Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
I have been to L.A. many times. My first visit was as a child, aged 9, with my family. I returned when I was 23, with my boyfriend (now hubby), and we have been another 7 times since then, mostly as a couple, twice with our children. We all love this city. It’s big, diverse and has a great climate. There’s something to offer for everyone, whatever your tastes or interests.
We often return to the same places, each time relieved to see only subtle changes, generally for the better. Although we like going back to places we know, we also try to discover and experience something new each time.
Apologies in advance, this post is quite long – I have so much to say about this city. Hopefully you will find my tips useful if you are planning a visit!
This is L.A.
Where to stay
Our favourite areas to base ourselves are Venice Beach & Santa Monica.
Until our last visit, we have always stayed at the Cadillac Hotel on Venice Beach. Adjacent to Santa Monica and approx 25 minutes drive from LAX, Venice Beach is down to earth and one of the more affordable parts of L.A.
The Cadillac Hotel is an art deco hotel, right on the ocean boardwalk. Many decades ago Charlie Chaplin and other famous stars used to stay here. It’s not very fancy now by today’s standards, although it would have been when first built in 1914. Now it’s quite basic in comparison to modern hotels, but it’s comfortable and its location and price are unbeatable for the area.
I wouldn’t exactly call it cheap (around A$200-250 a night depending on the room you choose and the season), but it’s one of the cheapest on/near the Venice boardwalk. You get a private bathroom, it’s clean and there are things to do and places to eat nearby. There are mixed reviews on TripAdvisor, some quite negative, but I always read reviews with an open mind. It’s not claiming to be 5 stars, so set your expectations low, take this place for what & where it is – you won’t be disappointed.
Also, worth mentioning, the Cadillac Hotel has a family room (which is rare), with a separate sleeping space with bunk beds as well as a kitchenette – very handy when staying with kids.
Another bonus is their rooftop, offering great views up and down the coastline.
My tips – stay over a weekend when Venice is most vibrant; pay a bit more for an ocean front room; be prepared for it being ‘dead’ at night; and don’t mind the local homeless – they are fairly harmless & generally keep to themselves.
Another hotel we can recommend is The Hotel California at Santa Monica. On our last trip, we decided to try somewhere new for a change. It’s almost on the beach (2 minute walk), only a short walk to the famous Santa Monica Pier and a few blocks walking distance from the Santa Monica mall. We only stayed here for one night, after doing a road trip around California/Nevada and returning to LA for a final night before flying home. It’s a little more expensive than Venice Beach and the location is great, but its motel style rooms at the front are not far from the main road so if you’re a light sleeper, be prepared with some ear plugs.
The room decor and vibe of the hotel is very cool. The bed head is a surfboard and guitars and other memorabilia decorate the walls, etc. The bathrooms are a little dated, but that’s part of its charm and most importantly the bed was very comfortable.
About the hotel name, if you ask them, they won’t comment on any connection with the song immortalised by the Eagles. I tried to look up some history and am pretty sure the song wasn’t based on this place… but the hotel is pretty cool nevertheless. We would stay here again, but I admit it’s a hard choice between here and the Cadillac Hotel down at Venice.
Things to do
There is so much to do and so many places to see. Here is our top ten favourites, along with some tips:
1. Venice Beach
Venice is quirky, sometimes a little seedy at night, but full of raw charm and culture. It’s ‘artsy’, with buskers performing music & comedy acts, various stallholders selling arts and crafts and colourful street art /graffiti all along the boardwalk. For a full review of everything to do around Venice Beach I have a whole post dedicated to this place which you can read here
2. Universal Studios
What I love about Universal Studios is that there are some original parts which haven’t changed much over the years, like the Jaws and Psycho sets in the backlot area and Mel’s Diner replica, but they also update it enough to keep you coming back for new attractions. They recently opened the new “Wizarding World of Harry Potter”- a precinct, with Potter themed rides and shops. Hogwarts Castle and the wizardly scenery is quite spectacular and appeals to all ages.
Booking tickets online on their official website will save you a little money compared buying tickets at the gate on the day. I tried looking for other websites for cheaper tickets but I couldn’t find any (let me know if you do!). The only cheaper option is the SoCal City Pass which is a multi-theme park ticket. Though there’s a time limit with this pass (once activated is only valid 14 consecutive days) and it’s only worthwhile is you plan to visit most/all the locations included. There’s also another website you can check to see how busy the park will be. On really busy days some lines have wait times of up to 2 hours so it’s definitely worth upgrading your tickets for a Front of Line (FOL) pass, where you basically pay extra to get the privilege of jumping the queue. The only catch with the FOL pass, other than the extra cost, is you can only use it once on each ride, so we recommend you get to the park early if you want to do rides more than once, join the lines at the start of the day as they are usually shorter and save the FOL pass for later in the day when it gets busier. You can either buy a FOL pass upfront when you purchase your ticket online or you can upgrade at the park – though there is a risk in the latter as they only have a limited number for sale on the day.
We have visited both with and without kids and either way, we always have a great day. Universal Studios is really well run, all the staff are friendly and there are lots of fun characters wandering around that you can take photos with (e.g. Homer Simpson, minions, Marilyn Monroe, Transformers and Beetlejuice)
Just outside Universal Studios is CityWalk – an open air mall with stores, restaurants and cinemas. Many years ago we saw Independence Day (the first one) at the cinema there. Every time we visit Universal Studios we visit CityWalk for something to eat, usually for dinner at the end of a day. Although once or twice when the crowds inside got too much, we took a break, got a hand stamp at the exit (so we could return), and headed up to CityWalk for lunch. There’s several restaurants to choose from.
3. Santa Monica
One of the main attractions at Santa Monica is the Pier. The kids loved the Pier, for its food stalls (Churros and Dippin’ Dots ice-cream) and amusements arcade. There is also a ferris wheel, roller coaster and classes where you can learn how to swing on a trapeze. The views are lovely, especially from the top of the ferris wheel. If you are thinking of visiting the beach / Pier during warmer weather, expect it to be absolutely packed.
A short walk up the hill you can walk along the cliff top and see the views up and down the coastline over the top of the Pacific Coast Highway. There’s also the Santa Monica Camera Obscura in the art and culture centre in Palisades Park- an optical device built in 1898 that projects images of the surrounding area 360 degrees in a small room upstairs. Then walk a few blocks in, past the magnificent hotels overlooking the ocean, to find a huge shopping mall “Santa Monica Place” and 3rd Street promenade, where you could spend (literally) a whole day browsing all the stores and eating and drinking in an extensive selection of restaurants, cafes and bars.
If you have extra time to kill, there are also a couple of movie cinemas. Before you enter the building make sure you look up or you might miss the beautiful old art deco facades.
Sadly, for us and the children, the famous Disneyland was disappointing… however we did visit on the Monday after the 4th July weekend, so it was incredibly busy and very hot. At the time, the kids were 7 and 11 and weren’t much into scary rides, and even if they were, the long long lines were not appealing. Our daughter did enjoy the ‘Its a small world’ and ‘Cars’ rides. They both also enjoyed a Star Wars live show.
It’s a shame Disneyland doesn’t have a ‘Front of Line’ pass like Universal Studios. They have their own system where you put your pass in a queue and it gives you a time stamp telling what time to return to the front of the line. On the upside it’s free and you can go away and do something else while you are waiting. However the downside is you can only use this on one ride at a time. This means you could have it tied up for a long time waiting for a really popular ride. For example, at 2pm I went to put our pass in the queue for the Space Mountain ride and it said to come back at 9.45pm that night! We didn’t bother.
The lines aren’t just for the rides either. It took ages waiting in a line to get lunch. Also, I had plans of getting lots of photos of the kids with Disney characters (I had my photo taken with Mickey Mouse when I visited when I was 9) but of course there were even long lines for those! We managed to get one photo with the evil queen from Cinderella, only by pure chance as we stopped her on the way to the bathroom. It was quite funny – our daughter was too scared but Brandon was up for it and, in full evil Queen character, she sternly told him: “Hands on hips!” for the photo.
The park is huge – overwhelming in fact. There is also more than one theme park: The original Disneyland Park plus Disney California Adventure Park – we decided on the original because the other one seemed to be catering more for younger children. There is too much to fit into one day and it’s difficult to decide which section to visit first. I guess this is why they sell options for 1-5 day passes. Similar to Universal Studios, the only way to get tickets is to book online on Disneyland’s own official website, get a SoCal CityPass or buy tickets (in long lines) at the front gate.
One positive though: You can find healthy food options for sale at food stalls all around the park e.g. fresh and chilled fruit, trailmix – it’s not all deep fried chips and fast food!
5. The Original Farmers Market
You can find plenty of farmers markets in L.A. but this one, located not far from Hollywood, is the original. Started in 1934, it has evolved over the years from a small village selling groceries, to now over 100 shops, restaurants and grocers. A large shopping mall is also now right next door with a multi-storey car park which makes it an even more attractive destination with easy parking. We like to come for brunch in the original food court area – there are plenty of options, from crepes, to bacon & eggs, to Mexican burritos! After eating, we then browse the nearby stores – some have amazing displays of food, groceries and knick-knacks.
After visiting the Original Farmers Market for brunch, next head over to Hollywood Boulevard. This is the main tourist area and you can expect lots of crowds especially on a weekend or in summer. First stop at Mel’s Diner on Highland Avenue, then visit The Hollywood Museum next door. There are several floors at the museum, with one whole floor dedicated to Marilyn Monroe (great for a fan like me) and the basement has loads of horror movie memorabilia (our young daughter stayed out of that floor). A tip – if you go to Mel’s Diner first and spend a certain amount, you could get a discount off your museum tickets.
Around the corner from the Hollywood Museum, stroll along Hollywood Boulevard opposite the Dolby theatre / shopping centres and you can see the Hollywood sign in the distance. Then head over to TCL Chinese Theatre to find your favourite star’s hands and footprints forever cast in the concrete. While walking up Hollywood Boulevard look down and see the stars on the ‘Walk of Fame’ (see if you can find your favourite star), stop in at the Hard Rock Cafe for a drink and of course there are lots of stores selling touristy souvenirs. Also in the area, you can find Madame Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe It or Not and some television studios where they film late night shows like Jimmy Kimmel.
7. Griffith Observatory
After visiting Hollywood Boulevard, we hopped in our rental car and drove up to the Griffith Observatory on a Sunday afternoon, along with many other hoards of people with the same idea. Parking was very difficult, but we eventually found one within bearable walking distance. The views from up there across the city and of the Hollywood sign are impressive if it’s a clear day. As an added bonus you can enter the Observatory for free! The kids had a short attention span but it was nice and cool and we all found something of interest. Some people were doing walks or picnics in the nearby parks but we had already crammed in a lot in our day so were happy to head back to our hotel afterwards.
If you head up north to Malibu, there are a few sites to visit. Not far from Santa Monica and easy to get to by bus is the Getty museum. There you can spend some time looking at art, sculptures and beautiful gardens.
If you have a rental car, take the Pacific Coast Highway and head a bit further north, about 30 minutes, to visit El Matador State Beach – a popular spot for photographers and filmshoots because of its beauty with its rock formations amongst the waves. There is limited parking, which is not cheap and apparently it’s very busy on weekends and during summertime. There was only a handful of people when we visited on a Monday in early May 2017 so after patiently waiting I managed to get a nice photo of the rocks without any people in the shot. Be prepared for lots of stairs to get down to the beach, not great going down if you have dodgy knees and not great coming back up if you aren’t fit!
Also up that way, not quite as far as El Matador beach we recommend stopping at Paradise Cove – 1960’s ‘Gidget’ was filmed there along with other famous movies and TV shows. Paradise Cove Beach Cafe is literally on the beach and worthwhile stopping for lunch or cocktails, to get a discount at the car park.
9. Hollywood Bowl
The Hollywood Bowl is only open for events at certain times of the year (mainly summertime), but I read on their website you can visit at other times off season, just for a look around.
On our 2015 trip to LA with the whole family, we went to a 4th July fireworks spectacular with Smokey Robinson and the LA Philharmonic Orchestra. As this was a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience for us we paid a bit more and got tickets for a box (approx $120 per ticket for 4 of us). In the boxes you can set up a little table and eat dinner, rather than off your laps in the bench seats further back and at the side. The first half of the show was the LA Phil playing well known songs and movie themes. The kids were surprised how much they enjoyed it – at one point Brandon turned to me and said in a shocked tone, “Mum, this is really good!”
In the intermission there was a lovely sunset and then Smokey Robinson came on and did most of his big hits. I have been a fan of his for so many years, so was really excited to see such a huge superstar performing live. His voice was amazing and he danced around like a man much younger than his years.
The fireworks at the end in sync with the LA Phil really were spectacular and some nice people sitting in the box next to us even gave the kids some American flags to wave.
The only negatives about the whole experience was the overpriced food (I could see why many took their own picnics); plus my Canon camera was confiscated at the entry (I missed that rule on their website banning cameras with detachable lenses) so we had to go to the special collection point at the end to pick it back up. I managed to get some pretty good photos with my iPhone but fortunately we also met a really nice man (waiting for his camera) who told us he got some great photos on his other smaller automatic camera – he took my email address and emailed them to me later 🙂
10. Beverley Hills
You can’t visit LA and not tour Beverley Hills at least once. We did this on our first trip to LA in 1992 through Starline Tours. They are still running their site-seeing tours today! They picked us up from our hotel and drove us around some well known locations, including Rodeo drive, famous hotels, star’s homes and some movie set locations e.g. the police station from the Beverley Hills Cop movies (which isn’t really a police station). The stores and some of the stars’ homes in Beverley Hills were amazing but also surprisingly, some of the older stars’ homes were quite conservative. There are a few options of tours you can do depending on how much time you have and what you want to see. As a bonus on our tour they took us downtown to see the city and we also stopped at the ‘old town’ for a quick look around.
If you have a rental car you could do a self tour as it’s easy to drive to Rodeo Drive and down some of the famous streets of Beverley Hills and Bel Air (although there are some gated areas you can’t enter). We did this ourselves on a visit in 2005 when our son was only one and we had a few hours to kill in the afternoon before catching a night flight to Australia. However I recommend you do an organised tour at least once because of all the information and entertaining trivia they tell you along the way.
If you are heading up to Santa Monica from Venice, I recommend walking up Main Street at least once, to check out some of the boutiques and cafes. If you don’t fancy walking, catch the Blue Bus. There’s a bus stop across the road from the Firehouse Restaurant on Main St (make sure you have change).
If there are a few of you and you are venturing out further you may as well organise a town car/limousine. It’s about the same cost as a taxi and you can arrange for them to pick you up later at a particular time. Uber is also an option although we didn’t use one.
You can also rent a car but bare in mind parking is hard to find around hotels at Venice and Santa Monica and hotel parking usually costs an extra US$20-$40 per night. Parking for the day is also expensive at the theme parks. We generally don’t bother with a rental car for the first few days and if we plan to do some driving around later or outside LA, e.g. to Palm Springs or Vegas, we pick up a car towards the end of our stay in LA before we head out of town.
Food (& drinking) options
At Venice Beach –
For ideas of great places to eat around Venice Beach, refer to my other post here
At Malibu –
Paradise Cove Beach Cafe was a great experience. It’s in a beautiful location and offers huge sharing portions. Parking is limited and expensive but if you spend a certain amount in the cafe you get a discount off your parking. So it’s worth visiting the cafe for a few cocktails or a light meal at least. There’s an inside dining area but we elected to sit in the outside under cover area on the sand.
At Santa Monica –
Harvelle’s is a great nightspot for drinks and live entertainment – we highly recommend the Toledo Show which is often on Sunday nights (definitely don’t take children!);
Chez Jay opposite the Hotel California is a tiny, dark bar where celebrities have been known to drink late at night (there is food too) – a brilliant atmosphere and we have great memories of sitting with the locals into the late hours (on our 2017 trip without children) – one of them was quite drunk and lectured me for longer than I would have liked, telling me all about the problems in the USA today. We also met a lovely couple who worked in a nearby restaurant and had a good laugh with them.
There are plenty of other choice of restaurants in Santa Monica!
At Universal Studios CityWalk –
Tony Roma’s Place for Ribs – always really tasty, we’ve been for lunch or dinner almost every time we visited Universal studio’s/CityWalk. Careful of the onion rings loaf or it will do you in;
Johnny Rockets is diner style food, similar to Mel’s Diner and great for milkshakes (unusual flavours like ‘Butter Finger’), burgers & chips – the kids loved it;
The Hard Rock Cafe has massive portions – consider sharing – and always a great collection of memorabilia to browse. If you are collecting souvenir hurricane glasses, take it from me it is possible to get it home in your hand-luggage without breaking, if you’re looking for an excuse to have a cocktail or two!
At Hollywood –
Mel’s Diner takes you back in time with a 50’s feel and has great milkshakes and burgers (loved their orange sherbet);
The Original Farmer’s Market is good for brunch on Sundays, if you can find a table and has lots of choice in its ‘food court’ atmosphere;
and again The Hard Rock Cafe, this one on Hollywood Boulevard (again huge meals and great for checking out the memorabilia).
The homeless. Everywhere. Lets face it, this climate is kind to the homeless so it’s an obvious place to be. We find it very sad that the USA can’t take care of their people who find themselves in unfortunate situations. Admittedly some, around Venice, choose to live that way – they promote the fact they have their freedom and like having no responsibility. We noticed this problem has gotten really bad since the GFC. There were lots of tents under freeway passes, down side streets, on the beach… all types of homeless people: ex-servicemen, people with obvious mental health issues, even families living out of their car, some of them work but lost everything in the GFC and still can’t afford accommodation.
Not walking around with my eyes open! Several times Steve has nudged me saying “did you see him/her” and I discovered I just walked past some famous movie or TV star… I even bumped into Russell Crowe outside Universal Studios on one trip without realising.