Due to its sprawling nature, one of the challenges about a list of the top things to do in Los Angeles is defining L.A. This might sound odd, as the definition of city is pretty straightforward. It’s not exactly an amorphous thing. However, since Los Angeles is spread out, with many of its key draws beyond the city limits, people often expand the boundaries of Los Angeles (at least for list purposes).
These lists are often–if not usually–the best things to do in Los Angeles County, which seems fair. However, when we start getting to places that are in Santa Barbara or Anaheim (we’re looking at you, every list that includes Disneyland), that’s a bit more suspect. This is exacerbated by Southern California’s notorious traffic and lack of public transportation, which makes such lists impractical for visitors with limited time in California.
In light of so many lists taking such a liberal and expansive view of Los Angeles, we’re actually going to over-correct, and take a very narrow view, listing only places in the city proper. After all, this is one of the greatest cities in the world–it should be absolutely no challenge to list places that aren’t a 90 minute drive away.
With that in mind, here’s our list of the top 10 things to do in Los Angeles, California…
10. The Broad
Los Angeles is a great city for art lovers, and although the Broad receives less fanfare than LACMA, it’s one of the recent significant additions to Downtown Los Angeles. From the striking exterior to the provoking interior design, the Broad is an interesting and excellent art museum.
It’s also a museum that’s easy-to-digest for casual visitors. Whereas LACMA overwhelms with its vast collection, the Broad gives more room to each piece to breath, and presents only a small fraction of its rotating collection at any given time. We find the Broad’s presentation more compelling and insightful, too, but perhaps that’s just us.
9. Museum Row
While there are several museums scattered along the Miracle Mile, this is largely a cop out from having to choose between the La Brea Tar Pits and Petersen Automotive Museum, either of which would be worthy entries on this list. I like both a lot, and think they are both compelling options because they have something to say about Los Angeles.
Petersen Automotive Museum takes an interesting looks at California car culture, the role vehicles have played in Hollywood, and the research and design process. La Brea Tar Pits speak to what lies beneath the surface of Southern California, and underscores just how dramatically the landscape of Los Angeles has transformed over the course of time.
8. Hollywood Homes
No, we’re not recommending one of those shady open-air tour buses operated by TMZ and other outlets that promise glimpses of celebrity homes in the Hollywood Hills and Malibu. Instead, we’re recommending that you take some time to explore the residential areas of Los Angeles. Ideally, this would mean touring a home, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in Barnsdall Art Park (or even the Gamble House in Pasadena).
You don’t even need to do this in Hollywood. While the Hollywood Hills is a great area, so too are Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Bel Air, or Beverly Hills. All of these feature distinct styles and have their own quirks. You can even go more towards the ocean, and stroll along the canals of Venice or one of the nearby beach cities of Santa Monica or Malibu.
7. Hollywood Hikes
Most first-time visitors to Los Angeles want their photo with the Hollywood Sign. Little do they realize, this is no easy task. Sure, it’s possible to get a photo from Sunset Boulevard with the sign as a speck behind you, but that is not what most people envision.
To get a good photo, it’s not so simple. The bad news is that the various ways to get a Hollywood Sign photo are so convoluted that we have an entire post dedicated to the topic, entitled Tips for Hiking to the Hollywood Sign. The good news is that each of these hikes is a lot of time and are absolutely worth the effort. These hikes will result in a better vantage of the sign, behind it with a view overlooking Los Angeles. Highly recommended.
6. Cinematic Palaces
We skip a lot of the bland touristy stuff in Hollywood (Walk of Fame, we’re looking at you), but one thing we do recommend, which might seem like a waste of your limited vacation time, is seeing a movie in Hollywood. The best options are ArcLight’s Pacific Cinerama Dome, TCL Chinese Theater, and El Capitan Theater.
My personal favorite of these is the Pacific Cinerama Dome at ArcLight. Beyond the wonderful history of this location and the beautiful 70mm projection, the sound system here is unbelievable. The best I’ve ever experienced at any theater, anywhere. Our highlights at the Cinerama Dome, where hearing bullets ricochet off the walls (or so it sounded) while watching Dunkirk and seeing the “beautiful” panorama of Los Angeles’ highways during the opening act of La La Land.
5. Downtown Walking Tour
One of my main criticism of guidebooks about Los Angeles is that they all either pretend Downtown L.A. doesn’t exist or, worse yet, disparage it. While I don’t doubt that DTLA was not a “happening” place a decade ago, it has been on the upswing for at least the last several years, and there’s zero excuse for overlooking it or pretending that Los Angeles “doesn’t have a downtown” anymore.
You can spend a day exploring Los Angeles’ relatively compact city-center, marveling at the unique architecture, trying great foods, touring buildings, and enjoying the sunshine in the city’s public parks. For a step-by-step plan of attack, consult our 1-Day Downtown Los Angeles Walking Itinerary.
4. Space Shuttle Endeavour
Space exploration is just undeniably cool, and NASA is right up there with the National Parks as something that represents the best of America. Fortunately, California has strong connections to both the space industry and National Park Service.
In the case of the latter, Los Angeles was fortunate to be able to use its connections to the space industry to ‘win’ Space Shuttle Endeavour back when NASA was choosing its permanent home. There are few things that compare with seeing a space shuttle in person, and I think the “photos don’t do it justice” cliche is very apt here. Space Shuttle Endeavour will humble and make you feel more patriotic, all at once. Do not miss it.
3. Studio Tour
This one just barely makes the list, and that’s thanks to Paramount Studios having a Los Angeles address. Out of all the things to do on this list, a studio tour is definitely the most touristy, but it’s also one of the most fun and amusing things to do in or around Los Angeles. It’s also fairly unique to the city.
If you are willing to venture beyond the city limits of Los Angeles, we’d recommend doing the Warner Bros. Studio Tour for a more scripted and actively entertaining experience. For one that’s more “real” and spontaneous (but potentially dull if you get unlucky), we recommend the Sony Pictures Studio Tour. If you want a theme park that has a very scripted but highly entertaining tour as one component, go with Universal Studios Hollywood.
2. The Getty Center
Between the film All the Money in the World and tv series Trust, there’s a renewed public interest in billionaire oil tycoon and Angeleno J. Paul Getty. While pop culture depictions have been justifiably unkind to Mr. Getty, we still love him for one simple reason: the nearly $7 billion art endowment–the world’s largest–that has benefited Los Angeles’ arts community.
The flagship museum of the Getty-branded properties is the Getty Center, which boasts the best and most valuable art collection in Los Angeles. The Getty Center has multiple galleries spread across in a beautiful outdoor campus in the hills above Los Angeles. The museum is a work of art itself, and is one of my favorite art museums in the world. Here are my tips for what to see and how to spend your time at the Getty Center, among other thoughts.
1. Griffith Observatory
Griffith Observatory is the crown jewel of Los Angeles. While I’m willing to “agree to disagree” as to what other things people should do in Los Angeles, anyone who doesn’t view this as a top spot in L.A. is flat-out wrong. Griffith Observatory (and by extension, Griffith Park) is the must-do for visitors to Southern California.
From the approach that weaves you through the residential side of Los Feliz to the natural beauty of Griffith Park–one of the largest urban parks in the United States–to the incredible views of Los Angeles and Santa Monica, there’s a lot going for Griffith before you even step foot into the observatory. While Griffith Observatory is the main draw for first-time visitors to California (it’s a wonderful free attraction), it’s all of the “other stuff” that keeps us returning to Griffith Observatory with regularity.
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 done any of the things on our Los Angeles top 10? If so, what did you think of the experiences? Any attractions or points of interest you’d add to or remove from the list? Any additional tips to add that we didn’t cover? Questions about our recommendations? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!