Our 2019 Los Angeles visitor’s guide offers tips to plan a vacation, including best things to do, best places to eat in L.A., hotel suggestions, and how to navigate Southern California. LA is one of our favorite cities in the world, and we’ll provide you insider tips to experience both the touristy highlights and hidden gems. (Last updated August 21, 2019.)
Maybe you need convincing that Los Angeles is one of the world’s best cities. After all, L.A. doesn’t exactly have the best reputation among some people. Complaints abound about traffic, smog, and the Hollywood culture. Some people pejoratively refer to Los Angeles as La La Land, thinking that everyone is out of touch or fake.
I prefer to think of Los Angeles as diverse and beautiful–in just about every conceivable way. Frank Lloyd Wright put it best when he stated, “tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” Los Angeles is the ultimate melting pot. A beautiful and sometimes strange amalgamation of different cultures, architecture, geography, and more…
When it comes to architecture, Los Angeles was a blank slate for much of the 20th century. This, coupled with a diverse population and favorable climate led architects to test a variety of styles. As development continued, more designers were drawn to the city, and it became a creative hub. While there are downsides to this (sprawl), for better or worse, Los Angeles is still a creative hub.
It’s also a topographical hub…assuming that’s a thing. Surrounded by mountains on one side, ocean on another side, desert on another side, and…what used to be orange groves on another side (okay, Orange County is obviously more than that now…there’s also Disneyland!), there is natural beauty in virtually every direction. You can surf and ski in the same day, and traverse the arid landscape of the desert the following morning before hiking through the forest that evening.
Then there’s the endless summer of the Los Angeles climate. This makes it a popular place both for locals who enjoy outdoor living, and tourists who flock to Southern California for all of the reasons stated above…but mostly the sunshine (and In-N-Out Burger, probably).
If the prospect of enjoying delicious burgers in sunny weather doesn’t convince you to visit Los Angeles, I’m not entirely sure what will. Let’s get started with out Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles, California…
What’s New in LA for 2019 and Beyond
Given that Los Angeles is a major city, there’s obviously always something new to see or do, whether it be a temporary exhibit at one of LA’s museums, a weekend event, pop-up, or something else entirely. If you’re looking for something to do while you’re in town, check out Discover Los Angeles’ Calendar of Events.
Right now, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is all the rage, and so too is seeking out the many real-world backdrops from the film. The movie was shot on location in Los Angeles, and entire blocks of Hollywood Boulevard (among other places) were transported back in time to 1969 by the filmmakers. Check out this map of locations in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood if you’re a fan of the movie and want to see it ‘in real life.’
The biggest development in traveling to Los Angeles is, quite literally, a boom. This has led to an evolving (read: growing taller and denser) skyline, most notably the OUE Skyspace LA, which is California’s tallest open-air observation attraction. There’s also significant investment in public transportation. For the next couple of years, visitors to Los Angeles will mostly notice this in the form of construction on Metro lines and new stations.
This is all part of the Metro Vision 2028 Plan, which is a comprehensive development approach to projects between now and the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics. This includes dozens of infrastructure improvements in a quest to give Angelenos and tourists more public transit options so they don’t have to take the freeway.
Many new museums are also on the horizon. In 2020, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will not open on the Miracle Mile. This is a $400 million project that’s been in development for 8 years, renovating a 1939 L.A. landmark. The architecture is expected to be striking, with a defining spherical structure and 1,500-panel glass dome. In total, the Academy Museum will have 300,000 square feet of public and exhibition space.
Following that in 2021 is the the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art featuring George Lucas’ personal collection of art, which consists of about 10,000 paintings and illustrations. This includes works by Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and R. Crumb, along with Hollywood memorabilia from films such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones. The planned 275,000-square-foot, $1-billion museum will be located in Downtown’s Exposition Park.
In addition, several new hotels have opened in and around Downtown Los Angeles. Notable names among these include InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown, Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, Hotel Indigo Downtown Los Angeles, and Kimpton Everly Hotel Hollywood.
Other hotels on the horizon are Park Hyatt Los Angeles at Oceanwide Plaza, Fairmont Century Plaza, and Hotel Nue Hollywood Hyatt Unbound–along with several other Hyatts at LAX and elsewhere in Los Angeles.
We don’t recommend waiting to visit until any of this debuts, but that’s what’s on the horizon if you’re visiting between now and the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics…
When to Visit
The smart-ass answer to this question is whenever. If you’ve ever talk to an Angeleno about California, they are sure to let you know that the weather is usually perfect in Los Angeles. Southern Californians like to compensate for traffic and cost of living shortcomings by referring these problems as the “Sunshine Tax,” which I suppose is a sort of Faustian Bargain for beautiful weather year round.
In reality, it’s not quite as simple as that. Los Angeles does get hot in the summer, and even though “it’s a dry heat” it’s still hot. Perhaps more importantly, summer is tourist season for Southern California, which means higher crowd levels and more expensive hotel costs. If you’re only visiting Los Angeles, this probably is not as big of a deal. Prices don’t spike to the same degree downtown, nor do crowds.
However, it is a bigger problem in the beach cities, to which people flock for summer retreats. In Malibu, Santa Monica, or even places like Newport Beach, you’re going to encounter considerably heavier crowds and significantly higher prices. You’ll also find crippling traffic on Pacific Coast Highway as everyone wants to go for a Sunday drive…every single day of the week. Sure, the weather in the beach cities is picture-perfect in the summer, but it’s more or less perfect whenever.
Then there are places to the east that you might also want to visit. Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park are highly recommended side-trips from Los Angeles, but with temperatures over 100º throughout the summer months, they aren’t worth it in the summer. (If you can tolerate that weather, you’ll find some absolute bargains on hotels in Palm Springs during the summer!)
As with any tourist destination, in addition to the summer months, there are isolated spikes in crowds whenever school is out of session, particularly in California. Thanksgiving and Christmas are popular times, as is Easter, and college spring break season.
In terms of the best times to visit, taking everything into account, I’d recommend September and October or February and March. November through January can also be good (outside of the holidays), particularly in terms of crowds and pricing. The downside to those months is cooler weather. This is also “rainy season” in Los Angeles, but those are most definitely air quotes, as many cities get as much rain in a week as Los Angeles gets in a year.
When it comes to transportation, there are two components: getting there and getting around. For most visitors, the gateway to Los Angeles is LAX, one of the largest and busiest airports in the world. Other nearby options include John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Long Beach Airport, LA/Ontario International Airport (in Ontario), and Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.
To figure out which airport will be the cheapest option, we recommend using ITASoftware, typing in LAX, and selecting all nearby (LAX + SNA, LGB, ONT, and BUR) airports. Sometimes, this will have you flying into one airport and out of another, so be mindful of that.
Unless you’re staying in Orange County or score a random deal elsewhere, you’re almost certainly going to arrive into LAX. It’s the huge, utilitarian airport in Los Angeles. Note that it is not downtown, though. None of these airports are downtown. You get downtown, you’re looking at around a $25-40 Uber ride, depending upon traffic.
Then there’s getting around Los Angeles. In most ‘world cities’, public transportation suffices to explore the city. This is not the case in Los Angeles. Due to the way Los Angeles’ population boomed and sprawled without a sufficient master plan, it is notorious for terrible traffic. To compound matters, the city’s public transportation has not kept up with population growth and visitation.
While there are a lot of persistent, negative myths about Los Angeles, the terrible traffic is no myth. There’s no sugar-coating how awful the gridlock is in and around Los Angeles, and the only real “solution” is to do most of your driving during off-hour windows, which are basically between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and after 8 p.m.
One thing about Los Angeles transportation that is a myth is that public transportation is useless. While it’s definitely true that public transportation is not viable as a comprehensive option, it can be quite useful. In recent years, the expansion of the LA Metro has made it easier to get from downtown to some of the beaches (Santa Monica or Long Beach), and you can also get to North Hollywood and beyond.
The LA Metro is far from a comprehensive solution, but it can be leveraged to get some places, and avoid costly Uber fares or parking in some scenarios. It can also be particularly helpful if you’re staying outside of Los Angeles but want to visit the city for a day. We like using the Metrolink from Orange County, particularly the $10 unlimited weekend pass.
With that said, you have to recognize the limitations of public transportation in and around Los Angeles. If you’re expecting to arrive at LAX and never sit in a car, you are going to be disappointed. It is essential to supplement public transportation with either renting a car or relying on ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft. Each of those options has its downsides.
The downside with renting a car is potentially paying for parking at your hotel (and all over the city) and being stuck driving in traffic scenarios that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. If you’re not used to traffic in a major city, driving in Los Angeles may amount to unnecessary stress on what should be a relaxing vacation in Los Angeles.
If you feel comfortable driving in L.A. traffic, we’d recommend renting a car. In that case, you should choose hotels or vacation home rental around this scenario.
A minority of Los Angeles hotels offer free parking–usually those in locations where space is not at a premium. Meanwhile, others charge over $40/night for it. This is a pretty big swing in pricing, so keep parking costs in mind. (Likewise, some Airbnb and other rentals include spots or are in locations with free street parking.)
Then there are ride-sharing services. The downside to this is the potential cost. Even if you use online calculators to determine what your Uber fares might be, those numbers have the potential to be unreliable because traffic and surge pricing could throw a monkey wrench into things.
The upside to Uber or Lyft is that they’re abundant in and around Los Angeles, and hassle-free. If you’re uncomfortable driving yourself around the city, this is the best option. You can even avoid that pricey LAX ride cost by using a shuttle service, such as SuperShuttle. (They’re awful, but hey, at least the price is right!) Public transit is also an option from LAX, but it’s not convenient to most locations.
Oh, and as a courtesy to the locals, please don’t expect your friends and relatives to be your personal chauffeur. (Especially if your goal is to get from Orange County to North Hollywood at 4 p.m. on a weekday. Those places are like 3 hours apart at that time of day; IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW CLOSE THEY LOOK ON THE MAP, MOM.)
Things to Do in Los Angeles
There are thousands of things to do in Los Angeles, and listing them all is well beyond the scope of this post. If that’s what you’re looking for, we highly recommend downloading our free eBook, 101 Things to Do in Southern California. Well over half the things on that list are in Los Angeles, with additional suggestions for the Beach Cities, San Fernando Valley, and even San Diego.
If you’re looking for ideas specific to L.A., check out our Top 10 Things to Do in Los Angeles post. Unlike a lot of “best things in L.A.” lists, this is exclusively points of interest and attractions within the Los Angeles city limits. Meaning you’re not going to find Disneyland (Anaheim) or Santa Monica Pier on the list. Not that there’s anything wrong with either…they’re both just a decently long drive from Los Angeles.
We are also highlighting our favorite attractions and points of interest via individual posts, which you can find by browsing our posts about Los Angeles. Each of those offers our review of the point of interest, photos showing what to expect, and other tips for making the most of your experience. (Mostly, that means when to visit to avoid crowds, where to park, and good nearby dining options. I like to eat. A lot.)
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the possibilities, we have put together an index with numerous Los Angeles & Southern California Itineraries that take the planning work out of the equation. Here are some of the best ones:
- 1-Day Los Angeles Highlights Itinerary
- 2-Day Los Angeles Highlights Itinerary
- 1-Day Downtown Los Angeles Walking Itinerary
- 1-Day Hollywood Itinerary
- 1-Day Westside Itinerary
There are also a lot of totally free things to do in Los Angeles, with the beaches and recreation below being prime examples. Our other top free picks are the Getty Center, the Broad, and Griffith Observatory. That’s just a small sampling, though. You could spend several days doing only free things in L.A.
If you’re building an itinerary of largely paid activities, we recommend reading about the Go Los Angeles Card. It definitely is not for everyone, but if you’re planning on doing theme parks, studio tours, or other costly experiences, you can leverage one of these cards to save some money.
Beyond that, we want to highlight a few broad categories of things to do here…
Beaches – Los Angeles County has 75 miles of coastline that include world-famous beaches in Malibu, Santa Monica, and Venice. You cannot visit Los Angeles without making a trip to the beach. Even if swimming is not for you (which is fine–very few Californians actually swim at the beach), these beaches are popular draws.
In Malibu, you have some of the most beautiful, photogenic coastline in the world. My personal favorite is El Matador State Beach, which I call the “Megastar of Malibu.” This beach features stunning rock formations, tide pools, hidden sea caves, arch rocks, and more, all of which makes El Matador the most naturally beautiful beach in the area.
If you head north or south out of Los Angeles County, you’ll find more serene options in terms of beaches. Santa Barbara is a favorite to the north, but I’m partial to Laguna Beach to the south. Check out our Top 10 Beaches in Laguna, California list for my top picks there.
Closer to Los Angeles is the affluent community of Newport Beach, which is nice, too. I would not bother with the beaches between Venice and Newport–none offer anything that the aforementioned beaches don’t do better; you’re just wasting time with the commute.
Recreation – With weather like this, it should be no surprise that Angelenos spend a lot of time outdoors. Thankfully, Southern California is quite conducive to outdoor living. Of course, there’s the above-mentioned coastline and beaches. This is great not just for sunbathing, but also walking, surfing, skateboarding, and biking.
Thanks to Los Angeles’ topography, there are also some great hiking trails, right inside the city! Skip Runyon Canyon, which is the one hike everyone visiting Los Angeles hears about (and consequently, everyone does) and opt for the miles of footpaths in Griffith Park. They’re also busy, but not as bad. For visitors, the most iconic hikes in Los Angeles are those that offer an up-close perspective of the Hollywood sign.
I’m partial to starting at Griffith Observatory’s parking area a few hours before sunset, hiking out to the Hollywood sign from there, and then returning just in time to catch sunset and dusk fall over the skyline from the Observatory itself. Consult our Tips for Hiking to the Hollywood Sign for step-by-step instructions, and alternative routes.
If that’s not enough, places like Joshua Tree National Park are easily accessible by car during a day trip. While there are several National Parks in California, Joshua Tree is the closest to Los Angeles–and well worth a visit, in my opinion.
Museums – There are a lot of museums in Los Angeles. There are the mainstays, like the plethora of art museums, plus the California Science Center and Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Los Angeles being a cultural capital with a diverse population, there are also more focused museums, like the Japanese American National Museum and the Museum of Tolerance.
Then…there are the ‘Museums of the Weird.’ Places that stretch the meaning of the word “museum,” like the Museum of Ice Cream and the Museum of Death. The former has turned into a place to be seen thanks to a celebrity-driven marketing campaign, so good luck getting tickets. The latter is incredibly morbid and seems to thrive on shock value (do not even consider taking kids there).
All things considered, Los Angeles has some of the best museums in the world. I always recommend the Getty Center to visitors, and I’m also a big fan of the Getty Villa. The Natural History Museum of LA County is great for dinosaur fans (which should be everyone), and the Broad features beautiful design and free admission. Other museums can be great options, depending upon your interests. These include the ones focused on specific cultures, as well as places like the Petersen Automotive Museum.
Hollywood – In this case, I’m not referring to the geographical location, but rather, the entertainment industry. While most tourists flock to the Hollywood Boulevard to see the Walk of Fame and take selfies with aggressive versions of Mikey Moose and Spider-Dude, I’d recommend three alternatives to the go-to tourist traps.
First, see a movie at an iconic Hollywood theater. If you look past the shenanigans out fron, the TCL Chinese Theater is a really cool place to watch a movie. Same goes for the Egyptian Theater (if you’re noticing a trend, both of these were originally built by Sid Grauman). If you’re a cine-file looking for an arthouse experience, check out New Beverly Cinema, owned by Quentin Tarantino, or the outdoor Cinespia. Everyone in L.A. has their personal favorite, and mine is the ArcLight; specifically the famed Cinerama Dome, which makes the most of its 70mm projection and huge curved screen.
Second, do a studio tour. Most of these are not in Los Angeles, but they’re close enough. These include Universal Studios Hollywood‘s Studio Tour, the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, Sony Pictures Studio Tour, and Paramount Pictures Studio Tour.
For visitors with limited time, I’m a big fan of Universal Studios Hollywood because it offers the Studio Tour, plus traditional theme park attractions like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. You kill two birds with one stone this way. The Warner Bros. Studio Tour is also really popular, and we highly recommend it. Both of these are slickly produced tours meant to churn through a lot of guests. For a more behind the scenes tour, the Sony Pictures Studio Tour is your best option.
Finally, attend a television show taping. I’d recommend something that airs live. Even if you’re the head of the Sheldon Cooper Fan Club (I’m sorry for you), avoid sitcoms. For the same reasons you probably wouldn’t want to tour a hot dog production factory, you don’t want to do this. Sitcom tapings are long and drawn out, with a lot of reshoots. It becomes tedious after about hour 4.
Theme Parks – Southern California is arguably the theme park capital of the world, being home to the world’s most recognizable theme park, Disneyland, and the world’s first theme park, Knott’s Berry Farm. Despite being the epicenter of fun (feel free to use that as a tag line), there actually is not a single noteworthy theme or amusement park in Los Angeles.
Disneyland and Disney California Adventure are in Anaheim, Knott’s Berry Farm is in Buena Park, and Six Flags Magic Mountain is in Valencia. Farther away still are Legoland and SeaWorld, both of which are in the San Diego area. Universal Studios Hollywood is the only one that’s almost in Los Angeles, and even that is in the San Fernando Valley.
Still, they’re all easy-enough to access from L.A., and should be considered as things to do. Unless you’re a huge theme parks fan, I’d caution against going to too many of these. There are a lot of great things to do in and around Los Angeles, and theme parks can eat a ton of your time–and I offer these words of caution as someone who is a huge Disneyland fan. (I’ve made that mistake on trips back when we didn’t live in California.)
Shopping – I’m out of my element here. Most of my shopping is done via the internet, or as I am begrudgingly dragged to the local mall. The extent of my shopping in Los Angeles is usually at the various farmer’s markets and specialty grocery stores and eclectic shops in places like Little Tokyo. Other “cool” places to shop (that are more about the place than the actual shopping) are Amoeba Records in Hollywood and the Last Bookstore downtown.
With that said, I realize a lot of people visit Los Angeles to shop. Everyone knows about places like the Miracle Mile, but tony neighborhoods and various promenades also feature high-end boutiques popular with trendsetters and fashionistas. Rather than relying on my ill-informed rambling to choose shopping spots in Los Angeles, check out Vogue’s L.A. Shopping Guide.
Beyond this, a lot of what is happening in Los Angeles depends upon the season, or even the week. For some seasonal recommendations, we like CurbedLA’s Things to Do in Los Angeles Right Now. If you want to know what’s happening in L.A. during your visit, consult the wealth of Los Angeles-centric Twitter accounts.
Finally, there’s our favorite category of things to do: eating. This is so crucial to your experience in Los Angeles that we’ll highlight it with its own section…
Where to Stay in L.A.
Even though we’ve approached experiencing Los Angeles from the perspective of tourists, we are not actually tourists in the city…meaning that we don’t need hotel rooms. As such, this is definitely a knowledge gap for us. It’s one we are working on rectifying in the near future, and we have a couple of hotel and Airbnb stays already booked for the fall, once the off-season starts. (Check back for an update then.)
With that said, there are a number of variables to consider when choosing a hotel in or around Los Angeles. First and foremost, is this a Los Angeles-centric trip or are you simply planning on spending time in the city as part of a larger Southern California vacation, or a California road trip? Let’s address each of the most common scenarios…
Los Angeles Trip – We’ll start with this first, as it’s more or less the operating assumption of this whole guide that you’re spending at least a few days in Los Angeles. In this case, I’d recommend staying at a hotel that is in or north of Downtown Los Angeles, in between the 5 and the 405. Santa Monica might be attractive, but it’s inconvenient unless you’re spending a lot of time at the beach (in which case, see the section below).
Personally, I prefer staying on the north side of the city, and think this will be the best option for most visitors. I think this area provides the easiest access to popular points of interest (especially those you might want to hit early in the morning, like Universal Studios, Hollywood Boulevard, Griffith Observatory, or the Getty Center) as well as some of the best nightlife. This also puts you near the best recreational activities in the
If this is a special trip or you have money to burn, consider one of Los Angeles’ historic hotels, or ones with a unique legacy. The kind of places where celebrities have taken up residence or where Hunter S. Thompson has gotten into mischief. Among these are the Beverly Wilshire, the Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows, Chateau Marmont, the Hollywood Roosevelt, Millennium Biltmore Hotel, Hotel Normandie, Palihouse Santa Monica, the Georgian Hotel, or the Beverly Hilton. We’ve stayed at exactly zero of these, but have visited several, and they are nothing short of posh.
By contrast, our stays in Los Angeles to date have all been low budget hotels in Hollywood, and our motivation for staying at those places was always having a cheap place to crash to rope drop Universal Studios Hollywood, or to get up early and hike around Griffith Park. We like that area, but would not recommend any of the hotels at which we’ve stayed.
As with all locations, we’re big fans of using Airbnb for a stay in Los Angeles. Obviously, the lower price is the biggest selling point of Airbnb. We’ve had some fun experiences staying at unique Airbnb locations throughout world and really cannot recommend it highly enough. You can use my sign-up link for a free credit your first time using Airbnb!
When it comes to Los Angeles, we like Airbnb because it offers the chance to stay in nice residential neighborhoods where there simply are not many hotels–or hotels are otherwise ritzy and expensive. Los Feliz, Hollywood Hills, and Beverly Hills are all good picks in this regard. You’ll pay a bit more for these locations than you would other parts of Los Angeles, but they’ll still cost considerably less than a hotel.
Beach or Disneyland Vacation – In this scenario, you’re primarily focused on the Beach Cities or Disneyland, and just want to spend a day or two exploring Los Angeles. In this case, stick to your hotel in Orange County and just drive to Los Angeles and back. Traffic aside, this is pretty simple. Be mindful that some of these hotels will be 1-2 hours from Los Angeles, in moderate traffic. During rush hour, your commute time could be even worse.
Read our Laguna Beach Vacation Planning Guide for tips and tricks for our top pick in Orange County. Laguna Beach is absolutely gorgeous, and has a charming seaside vibe. That guide covers everything from hotels to things to do to where to eat. (It’s a lot like this post, except for Laguna.)
Southern California Vacation – In this scenario, you’re bouncing around a bunch of spots in Southern California, and are allocating at least 3 days to Los Angeles. If you’re doing this and don’t mind changing hotels once–which is what we recommend–we’d suggest doing (at least) a split stay, having a hotel in San Diego/Orange County/Anaheim for the Disneyland, beach, and whatever else portion of your trip, and then a separate hotel in Los Angeles for that leg of the trip.
Given that you’re looking at ~3 hours per day in traffic (x3) and all of the stress that entails, we think it makes sense to change hotels halfway through your trip to actually stay in Los Angeles. That makes it easier to get things done, and less time in traffic is always a plus.
California Road Trip – In this scenario, you’re doing a road trip down/up the state (let’s say flying into San Diego and flying out of San Francisco with a one-way car rental). So long as you don’t mind frequently changing hotels, we’d recommend spending at least a night in L.A. no matter how much time you plan on seeing the city. It’ll make your time spent in the city more productive, and you’re going to be passing through Los Angeles at some point, anyway.
Where to Eat in L.A.
One of the greatest upsides to the rich diversity of Los Angeles is the culinary scene. Any type of cuisine you can imagine is available in L.A., and at a range of prices. While we consider ourselves foodies, keeping tabs on the ever-changing Los Angeles restaurant scene is a colossal undertaking well beyond the scope of this blog. We do have a series of posts highlighting some of our favorite things we’ve eaten recently in Los Angeles, but these are far from comprehensive:
We’ll also recommend a few resources to help you make your L.A. dining decisions…
The sites we usually consult are Eater L.A. and the Infatuation L.A., and by consult, I mean that I see one of their tweets about a trendy new spot, and we head there. In terms of specific resources, I like their regularly-updated “Hottest Cheap Eats in Los Angeles” map and Infatuation’s Los Angeles posts.
As mentioned above, Los Angeles has a wealth of restaurant choices for every budget, but I skew towards preferring (and recommending) options on the lower end of the spectrum. There are a lot of exceptional ‘fast casual’ options, from street vendors to hole-in-the-wall joints that offer food that will blow you away.
In my opinion, a big part of the fine dining scene is about status. Places where people go to see and be seen. To be sure, there are some truly amazing high end restaurants in Los Angeles, but it can also be a pretty superficial experience. That, coupled with the fact that inexpensive but high-quality, inventive options are available at the cheaper price ranges leads me to recommend sticking with those.
If you do decide that you want something fancy for a date-night (or because you’re hoping to spot Nicolas Cage–can’t say I blame you, he’s a real-life national treasure!), a good resource is Eater L.A.’s Hypothetical Los Angeles Michelin Guide.
If you’ve never been to Southern California, the only specific restaurant I consider a must-do is In-N-Out Burger. This is a California institution, and is deeply ingrained in the culture. From their secret menu to their distinctly California style, In-N-Out Burger is beloved by locals and tourists alike. It may not be the best meal you’ll have in Los Angeles, but it’s the most iconic.
Everything else beyond that is a matter of personal preference. We really like eating in Little Tokyo, K-Town, Chinatown, and Sawtelle/Little Osaka. Speaking of these neighborhoods…
Neighborhoods to Visit
Los Angeles is like New York City in the sense that certain neighborhoods have reputations that precede them. Places like West Hollywood and Beverly Hills need no introduction, but other neighborhoods are not quite as well known outside of Southern California.
In the case of these places, we recommend visiting even without a particular agenda or point of interest you want to see. All of our favorite neighborhoods are worth simply wandering to get a better flavor of the local life and culture. Oh, and you can certainly get a flavor of the cuisine of each, too…
Koreatown – K-Town is usually the place we go to eat after spending some time doing things on Museum Row. Koreatown has some of the best food in all of Los Angeles. Whether you’re looking for great Korean BBQ or traditional fare, Koreatown has it all.
It’s also near DLTA, convenient to public transportation, and is a pleasant place to walk. There are probably other things to do in K-Town aside from stuffing your face, but we are always in such a food coma upon stumbling out of the restaurants that the rest is pretty much a blur.
Chinatown – I’ll spare you the famous, cliched quote from the movie of the same name. The upside to Chinatown is that it’s really convenient to Union Station, making it an easy place to grab a meal when arriving into, or departing from, downtown. The neon-tinted vibe here is cool at night, and the food in Far East Plaza is surprisingly good.
The downside is that proximity to Dodger Stadium and busy freeways take their toll. Looking for a cheap gas station here? Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown. 😉
Little Tokyo – If you’re visiting DTLA, Little Tokyo is a must. The outdoor Japanese Village Plaza has some interesting shopping (who does not need a life-sized Totoro plush?!) and some excellent restaurants. Kula Revolving Sushi Bar is an inexpensive, delicious, unique, and approachable place for sushi that I highly recommend. The options in the Plaza for dessert after your meal are pretty much endless. Also nearby are a number of great ramen shops, including Daikokuya, which always has a line. (Go to one of their other locations instead.)
This is also where you’ll find the Japanese American National Museum, the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, and nearby is the Arts District. On any list of Los Angeles’ Most Instrammable Walls (sadly, there are multiple such lists), the Arts District is a popular location. Great news if you want the same ‘unique’ photo as everyone else.
Sawtelle – If you weren’t already convinced Los Angeles is the greatest, how about this fact: it has two ‘Little’ Japans: Little Tokyo and Little Osaka. Official (or is it unofficial?) name aside, most people just call is Sawtelle, because that’s the road that runs through this enclave. Truthfully, I don’t know what there is to “do” in Little Osaka aside from eating and shopping.
This is a common stop for us because it’s conveniently located on the 405, and has some of the best restaurants in all of Los Angeles. In fact, I’d say this is the most restaurant-dense area in L.A. Some seriously good, and mostly inexpensive, dining. Check out my Tsujita v. Daikokuya post for my head-to-head on the two best ramen shops on Sawtelle.
Silver Lake/Echo Park/Los Feliz – Technically, all separate neighborhoods, but they more or less blur together. The former two have an upstart hipster vibe as the beneficiaries of a lot of recent urban renewal. The result of this is a lot of trendy places to eat. That can be a mixed bag, as an unnecessary layer of smugness sometimes enters the fray–but not always. Los Feliz is an older, residential neighborhood.
If I could live anywhere in Los Angeles, Los Feliz would be it. We often detour through its quiet streets on our way up to Griffith Observatory; I absolutely love the vibe and charm of this area. There’s not necessarily much to do in Los Feliz, but it’s a really lovely area, and if you enjoy wandering around neighborhoods (gosh, we sound so old), it’s a good choice.
Santa Monica/Venice – These adjacent cities are the closest beach cities to Los Angeles, and both are less about natural beauty and more about artificial beauty. (In more ways than one!) The big draw here is the iconic Santa Monica Pier, which contains a seaside amusement park. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Santa Monica’s stretch of coast (or the pier), but there’s certainly something to be said for a sunset ride on the Ferris Wheel overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A short walk from the beach is Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, which consists of three open-air, car-free blocks of shopping and dining.
Continuing south, there’s Venice Beach. This eclectic community of counterculture and artists. Venice is a bit rougher around the edges than Malibu or Santa Monica, but it shouldn’t be overlooked or avoided. The most well-known aspects of Venice are probably Muscle Beach (where Arnold Schwarzenegger famously pumped iron) and the Ocean Walk. If you’re a bit more…sheltered…these places may not appeal to you. In that case, head inland a bit towards the Venice Canal Historic District, which is modeled after the other Venice.
I think that’s as good of a place as any to stop this. We’re already at ~6,000 words, and I feel we’re only scratching the surface. We plan on updating and refining this Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles as readers ask questions and we have additional experiences. For now, hopefully it’s a good jumping off point!
If you’re planning a trip to Los Angeles and still have unanswered questions or want personalized planning advice based upon your specific interests, needs, desires, and that sort of thing, your best option is leaving a question in the comments below. While I cannot promise to have advice on everything (see the hotels section above), I’ll do my best. Likewise, if you’re an Angeleno or seasoned Los Angeles visitor who can add additional tips, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.