Aside from being the playground of the rich and famous, the ruggedly good-looking Los Angeles teems with natural wonders, creative expression and edgy art spaces.
Home to Hollywood, this is a city where fantastical thoughts are encouraged; a place gleefully wrapped in endless layers of modern legend and mythology. It’s also indelibly tied to mighty Mother Nature and is filled with architectural riches – no other American city delivers such a thrilling mash-up of architectural styles, statements and role models.
If you’re planning a trip to La La Land, here are some of the best things to experience.
Rapidly evolving, this is the City of Angels’ most intriguing patch. It’s the historic center and is rapidly gentrifying, a place where cutting-edge architecture and world-class modern-art museums bump up the oldest and largest Mexican community outside of Mexico. New condos and hotels are sprouting like mushrooms in Downtown LA, joined by buzz-inducing eateries, bars, boutiques and galleries, all connected by bus and rail transit.
It’s here that you’ll find the space-age Broad museum and Walt Disney Concert Hall, which provide dramatic counterpoints to the crumbling opulence of Broadway theaters, the Spanish curves of historic Olvera St and the hulking warehouses of the booming Arts District.
A cultural citadel in the sky, the Getty Center delivers highs, both literal and metaphorical. Firstly there’s that soul-lifting panorama, which takes in hillside mansions, the Pacific Ocean and the unapologetic sprawl of the LA basin.
The billion-dollar museum showcases centuries of glorious creativity, from medieval triptychs to starry Van Gogh skies. Then there are the showstopping gardens, punctuated with blazing flowers, world-famous sculptures and trickling water. Best of all, it’s completely free, except for parking.
As far as LA experiences go, the famous Venice Boardwalk, officially known as Ocean Front Walk, is a must. It’s alive with hula-hoop magicians, skaters, old-timey jazz combos, solo distorted garage rockers and artists – both good and bad.
The Sunday drum circle draws hundreds of revelers for tribal jamming and spontaneous dancing on the grassy mounds. Don’t miss the tagged-up towers and the free-standing concrete wall, forever open to aerosol Picassos. Venice Beach is where SoCal’s crazier side lets it all hang out. It’s like one long, skunk-scented runway of eccentricity, flanked by soaring palms, tattoo parlors and street art.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an obligatory stop for culture vultures. The largest art museum in the western US, its 100,000-plus works stretch back to antiquity and include millennia’s worth of Chinese, Japanese, pre-Columbian and ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculpture.
You’ll find one of the world’s finest collections of Islamic art, works by heavyweights such as Cezanne, Rivera, Hockney and Ruscha, as well as LA sculptor Chris Burden’s crowd-stopping installation Urban Light. And it doesn’t stop there, with buzz-worthy touring exhibits, film screenings, readings and Friday-night jazz gigs.
No other corner of LA is steeped in as much mythology as Hollywood. It’s here that you’ll find the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Capitol Records Tower and the gloriously kitsch TCL Chinese Theatre -where the hand- and footprints of entertainment deities are immortalized in concrete. Despite the tourist hordes and gimmicks, the ghosts of Hollywood’s golden age live on in the mid-century makeup rooms of the Hollywood Museum and the vintage booths of time-warped Musso & Frank Grill.
Look beyond the tourist-swamped landmarks of Hollywood Blvd and you’ll discover a nuanced, multifaceted neighborhood of sometimes gritty streets punctuated by edgy galleries and boutiques. This is where strip malls hide swinging French bistros and where steep, sleepy lanes harbor the homes of long-gone silver-screen stars.
With eyes on both the galaxy above and palm-flanked boulevards below, Griffith Observatory hovers above LA like a hulking spacecraft. This is one of the city’s true icons, an art deco behemoth flaunted on both the small and silver screen.
Yet the place is more than its architectural good looks and epic panoramas, with spectacular planetarium shows, intriguing exhibits and handsome murals. The 1935 observatory has sweeping views, which take in LA’s skyscrapers and mansions, endless avenues, rugged hills and, of course, the Hollywood sign.
Santa Monica is LA’s cute, alluring, hippie-chic little sister. It’s a place where real-life Lebowskis sip White Russians next to martini-swilling Hollywood producers, celebrity chefs dine at family-owned taquerias, and soccer moms and career bachelors shop at abundant farmers markets. All the while, kids, out-of-towners and those who love them flock to wide beaches and the pier, where the landmark solar-powered Ferris wheel and rollercoaster welcome one and all.
A big highlight is Twilight on the Pier, a free weekly festival where high-quality music acts perform on Santa Monica Pier every Wednesday from mid-August to late September, playing anything from indie pop and rock, to reggae, Latin, soul and classical. There is also art, comedy, food, a wine and beer garden, games and interactive activations to keep you entertained.
In just a few short years, Downtown’s Broad has put culture vultures in a spin. The museum’s collection of modern and contemporary art is one of the world’s finest. It’s packed with pop-art paintings, video art, installations and sculpture from big guns such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Keith Haring and Cindy Sherman, as well as bold, poptastic artworks by Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami.
Then there’s the building itself: designed by the team behind Manhattan’s High Line, it’s a jaw-dropping, lattice-work behemoth that looks plonked straight out of the 22nd century. Register in advance to experience Yayoi Kusama’s super-popular Infinity Mirrored Room, and enjoy the galleries, which rotate works from the Broad’s permanent collection, considered one of the world’s most prominent holdings of postwar and contemporary artworks.
A shrub-draped cut in the Hollywood Hills, Runyon Canyon is a 130-acre public park as famous for its buff runners and exercising celebrities as it is for the panoramic views from the upper ridge. Follow the wide, partially paved road up then take the smaller track down to the canyon, where you’ll pass the remains of the Runyon estate.
It offers commanding city views, and free morning yoga sessions are held daily in the park. Best of all, it’s less than a one-mile walk from Hollywood/Highland station on the Metro Red Line, making it an easy urban escape.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
LA’s answer to Sydney’s Opera House and London’s Royal Albert Hall, the 2265-seat auditorium Walt Disney Concert Hall demands its own standing ovation. Straight out of the mind of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry, its undulating steel forms evoke the movement of music itself.
This iconic concert venue is the home base of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but has also hosted contemporary bands and classic jazz musicians. Free, self-guided audio tours are available most days, and there are one-hour guided tours available too, but they won’t let you see the auditorium. The best way to experience the hall is to see a show.
Movie Studio Tours
LA is the world’s movie-making capital, and snooping around its famous studios is one of the city’s most idiosyncratic experiences. Top billing goes to Warner Bros, home to the biggest set-construction project in studio history, as well as a booty of Batmobiles.
Filmmaking and theme-park thrills join forces at Universal Studios, while Hollywood itself is home to Paramount Pictures, America’s second-oldest studio and the very site on which classics such Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Grease and TV series Happy Days were shot.
The Hollywood Sign
Have you even visited LA if you haven’t posted an Instagram pic with the famous Hollywood sign in the background? Erected in 1923, it’s one of the most iconic landmarks in LA, and it’s possible to view it from many vantage points throughout the city.
These various vistas not only provide postcard-perfect backdrops for your vacation photos, but also involve some of the city’s most popular hiking routes. One of the best viewing spots is at the Hollywood & Highland Center, which is filled with plenty of popular restaurants and the Dolby Theater, home to the Academy Awards.
The Huntington Library is rightly a highlight of any trip to California thanks to a world-class mix of art, literary history and over 120 acres of themed gardens, all set amid stately grounds. One of the most delightful, inspirational spots in LA, the library’s hefty collection includes extraordinary rare works, from a manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic Canterbury Tales to books by globe-trotting mavericks Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus. There’s so much to see and do that it’s hard to know where to begin, so allow three to four hours for even a basic visit.
Santa Monica Mountains
A haven for hikers, trekkers and mountain bikers, the northwestern-most stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains is where nature gets bigger and wilder, with jaw-dropping red-rock canyons and granite outcrops with sublime sea views. The best trails are in Pacific Palisades, Topanga and Malibu.
The Backbone Trail is the longest trail in the range, linking – and accessible from – every state park. It’s 67 miles all told, running from Will Rogers to Point Mugu State Park, and can be completed in a few days.
La Brea Tar Pits
You’ll be hurled back to prehistoric LA at the La Brea Tar Pits, bubbling up from deep beneath Wilshire Blvd. The only active, urban ice-age excavation site in the world, it was here that thousands of creatures perished between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, unwittingly mired in the pits.
Fossils from the pits are showcased at the on-site museum, offering insight into the myriad of quirky creatures that once roamed the LA Basin, from the Columbian mammoth to the Harlan’s ground sloth. The tar pits were taken over in recent times by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and it offers a 3-D cinema screening of the 25-minute film, Titans of the Ice Age.
LA Pride is the city’s main LGBTIQ+ celebration and is held in mid-June with three days of music, exhibitions and a fabulous parade down Santa Monica Blvd. LA has made many contributions to gay culture, and the rainbow flag flies especially proudly in Boystown, which is flanked by dozens of high-energy bars, cafés, restaurants, gyms and clubs.
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles puts on full-on shows with singing, dancing, costumes and heart to rival any professional show in town. Its home stage is the art-deco Alex Theatre in Glendale, and the choir breaks boundaries of men’s choral music with consistently inventive repertoires and Broadway-style staging with professional-quality costumes, sets and dancing.
Six Flags Amusement Parks
Velocity is king at Six Flags Magic Mountain, the ultimate rollercoaster park, where you can go up, down and inside-out in ways only Space-X can outdo. The park’s world-record 19 rollercoasters include the aptly named Scream, but there are plenty of tamer rides for the elementary-school set in the park’s Bugs Bunny World, plus shows, parades and concerts to keep everyone entertained.
Next to Magic Mountain is the jungle-themed, 22-acre Six Flags Hurricane Harbor water park, where you can chill in a tropical lagoon, brave churning wave pools and plunge down wicked high-speed slides with names like Banzai Pipeline and Taboo Tower.
Summers in LA just wouldn’t be the same without alfresco melodies under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl, a huge natural amphitheater in the Hollywood Hills. Its annual season – which usually runs from June to September – includes symphonies, jazz bands and iconic acts, and big projection screens ensure that even folks in the ‘nosebleed’ sections enjoy close-ups of the performers.
Go early to claim a table in the park-like grounds for a preshow picnic and there are numerous food stands on-site if you don’t want to lug your own grub. The venue is the summer home of the LA Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and open rehearsals are held on some Tuesdays and Thursdays during the season.
Across the street from Echo Park and nearby Dodger Stadium is LA’s oldest park: Elysian Park. Founded in 1886, it is big and beautiful, boasting iconic palm tree groves, open grassy areas, ball fields, tennis courts, and even a dog hill for canine visitors.
For hikers, the Wildflower Trail here clocks in at just under three miles and less than 200 feet in elevation, making it one of the easiest ways to get a glimpse of a variety of beautiful wildflowers. Wildflower Trail offers views of downtown, the LA River and the back of Mount Washington, as well the pleasant setting of a community garden.
Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
The long-delayed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will have its grand opening in LA at the end of September 2021, and one of its inaugural exhibitions honors Japanese animator and Academy-Award winner, Hayao Miyazaki. The museum will have two theaters, including the 1000-seat David Geffen Theater and 288-seat Ted Mann Theater.
It will show a slate of film screenings that celebrate cinema’s rich past, present and future. Family members of Hollywood legends will be invited to discuss the legacy of film artists and provide first-hand insights into film history. There are also film artists in conversation with scholars and activists about the relationship between documentary and narrative film and topics presented in the museum’s Stories of Cinema. These include #MeToo, pay equity, Black Lives Matter, climate change and labor relations.
Museum of Neon Art
Neon signage is a defining element of LA’s cityscape, and the collection at this small-ish museum in the heart of Glendale includes legendary pieces from establishments including the (departed) Brown Derby, Pep Boys auto-repair shops and the Chinese Theatre. The Museum of Neon Art is devoted exclusively to art in electric media, exhibiting electric and kinetic fine art and examples of historic neon signs for over three decades.
Besides permanent and temporary exhibits of signage and other light art, the museum holds twice-monthly ‘Neon Cruises’ on open-topped double-decker buses to see works around town up close.
Indulge in retail therapy
It might be pricey and unapologetically pretentious, but no trip to LA would be complete without a saunter along Rodeo Drive, the famous three-block ribbon of style in Beverly Hills where you can embark on your very own Pretty Woman shopping spree. Fashion retailer Fred Hayman opened the strip’s first luxury boutique – Giorgio Beverly Hills – at number 273 back in 1961.
If you’re looking for something a little less demanding on your wallet, head to the shopping mall, Americana at Brand. It feels like an extended walking street with an 18-screen multiplex, some 30 restaurants and food stalls, and some very good – albeit very corporate – shopping.
While LA has its fair share of stars, the Academy Awards gather a firmament together in one place each year. On Tinseltown’s biggest night, fans can ogle the stars from bleachers outside the Dolby Theatre. Apply in November or December for one of around 700 lucky spots.
You could also check out Dearly Departed, a long-running, occasionally creepy, frequently hilarious tour that will clue you in on where celebs kicked the bucket or had run-ins with the law. Some of the tours are not for kids, so choose carefully.