I grew up in Phoenix, AZ so I have been to Los Angeles more times than I can count. The last time that I visited, however, I forced my friends to come with me to some of the tourist spots that the city is famous for. My husband tried to warn me away from some of them, particularly the Walk of Fame, but let’s just say… sometimes I just need to see how bad something is before I can believe the stories. Luckily for me, it’s easy to go back to LA to discover the good about the city. Not everyone has that opportunity, so I’ve written up this detailed guide to some of the major attractions that you should and should not visit on your LA itinerary.
Famous Locations to Make Time For
I’m going to be honest here and admit that I had no idea that the Griffith Observatory existed until I saw La La Land. So, the last time that I visited Los Angeles I wanted to give it a try and I ended up loving it. Whether you are a nature lover, fan of beautiful architecture, or just looking to snap a good picture of the Hollywood sign, this place belongs on your “what to do in LA” list.
The Observatory itself has a beautiful astronomy museum inside the building that is free to visit. There are talks and educational events throughout the day for all visitors as well. When I was there, I caught two talks, one about the iconic Foucault Pendulum in the entry rotunda and another about the mysterious Gottlieb Transit Corridor outside. In either case, it was a lot of fun to learn how these tools work and what we can learn from them. Adults and kids will enjoy the museum and it’s well worth an hour or more of your time.
Of course, you should also take some time to explore the outside grounds, because you will not only get a great view of the entire city from the Observatory vantage point, but the Hollywood sign is perched nearby. It’s a great place to indulge your inner tourist and snap a few pictures with the sign in the background.
Finally, if you are looking for a half-day experience, you might consider parking at the base of the mountain and then hiking up to the observatory. This will take you through a hilly, wooded area and give you a chance to escape the crowds for a bit.
The Observatory itself is free, however parking is not. If you’d prefer to save some money or aren’t comfortable parallel parking, there is a bus that you can take up. The DASH Observatory bus will get you up the mountain from the Vermont/Sunset Metro Red Line.
Personally, as a Disney fan, I don’t think any LA itinerary would be complete without a trip to Disneyland. Even on the most crowded day, I just enjoy being in the park and taking in all the beautiful environments that have been created there. There’s really nowhere else in the world that you can wander from the Old West to a busy African marketplace in a matter a minutes.
Of course, Disneyland is a great place for families as well, although it is the most expensive attraction here by far. Some of my best memories as a kid were made in Disneyland, and of course, this is the best place to get great pictures with all of your favorite Disney, Marvel and Star Wars characters.
Besides the great rides, I enjoy trying all of the great foods in the park (something they have really upped their game on in the past couple years). If you want to keep updated on all the food news in Disneyland, I would suggest checking out the Wonderful World of Food Youtube Channel.
All that being said, Disney recently increased their prices and last I read we are up to $150 a day during peak season and $104 otherwise. Parking is $25 per day on theme park grounds, so if you can, try to stay in one of the hotels that are within walking distance or have a shuttle. There are a few that aren’t overly expensive, surprisingly.
Lesser Known Locations that you MUST Visit
We have an entire post on Little Tokyo, so I always consider this in my “what to do in LA” lists. It isn’t a large area, but we never fail to spend a few hours there. In particular, if you have been to Japan, Little Tokyo will be a nice reminder of that beautiful country across the sea.
For a lovely afternoon in Little Tokyo, I would suggest going around lunch and planning to get dinner there as well. There is a lot of good food in this area, and they serve things that you really can’t get easily in other places. After lunch, take some time to visit the Japanese-American National Museum. This is a great place to learn about the history and vibrant lives of Japanese-Americans, from the shameful parts of our history to the beautifully unique art and culture that has resulted from the mixing of American and Japanese heritage. It is $12 dollars to get in for adults.
After spending some time in the museum, taking in all the history and art, take time for a tasty snack or dessert and then enjoy the shopping in Little Tokyo. There is a ton of stuff that you would find in Japan, but also shops with unique items that mix Japanese and American culture with the unique character of the shop owners. It is a really great place to find a unique souvenir. Top the night off with some delicious Japanese food, or a downtown LA restaurant if you want to mix it up.
Parking in downtown LA is not free, so budget for parking; there is a big parking structure right next to Little Tokyo if you prefer to avoid street parking.
Santa Monica National Recreation Area
This is a massive national park unit, and there are definitely trails in the park that you will probably see in top ten lists here and there. But I would highly suggest getting out of the city a little bit to really explore this majestic slice of urban nature in your LA itinerary.
Solstice Canyon is a must-do. The trail there is not difficult or long, but the canyon is beautiful and ends at the ruins of a mansion. The nature and architecture tell a story unique to Los Angeles, so it is a great place to find a mix of my two favorite things, culture and nature. There is also a lovely picnic spot at the trailhead that’s the perfect place to eat lunch with the family.
For those of you looking for a harder hike, head up into the mountains to summit the tallest peak in the range, Sandstone Peak. It’s only a little over 3,000 feet, so it’s not extremely challenging but there are unparalleled views from the top. The ocean will be on one side and the city on the other, sandwiched in the middle will be you and the wilds of the mountains.
Best of all, this park is free, so you can wander at your leisure.
What to Avoid in your LA Itinerary
Walk of Fame
The Walk of Fame is my least favorite thing that I have ever done in LA, and I insisted on going the last time because I see it on so many “what to do in LA” lists! I just wanted to do the tourist thing and experience this place, but I ended up just absolutely hating it. Parking was extremely expensive compared to everywhere else in the city, and as soon as we walked out onto the street it was impossible not to notice how dirty the street was. The stores were little better for the most part.
Like any tourist trap, basically everything that you want to do here, besides just walking around will cost you something. And I just got a very predatory feel while I was there. I doubt that this is an area that many local people go to, so coming to the Walk of Fame just slaps a TOURIST sign on you. I’ve never liked that feeling and a few pictures of the Chinese Theater and the stars just don’t make the experience worth it.
The worst part of the whole thing was the people wandering around in costumes. Unless you want to pay to take a picture with one of them, stay far, far away. They like to fluster people with handshakes and then pull you in for a picture. One of them even grabbed a friend of mine in a very inappropriate way. It was very uncomfortable. As far as I know, none of these people are actually sanctioned to be there as those characters either. As an example, you might get manhandled by a Mickey or Chewbacca, and it’s not something that Disney would ever allow.
I’m sure there are people out there who have had a good experience on the Walk of Fame, but in my opinion, it just really isn’t worth your time. Save your money and go elsewhere. You can get great Hollywood pictures from Griffith Observatory, and there are plenty of unique spots in LA that you can go without the tourist scams and people trying to pull you into pictures with them for a buck.
Downtown LA in general
Besides Little Tokyo, I find downtown LA to be one of the worst downtowns that I have ever been to (and I’m from Phoenix). There is some really good food here, which is still worth the trip, but I would never spend the day walking around in the city like I would elsewhere. The streets are just dirty, and there isn’t a lot to see when you are walking around.
That being said, I feel a lot more ambivalent about this than the Walk of Fame. I think people that really love the city could keep this on their LA itinerary and have a good time. There are certainly some cool museums in the city and instagrammable spots, so it wouldn’t be impossible to enjoy an afternoon there. However, it certainly won’t be the best downtown experience that you have, and if you have limited time, this is definitely something that you can skip.