Have one day in Los Angeles and want to see the city’s highlights? This step-by-step guide is a jam-packed plan that includes the top 5 things to do in L.A., including free museums, beaches, and dining. It’s an ambitious Los Angeles 1-day itinerary, optimized to avoid driving & time stuck in Southern California traffic. (Updated June 27, 2021.)
Let’s start with the good news: California has fully reopened as of June 2021, allowing virtually every business in the state to resume normal operations. Capacity limitations and health safety protocol, such as face mask requirements, have largely been dropped for the fully vaccinated. With that said, there are still some differences as compared to a normal year.
For one thing, many museums and other points of interest (that did not previously require them) have reservation systems or timed entry. At this point, that’s mostly to limit attendance during a summer of sky-high pent-up demand. Additionally, some attractions are not operating with the typical schedules as they scale up operations. For example, the inside of Griffith Observatory is only open Friday through Sunday right now, while the exterior grounds are open daily. Basically, things are 90% normal; we expect that to continue between now and Labor Day 2021…
While creating this itinerary, I tried to think of the best approach, which was a bit of a challenge. A shorter visit means either spending time commuting between what I think are the absolute best spots, or focusing on a more targeted area, and accomplishing more there by way of not losing time in traffic. Both approaches obviously have their drawbacks and upsides.
In the end, if you only have one day in L.A., I’d recommend going for broke, racing around trying to hit the highlights of Los Angeles (and beyond–a couple of the spots aren’t technically L.A., even if they’re really close). I’ve still tried to attain a bit of the best of both worlds here; the bulk of your driving is in a convenient loop and occurs mostly during off-hours.
If you have multiple days in L.A. or you would prefer to minimize drive times even further, don’t use this itinerary. Because of the sprawling nature of Los Angeles (without strong public transit), the best multi-day approach will have each day focus on a specific area of town. The longer your visit, the more focused that area can and should be.
For those spending two days in Southern California, refer instead to our 2-Day Los Angeles Itinerary, which covers a lot of the same ground (and then some) of this itinerary, but in a more organized manner. If you’re spending 3 or 4 days in Los Angeles, we’d recommend adding our 1-Day Downtown Los Angeles Walking Itinerary for your third day and our 1-Day Hollywood Itinerary as your fourth day.
1. Malibu Sunrise
There are a few reasons why this does not belong on this list: 1) the sun rises in the east, and the Pacific Ocean is (obviously) in the west; 2) the marine layer makes a pretty sunrise along Southern California’s coast rare, and; 3) it’s a bit of a drive from the next stop of the day. If you don’t want to get up early, skipping this stop is not a bad idea. It’s going to be a long day.
With that said, there are compelling reasons for getting up to (hopefully) see the sun rise. First, if the cloud cover is just right, you could have an amazing sky to the west. Second, it’s your only chance to see the beautiful beaches of Malibu. Finally, this drive includes a long stretch on Pacific Coast Highway, which is an awesome experience unto itself. If you want less of a drive, starting your day at the Santa Monica Pier is an option, but then you lose the PCH drive (and the Santa Monica Pier is overrated, in my opinion). On balance, we think the early wake up will be worth it, and strongly recommend El Matador Beach, which we called “Malibu’s Megastar.”
You should have time for breakfast between this stop and the next, and my recommendation for that is Malibu Farm Cafe. Located on the Malibu Pier, this is a relatively low-cost (and delicious!) way to have an ocean-view meal. Opt for something light, like an acai bowl, as it’s going to be an active day.
2. Wilshire (Blvd.) Drive
While you could stay on the highway for a more efficient route or venture down world-famous Sunset Boulevard for a meandering stretch passing through the gated communities of Pacific Palisades and Brentwood, we’d recommend driving along Wilshire Boulevard. Although it does not have the name cachet of Sunset Blvd (no films have been named after it, to my knowledge), Wilshire features just as, if not more, prominently in Los Angeles.
The reason for driving along Wilshire is because it passes a diverse lineup of architectural styles that define Los Angeles. From the Googie architecture of Zucky’s to the Spanish Colonial Revival style of Wadsworth Theater, there are a number of cool buildings to see along this stretch. Wilshire also helps give you a “feel” for Los Angeles, old and new. This map from the Los Angeles Conservancy can help you identify what you’re seeing along the drive. This is not a wow-worthy experience, but it’s worth doing.
3. The Getty Center
Boosting the best and most valuable art collection in Los Angeles, the Getty Center has numerous galleries spread out in multiple buildings in a beautiful outdoor campus. The Getty Center is a seriously impressive place–not just one of my top places to visit in Los Angeles, but one of my favorite art museums in the world.
Fair warning: you’re not going to have enough time at the Getty Center to enjoy all–or even half–of its incredible collection. You should stay here until 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. at the absolute latest. My recommendation would be to look at an online map ahead of time, focus on 2-3 galleries you think will appeal most to you, and thoroughly enjoy those, as well as the excellent outdoor ambiance. You can always revisit the Getty Center on a future trip to Los Angeles. Here are my tips for what to see and how to spend your time at the Getty Center, among other thoughts.
4. In-N-Out for Lunch
While it’s not the best meal you’ll find in Los Angeles, it is the most iconic. Moreover, with this itinerary, we’re looking for something that is, literally, in and out, to make it to the next stop fairly quickly. I’ve already belabored the point that In-N-Out Burger is a California institution that you must visit when in California, so I won’t rehash that here.
Even though it has many locations throughout Southern California (you’ll want to stop at the one located at 4444 Van Nuys Blvd in Sherman Oaks–it’s right on the way), In-N-Out is perpetually busy. Fortunately, the restaurant is incredibly efficient. Even if the drive-through line is long–and it probably will be–you can expect to have your order in 10 minutes or so, particularly with a mid-afternoon visit like this.
5. Studio Tour
Although our Sony Pictures Studio Tour Review indicated that we preferred that one, it also expressed a lot of potential downside. Not only is the “safer” option the Warner Bros. Studio Tour (read our review of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour), but it’s the tour that’s more conveniently-located for this itinerary, which makes it our recommendation.
Studio tours are a distinctly Hollywood experience, and even though it’s not technically in Los Angeles, it’s a stone’s throw away. You need to book this in advance, and we’d recommend booking the 3 p.m. tour to accommodate the final stops on this itinerary. (If you arrive slightly early or late, you’ll still be accommodated.)
Another alternative, albeit one we do not recommend if you have only a single day to experience Los Angeles, is Universal Studios Hollywood. We love Universal Studios Hollywood, but the problem here is that it’s an all-day experience with the studio tour only being one element of that experience. With this itinerary, you only have a few hours to allocate towards a studio tour.
However, if money is no issue (1-day tickets are roughly double the cost of other studio tours) and/or you’re really into Harry Potter, you might want to give Universal Studios Hollywood consideration. If you do opt to go this route, you’ll probably want to cut the Getty Center from the itinerary, and also plan on doing dusk at Griffith Observatory, rather than sunset.
6. Sunset at Griffith Observatory
When people come to visit us from out of state, there are only three things that are must dos: Victoria Beach (it’s in Laguna Beach, so too far south for this itinerary), In-N-Out Burger (check!), and Griffith Observatory. For me, this is the crown jewel of Los Angeles, and a visit to Griffith Observatory offers much more than meets the eye.
First of all, the approach will take you through the residential side of Los Feliz, seeing some ritzy homes of L.A.’s more affluent residents and getting a feel for charming residential architecture. (If you take a detour up Glendower Ave, you can spot Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Ennis House from the street.)
Second, Griffith Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States, and offers a number of hiking options. We highly recommend hiking from Griffith Observatory to the Hollywood Sign for sunset. It’s one of the most satisfying hikes in Southern California with great views–and you’ll have plenty of time to do it!
Third, it’s a beautiful observatory and contains quintessential examples of Art Deco styles. Finally, it offers incredible views of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and the Hollywood sign. Regardless of what you do, be sure to stick around for both sunset and dusk at Griffith Observatory. Watching the sun light fade away and the skyline light up is really fun to watch.
7. Hollywood Nights
You’ll find a lot of itineraries that fixate on Hollywood. This is not one of them. I can appreciate that Hollywood is a defining aspect of Los Angeles and it’s what many tourists come to see and experience. Guidebooks and travel bloggers realize this, and recommend seeing things in Hollywood to give readers what they (think they) want.
The problem with this is that the most accessible elements of Hollywood to a tourist are, well, really touristy. Touristy to a fault. The Hollywood Walk of Fame is filled with costumed characters looking for money, and pushy street vendors selling junk. Other aspects of Hollywood Boulevard are run-down, shadows of their former selves.
Instead of recommending that you spend any time in Hollywood during the day when it’s overrun with other tourists and these vendors, we recommend a nighttime visit when the lights are bright, the temperature cooler, and fewer people are out. Most of the most iconic Hollywood spots are fairly superficial, so it won’t take you long to wander around, snap a few photos, and be on your way.
For a real slice of Hollywood, consider seeing a concert at the Hollywood Bowl (if visiting in summer) or seeing a movie in the Cinerama Dome, TCL Chinese Theater, or El Capitan, all of which are iconic and excellent theaters. For other things to do or not do in the area, see our Tips for Visiting Hollywood California post.
8. Daikokuya Dinner
With a location conveniently located on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, Daikokuya is our pick for dinner. Whatever your preconceived notions about ramen, throw them out the window. Daikokuya is one of our favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, and is so popular among locals that its original Little Tokyo location has spawned several satellite restaurants.
As we note in our Daikokuya v. Tsujita LA post, we slightly prefer the latter. Theoretically, you could stop at Tsujita LA’s Glendale location (and also see the Glendale Galleria, which is a solid outdoor mall) before heading to Griffith Observatory for sunset. Depending upon how quickly you finish at the Getty Center and Warner Bros, that might be realistic. Considering the potential wait at Tsujita–and afternoon traffic–I think that might be cutting it too close. Just as well, as Daikokuya is incredible ramen, and probably a better “gateway” option if you’ve never had high end ramen before.
Hopefully this 1-day Los Angeles itinerary helps you have a jam-packed experience if you only have one day to spend in L.A. For those who have a bit more time, we’ll have multi-day itineraries soon!
If you’re planning a trip, check out our Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles or our California category of posts. For even more things to do, The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas is an exceptional resource, which is written by other locals. If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you visited any of the places in this itinerary? If so, what did you think of them? If you’re an Angeleno, what do you think of this itinerary? Anywhere you’d recommend that didn’t make the list? Anywhere you’d recommending skipping that did make the list? Questions? Hearing from you is half the fun, so if you need personalized advice or have suggested revisions to this Los Angeles itinerary, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!