12 Must-Dos on a Trip to Los Angeles

The beach, Disneyland, Hollywood, and Malibu top the list

Los Angeles skyline
Getty Images/Jean-Pierre Lescourret

You'd be hard-pressed to visit all of the attractions in the Los Angeles area in a month, much less a week. The area's beaches, boardwalks, parks, theme parks, and shopping are enough to keep even the hardiest tourist busy for ages. Start with this list of just 12 things to see and do for a visit that will hit the high points of the City of Angels.

01 of 12

Go to the Beach

The Beach in LA

TripSavvy / Christian Hundley 

 Los Angeles boasts miles of beaches—and all of them are open to the public. They're an iconic part of most people's image of the City of Angels.

The Santa Monica Bay creates a stretched-out, backward C-shaped shoreline, with most of its beachfront facing west, except Santa Monica and Malibu. In Orange County, the coastline turns, giving its beaches a south-facing view.

Whether you want to lounge and read a book or do some beach yoga, Los Angeles beaches have something for everyone. You'll find active beaches lined with volleyball nets, quiet and natural spots, and places to have a meal or take a nap on the sand. Every few miles, a pier juts out into the ocean, often in spots that the surfers love. Discover all kinds of beaches around LA and in Orange County.

One of the simplest pleasures at a Los Angeles beach is a walk or a run, especially in the lively South Bay beach towns—Redondo, Hermosa, and Manhattan Beach. You'll spot plenty of other active folks out and about—and plenty of beachfront homes to envy. It's a unique part of the Los Angeles lifestyle.

On the downside, the beach areas are foggier than you might expect, often stuck in all-day gloom for the entire month of June (or longer). On a sunny summer weekend, parking can be hard to find near the best ones.

02 of 12

Chill Out on Catalina Island

Catalina Island

Betsy Malloy Photography

If you want a taste of the Mediterranean in Southern California, head just off the shore of the city. You'll technically still be in Los Angeles County, but you'll feel as if you've stepped onto the coast of Greece when you visit Catalina Island.

Things are different on Catalina, and especially in the town of Avalon, where most visitors go. You'll see fish fly and people driving golf carts instead of cars, but that's only the start. The real charm of the island is in its unpretentious, laid-back ambiance, enough to get you chilled out in no time. The island is worthy of a full, week-long vacation if you have the days off; if not, a weekend escape provides plenty of distractions, too.

The only downside? You have to get on a ferry boat to get there, and if you get more excited by city lights than by the sight of a buffalo in the wild, this quiet escape may not be for you.

03 of 12

Spend a Day at Disneyland

Disneyland in California

Courtesy of Disneyland

OK, it's true that Disneyland is technically in Orange County, but it's still a top destination for Los Angeles visitors.

Disneyland earns a spot on this list for its cleanliness, friendly employees, and overall fun factor. Unlike other area theme parks, the park doesn't have extra-fee attractions that raise your costs—and it doesn't charge for a line-busting FastPass, either.

It's also sentimental: The Anaheim-based theme park is the original, the one baby boomers grew up yearning to visit. You can wear a funny hat all day and not feel silly about it. Its landscape is engineered to keep anything outside from intruding on your experience. Disneyland is a place where you can just enjoy being a kid with your kids.

Walt Disney wanted to create a place where parents and kids could do things together, and Disneyland offers plenty of chances to do just that. Most rides are on the gentler side, and you'll also find shows, parades, and daily fireworks in summer. And if you don't want to do any of that, just take a kid or two and watch them have fun.

Next door to Disneyland is California Adventure, a separate Disney park with a growing collection of rides based on animated films. Downtown Disney, a shopping, dining, and entertainment area are next door.

A few downsides to keep in mind: Lines can be long, tickets pricey, and people who like extreme thrill rides may find the park too tame. 

04 of 12

Drive the Malibu Coast

The beach in Malibu

TripSavvy / Christian Hundley 

West of the city of Santa Monica, the beaches run east and west, creating a beautiful setting and making for some great surfing when conditions allow. Since the days of beach-blanket movies and Beach Boys songs, Malibu has exemplified Southern California beach culture.

From a visitor's perspective, the Malibu coastline is too scenic for its own good—you'll spend more time than you want to driving past the backs of houses that face the beach. Go far enough north and you'll begin to see what all the fuss is about. 

You can take in all of the scenery when you drive from Santa Monica to Oxnard in just a few hours on the Malibu coast drive. Or make a day of it and get your fill of Greek and Roman antiquities in a villa taken right out of the pages of history at the Getty Villa.  

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05 of 12

Graze at the LA Farmers Market and Shop at The Grove

People walking around the Grove

TripSavvy / Christian Hundley 

The energetic atmospheres of this pair of destinations earn them a spot on this list—they're especially enjoyable in the evening when the tour buses go away and the locals come out. The LA Farmers Market (once a simple farm stand, where area farmers sold their goods) is a great place to go for people-watching. With dozens of food choices, it's especially great for a group of picky eaters who can each choose their own food items. 

Next door to the market are more places to browse, go to the movies, eat in a sit-down restaurant, or watch the dancing fountains at The Grove.

On the downside, parking can be packed during busy times. And because two different businesses run the parking lots, you have to be sure you put your car where you plan to spend money to get parking validation.

06 of 12

Brave Roller Coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain

Six Flags Magic Mountain outside of Los Angeles

F. Montino at Flickr, under Attribution 2.0 

It's easiest to sum it up this way: Roller coasters. Goliath starts with a 255-foot drop into a dark tunnel at 85 miles per hour. Tatsu is one of the tallest, fastest, longest flying coasters on Earth. And Riddler's Revenge is one of the world's tallest, fastest stand-up coasters. It also turns you upside down six times in one ride.

In short: If you're an adrenaline junkie who loves big, fast, screamin' rides, Magic Mountain is the place for you. You'll have bragging rights for surviving some of the most extreme coasters anywhere.

For the most part, the Magic Mountain experience consists of standing in line a long time, taking a short-but-exhilarating ride, then getting into another line. You get the idea. 

The other downsides? There's little to do at Magic Mountain other than riding roller coasters, especially for younger children—and the only way to shorten your waiting time is to pay extra for the Flash Pass. Because of its inland location—and little shade—the park can be extremely hot in the summer.

07 of 12

Drop in at Knott's Berry Farm

Knott's Berry Farm
Jeremy Thompson/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

If you like thrill rides, this theme park may be for you. The rides are the main draw, and until recently if you didn't want to ride them, you wouldn't find much else to do at Knott's Berry Farm. That's gotten a bit better in the past few years, but it's still mostly a park for people who love the big rides.

Fun fact: Knott's Berry Farm started out as a way to entertain folks who were standing in line for Cordelia Knott's fried chicken dinners. Her husband, Walter, added a few Old West-themed attractions to entertain visitors. Today, Knott's Berry Farm is a thrill-ride-filled theme park.

The Knott's experience has a bit of a split personality, with old-fashioned spots like the Bottle House standing shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the wildest thrill rides on the West Coast.

Sadly, either tastes have changed or Mrs. Knott's chicken dinners aren't what they used to be. Online reviewers at Yelp give the greasy meals 3.5 stars.

08 of 12

Say Hello to Hollywood

The Hollywood sign up on the hill

TripSavvy / Christian Hundley 

Don't let outdated guides tell you that Hollywood is dirty and run-down. For the most part, that's a thing of the past. That doesn't mean it isn't crowded and sometimes tacky-touristy, though.

Hollywood is more of a state of mind than a real place. In Los Angeles, much of the hype centers on Hollywood Boulevard around its intersection with Highland Boulevard. Ever since Sid Grauman built his first movie houses near there and started asking his friends to imprint their hands and feet in wet cement outside his Chinese Theatre, it's been the site of a film fan frenzy.

Along the boulevard, you'll find the Walk of Fame, a series of stars embedded in the sidewalk, celebrating hundreds of folks' achievements in film, television, and music. Celebrity impersonators prowl the sidewalk, posing for photos with the passers-by (for a small tip), and everyone seems to want to check out the hand and footprints at the Chinese Theatre. If you're lucky, you might even happen by when there's a footprint ceremony, star ceremony, or movie premiere going on.

There's more to Hollywood than just the boulevard. Nearby you'll find the Hollywood Bowl (the best place for a summer concert), Paramount Studios, the Hollywood Heritage Museum (birthplace of the film industry), and a bunch of other sights.

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09 of 12

Take the Studio Tour at Universal

Taking the Studio Tour at Universal Studios

Betsy Malloy Photography

Created to provide tours of Universal Studios' sound stages and famous film sets, the studio tour has evolved into a full-fledged theme park, Hollywood-movie style. It's about one-third themed rides (Jurassic Park, Revenge of the Mummy, and so on), one-third studio tour, and one-third Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The studio tour takes you through the working studio but with lots of extras created just to entertain visitors. 

Universal Studios has a well-earned reputation and is especially fun for anyone who loves the movies. It also runs an over-the-top Halloween season that celebrates all the goriest slasher films.

Universal Studios is not in Hollywood proper but in the San Fernando Valley. It's a short drive away from Hollywood at Highland on U.S. Highway 101.

10 of 12

See the Sunset Strip

Sunset Boulevard at Night

Betsy Malloy Photography

Sunset Boulevard runs from downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean through some of Los Angeles' most exclusive neighborhoods. Its most famous stretch is probably the Sunset Strip, a section whose sexy curves make it a visual icon, lined with nightclubs and emblematic billboards.

During the day, this area is mostly quiet except for people shopping, dining, and wanting to be seen at Sunset Plaza. At night, it's illuminated by neon lights and an easy place to club-hop without driving around, and the sidewalks are full of party-goers.

The Sunset Strip runs through West Hollywood between Crescent Heights and Doheny Drive, on the north side of the Los Angeles metro area. It's northwest of downtown and northeast of Beverly Hills.

11 of 12

Visit Venice Beach

A mural on Venice Beach

TripSavvy / Christian Hundley

Weird, wonderful, wacky, and totally Los Angeles, Venice Beach is Southern California's beach scene, magnified. Even the graffiti is larger than life—and the people-watching is top shelf.

On the boardwalk—which isn't made of boards but concrete—you'll see fortune tellers, artists, hawkers, and buskers, mixing with rollerblading chicks in the smallest of thong bikinis. And that's only the beginning. An hour strolling up and down the beachfront is entertaining to the max.

Venice Beach is more than just the sidewalk scene. Stroll a little way from the busy parts to the pier and walk out over the water for a quiet break—or walk out to the Graffiti Walls to admire some great examples of outdoor art.

This beachside town got its name from early developer Abbot Kinney's dream to emulate the canal-lined Italian city beside the Pacific Ocean. It's only a few blocks' stroll to the remnants of those old waterways, lined with cute, pastel-colored houses and water flowing beneath arched, white bridges. Or head over to Abbot Kinney Boulevard for boutique shopping and some excellent restaurants.

Of note: Some people are put off by the tinge of grunge or alarmed by some of the characters they encounter. The beach scene is a daytime phenomenon only, and things don't really get going until mid-morning at the earliest. Worst of all, parking can be especially hard to find when it's busy, leaving paid parking lots as your only option.

12 of 12

Window Shop on Rodeo Drive

Shops on Rodeo Drive

TripSavvy / Christian Hundley 

Everyone enjoys a little vicarious peek at things rich and famous, and Rodeo Drive delivers an eye-popping dose of it. It's a place where you're likely to find the most expensive luxury cars parked at the curb—and you might even find a celebrity on a shopping spree.

This famous, upscale shopping area is small, but its reputation is big, its image in many people's minds shaped by Vivian's (Julia Roberts) shopping spree in "Pretty Woman" (1990).

Only a few blocks long, the famous part of Rodeo Drive runs between Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. Even the parking lots are upscale on Rodeo Drive—you could easily drive into one of them and think you'd accidentally gone into the entry of a ritzy hotel.

Most visitors walk up and down, window-shopping. On this short street, you'll see all the top-named shops, including Bijan—rumored to be the world's most expensive store—and a few super-shoppers loaded down with bags from Gucci, Prada, or Louis Vuitton.

Rodeo Drive is also the place to catch the Beverly Hills Trolley Tour, an excursion that shows you not only Rodeo Drive but also the nearby stately neighborhoods, celebrities' former homes, and famous landmarks.

Keep in mind that crowds can make it difficult to find a parking spot, and Rodeo Drive is virtually dead after dark. 

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