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Travel tips every first-time Los Angeles visitor needs to know

Transit options, beach picks, free museum days: here are the travel tips every visitor to L.A. needs to know

Michael Juliano
Written by
Michael Juliano

Everything about Los Angeles appears overwhelming at first glance: the congested network of freeways, the sprawling map, the traffic—because seriously, it’s worth mentioning twice.

But once you get past L.A.’s more confounding qualities, you’ll discover a dynamic, diverse, culturally rich and beautiful city blessed with mountains, beaches and (usually) pretty pleasant weather. So start studying L.A.’s best attractions and its ever-growing list of essential restaurants, and familiarize yourself with these travel tips before your first visit.

20 travel tips for your first visit to L.A.

It’s always sunny and sometimes hot
Photograph: Shutterstock

1. It’s always sunny and sometimes hot

Aside from some occasional morning fog (most common during a late-spring period dubbed May Gray and June Gloom), you can expect it to be sunny almost 300 days out of the year. While winter can bring some wet days, you likely won’t see a drop of rain in the summer. Temperatures by the ocean hover comfortably in the 70s nearly all year; if you’re venturing into the Valley, though, expect occasional (but increasingly frequent) triple-digit days, mostly in the late summer and early fall.

But it’s pretty “cold” every night
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

2. But it’s pretty “cold” every night

You’ll really regret wearing shorts as you learn that 70 degrees in a pretty dry climate doesn’t feel warm at all. Even on the warmest summer days, you’ll be more comfortable in pants once the sun goes down. So to sum it up: Lather on sunscreen, bring a hat, leave the umbrella and carry around a sweatshirt.

The ocean is downright cold
Photograph: Courtesy Cameron Kirby

3. The ocean is downright cold

Southern California’s beautiful blue ocean water is much colder than it looks. Our stretch of the Pacific Ocean is fed by cold currents on their way south from Alaska. As a result, the water temperature rarely reaches 70 degrees even in the summer—surfers’ wet suits aren’t just for style, you know.

There’s more than just one beach
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Gerson Repreza

4. There’s more than just one beach

Look at a map of Los Angeles County and you’ll find 70 miles of coastline. Yet many visitors won’t stray from the sand near the Santa Monica Pier or the Venice Boardwalk. Head north into Malibu and you’ll find a peaceful stretch of sand below the cliffs at Point Dume State Beach and a series of rock outcroppings perfect for sunset at El Matador State Beach. To the south, you’ll find a series of beach cities, each with its on distinct personality, including the pleasant and posh Manhattan Beach.

Los Angeles has no center
Photograph: Courtesy Jordan Pulmano

5. Los Angeles has no center

In many 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. While there is an airport people mover and adjacent rail line nearing completion, that still won’t solve this fundamental issue: 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—walkable exceptions include Santa Monica, Pasadena and Downtown L.A., though more on that last one in a minute.

In fact, L.A. is actually multiple cities
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Glen Scarborough

6. In fact, L.A. is actually multiple cities

The City of Los Angeles 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 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. And then there are whole regions like the South Bay and the San Gabriel Valley that exist entirely outside of city limits. But typically we think of all of those areas and even more far-flung spots like Malibu and Pasadena as part of L.A.

Downtown L.A. isn’t necessarily the best starting point for a tourist
Photograph: Unsplash/Jordan Rubin

7. Downtown L.A. isn’t necessarily the best starting point for a tourist

Head toward the tall buildings—that would probably be pretty sound advice in most cities, but it’s hard to say the same about L.A. Yes, Downtown L.A. has seen a massive development boom over the past decade or so (one that’s slowed if not even somewhat backtracked in the past few years), but its parts are still more compelling than the whole. Families in particular will be disappointed if they’re looking for a friendly, bustling city center akin to New York or Chicago that’s stocked with worthwhile shops and cultural destinations at every corner. It’s best to tackle the uneven area with a specific plan: Grab a bite at Grand Central Market, spend an afternoon admiring art at the Broad, see the LA Phil or admire the architecture at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, slurp down a bowl of ramen in Little Tokyo and have a drink in the Arts District.

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

8. You’re probably going to want a car

Angelenos measure distances in minutes and not miles because our infamous traffic is often that bad. Even so, a car is still often the quickest way to get about town. In fact, 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 be aware that you’ll need to pay for parking almost everywhere you go and make sure to read the parking enforcement 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 (or at least be prepared for) gridlock and getting lost.

But you might not need one
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

9. But you might not need one

Uber and Lyft have undeniably changed how Angelenos travel short distances (and when they’re a bit tipsy). But we have a respectable public transit system, too, with six Metro lines, two dedicated busways and countless sort-of-efficient bus routes (plus bike and scooter rentals). If your destinations include Downtown, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Santa Monica, Culver City, Pasadena, Universal Studios or the museums in Exposition Park, Metro may actually make more sense.

You can take a train to the beach
Photograph: Michael Juliano

10. You can take a train to the beach

Sometimes we’d sooner head out of town on a day trip than brave the traffic on the 10 or PCH to Santa Monica. Thankfully, we don’t have to anymore with Metro’s E (Expo) Line. From the light rail line’s stops in Downtown L.A., it’s just under an hour ride to its western terminus in Santa Monica, which will drop you off about three blocks from the beach.

Or you can just rent a bike
Photograph: Courtesy Steve Hymon/Metro.

11. Or you can just rent a bike

Metro operates a bike share program in Downtown L.A., Hollywood, North Hollywood and parts of the Westside that allowers riders to pick up and return bikes at kiosks around those respective areas. Pay for a day pass ($5) and all rides under 30 minutes are free. In addition, you’ll find a whole bunch of other bike and scooter rental apps that we cover in our in-depth cheap transit guide. We’ll admit that L.A.’s drivers and constructed streetscape aren’t always friendly to cyclists, but there are a number of noteworthy bike trails worth taking.

Hollywood, West Hollywood and North Hollywood are not at all related
Photograph: Courtesy Ringo Chiu /

13. 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 arts district dotted with small performance spaces.

14. Also, Hollywood isn’t quite what you’re expecting

Glitz, glamour and celebrities—all things you won’t find in Hollywood, at least not on a daily basis. Once you’ve seen those immortalized names on the sidewalk (which you probably shouldn’t rub your hands all over), there’s not much more than suspect superheroes, claustrophobia-inducing crowds, star tour salesmen and a never-ending line of gift shops. If you want a peek at moviemaking magic, a studio tour or a TV show taping are much more satisfying bets.

Last call is an “early” 2am
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

15. Last call is an “early” 2am

Despite repeated attempts to keep the booze flowing later into the evening, last call in California is 2am. As a result, to feed your night owl tendencies you’ll need to find your way into a house party—of which there’s no shortage. Now to just make friends.

You can largely skip the hard-shell tacos
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

16. You can largely skip the hard-shell tacos

Don’t get us wrong: A crunchy taco shell piled high with cheese and sour cream is delicious. But you didn’t come here to subsist on Taco Bell. If you’re looking for a true taste of L.A.’s incredible Mexican cuisine, stick to the open-faced corn and flour tortillas. (There are, of course, some crunchy exceptions in our taco guide, linked above.)

Get to the Griffith Observatory before sunset
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Cameron Venti

18. Get to the Griffith Observatory before sunset

We can’t think of a more dazzling spot that so consistently wins over out-of-towners and natives alike than the Griffith Observatory. It’s a sublime place to watch the sunset—but also an exceedingly crowded one. Give yourself plenty of time to get there before the sun goes down—or take the DASH bus from Los Feliz—and stick around into the evening as the city twinkles below. (Seriously, the drive up to the observatory can be a downright nightmare, so head over there on the early side to account for it.)

Fly into Burbank or Long Beach if you can
Photograph: Angelo DeSantis/Flickr

19. Fly into Burbank or Long Beach if you can

By 2024, an automated people mover at LAX will shuttle passengers between terminals and outside of its horshoe-shaped automotive hell. Until—and even after—then, you should check out flights into and out of Long Beach or Burbank. The prices are sometimes higher and the connections fewer, but the two low-key airports are considerably less crowded, less traffic-choked and more convenient to certain destinations. Plus, we always get a kick out of boarding a flight straight from the tarmac.

Don’t fear the left turn
Photograph: Michael Juliano

20. Don’t fear the left turn

While we won’t encourage you to break any traffic laws, we will let you know that almost every car-bound Angeleno technically does so on a daily basis. Relatively few intersections in L.A. have protected left turns (i.e. a green arrow), so one or two cars will pull into the middle of the intersection and make a left once the light turns red. If you don’t, prepare for a few angry honks.

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