Los Angeles Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

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Los Angeles Travel Guide
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Play at the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, explore world-class museums and dance the night away at a club on Sunset Strip. Los Angeles is the main hub of California, with legendary Hollywood northwest of downtown and the inviting Venice beach straddling the Pacific Ocean.

For a true taste of Old Mexico, you’d have to go to Mexico. But those who can’t still get to enjoy a sample in Los Angeles’ Olvera Street. Also known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles, Olvera Street offers a slice of Mexican California right in the middle of Downtown LA.

An internationally recognized architectural landmark, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is one of the worlds’s most acoustically sophisticated concert halls. From the stainless steel curves of its striking exterior to the state-of-the-art acoustics of its hardwood-paneled main auditorium, the 3.6-acre complex embodies the unique energy and creative spirit of LA and its world-famous orchestra.

With over 75 miles of coastline stretching from Long Beach to Malibu, Los Angeles County boasts a wide diversity of beach environments including scenic coves, rugged bluffs and rocky tide pools. You can lie in the sun or engage in many other beach activities like kite surfing and renting bikes. Other than the Pacific Ocean itself, the Venice Beach Boardwalk is LA’s most visited destination.

Universal Studios Hollywood is one of the oldest continuously operating film studios in the world. The studios offer an entertaining mix of live action shows, tram and thrill rides. It also houses one of the world’s largest theme parks, cleverly integrating rides and shows with behind-the-scenes presentations on the art of movie-making.

Griffith Park is one of the largest urban green spaces in the United States. A wonderful playground for all interests and ages, the park houses an outdoor theater, museums, hiking trails, and even the Hollywood Sign. Astronomy buffs will find solace at the landmark Griffith Observatory, which opens a window into the universe with its planetarium and advanced star projector, the Big Picture.

Also visit Sunset Strip, LA’s legendary 1.5 mile stretch on Sunset Boulevard, laid end to end with music venues, comedy clubs, hotels and restaurants. Get ready to have your senses assaulted by the traffic and the visuals created by an array of huge, colorful advertising billboards. Sunset Strip was first developed as a haven for casinos and bars in the 1920s before being made infamous by the 1970s rock legends.

The Getty Center offers triple delights from its stellar art collection to the cutting-edge architecture, and the visual splendor of gardens that change by the season. On a clear day, you can add spectacular views of LA and the ocean to your list. The fun at the Getty Center begins long before you reach the museum, as you travel aboard a computer-operated tram.

While Los Angeles is arguably at the epicenter of film and TV entertainment, it is also the land of awesome atmosphere, architecture and art. From quirky museums, hipster markets and offbeat art galore, to world-class entertainment venues, these are just some of the highlights you shouldn’t miss to get a taste of the true LA experience that will have you coming back for more.

1. Olvera Street

A festive market place, Olvera Street is part of the car-free and colorful El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the vibrant historic district situated close to where the first Mexican’s settled in LA. Souvenir stalls and decorations abound here, along with dozens of small eateries that serve tacos, tortas and burritos. Hardly a tourist trap, Olvera Street is a pleasant place to take a stroll, explore and have a bite to eat.

Situated parallel to Alameda Street and south of Cesar Chavez Avenue, Olvera Street is a popular shopping area in the historic district of Los Angeles. Famous for its Mexican Market, the street was originally named after a local judge who converted the area into a market during the 1930s.

Shop for Chicano art, sip on some thick Mexican-style hot chocolate, and buy some handmade candy and candles. Also shop at Avila Adobe, the oldest surviving house in Los Angeles. At Olvera Street, you will find a great selection of leather goods, sandals and other decorative items, along with a number of popular Mexican restaurants that will offer sustenance after all the shopping wears you out.

While most visitors focus on the Mexican Marketplace, there are 27 historic buildings on the site, some of which are open to the public, so it’s worth exploring a little further.

The famous Mexican Marketplace has a colorful old world feel and was created as a way of preserving the surrounding historic buildings. These buildings include Los Angeles’ oldest structure, the Avila Adobe ranch house, which is squeezed between some later built brick buildings, situated halfway down Olvera Street.

Olvera Street spills onto the Old Plaza, the central square of El Pueblo with its pretty wrought-iron bandstand. On weekends, the square is transformed into a full-scale fiesta zone that draws crooning mariachis, costumed dancers and strolling tourists here to explore the historic buildings and statues that frame the square.

Technically, El Pueblo de Los Angeles comprises a whole block of historic buildings and Olvera Street is the alley that was converted into a pedestrian Mexican Marketplace that runs down the middle of the block. That said the terms are often used interchangeably, with the entire area often being referred to as Olvera Street.

2. Griffith Observatory & Park

The crown jewel of LA parks, Griffith Park covers more than 4200 acres at the east end of the Santa Monica Mountain Range. While some of the park is a landscaped recreation area, most of it comprises steep wooded canyons and chaparral-covered mountain wilderness. The park is home to several popular museums and attractions, in addition to many opportunities to explore nature in the outdoors.

Griffith Park is notably home to the world-famous “Hollywood” Sign which is situated on Mt. Lee, as well as the Cahuenga Peak which lies behind it. The Hollywood Sign was built in 1923 as a giant ad for a housing development that never was. You can take a guided horseback ride to the Hollywood Sign.

Griffith Park also offers great views of Downtown LA. However, the main draws of the park are the numerous miles of hiking trails. The 53 miles of paved and dirt trails, fire roads and bridle paths are open to hikers.

The park also houses the Griffith Observatory and the Greek Theatre. Griffith Observatory functions as a space observatory, astronomy museum and planetarium. The Greek Theatre was completed in 1930, and comprises a 5,700-seat outdoor theater that is one of the top entertainment venues in LA.

The Travel Town train museum is also situated on the park grounds. Travel Town is a train museum situated at the park’s northwest corner. There are a variety of train engines, cabooses, freight and passengers cars from different eras displayed on the tracks, as well as other railroad and transportation artifacts inside the exhibit barn. For a small fee, you can ride around Travel Town in a miniature train.

Situated on East Observatory Road, Griffith Observatory was built on Mt. Hollywood in Griffith Park and is operated and owned by the City of Los Angeles for the education and enlightenment of the public. The observatory was opened in 1935, its structure built with top quality materials and extensive artwork.

The observatory has been fitted with 4 permanent telescopes. The Zeiss Telescope has a 12 inch refractor that allows for exceptional viewing of the night sky. Visitors should climb up to the east rooftop dome to enjoy a close up look at the planets or moon. You can also view the images from the telescope as they are projected into an exhibit inside the Hall of the Eye.

There are 3 solar telescopes located in the West Rotunda. One offers white light views of the sun; another shows the view through an H-alpha filter, while the third shows a solar spectrum. Live images from the 3 telescopes are then projected into exhibits inside the Hall of the Sky.

Visit the Café at the End of the Universe, which offers one of the best views of LA. There is also a new theater, exhibition space and gift shop on the park grounds.

The new exhibition space includes the Depths of Space Exhibit, a great hall with models of the planets, as well as information learned from planetary space exploration. At the Edge of Space Mezzanine, you will find objects from space that have been studied after falling to earth, such as comets and meteors.

Also visit the Planetarium for the opening show titled Centered in the Universe. This is a live-narrated animated and blinking-star-studded history of man’s observation of the sky from the time of the ancients to the present day. The Zeiss Universarium Mark IX star projector makes this journey even more vibrant.

3. Getty Center

Getty Center is home to the J. Paul Getty Museum collection. Situated on a hilltop in Brentwood, the Getty Center is home to a collection of western art dating from the Middle Ages to the present day. The museum has previously featured exhibits on Neoclassical, Romantic and Symbolist Sculpture and Decorative Arts, as well as Medieval and Renaissance Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

Other temporary exhibits have been drawn from the extensive Getty photo collection that spans from the beginning of photography to the present day, drawings from the Middle Ages through the mid-1800s, as well as a painting collection that dates from 1295 to 1895. Art lovers can admire masterpieces such as Irises by Van Gogh, Wheatsacks by Monet and The Abduction of Europa by Rembrandt.

While the immense art collection that rotates through the Getty Center is impressive in itself, when combined with the building’s architecture and the surrounding gardens, you end up with an unbeatable combination.

It’s possible to walk around on your own exploring the architecture. However, it’s worth taking the architecture tour available in order to truly appreciate the intricacies of the architect’s design.

The building’s façade offers contrast in its rough-cut and off-white enamel-covered aluminum panels. The lines, curves and angles of the buildings are a delight to photograph, while the square archways frame the spectacular views from across the Los Angeles basin.

The Gardens spread across the ravine between the museum buildings and are home to more than 500 plant varieties found in the Central Garden. But the display is not static, with seasonal changes and the constant adding of new plants that creates an ever-revolving landscape.

Take the walkway that crisscrosses the artificial stream flowing into the Azalea Pool. The azaleas in this pool are laid out in 3 intertwined circular mazes. The maze theme continues in the paths that surround the Pond Garden. There is also an interesting Cactus Garden that’s worth a peek.

There is an audio guide available for visitors who wish to explore on their own, along with video panels and touch screen stations to provide complementary documentation and material. There is also a library, café and restaurant on the museum grounds.

The Restaurant at the Getty Center offers one of LA’s most romantic views. There is also the more casual self-service Café. For casual al-fresco dining, head over to the Garden Plaza Café which offers snacks and lunch on a terrace overlooking the Central Garden. There are also coffee carts in the museum courtyard and on the plaza.

To see more of the Getty museum collection, visit the Getty Villa which is situated in the original location of the museum above Malibu. Roman and Greek antiquities are the focus of the incredible art and antiquities collection found here.

The museum interior comprises 29 galleries situated on 2 levels, a reading room and 2 interactive exhibits. There is also a Café with an outdoor setting, an Espresso Cart and a Store at which you can purchase souvenirs and gift items.

It can be a little overwhelming to try and see everything all in one visit, so plan for two. Even if you are not a fan of museums, simply taking a stroll through the grounds or having a picnic in the gardens is an ideal way of spending your afternoon in LA. And don’t forget your camera! From this hilltop fortress, you will enjoy some of the best views of Los Angeles.

4. Universal Studios Hollywood

A working TV and movie studio and a movie-based theme park all rolled up into one, Universal Studios Hollywood offers an interesting Studio Tour. The tour comprises a tram ride through the studio sets and sound stages.

Also available are physical rides, virtual rides, live action shows, special effects experiences, musical performances, interactive exhibits, character encounters and playgrounds. There are a number of places to shop and eat.

Situated in Universal City just north of Hollywood, Universal Studios Hollywood is divided into the Upper Lot which is where you’ll enter, and a Lower Lot which contains the more adventurous rides. To maximize your time, enjoy your priority activities on one level before you move on to the next, such that you don’t waste your time going up and down.

Generally, the rides are operated continuously, while the shows run on a set schedule. Therefore, if certain shows are a high priority for you, plan around their show times and fill your rides in between. If you plan well and don’t find it too crowded, you can probably fit in everything you want to do during the 8-hour day.

Pick a schedule of the day’s activities at the gate to take along with you. The Studio Tour will take you on a 60-minute guided tram tour of the Universal Studios back lot, with some sound stages and special effects such as a fire and explosions.

At the Lower Lot you will find the Transformers The Ride 3D which will race you through an elaborate flight simulation in which your vehicle is tossed around and turned 360 degrees, while the Transformers are in your face battling it out around you in well coordinated visual effects and real motion.

Jurassic Park the Ride takes you floating along a river that is lined with prehistoric reptiles that spit water at you, before you plunge down a steep waterfall. Shrek 4D is a virtual ride offered in moving theatre seats with fog, strobe and water effects.

The Simpsons Ride is another virtual ride that uses staging rooms and rocking chairs in fictional Springfield, which is surrounded by its restaurants and other landmarks. The shaking car will leave you feeling as if you’re racing right along with your favorite Simpsons characters through an animated world projected on an 80 foot dome.

You may also want to check out the Special Effects Stages, for demonstrations on how certain special effects were created for the movies. Go to the House of Horrors, a multi-level walk-through a haunted house with many classic monsters including Chucky and Frankenstein who jump out at you.

At the NBC Universal Experience, you get to see an interactive exhibit with props, costumes and memorabilia from classic and current TV shows and movies produced by NBC Universal. Enjoy Character Photo Opportunities with a range of changing cast of characters including those from the Simpsons, Shrek and the Transformers.

Right next to Universal Studios Hollywood is Universal Citywalk, which is a pedestrian shopping and entertainment zone. Here you can visit iFly Hollywood, a skydiving simulation where you can don a flight suit and experience what it’s like to skydive without actually jumping out of the plane. A solid column of air will keep you suspended inside a wind tunnel.

Universal City Walk also hosts outdoor concerts, street performers, talent contests and other themed events including the New Year’s Eve countdown street party.

5. Venice Beach

Situated between Santa Monica and Marina del Rey, Venice is a district of Los Angeles. While Venice is much more than its beach, the terms ‘Venice Beach’ and ‘Venice’ are often used interchangeably. Technically, Venice is the neighborhood, while Venice Beach is part of this neighborhood, situated within a couple of blocks from the beach.

Named after its series of canals, Venice is recognized as a haven for creative types, is famous for its eclectic Abbot Kinney Boulevard and its colorful bohemian boardwalk with psychedelic artwork, street performers and random eccentric locals, travelers and vendors selling cheap sunglasses and t-shirts.

Venice Beach is a wide, sandy beach with waves. The boardwalk has the vibe of a circus show, art show, flea market and a side of cannabis, all of which combine to offer a colorful backdrop for enjoying the sea and sand. As you sunbathe, you can listen to the sounds of a drum circle, ritual chanting or the roar of skateboard wheels at the Venice Skate Park.

Also check out the Venice Art Walls. These are walls remaining from a previous building which are designated to be painted for a temporary period by graffiti artists. Any artist can apply for a free permit to paint on these walls. Permits are only issued for one day, and paintings will happen only on weekends under the supervision of In Creative Unity (ICU) Art.

Venice Beach is more than a mile of beach property lined with funky shops, vendor booths and cafes. There are also colorful street performers and artists available to entertain visitors.

Abbot Kinney Boulevard features an eclectic mix of independent boutiques, restaurants and night clubs. This short stretch of shopping is one of the trendiest spots in LA for less traditional clothing and gifts. Every year, the street is closed off for one weekend in September when it hosts the Abbot Kinney Festival.

A few blocks of the original Venice Canals remain south of Venice Boulevard, about a block and a half inland from the beach. Many of the run down homes surrounding the canals have been restored, creating a pleasant area to walk or paddle around.

You can also visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, a tiny lot at Pacific Avenue and 29th Street, which has been converted into a haven for butterflies to stop over during their journey between Northern California and Mexico.

6. Walt Disney Concert Hall

From the moment it opened, the Walt Disney Concert Hall became a Los Angeles icon. The soaring architecture and sinuous curves of the modern building are so seductive that they tempt even those who don’t appreciate classical music to attend a symphony just to enjoy the beauty of the auditorium.

Situated on the north side of downtown Los Angeles, inside the Music Center complex, the concert hall was designed to resemble a ship’s hull. In fact, it looks a little like a stainless steel ship with its sails unfurled, cruising through the downtown civic center.

There’s nothing typical about the Walt Disney Concert Hall, from its cutting-edge architecture to how it is run. While most concert halls are closed to the public unless a performance is on, the Walt Disney Concert Hall remains open all day long and anyone is welcome to go inside and take a look around.

Wander around the innovative structure with your camera in hand or take an organized tour. The architecture here is so splendid. The self-guided audio tour includes insights from the architect and others involved in the design and construction. The guided tour involves 60 minutes of learning about the architectural and garden highlights.

The Symphonian Four-Theatre Tour lasts 90 minutes and takes visitors through all 4 venues of the Music Center: The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson Theatre and the Walt Disney concert Hall.

The building was designed as the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the top rated orchestras in the world, according to a survey of music critics. This alone makes the experience of the concert-goer here a treat both in the visual and auditory sense.

The concert hall is finished in warm-colored fir wood and features similar fluid shapes as the exterior of the building. The architect’s preferred convex curve shapes are great for the sound as they bounce it around to fill the hall. The Founders’ Room is shaped like the inside of an inverted tulip.

No sound is too loud for the hall, and everything can be heard, down to the most muffled cough. In fact, shortly after it opened, the new concert hall was reported to have revealed decade’s old errors in the musical scores of symphonies that were impossible to hear before.

The 2,265-seat theatre boasts some of the most sophisticated acoustics ever made, thanks to a very steep theatre design with seating that surrounds the stage. From some seats, you can just about read the music over the shoulders of the musicians. The pipe organ features 6,125 pipes and occupies a central position between the seating sections at the back of the stage.

A series of short acoustic walls located among the seats are designed to create a terraced effect referred to as the vineyard design. The colorful geometric floral pattern found on the carpet reflects the wildflower theme found on upholstery inside the Concert Hall. The fanciful upholstery colors were meant to give the sense of a field of wildflowers.

Due to the full rehearsal schedule, the interior of the Walt Disney Concert Hall is not part of the tour. You will have to attend an LA Philharmonic concert or one of the other scheduled concerts to have a glimpse of this space. Three different types of wood create distinct acoustics that offer an intimate sound inside a large space without amplification.

Outside you can admire the “Rose for Lillian” Fountain, which was designed as part of the Blue Ribbon Garden. This is a mosaic of Delft China, which complements the stainless steel monument. Also visit the LA Philharmonic Gift Shop for souvenirs and gift items. There is also an Art Gallery on site.

Opened in 2003, the Walt Disney Concert Hall presents the very best in jazz, classical music and contemporary music. The Los Angeles Philharmonic puts on many performances here, in addition to symphonies and other classic concerts. The concert hall also hosts the Los Angeles Master Chorale, along with visiting orchestras and artists from across the globe.

7. Queen Mary

Situated a half-hour from Downtown LA, Queen Mary is the most famous landmark in Long Beach. The ship is today a hotel and an attraction offering diverse restaurants, nightlife, tours and special events all on board.

Queen Mary is a former luxury ocean liner and WWII military transport that clocked a thousand and one trips across the Atlantic before it settled in its present-day home. Purported to be haunted, Queen Mary hosts numerous activities on board that center around ghostly activities, including the Ghosts and Legends special effects show, as well as the Queen Mary Dark Harbor haunted ship attraction.

The maiden voyage of this elegant lady departed from South Hampton, England in 1936. The ship was deployed as military transportation from 1940-1944, but returned to luxury cruise service after the war ended. In 1967, the Queen Mary was retired. In 1971, she opened as a hotel and exhibit in Long Beach.

Visitors can take a self-guided tour to enjoy the interesting exhibits that recreate the history of the Queen Mary. The Cruise Liner exhibits include dining rooms, staterooms, a beauty salon, hospital, gym, nursery, as well as additional exhibits of furnishings, cruise clothing and art of the period.

The Military exhibits document the Queen Mary’s time as a military ship with sleeping quarters, hospital, galley, uniforms, military documents and a documentary.

Other interesting exhibits include the engine room, the radio room and the wheel house. There is also an Art Gallery that houses a collection of the ship’s original art. The Queen Mary also hosts touring exhibits in a variety of spaces aboard the ship.

Visitors to the Queen Mary can also tour the Russian Foxtrot Submarine “Scorpion” which was built in 1972 to search for and track enemy forces in the Pacific Ocean, during the Cold War. Decommissioned by the Russian Navy in 1994, the sub found a home next to the Queen Mary in 1998.

If you’re into the paranormal, be sure to attend the Ghosts and Legends of the Queen Mary special effects show. The Glory Days Behind the Scenes Tour offers a historical overview that introduces visitors to the original art and craftsmanship of the Queen Mary. Take a peek into different ballrooms, the Veranda Grill, as well as the first-class swimming pool.

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During the Haunted Encounters Tour, you will be taken to spots around the ship where ghosts have allegedly been sighted. These include the engine room, Observation Bar, a number of staterooms and the swimming pool.

The Paranormal Shipwalk Tour will take you on a tour of the haunted hot spots, guided by a paranormal investigator. On the Paranormal Investigation Tour, participants are allowed to use certain tools to investigate paranormal activity.

There are various restaurants and snack bars at which you can eat while on the Queen Mary. These include a shake shop, a bakery and Sir Winston’s, the award-winning fine dining restaurant.

As with any other cruise ship, the Queen Mary Hotel offers various staterooms and suites to hotel guests. The paranormally inclined can also request for a haunted room, although ghost sightings are not guaranteed. Also visit the Queen Mary Spa for a massage and some pampering.

8. Melrose Trading Post

Melrose Trading Post is a flea market with almost 250 vendors dealing in house wares, jewelry, purses, shoes, crystals and minerals, vinyl records, shabby chic furniture and other unique handmade items. The market benefits programs at its host site at Fairfax High School. This is just the place to snag a tremendous deal on quirky things you just can’t live without.

Each Sunday, the Melrose Trading Post offers a constantly evolving experience, with a curated selection of handcrafted artisan products, antique furniture, vintage fashion, eclectic arts and crafts, and one-of-a-kind treasures.

The popular weekly market also features local musicians in an outdoor, year-long series of dance, music, theater and spoken word events. The performances held by local musicians and exhibitions of works by local artists, which offer a fun way of seeing what’s happening in LA’s cultural scene.

The market is also a trial ground for youthful street fashion in LA. It is a magnet for teens and early 20-somethings adorned in style mash-ups of the 1940s to the 1990s, accented with touches of the modern. There are also some serious antique collectors who frequent the venue, scouting for a steal on treasures that are occasionally overlooked.

There is a small food court available which serves food and beverages. Nearby is the famous Canter’s Deli, an old-school restaurant that serves sky-high sandwiches.

9. Sunset Strip

Sunset Boulevard is the famous boulevard in West Hollywood that runs from downtown LA to Malibu. The boulevard’s most famous part is Sunset Strip, a 1.5 mile-long section that stretches between Doheny Drive and North Crescent Heights Boulevard.

Sunset Strip got its name from the LA county workers who called it “that strip”. The first buildings along Sunset Strip went up in 1924, and the Strip soon became the center for LA nightlife and gained a reputation it enjoys to this day. The best time to take pictures on the Strip is on Sunday afternoons when it is almost deserted.

During your visit to the Strip, look out for interesting buildings such as Chateau Marmont, as well as Sunset Tower Hotel, which is a fine example of art deco design with a famous swimming pool. On its façade, look out for airplanes and zeppelins alongside a depiction of Adam and Eve. Andaz West Hollywood is one of the most stylish hotels in the area which also boasts fantastic views.

Also stop by The Comedy Store which is frequented by many stand-up comedians you can watch. Then go to Sky Bar at Mondrian Hotel which offers terrific views of the LA basin. The Whisky A GoGo has been popular since the Sixties when musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and the Kinks got their start here.

Shopping and Dining Plaza has many boutique sidewalk cafes which offer a great spot to sit. Hustler Hollywood is run by Larry Flynt’s daughter and is reputed to be the largest erotica store in the US, while The Roxy is a popular rock club with a dance area and a great sound system.

If you enjoy music, comedy clubs and nice sidewalk cafés, then you should find plenty to see and do in Sunset Strip, which is best known for the rock n’ roll history of many of its live music clubs and bars. If you’re in LA in August, head over to the Sunset Strip Music Festival, a major annual event that takes over the street and all the live music venues.

10. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is regarded as the largest encyclopedic art museum in the western United States. Opened in 1965, the LACMA collection features 100,000 pieces that encompass the history of art from the ancient times to the present day, and from all corners of the world.

The Urban Light installation on the sidewalk in front of the museum has been an LA favorite and one of its most photographed landmarks since it was unveiled. The piece incorporates 202 antique street lights from neighborhoods in and cities around Los Angeles. Music concerts are also held at the museum throughout the year including jazz, Latin, classical and new music.

There are 2 restaurants on the museum grounds, as well as several Espresso Carts selling coffee and snacks. Pentimento offers fine dining, al-fresco dining and a full bar. In addition to lunch and dinner, they also offer afternoon tea and Sunday brunch. Plaza Café is a more casual restaurant with seating both indoors and outdoors.

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