Ultimate Los Angeles Travel Guide 2021: Welcome to La La Land

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Los Angeles travel guide

Everything you need to know about navigating LA like a local.

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 at least once, 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.

Food and drinks in Los Angeles

The trendiest bars and restaurants change frequently in LA, so consider asking the concierge or using a travel forum to find out about where to go for the most authentic taste. But regardless of where you take a table, be sure to try:

Drinks

  • Juice. Liquid fruits and vegetables are a quintessential LA drink, sold at juice bars around the city and beyond. Stop at Beverly Hills Juice Club where the trend was born 40 years ago, or get trippy with Moon Juice’s Golden Spirit Moon Milk.
  • Sparkling espresso. On Sunset Boulevard, Blackwood Café is a mecca for caffeine enthusiasts. Espresso made in-house melds with sparkling water and orange zest for an electrifying taste-bud jolt.
  • Paloma. At Good Housekeeping in Highland Park, they make this tequila-and-grapefruit-soda cocktail by following the original recipe found in a 1950s pamphlet, Cocktails of the Rio Grande.

Food

  • French dip. Believe it or not, two restaurants in LA claim to have invented the wet meat-and-bread sandwich. Philippe the Original is a cafeteria-style restaurant open since 1908, while Cole’s French Dip is a landmark saloon. Try them both to choose your favorite.
  • Korean food. In 1902, the first married Korean couple set foot in Los Angeles, laying the groundwork for what is now known as Koreatown. Located four miles west of downtown LA, locals are crazy about authentic tastes of gamjatang (pork neck and potato soup) at Ham Ji Park, soju (grilled skewers of meat) at Dan Sung Sa, and grilled pork belly at Eight Korean BBQ.
  • Food trucks. Los Angeles foodies argue that LA was the birthplace of food trucks, and it’s safe to say you’re missing out if you visit without eating food passed through a window. Kogi BBQ, Coolhaus, Frysmith, Mariscos Jalisco, Urban Oven and Jogasaki are a few popular stops.

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Public transportation in Los Angeles

Sometimes public transportation in LA gets a bad rap. Less than one-twelfth of residents use it on a daily basis — a stark contrast to NYC, where a quarter of the population takes public transit every day. LA locals may shy away because rail stations can be inconvenient to get to without hopping on the bus first.

To make things more convenient, look for places to stay near key metro lines.

In LA, the subway and light rail are both referred to as Metro Rail lines. Locals use both to get where they need to be.

A single-ride fare with the LA Metro is just $1.75, though you can buy a day pass for $7 or a weekly pass for $25 — cheaper than the cost of renting a car. You’ll load fares onto a Metro TAP card (these cost $2 plus fare) and swipe for entry at most stations.

Subway

The Metro Rail includes two subway routes: the Red Line and Purple Line. Red runs from North Hollywood to Union Station downtown, and Purple spans between Union Station and Koreatown.

Light rail

Four light rail routes, part of the Metro Rail network, run above ground: Blue, Green, Gold and Expo. These connect downtown LA to other areas like Santa Monica and Long Beach.

Los Angeles Metro Rail map

Bus

Catch a ride around town via three different bus services:

  • Metro Rail buses. LA’s public transportation options include Metro Local buses that stop frequently along major routes, Metro Rapid buses that stop less frequently and Metro Express buses for commuters that connect freeways.
  • Municipal buses. Two express bus lines, Orange and Blue, connect major subway stops.
  • DASH buses. Clean-fuel shuttles make stops along 33 routes. Note service stops between 6:30 and 7 p.m. on most lines, with limited service on weekends. It costs just 50 cents to board — 25 cents for seniors and folks with disabilities.

Pro tip: Download the LA Mobile app, which lets you buy, store and use tickets with LADOT Transit.

How to plot your routes:

Instead of poring over a map, use these tools to help you get there seamlessly:

  • Go Metro Los Angeles. This mobile app recommends routes and indicates how long each trip will take.
  • Metro Trip Planner. An efficient way to plan longer trips around the LA area.

Taxis, rideshares and tours

There’s no shortage of wheels for rent or hire to take you directly to your destination.

Taxi

More than 2,300 taxis cruise through Los Angeles. Before climbing in, make sure the cab features an official City of Los Angeles Taxicab Seal:

City of Los Angeles official taxicab seal

It’s a good idea to book or call a taxi in advance, since hailing one from the side of the road is extremely difficult and even illegal in some areas, including downtown.

Rideshare

Uber and Lyft reign supreme in Los Angeles and tend to be cheaper than cabs overall. Both offer transport from LAX.

Bike

Cruise around on a Metro Bike. Visitors can pay per ride ($1.75 per 30 minutes) or purchase a 24-hour pass for just $5. Locals pay $17 for a 30-day pass or $150 for year-long access.

You can also rent a bicycle from a local shop, though prices might be higher than sticking with Metro Bike.

Tour group

Hop on one of the many available tours, whether you’re hoping to get a behind-the-scenes look at Universal Studios or are more interested in a historical retrospective of old-town LA.

Car rentals in Los Angeles

Depending on where you’re visiting, a car could save you the hassle of coordinating public transport. Here are the major car rental services in LA:

  • Alamo
  • National
  • Midway Car Rentals
  • Thrifty Car Rentals
  • Dollar Car Rentals
  • Europcar Car Rentals
  • Budget Car Rentals
  • Sixt Car Rentals

Renting a car from Enterprise in Los Angeles costs an average of $44 per day, according to data from Kayak.com.

Price data obtained July 2019. Prices are subject to change and should be used only as a general guide.

Driving in Los Angeles

Heed these insider tips for a smooth ride when you get behind the wheel:

  • Avoid commuter hours at all costs. Tourists hoping to maximize sightseeing time will want to avoid highways from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m on weekdays. These are gridlock times.
  • Pedestrians have the right-of-way — always. At every intersection, even if there’s not a crosswalk, be sure to stop for pedestrians waiting to cross the road. It’s the law.
  • Avoid the 405. Locals agree: The north-south 405 freeway is bedlam. Swap it out for Coldwater or Laurel Canyons.
  • Try Waze. If you must traverse LA during peak hours, use the Waze GPS app to avoid major thoroughfares. Out-of-towners may benefit from taking less hectic back roads.
  • Wear sunglasses. The only thing worse than sitting in traffic is squinting through traffic. In a state that’s sunny 284 days a year, chances are high you’ll want eye protection.

Airport transfers

Centrally located options for touching down in LA include:

  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Perched on the edge of the Pacific, LAX is the largest airport in California and hosts domestic and worldwide flights. It’s about 40 minutes to one hour southwest of downtown LA.
  • Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR). Domestic and international flights land north and slightly west of downtown LA, near Long Beach, Disneyland and major entertainment studios.
  • Long Beach Airport (LGB). Directly south of downtown LA, LGB is known for shorter lines and excellent food options. Note it only services domestic flights.

If you’re not renting a car, consider booking a shuttle from the airport to your final destination. Viator and Jayride both offer quick, cheap transport.

Frequently asked questions

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?
    Yes, most do — especially after contactless payment became the norm during the pandemic. But it’s a good idea to keep some cash on hand, just in case.
  • 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.
    • 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.
      • 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:American Rebel
        • 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.
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