There's so much more to Los Angeles than meets the eye.
When visiting Los Angeles, you’ll undoubtedly want to hit the top tourist spots like the Griffith Observatory, the Chinese Theatre, and the Santa Monica Pier. But lying beneath the surface, L.A. has some pretty great under-the-radar finds that will appeal to the specialists in all of you. Whether you want hard-to-find books, weird Hollywood history, or hidden gardens, this city has just what you’re looking for–or what you never knew you wanted in the first place.
Built in 1929, this sprawling estate was owned by Ned Doheny, one of the biggest oil barons in L.A. history. The 16-acre spot in Beverly Hills is open to the public and features lots of hidden surprises like secret prohibition bars and an indoor bowling alley. Doheny himself was the inspiration behind the movie There Will be Blood and was the victim of a murder/suicide inside the home.
The Last Bookstore
Built inside an abandoned bank, this Instagram-worthy book paradise is a two-floor behemoth with more than 250,000 books, old and new, including rare first editions. As you wind through the maze of shelves, you’ll be surprised to find tucked-away shops with curios, art, and even yarn. If you’re a book-lover, you can’t pass up this downtown L.A. gem.
It’s probably not on most tourists’ top lists, but that’s a mistake considering the Watts Towers is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, a California Historical Landmark, and a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. The Towers were built over 33 years by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia between 1921 and 1954 and consist of 17 interlaced iron spirals with mosaics and other architectural features.
Located in the southwest section of Griffith Park, the Bronson Caves are the remnants of an old quarry that was used in the early 1900s. Fans of the original Batman TV show in the 1960s might recognize this spot as it was used as the exterior of the Batcave. The caves have appeared in dozens of other movies and shows including, The Lone Ranger, The A-Team, Flash Gordon, and the cult classic Army of Darkness.
The Magic Castle
Up on a hill, just north of Hollywood Boulevard is a Victorian mansion that’s home to the Academy of Magical Arts. Inside this secret spot is a magician’s Shangri-La filled with multiple bars, room to experience magic up close, and large stages for grand performances. In order to get in, you need to be invited by a member, but there is a work-around. If you stay at the Magic Castle Hotel next door, they can get you inside without any hocus-pocus.
Hotel Cecil/Stay on Main
Fans of the macabre will find lots to love when they learn about the history of downtown L.A.’s most notorious hotel. Originally built in 1924, the Cecil was once home to multiple serial killers and the spot of many unsolved murders. The most recent was only a few years ago when they found the remains of a tourist inside the hotel’s water tower.
Frank Gehry is known around the world for his architectural masterpieces. In L.A. alone he’s responsible for multiple houses and buildings like the Gehry Residence, Loyola Law School, and the Walt Disney Hall. But one of his most interesting creations is the Binoculars Building, a quirky Venice spot that is exactly as advertised–a giant set of binoculars. The project was originally designed for the Chiat/Day advertising agency and today is home to Google’s main L.A. office.
Marilyn Monroe’s Grave
As the most famous blonde bombshell in Hollywood history, the world’s fascination with Marilyn Monroe continues to this day. That fascination even carries over to Monroe’s final resting place, which is in a hallway of above-ground crypts at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary. While you’re there, you can also find other luminaries like Truman Capote, Billy Wilder, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jack Lemmon.
Barnsdall Art Park
In East Hollywood is the hidden-away Barnsdall Art Park that happens to be a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument and National Historic Landmark that features the Hollyhock House, a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. Named after Aline Barnsdall, an oil heiress who commissioned the Wright work in 1915, the park today is a destination for art and architecture. During summer months, the park hosts a Friday night wine tasting event where Angeleno’s can picnic on the lawn with glasses of chardonnay while watching the setting sun.
Petersen Automotive Museum
Car lovers will salivate over the insane collection at the Petersen Automotive Museum set right on Museum Row in the Miracle Mile section of L.A. But what tourists may not know is that beyond the standard museum exhibitions, there’s a secret vault that has more than 250 additional vehicles that are some of the coolest and most-rare automotive treasures in the world.
Jumbo’s Clown Room
If you’re looking for the seedier side of L.A.’s under-the-radar spots, this is the place for you. Opened back in 1970, Jumbo’s is a burlesque bar with long lines of hipsters waiting patiently to get inside. Once there, you’ll discover cheap drinks, rocking music, and uber-talented ladies flying around brass poles. One other random fact is that Courtney Love was once a dancer here.
Griffith Park Zoo
Another hidden gem inside the sprawling Griffith Park is the old abandoned zoo. Originally opened in 1912 and closed in 1966, the zoo is now part of a hiking trail and an oft-photographed highlight for a tourist’s Instagram. The old zoo is famous for another reason as it’s been featured in countless shows and movies like, Rush Hour, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, and Starsky & Hutch.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery
The most famous celebrity burial ground is without question the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Built in 1899, the cemetery is home to Judy Garland, Bugsy Siegel, Cecil B. DeMille, and many others. There are tours of the space that last around two hours where you can discover lots of history and mysteries around the grounds. The cemetery is also known for movie screenings and concerts.
Berlin Wall Segments
L.A. seems like a strange place to discover actual segments of the Berlin Wall, but you can find them at the Wende Museum, across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The museum commissioned artists to paint on the various segments of the wall, which also happens to be the largest stretch of the structure outside of Berlin.
Otherwise known as the Witches House in Beverly Hills, the Spadena House has an interesting history. First built on the Willat Studios lot in 1920, the house was physically moved to its current ritzy location in 1924. The house is not open for tourists, but the fairy-tale-like appearance is viewable from the street for on-lookers to snap pics. Movie-buffs will also recognize it from a background shot in the film Clueless.
Virginia Robinson Gardens
As an heiress to the Robinson department store dynasty, Virginia Robinson lived on what is the oldest intact estate in Beverly Hills–dating back to 1911. The house and gardens cover 6.5 acres of immaculately landscaped flora with a distinct Italian villa vibe right out of Tuscany. The Beaux-Arts style house includes a tennis court, pool house, and five separate gardens including a rose garden, Italian terrace, and Palm tree forest.
James Irvine Japanese Garden
Officially known as Seiryu-en or Garden of the Clear Stream, the James Irvine Japanese Garden is a hidden oasis behind the Japanese American Cultural Community Center. When you arrive at the center, you sign in at the front desk, descend to the basement via an elevator, and wind your way to the back where the most peaceful garden in L.A. awaits. Here you can zone out during your time in this hectic city.