will enthral culture vultures.
Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises is housed at The Getty Center — where a permanent collection is complemented by changing exhibitions. The centre is surrounded by stunning gardens created by artist Robert Irwin. Entry is free (but parking isn’t!). If you also plan to visit The Getty Villa in Malibu, grab a coupon to avoid paying for parking again. Modelled on a first century AD Roman noble’s home, the Villa 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 for updated waiting times in their standby line if you miss out. Refuel at the Grand Central Market, which offers fresh produce and prepared meals at a plethora of cafes and casual eateries.
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 Crypto.com Arena (formerly the Staples Center) than peering at high-walled compounds on a celebrity homes tour (but each to their own!).
Great places to eat in Los Angeles
LA’s dining scene is seriously out of this world and offers almost endless choice.
Here’s a handful of tried-and-tested restaurant recommendations. Head north on the Pacific Coast Highway to Geoffrey’s Malibu, where tables hug the coastline as the sea laps against the shore. 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.
Malibu Seafood serves seafood straight from the ocean to your table. Sit on the patio dipping your fish and chips into homemade tartare sauce or slurping down one of the best clam chowders in town.
Citrin and Mélisse in Santa Monica is fine dining at its best. If you’re looking for the culinary ‘wow’ factor during your time in LA, you’ll find it here. The food is almost too pretty to eat, and note the policy of ‘jackets preferred (but not required)’.
For smart casual dining, head to Coast at Shutters on the Beach — overlooking the Santa Monica Pier. Enjoy perfectly grilled swordfish and a glass of Sancerre. The terrace sits right on the beach, and is shaded by palm trees.
Koreatown (KTown) is smashing it with amazing restaurants and bars. One to check out is Here’s Looking at You, which blends two of California’s most popular cuisines — Japanese and Mexican. The menu is deliciously inventive and the bar serves up unique cocktails.
And finally, with locations all over the city, Il Fornaio offers fabulous Italian food (check out the Happy Hour deals at certain venues). Try the wafer thin beef carpaccio and lightly dusted calamari piled high with a delicious spicy marinara sauce.
Where to shop in Los Angeles
LA’s mega Fashion District covers one hundred city blocks in Downtown and is home to over a thousand stores.
Check their website for events happening during your stay, and don’t miss the sample sales if you’re in town at the right time. Wholesalers open their doors to the general public on the last Friday of the month, and offer heavily discounted ‘cash only’ prices.
Most well-known chain stores offer sales throughout the year for one reason or another. You’d be hard-pressed to have to pay full price for an item, unless of course you decide to hit up the luxury boutiques along famous Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. If so, retire to the rooftop lounge at Sixty Beverley Hills on Wilshire Boulevard for a revitalising glass of bubbles mid-spree. Opening times vary according to the season.
Across the USA, outlet malls are the shopping destinations of choice for serious bargain hunters. In Los Angeles 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. On the second Sunday of each month, it’s home to one of the best flea markets around.
Ways to relax in Los Angeles
Chill out with a day at one of LA’s amazing beaches.
Hiring a bike is the best way to explore the beachfront from Santa Monica to Marina Del Rey, and paved bike paths make the pedalling easy. Jay’s Rentals at Venice Beach will sort you for wheels for round $20 (and if the surf’s up, they’ll also kit you out with a board and wetsuit). The Bike Center at Santa Monica offers fun and informative bike tours.
Venice has an amazing atmosphere; crowds gather around street performers on the boardwalk, while skateboarders practice their moves. High above the palm trees, the Erwin Hotel’s High Rooftop Lounge sets the standard for sunset views. Further north, the iconic Santa Monica pier juts out into the Pacific, and comes complete with a ferris wheel, roller coaster, and other rides (tame by LA theme park standards!).
Speaking of which — Universal Studios Hollywood will get the heart racing as you cast spells with Harry Potter or get Fast and Furious. It’s worth forking out for a skip-the-line ticket and heading to the front of each and every ride queue!
No visit to LA would be complete without dropping by Disneyland, especially for the young and young-at-heart. The original (and some may argue, the best) franchise and its neighbouring California Adventure Park could keep you occupied for a couple of days. However, unless you’re planning to stay 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’ll be able to see Downtown, the beaches beyond, and the famous Hollywood sign straddling the Santa Monica mountains. This is one of the best locations for viewing the iconic landmark.
Browse our range of Los Angeles tours and experiences here.
Do you have any tips to add to our Los Angeles city guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
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 write about his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom. More a traveller than a tourist, Neil prefers to mix with the locals, learn their history and culture, and walk the backstreets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise in words or quiet moments of private reflection.