How to Visit Los Angeles’ Top Attractions

Make the most of your trip to Los Angeles with these tips from a local. From the Hollywood sign to Santa Monica Pier, don't miss any top LA attractions!

From above, Los Angeles looks like it goes on forever with only the mighty Pacific Ocean and majestic Santa Monica Mountains containing its sprawl. But don’t be daunted by the city’s size. As you approach your landing, peer out your plane window and admire this ambitious city full of stars, lights and attractions like the Hollywood sign, the Santa Monica Pier and much more.

In a city full of silver-screen talent and known for its busy hot spots (and more than the occasional traffic jam), it’s important that, you have a Plan A and a Plan B for each step of your Los Angeles itinerary. The following insider’s guide is an invaluable tool to ensure you make the most of your L.A. vacation.

How to Get There

Plan A: Hollywood Walk of Fame

Walk the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where the sidewalks are literally paved with stars. Park at the garage at Hollywood & Highland entertainment center for $2 per two hours with validation from nearby participating shops, restaurants and attractions, and explore by foot. Discover the star-studded streets as well as celebrities’ handprints and footprints at TCL Chinese Theatre, originally known as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. As you stroll Hollywood Boulevard, take advantage of family photo ops with “real-life” proxies of Marilyn Monroe, Superman, Charlie Chaplin and others. To avoid creating an awkward situation with one of your favorite icons, bring cash, as these “stars” work exclusively for tips and don’t offer free photos. As a good rule for staying in the star’s good graces, plan on tipping $2 per entertainer. Insider tip: Make sure to stand with your back toward the theater so it’s captured in your movie-star shot.

Hollywood Walk of Fame Walk among the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo courtesy of Tamsin Slater, Flickr.

Plan B: Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour

Don’t feel like fighting crowds? Get an educational overview of Hollywood by catching a ride on one of the many hop-on, hop-off tour buses like Starline parked along Hollywood Boulevard near Highland and jettison away for a peaceful and informative tour of celebrity homes in Beverly Hills and other landmark neighborhoods. Just remember where you parked your car. If you know you are going to take a tour (up to two hours), consider parking on nearby side streets, where spaces are generally free, though competitive.

Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour Board a hop-on, hop-off bus to see where some of Hollywood’s finest talents live. Photo courtesy of Prayitno photography, Flickr.

Plan A: Pink’s Hot Dogs

Famous for its diet-crushing menu, Pink’s Hot Dogs is a novelty destination not to be missed. Located at the intersection of Melrose and La Brea avenues since 1939, Pink’s is known for two things: long lines and pop culture-inspired dogs. Try the Lord of the Rings Dog, a 9-inch stretch dog topped with onion rings and barbecue sauce. It’s one of Pink’s more modest menu offerings! To avoid blockbuster lines, slip in at unorthodox hours, like 9:30 a.m. when the restaurant opens, or around 4 p.m. before the dinner rush. You might even find yourself waiting in line with a celebrity.

Pink’s Hot Dogs

Plan B: Carney’s Restaurant

Alternatively, head for the silver medal option of Carney’s on the Sunset Strip. There might be a line, but it’s usually not as time-consuming as the one at Pink’s. Just look for the renovated vintage train car restaurant filled with similarly sinful dogs and burgers, like the Carney’s Burger Dog, as well as salads and wraps.

Carney’s Restaurant Eat inside a vintage train car at Carney’s Restaurant. Photo courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr.

Plan A: Hike to the Hollywood Sign

The iconic Hollywood sign, located atop Mount Lee, is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. For a unique perspective, take the more arduous Canyon Drive Trail, which will get you a view of the sign from behind. Park in the dirt lot across from Bronson Canyon-Griffith Park, where you can access the trailhead and begin your hike. The 6.5-mile trail climbs 1,000 feet, so travelers should allow at least three hours for the hike. Bring plenty of water and wear comfortable hiking shoes. Along the way, snap a photo, or peek inside of the Bronson Caves, which served as the external view of the Batcave in the 1960s “Batman” television show. For an easier, 3-mile hike, travelers can opt for Mount Hollywood Trail.

Hike to the Hollywood Sign Take a hike up to the front, or back, of the iconic Hollywood sign. Photo courtesy of Glyn Lowe, Flickr.

Plan B: Griffith Observatory

If you didn’t pack the gear or block enough time for Canyon Drive Trail, head to Griffith Observatory, where parking and admission are free. From here, view the Hollywood sign (without the hike) and downtown Los Angeles, then head inside the observatory to see meteorites or watch films in the Leonard Nimoy theater.

Griffith Observatory Above, the Griffith Observatory at twilight. Travelers can go inside the observatory for spectacular views of the city.

Plan A: Santa Monica Pier

For a merry time, drive to Santa Monica Pier, where you and your family can ride carousels and mini roller coasters and play at the arcade. Dating back to 1909, the pier is filled with restaurants and shops, like Oatman Rock Shop, where you can pick up some seashell souvenirs. Go for a historic walking tour, and don’t miss out on exploring beneath the pier, where you’ll find exhibits featuring more than 100 local marine creatures and hands-on activities at Heal the Bay’s public marine-education center. Because the pier can get crowded, consider reserving discounted parking in advance and saving yourself the trouble of searching for a spot on the day of your visit.

Santa Monica Pier Drive to Santa Monica Pier for a day spent playing games, riding roller coasters and shopping for souvenirs.

Plan B: Bonfire at Dockweiler Beach

Prefer your beach-going with slightly fewer beachgoers? Then imagine yourself at a beach bonfire, watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. Get to Dockweiler Beach early to stake your claim to one of 75 available bonfire pits, and you’ll be in for a picturesque evening. Bring wood or charcoal and a lighter. And if you plan to eat, you’ll also want to pack food, paper plates and a blanket. Plan to pay anywhere from $3 to $13 for parking, depending on the season.

Bonfire at Dockweiler Beach Arrive at Dockweiler Beach early and snag one of the bonfire pits so you and your family can take in a Southern California sunset.

Plan A: California Science Center

Located near the University of Southern California and next door to the Natural History Museum, the California Science Center hosts an immense guest: the space shuttle Endeavour. Though the museum itself is free, donations are strongly encouraged and admission to see Endeavour is $2. Other special attractions, like IMAX, will also be extra, and parking is $12. But if you factor in that you’ll literally have an SR-71 Blackbird (the fastest jet of all time) parked out back with you, it’s a pretty interesting place to park. Tip: Travelers who plan to see special exhibits or paid attractions on the weekends should make online or phone reservations in advance. Without reservations, you could spend up to four hours waiting to see any one of the special attractions.

California Science Center Check out the space shuttle Endeavour while visiting the California Science Center. Photo courtesy of LAD0T, Flickr.

Plan B: “Free Days” at SoCal Museums

If you’re feeling spontaneous, check out SoCal Museums Free Days to see if any area museums you’re interested in visiting, like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, are offering free days during your vacation. This gives travelers who like to tour on a whim a chance to explore something new without worrying about breaking their budgets. SoCal Museums Free-for-All is a partnership among more than 30 museums that ensures visitors have an art, culture or history museum to explore for free every day of the week, no matter what day you find yourself in L.A.

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About the Author

Elijah J.K. Olson hails from Portland, Oregon, but for the past 15 years he’s called Los Angeles home. In addition to writing travel stories, he freelances in the documentary feature world as a researcher.