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Los Angeles travel guide

Palm-fringed beaches and Hollywood A-listers.

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Aerial view of Santa Monica beach

“We are all citizens of Los Angeles because we have seen so many movies,” essayist D.J. Waldie said. Still, first-time visitors might be surprised by the sheer size of the sprawling megalopolis.

Under the watchful eye of the famous Hollywood sign lies Sunset Strip and world-famous landmarks and bars, Rodeo Drive and its rich clientele, studio backlot tours at Paramount Studios and Universal plus Santa Monica Pier with its bevy of sun-kissed bodies and palm tree-lined boulevards.

Our advice to first-timers? Organize your itinerary, take advantage of free museums and escape to the mountains, even if just for a drive.


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Tips for first time visitors to LA

1. Book a studio tour.

If you’ve only got funds for one touristy trip, treat yourself to a behind-the-scenes look at where movies are made. Top-rated studio tours in LA include:

  • Universal Studios. See sets from Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock, plus come face-to-face with Jaws.
  • Warner Brothers. Sit on the world-famous Friends couch inside the equally famous coffee shop and traverse the forest from Jurassic Park.
  • Sony Pictures. Stand in the Jeopardy spotlight and peer into the giant pool used for Castaway and Esther Williams’ Million Dollar Mermaid movies.
  • Paramount Pictures. Examine props from Star Trek and Transformers, and witness where the Red Sea was parted in The Ten Commandments.

2. Target one neighborhood at a time.

Unlike NYC, bopping between different neighborhoods in Los Angeles takes time and patience. Our advice? Choose one zone to explore each day. For example:

  • Day one: Hit up the top tourist attractions around Hollywood and/or Universal Studios.
  • Day two: Explore local life and museums on the east side, including downtown, Echo Park and Silver Lake.
  • Day three: Mellow out on the beach in Santa Monica or Venice, and take a drive into the mountains.

3. Recharge in nature.

Locals would probably agree that Los Angeles’s close proximity to nature is one of its major draws. Here’s how — and where — to dip an exploratory toe:

  • Traverse Mulholland Drive. Winding roads offer an escape from LA congestion plus stops for kissing…er…admiring the view. Many famous Hollywood chase scenes were filmed along Mulholland Drive.
  • Bike Manhattan Beach. Follow a glittering coastline on the Strand, a bike path along Manhattan Beach.
  • Hike the Hollywood Trail. See the giant block letters for yourself by hiking from one of the many trailheads at Griffith Observatory.
  • Follow Route 1 to El Matador Beach. Route 1 (aka Pacific Coast Highway) is a breathtaking oceanside drive, and El Matador is a hidden jewel of a beach surrounded by rock formations and tide pools.
  • Day-trip to Topanga State Park. Explore the Santa Monica mountains under wide-open blue sky. One Trip Advisor reviewer touts “deja vu moments”, as many famous films were made in Topanga State Park.

4. For a true taste of California cool, hit the beach.

Take at least a day to soak in surfer culture. You haven’t experienced essential Los Angeles vibes until you’ve watched tricks at the Venice Beach skate park or window-shopped along the Santa Monica Promenade.

5. Take advantage of free museums.

Another key difference between Los Angeles and NYC is that many of LA’s most prominent museums are free! Step back in time at the Getty or enrich your Insta-game at the Broad. Even the Walt Disney Concert Hall offers free tours with purchased tickets to a show.

6.Keep a layer handy for chilly nights.

It may be sunny during the day, but 70 degrees in the desert with an ocean breeze is far from balmy. Pack at least one cardigan or denim jacket, even if you’re visiting during warmer months. Plus, then you’ll be all set for a breezy climb into the hills.

Bottom line

The essence of Los Angeles is a far cry from what’s sometimes portrayed on TV. Discover the rich cultural diversity, blooming creativity and sweeping mountain views for yourself by booking a flight to this coastal metropolis. And don’t forget about the beach!

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Los Angeles can be a polarizing place: People either sing its praises or classify it as artificial. Our take? Your impression of LA will completely depend on the places you go and how efficiently you’re able to manage getting around.

But at its core, LA is a funky, diverse and inviting epicenter of creativity and culture.

Here we answer often-Googled questions to help your LA trip go right.

Money

Are ATMs common?

Yes, ATMs as well as bank branches are very common in LA. For reference, Wells Fargo has 25 ATMs throughout the LA area, while Bank of America has over 70.

Can I pay for a Metro Rail TAP pass with a credit card?

Yes. TAP vending machines at Metro Rail stations accept cash, coins, tokens and credit or debit cards.

Do food trucks accept credit cards in Los Angeles?

Sometimes. But not all do, so keep cash handy. As a rule, it’s usually best to pay with cash to avoid vendor transaction fees for small purchases.

How much should I budget per day for food?

It depends where you eat and how much you consume. However, here’s an example scenario detailing what a budget traveler might expect to pay — assuming you brought a reusable water bottle along:

Breakfast: Bacon, egg and cheese breakfast at Eggslut = $10

Lunch: Three tacos at Flamin’ Taco food truck = $5

Dinner: Burger and fries at In ‘n Out Burger = $7-$10

Total estimate: $22 to $25.

If there’s a restaurant you’re dying to try, scout the menu in advance to get an idea of what a meal might cost. You could also start your day off light, then grab brunch around 10 or 11 to bundle breakfast and lunch into one meal.

Travel

Does Los Angeles have Uber?

Yes. Choose from Uber options including UberX, Uber SELECT, UberXL, UberSUV, Uber Black SUV, UberLUX and UberPool.

How far is it from Los Angeles to San Francisco?

Approximately 382 miles, or a six-hour drive on main roads. Driving takes longer on the scenic coastal route, though.

Does the Metro Rail in LA run 24/7?

Yes, all Metro Rail lines run 24/7. However, the schedule changes between midnight and 5 a.m., so it’s best to check ahead of time if you’re expecting to go on a moonlight trip.

Can I get to Universal Studios on public transportation?

Yes! Take the Metro Red Line to the Universal City subway station. Across the street from the station, you’ll see a Universal Studios shuttle bus that will take you to CityWalk Hollywood and Universal Studios Hollywood for free.

The Universal Studios shuttle runs seven days a week, and stops every 10 to 15 minutes starting at 7 a.m. and ending two hours after the park closes.

Can I take a train to Los Angeles?

Yes. Amtrak’s LA hub is Union Station in downtown LA, so if you can catch an Amtrak from your starting point, you should be able to roll right into the city. For reference, a round-trip ticket from Chicago to LA on Amtrak starts at around $143.

Read our guide: Getting around LA

Health and safety

Is Los Angeles tap water safe to drink?

Yes, LA’s tap water is safe to drink, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water — which tests H2O to ensure it meets quality standards — and independent testing group SimpleWater, which conducted an evaluation of the city’s tap water in 2018.

How common are earthquakes in Los Angeles?

While the US government estimates there’s about 10,000 a year in SoCal, most are so small that they go unnoticed. About 15 to 20 per year have a magnitude higher than 4.0. Your chances of experiencing an earthquake in Los Angeles are pretty low.

Is Los Angeles safe?

LA is ranked 51st out of 162 US cities for safety, according to safearound.com. While tourist areas like Hollywood and Santa Monica are fairly safe, visitors should stay in well-populated areas. If you’re veering off the radar in Los Angeles, check with a concierge or a local to inquire about potential risks.

Exercise the same level of caution as you would in any other city: Avoid dark alleyways and walking the streets alone at night.

Top spots for travel

What are the best beaches in Los Angeles?

We wouldn’t dare proclaim the best beaches in Los Angeles, as every local has their own favorite place to catch rays. Nevertheless, here are some popular sunny spots for out-of-towners to try:

  • Abalone Cove Ecological Preserve
  • El Matador State Beach
  • Hermosa Beach
  • Leo Carrillo State Park and Beach
  • Manhattan Beach
  • Paradise Cove

Where’s the best vintage shopping in Los Angeles?

You’ll find some of the best vintage shops outside of downtown. Our top picks:

  • Burbank: Bearded Lady Vintage, It’s a Wrap
  • East Hollywood: Lemon Frog
  • West Hollywood: Jet Rag
  • Fairfax: Mr. Freedom
  • Silver Lake: Luxe de Ville, Painted Bird
  • Topanga Canyon: Hidden Treasures

Is there a zoo in Los Angeles?

Yes. The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is located in the northeast corner of Griffith Park.

Admission for individuals age 12 and older is $21, while children ages two to 12 get in for $16. Tots younger than two can go to the Los Angeles Zoo for free.

Where is the Hollywood Walk of Fame?

The famous walk begins at 7089 Hollywood Blvd. The 2,400 stars run east to west along 15 blocks of Hollywood Boulevard, with an additional three blocks running north to south on Vine Street between Sunset Boulevard and Yucca Street.

Where should I stay?

While hostels offer cheaper rooms near downtown and Hollywood, families with plans to see Universal City might find better rates in Burbank. Folks interested in beach days should consider Culver City, Mar Vista or Santa Monica. Koreatown is also a centrally-located option with cheap overnight rates.

For more information and specific hotel suggestions, read our guide on where to stay in Los Angeles.

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