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If the Sun is Out, Go to the Beach
This is probably one of dozens of other "Things to Do in LA" lists you've stumbled across while planning your trip, but believe me when I say that you'll be glad you came across my page. Here's why: It's compiled by a California travel expert (me) with more than 20 years of experience who has lived in Los Angeles as well as visited it hundreds of times. Hundreds, folks. I've seen Los Angeles change into the green juice loving, eccentric city it is today.
My guide started with a list of the most popular destinations based on tourism data, but it doesn't stop there. We also asked our readers to vote for their favorite things to do and all that went into the final list, which is like you asking all of your friends with different tastes and preferences about their favorite places to go in LA and things to do while there.
Setting Travel Expectations
You'd be hard-pressed to visit all of LA's attractions in a month, much less a week. The city's beaches, boardwalks, theme parks, and... shopping are enough to keep even the hardiest tourist busy for ages. To help you make the most of your vacation, we've whittled down the must-see list to just a dozen items.
Los Angeles Beaches
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 their 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 great 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.Continue to 2 of 14 below.
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Chill Out on Catalina Island
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.Continue to 3 of 14 below.
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Spend a Day at Disneyland
OK, we know 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 is 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.Continue to 4 of 14 below.
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Drive the Malibu Coast
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 Oxford in just a few hours during 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.Continue to 5 of 14 below.
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Graze at the LA Farmers Market and Shop at The Grove
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 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. Plan your trip with this guide and a shopping bag in hand before heading to the LA Farmers Market.
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.Continue to 6 of 14 below.
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Brave Roller Coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain
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 beside ride 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.Continue to 7 of 14 below.
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Drop In at Knott's Berry Farm
If you like thrill rides, this theme park may be for you. The rides are the main draw, and until recently if you don'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.Continue to 8 of 14 below.
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Say Hello to Hollywood
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. You'll find them all on this driving tour.Continue to 9 of 14 below.
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Visit Universal Studios Hollywood
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. They also run 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 US Hwy 101.Continue to 10 of 14 below.
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See Sunset Strip
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 folks shopping, dining and wanting to be seen at Sunset Plaza. At night, it's illuminated by neon lights, 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.
Learn about hours, how to get tickets, admission discounts, how to get there and the best time to go with this complete guide to Sunset Strip.Continue to 11 of 14 below.
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Visit Venice Beach
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. In various visits, we've encountered a band of chanting Hare Krishnas, a dog wearing sunglasses, GI Joe crawling along the sidewalk and a host of other characters. 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 the name Venice 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 earliest. Worst of all, parking can be especially hard to find when it's busy, leaving paid parking lots as your only option.Continue to 12 of 14 below.
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Window Shop on Rodeo Drive
We all enjoy 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 folks' minds shaped by Vivian's shopping spree in Pretty Woman.
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,... a fun 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 the drive is virtually dead after dark.Continue to 13 of 14 below.
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More to Do in Los Angeles — and What Not to Do
Besides knowing what to do in LA, it's also important to know what attractions you can skip —and what things you really shouldn't be doing. Like freaking out over traffic or saying things that make you sound like a doofus. To be sure you don't make any missteps, use this guide to what not to do in Los Angeles.
More Things You Can Do in Los Angeles
There's a lot more to do in Los Angeles than just these few things, even though they are the most popular. You may want to start with these less-visited but totally fun places.
Do you want your kids to have fun in Los Angeles? Here's where to take them.
To keep your spending in check, just use the guide to things to do for free in Los Angeles.
It might rain in the winter. Here's what to do in LA when it's raining. And if it's summertime when you visit, you'll definitely want to know What to Do on a Los Angeles Summer Night. Or that matter, find out what you can do at night in LA anytime.
Things Not to Do in LA
There are some tourist traps you may... want to avoid in LA, but you also don't want to get arrested, surf at the wrong beach, sound like a doofus, or freak out over weird driving. You can learn how to avoid them all in this guide of what not to do in Los Angeles.Continue to 14 of 14 below.
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Ways to Save Money on These Top Attractions
If you're planning to see most of the spots on this list, a multi-attraction pass could save you a lot of money. Buy the pass for a fixed price, and it gets you into a list of Los Angeles-area attractions. Your cost will be less than if you paid for each one separately.
Two companies offer multi-attraction passes in the area. Which one is best for you depends on what you want to do—these are your options:
Southern California CityPass
If you're planning on buying three-day tickets to Disneyland, this is the pass for you.
CityPass offers admission to Disneyland, as well as Sea World, Legoland, and the San Diego Zoo. You'll pay just a little more for the combination than you would for three-day tickets to Disneyland alone, making it an exceptional value for your money if you're visiting anything else it covers—and you have 14 days to do it all. Find out more about whether it's the right choice for you in the Southern California CityPASS guide.
The Los Angeles Go Card includes all of the... attractions in this list that have admission fees except Disneyland and is your best choice if you're not going to Disneyland or only visiting it for one day.
When to Buy Both
If your activities will be more or less limited to the places on this list, buying a Southern California CityPass and individual tickets to the other attractions will cost the least.
If you're planning on doing enough of the 40-plus additional activities Go Card offers, however, it may be a money-saver to buy both, taking care to bunch activities covered by the Go Card into the fewest days possible.