Los Angeles is as much a fantasy as it is a physical city.
A mecca for face-lifts, film noir, shopping starlets, beach bodies, and mind-numbing traffic, it sprawls across 467 square miles; add in the surrounding five-county metropolitan area, and you’ve got an area of more than 34,000 square miles. So how can you see and do it all in one trip? The simple answer is you can’t. But that’s not a problem because we’ve hand-picked the 25 things you absolutely can’t skip when you’re in L.A. Whether you fit these essential experiences into one trip or five, you’re guaranteed to love every single one.
“The Happiest Place on Earth” continues to delight children and all but the most cynical adults. A visit here can be enchanting, exciting, romantic, or nostalgic, depending on your age. Disneyland, the original vision of Walt Disney, is now paired with Disney’s California Adventure, showcasing more recent Disney characters and Hollywood-oriented attractions. Outside these popular theme parks, Downtown Disney supports a wide range of restaurants, bars, and clubs that appeal to the whole family.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Designed by Frank Gehry, the voluptuous curves of this stainless steel–clad masterpiece located downtown is a signature of the modern metropolis. One of several venues of the Music Center, the 2,265-seat Disney Hall is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It features unrivaled acoustics and a stunning pipe organ, which is as much a work of art as a musical instrument. For a truly opulent evening, pair a concert with dinner at Patina, located inside the building. Afterward there are plenty of nightlife options within easy reach.
TCL Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood Walk of Fame
An iconic metaphor for Hollywood, the elaborate Grauman’s Chinese Theatre opened in 1927 with the premier of Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. That’s when the tradition of stars imprinting their hands or feet into the cement began with an “accidental” footprint by Norma Talmadge. More than 160 stars have contributed, and among the more unique prints are the nose of Jimmy Durante and hooves of Trigger. The theater is adjacent to the Hollywood and Highland Center. Then, of course there’s the Walk of Fame that runs a mile along Hollywood Boulevard, with the handprints of more than 1,600 stars.
On a hillside above Brentwood, the $1-billion-plus Getty Center is not only a museum but a statement that L.A. has taken its place in the art world. The Richard Meier–designed complex has a skin of travertine marble, and natural light floods galleries filled with impressionist canvases, Greek antiquities, and jaw-dropping exhibits of furniture and decorative arts from French monarchy. Pedestrian plazas and gardens abound, and a sunset dinner at the restaurant, with its panoramic views, is the stuff of memories.
Dominated by the exclusive names of Gucci, Versace, and Cartier, Rodeo Drive is a shoppers’ paradise. Along the cobblestoned Via Rodeo, you can drop a thousand dollars on python pumps or nosh on a $500 sushi dinner. Fortunately, Rodeo Drive doesn’t cater exclusively to the rich and famous, and more moderate shops and restaurants are interspersed with the iconic boutiques.
Santa Monica Pier
Spend a sunny day beside the Pacific Ocean riding the Ferris wheel and playing dozens of games for prizes at this popular family destination. Cotton candy and other hard-to-resist treats are within easy reach. Drop by in the late afternoon to experience the dazzling sunsets.
Venice Beach Boardwalk
The bohemian lifestyle of this famous boardwalk is constantly threatened by the rapid gentrification of Venice. Still, the magicians, fortune-tellers, and Muscle Beach weight lifters survive. Struggling artists sell their paintings, infiltrated by tackier purveyors of cheap watches and sunglasses. Rent a bicycle or in-line skates, grab a hot dog, and enjoy the sights and the sunset.
Despite urban myths that claim otherwise, Angelenos do abandon their cars every now and then—especially if it’s to rent an old-school beach cruiser and bike down the 22-mile-long Strand, which stretches from Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica to Torrance County Beach in Redondo. The Strand runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean through Santa Monica and Venice. If biking isn’t your thing, there are plenty of rollerbladers and walkers as well.
It’s no secret that the people of Los Angeles love their cars. But what the casual observer may not know is that Angelenos have another passion—for the local burger chain In-N-Out—that, thankfully, is perfectly car-friendly. Of course, Angelenos don’t get out of their cars to make this magical moment happen. Easy directions: Drive up to an In-N-Out window, order from the secret menu (available online), and enjoy your “Animal Style” in the car.
At 3rd and Fairfax, the Farmers Market is pretty much Los Angeles’s version of a community center. Everyone comes here to eat, drink, and, most importantly, people-watch. Founded by a collective of farmers in 1934, the Farmers Market now houses more than 85 shops and restaurants—you can find everything from a Brazilian grill to a French crêperie to a Lebanese kebab stand—in an open-air bazaar ringed by stalls and stands. The Farmers Market and the adjacent shopping area, The Grove, are also low-key places to spot celebrities going about their everyday business.
It seems that everyone in Los Angeles has a taco truck that they swear by. Typically, these taco stands on wheels have a regular corner and semi-regular hours. The only reliable way to find a good one is to ask a local—or do some research on a foodie website. Not all taco trucks are created equal and it pays to know the specialty of the house—or truck, that is. A few things that most taco trucks share in common: tasty tacos, cheap prices, and a locals-only peek into L.A.’s hometown cuisine.
No doubt you’ve seen the iconic dome in movies, but nothing compares to spending a summer evening in a bleacher seat (or, better yet, one of the coveted boxes) at the Hollywood Bowl. To really get your local on, pack a picnic complete with bottle of wine and wicker basket and don’t be afraid to share goodies with your neighbors. Performances run the gamut from reggae night to rock concerts to Los Angeles Philharmonic performances. But as most Angelenos would agree, the experience is as much about sitting outside under the night sky as it is about the music.
Book a Hotel
The park, extremely accessible from the city, offers a 53-mile network of trails, roads, and bridle paths. One of the most popular routes is up Mount Hollywood, which boasts panoramic views of the Los Angeles basin, the Griffith Observatory, and the Hollywood Sign along the way. Don’t feel like working up a sweat? Although riders must stay on specially marked trails, much of the park can be seen on horseback. Private stables are located in the park’s northwest and southwest boundaries.
Pacific Coast Highway
There may be nothing that epitomizes Los Angeles more than a drive down the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH, as locals call it. After taking in the sweeping views and turquoise waters, stop at a seafood shack, such as Malibu Seafood or the Reel Inn, for some ahi burgers or fish and chips. Afterward, check out one of Malibu‘s most beautiful beaches: Topanga State Beach, Zuma Beach, or the small and secluded La Piedra, El Pescador, and El Matador beaches.
One way to blend in with the locals is to surround yourself with them—literally. Get out to Dodger Stadium for a baseball game, and don’t forget to dress in all blue and eat a Dodger Dog while you’re there. Unless it’s a big game, Dodger tickets are easy to come by—especially if you’re willing to sit in the cheap bleacher seats. You can also spend a bit more to sit in one of the special sections such as the All-You-Can-Eat Pavilion. It’s much harder to procure Lakers tickets when they play at Staples Center, but if you plan ahead, a Lakers game is a surefire way to see big celebrities and even bigger feats of aerodynamics.
ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood
It would be an understatement to say that Angelenos take their movies seriously. Considering that the entertainment industry is many locals’ bread and butter, it’s no surprise that moviegoing ups the ante here, too. Look no further than the ArcLight in Hollywood for a signature L.A. moviegoing experience. Each movie is introduced by a live announcer schooled in movie trivia. If you’re super lucky, you might catch the directors as they frequently make appearances to discuss their work. If you want to really do it like a local, catch a flick in the middle of the day—remember, Angelenos have sunny days to burn.
Hinoki & the Bird
A brilliant combination of East and West is unveiled at Hinoki & the Bird, the latest restaurant by Michelin-studded chef David Meyers. In a condo tower on Avenue of the Stars, Hinoki could easily be dismissed as another celebrity hot spot with all the flash and none of the substance, but the small-plates menu tells a different story. Pick and choose between fun appetizers and inspirational entrées, including the delicate red snapper accented with grapefruit and lime, the crispy marinated chicken with lemon aioli, and the lobster roll with green curry and Thai basil. The signature black cod arrives at your table with paper-thin layers of hinoki (cypress) still smouldering—it’s a feast for all of your senses.
Tucked away in an unremarkable-looking strip mall in what used to be a humdrum Thia restaurant, Petit Trois is chef Ludovic Lefebvre’s irresistible take on a Parisian bistro. All the classics are here from escargots to steak tartare to sole meunière. Reservations aren’t accepted but the wait times aren’t too bad, and it’s worth it to experience a bit of Paris in the unlikeliest of locations.
The talk of the Los Angeles art world when it opened in fall 2015, this museum in an intriguing, honeycomb-looking building was created by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with “road”) to showcase their stunning private collection of contemporary art amassed over five decades and still growing. With upward of 2,000 pieces by more than 200 artists, the collection has in-depth representations of the work of such prominent names as Jean Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly, Kara Walker, and Christopher Wool.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Without a doubt, this is the focal point of the museum district that runs along Wilshire Boulevard. Chris Burden’s Urban Light sculpture, composed of more than 220 restored cast-iron antique street lamps, elegantly marks the location. Inside you’ll find one of the country’s most comprehensive art collections with more than 120,000 objects dating from ancient times to the present. The museum, which opened in 1965, now includes numerous buildings that cover more than 20 acres.
One of the most fabled avenues in the world, Sunset Boulevardbegan humbly enough in the 18th century as a route from El Pueblo de Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean. Today, as it passes through West Hollywood, it becomes the sexy and seductive Sunset Strip, where rock and roll had its heyday and cocktail bars charge a premium for the views. It slips quietly into the tony environs of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, twisting and winding past gated estates and undulating vistas.
Universal Studios Hollywood
Universal is more a theme park with lots of roller coasters and thrill rides than a backstage pass, though its tour provides a good firsthand look at familiar TV and movie sets. Despite the amusement park clichés, many first-timers consider this studio a must-see. The favorite attraction is the tram tour, during which you can experience the parting of the Red Sea; duck from dinosaurs in Jurassic Park; visit Dr. Seuss’s Whoville; see the airplane wreckage of War of the Worlds and the still-creepy house from Psycho; and be attacked by the killer shark of Jaws fame.
Revel in terrific views of the city and Hollywood sign from Runyon Canyon. Located just off Hollywood Boulevard, the trails here are popular and easily accessible, which means it can get crowded at times. That being said, you should be fine if you visit in the early morning.
Los Angeles is known for its sushi, and not just the celebrity-frequented hot spots. Don’t let its nondescript minimal location deter you: Asanebo is one of L.A.’s finest Japanese restaurants—and still relatively undiscovered. Once strictly a sashimi bar, this inviting establishment introduced top-quality sushi to satisfy increasing local demand and also offers a wealth of innovative dishes.
This is the only major studio from film’s golden age left in Hollywood—all the others are in Burbank, Universal City, or Culver City. For decades director Cecil B. DeMille’s base of operations, Paramount offers probably the most authentic studio tour, giving you a real sense of the film industry’s history. You can take a two-hour studio tour or a four-and-a-half-hour VIP tour, led by guides who walk and trolley you around the back lots. As well as gleaning some gossipy history, you’ll spot the sets of TV and film shoots in progress.