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skyline with mountains and moon
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Jesus Curiel

9 things you should know about L.A. before visiting

Los Angeles is an amazing place, but you have to know a few things about it before you learn to love it

Michael Juliano
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Michael Juliano
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Los Angeles isn’t the celebrity and paparazzi-filled la-la-land it’s made out to be in the movies and TV. It is, however, a beautiful, diverse and sometimes confounding city. If you’re visiting for the first time, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the gridlock and sprawl and lose sight of what makes Los Angeles such a unique destination. So before you book your flight into LAX (bonus tip: try Burbank or Long Beach instead), here are nine things you should know about the city.

(Oh, and those mountains in the photo above? You may see them in photos all the time, but they’re not actually that close—blame a long camera lens for the illusion. They are, however, often covered with snow in the winter, and only an hour or two from much of L.A.)

Los Angeles has no true center.
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Bart Jaillet

1. Los Angeles has no true center.

In most world-class cities, you can step off a plane and onto a train that’ll whisk you into the heart of the city. Not so in L.A. First of all, said train doesn’t exist (at least not until 2023). But second, L.A. is simply too spread out to stick to one compact area.

You can’t just wander around most of the city on foot and expect to stumble onto something amazing. Downtown L.A. comes close to being a central exception: The onetime dead zone has become an increasingly walkable district for bars, restaurants, performance spaces and museums, all linked up by public transit. But DTLA is still very hit-or-miss when it comes to how exciting or pleasant you’ll find each block.

Downtown also won’t satisfy most tourists’ ideas about an L.A. vacation—and that really goes for locals, too. Stick to only DTLA and you’d be missing out on hilly hikes through Griffith Park, dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley, Silver Lake’s coffee shop culture and all of the Westside’s glorious beaches and ritzy shopping districts.

In fact, L.A. has multiple cities inside of it.
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

2. In fact, L.A. has multiple cities inside of it.

We should step back and talk about what we mean when we say “L.A.” Somewhat confusingly, “L.A.” is often used interchangeably for both the City of Los Angeles and the dense cluster of neighboring cities within Los Angeles County.

The city proper is broadly split into the Valley (the warmer, suburban sprawl to the north) and the Basin (the ocean-adjacent flat lands south of the Santa Monica Mountains). Within the Basin, you’ll find fancy suburbs and beachfront towns on the Westside, while Central L.A. harbors multicultural enclaves and hip ’hoods. Some famous neighborhoods in those two regions, like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood (home of the Sunset Strip) are actually separate cities sandwiched into the middle of the City of Los Angeles. The same goes for some Valley cities like studio-filled Burbank and Glendale and celeb-magnet Calabasas.

We could go on and on when it comes to parts of L.A. that are technically outside of city limits: the South Bay, where Manhattan Beach and its neighbors are their own cities; Long Beach; all of the the communities within the San Gabriel Valley, like Monterey Park and Alhambra; and East L.A., which isn’t technically a city but instead an unincorporated area within L.A. County.

But here’s all you really need to know: We typically we think of those areas and even more far-flung spots like Malibu and Pasadena as part of L.A., culturally speaking—which means that your Airbnb within “the heart of L.A.” might not actually be as centrally located as it claims.

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You’re going to want a car.
Photograph: Michael Juliano

3. You’re going to want a car.

After our little geography lesson, you might understand now why Angelenos measure distances in minutes and not miles—Los Angeles is big. As a result, navigating from one side of the city to the other during rush hour will absolutely test your patience. But thanks to our infamous freeways, when traffic finally eases up, cutting across town can be a cinch by car.

Plus, some of L.A.’s most iconic scenic spots, like a cruise along Angeles Crest Highway, Mulholland Drive or the Pacific Coast Highway can only be experienced by car.

If you rent a car, just make sure to read the parking signs; if you’re in a garage, remember where you parked and validate your ticket. Don’t forget to fire up Waze or Google Maps to avoid gridlock and getting lost.

…But L.A. does have public transit options (including a subway).
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

4. …But L.A. does have public transit options (including a subway).

L.A. may not have a subway system on par with New York, London or Paris, but the city’s six (and counting) Metro lines, two dedicated busways and countless sort-of-efficient bus routes can do the job.

If your destinations include Downtown, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Pasadena, Universal Studios, Santa Monica, Culver City or the museums in Exposition Park, you may be able to rely on Metro instead of a car. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to just hop on a train and go anywhere in the city, though. You largely won’t find subway lines on the Westside—except for Santa Monica—where bus rides become a matter of hours instead of minutes.

It’s still easiest to see everything in the city with a car, but it’s feasible to pair a Metro pass with a few Uber, bike, scooter or Metro Micro rides.

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Hollywood, West Hollywood and North Hollywood are not at all related.
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

5. Hollywood, West Hollywood and North Hollywood are not at all related.

When you’re booking a hotel, pay very close attention to which cardinal direction sits in front of “Hollywood.”

West Hollywood—which is technically a separate city from Los Angeles—probably best fits your image of Hollywood glamour: hilltop mansions, celebrity sightings and glitzy-yet-sleazy nightlife on the Sunset Strip.

Just to the east, Hollywood is home to all of those familiar Tinseltown attractions along with a lot of grime and disappointment. The neighborhood is split by the 101 freeway; you won’t find many familiar sites in East Hollywood, but it is home to the Barnsdall Art Park and Hollyhock House, Thai Town and Little Armenia.

Head north over the hills and past Universal Studios, and you’ll reach North Hollywood, which is named as such so you forget that there’s a mountain range between it and Hollywood. The once gritty Valley suburb now boasts its own pedestrian and transit-friendly arts district dotted with small performance spaces.

We pronounce some Spanish proper names with a Midwestern accent.
Photograph: Shutterstock

6. We pronounce some Spanish proper names with a Midwestern accent.

Midwesterners first started flooding into Los Angeles in the late 1800s, and the city’s Spanish-derived names haven’t been the same since then.

Forget everything you know about the Spanish language and instead pronounce all of L.A.’s landmarks with the haughtiest American accent possible. That means San Pedro becomes “San PEE-droh,” Sepulveda sounds like “Suh-PULL-veh-duh” and Los Feliz is—somewhat controversially—“Los FEE-lisz.” Rodeo (“Roh-DAY-oh”) is one of the few exceptions. Look out for some non-Spanish outliers, too, like Wilshire (“WILL-sher”) and the Broad (rhymes with “ode”).

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The most memorable destinations aren’t the most famous ones.
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Lisha Riabinina

7. The most memorable destinations aren’t the most famous ones.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame and Venice Boardwalk are so much seedier than you would expect. We’re not proud to admit it, but some of L.A.’s most popular destinations are a bit of a letdown. We’re not saying you should skip Rodeo Drive and the Hollywood Sign if seeing them is important to you, but do consider going beyond the as-seen-on-reality-TV locales.

For us, an ideal fling with L.A. would involve an afternoon atop the Getty Center or at the Huntington Library, lunch at Grand Central Market, sunset at Zuma or El Matador State Beach and an evening spent gazing out on the city from the Griffith Observatory. If you’re really looking to get to know the city, this entire story of things to do will keep you busy.

It’s always sunny, sometimes hot and usually “cold.”
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Jessica Christian

8. It’s always sunny, sometimes hot and usually “cold.”

Aside from some morning fog (dubbed May Gray and June Gloom in their requisite months), you can expect it to be sunny almost 300 days out of the year. Unless there’s a tropical storm hitting northern Mexico, you won’t see a drop of rain in the summer. In the winter, there might just be a handful of rainy days.

When the sun’s out, it can get pretty toasty, especially in the summer and fall, and particularly in the Valley (streaks of Santa Ana Wind days bring triple-digital temperatures during the day). But at night, you’ll really regret wearing shorts as you learn that 70 degrees doesn’t actually feel warm at all. Oh, and the ocean? The water temperature barely breaks 70 degrees in the summer.

So to sum it up: Lather on sunscreen, bring a hat, leave the umbrella and carry around a sweatshirt.

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Los Angeles is like no other city.
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Cameron Venti

9. Los Angeles is like no other city.

You can keep it casual and wear flip-flops seemingly anywhere. Bar hopping isn’t feasible in most neighborhoods—and last call is an “early” 2am—but you’re never far from a fantastic hiking trail. You’ll have to make reservations for République or Bestia weeks in advance, but you can stumble up to the Taco Zone Truck for a heaven-sent 2am taco. It’s possible to surf in the morning, ski in the afternoon and make it to Disneyland just in time for fireworks. Los Angeles is an amazing place once you learn to embrace everything it has to offer, contradictions and all.

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