I doubt that many people would consider coming to Los Angeles explicitly for LA sightseeing. Yes, there are a few interesting sights, and yes, there is clearly the Hollywood industry pull, but for a discerning traveler, there is probably not enough surpassing visuals or superb attractions to put LA near the top of the must-visit list. You are only likely to spend a short time in the city using it as a gateway to Disneyland, Universal Studios, or both.
LA is a sprawling metropolis made of dozens of “villages”, the majority of which are frankly nondescript and hardly warrant attention. But every visitor to the city would probably stop by at least two neighborhoods. One is Hollywood, anchored by the Hollywood Walk of Fame ♥ and the TCL Chinese Theatre. The overall area is a bit seedy and obviously very touristy, but many people – kids of all ages – find it a fun recognition exercise to look at the sidewalk-embedded stars. By night there are street performers and street food vendors. There is a number of museums and museum-like establishments in the vicinity, but none of them, IMHO, is worth the cost of entry. That includes Madame Tussaud’s, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and a few others (Museum of Illusion, for instance, gives you a chance to create a few dozen photographic illusions with you in the picture – for $30 per visitor.) You can also join a “celebrity house viewing” tour – our experience with one of these from years past suggests that it is not worth the time or expense.
Beverly Hills ♥ is another famous area likely to attract everyone, especially its upscale commercial centerpiece of Rodeo Drive ♥. The majority will stick to window-shopping when there, although there is an excellent art gallery worth visiting on 2 Rodeo Drive by-street. (Note on parking: 2-hour free public parking is available in garages just off Rodeo Drive, but not in the garage that is entered from the street itself.)
A few seaside neighborhoods can be pleasant strolling destinations: Santa Monica, Marina del Rey, or a bit further afield, Manhattan Beach ♥♥. They offer minor points of interest (such as the small Aquarium at the end of the Manhattan Beach Pier) but primarily are simply picturesque with architectural variety and a lively promenade and food scene.
The Grove ♥, a newish compact open-air mall, is a very nice place to unwind at the end of the day. It is centered around a fountain that continuously plays in patterns; not exactly musical, although a good selection of light music is piped through the speakers. Several eateries offer fountain views.
One of the standout points of interest in Los Angeles is the Getty Center ♥♥♥. It is just an incredible modern museum campus with nice grounds, gardens, views, and a reasonable collection of paintings, sculptures, and objets d’art. Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Goya, El Greco, Canaletto, Lorraine, Turner, and many others feature, albeit some only in a single instance. Easily more than half a day is needed to see all there is to see. Smaller children will benefit from a couple of “treasure hunts”. Food options on the grounds are reasonable if a bit overpriced.
There is also the Getty Villa ♥♥, a fantastic recreation of a Roman Patrician villa, replete with gorgeous courtyards and fountains. Paraphrasing what J. Paul Getty himself said, if you have ever been to Italy and wondered what the ruins of classical buildings may have looked like in their heyday, this is your opportunity to see it with your own eyes. On the upper floor of the villa is a compact but impressive collection of antiquities.
A note on distance: Don’t let the family name deceive you into thinking that the two attractions are close to each other. There is no less than half an hour’s drive in normal traffic between the two.
When you drive through West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, you will probably notice eye-catching buildings here or there on many corners and streets. In fact, there are several mansion museums in the area that may be worth visiting: Schindler House, Stahl House, Greystone Mansion, as well as Gamble House in Pasadena, and a part of the serial Frank Lloyd Wright UNESCO World Heritage site, Hollyhock House in East Hollywood.
Huntington Library, Museum, and Gardens is a potential superb point of interest for consideration. There is also a cluster of likely attractions in Downtown LA, which is hardly an area frequented by visitors.
Universal Studios ♥ is another top attraction within LA borders. Obviously, pretty expensive even with the cheapest basic ticket, but a great pull nonetheless. The Studio Tour takes you through a number of movie sets; the Waterworld stunt show is very entertaining; the Jurassic Park ride is our personal favorite. Hogsmeade and Hogwarts (The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter) are very beautifully done, but the attractions there are mildly disappointing, IMHO. Overall, there are only a dozen rides and shows in the entire park in total, so it is technically possible to cover everything on a regular ticket on a non-peak day (although probably challenging when waits exceed 30 minutes on a busy day; various “VIP” options will allow you to skip most of the lines for a non-trivial extra cost (in addition to the already costly regular entry fee). As an aside note, there is a very likely problem for those prone to motion sickness: half of the attractions are either non-gentle motion simulators or roller coasters.
We also attempted the hike to the Hollywood Sign. Starting at Hollywood Lake Park, which offers the closest convenient parking (be warned: the streets right underneath the sign have no public parking whatsoever), we picked a fairly simple path along sloping and paved Mount Lee Drive. It is not a demanding hike even though it obviously gets very hot in summer as the day progresses. There is a shade of disappointment at the end in that you do not actually get close to the letters – the peak point is above the sign with a limited skewed view of the letters. But the city views are fantastic. The closest look at the sign from below is at the Tyrolean Tank Viewpoint, at the foot of Mount Lee Drive; if climbing up to the peak is not your thing, make that your finish point – or even just do the Hollywood Lake Viewpoint.
In a city as huge as LA, the dining options are innumerable and are likely to leave you satisfied regardless of whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random. Just a couple of recommendations from a most recent visit: Running Goose (on North Cahuenga Boulevard very close to the Hollywood focal point), with a democratic vibe and an excellent Mediterranean menu; or Fishing with Dynamite (in the heart of Manhattan Beach), with a cool seafood menu and a great experience overall.
Disneyland Resorts in Anaheim
Both Disneyland ♥♥♥ and the newer California Adventure Park ♥♥♥ are probably musts on any child-involved trip to Southern California. They get terribly crowded in peak season, and even if you luck into a “slower” day, longer wait times for the most popular rides will be unavoidable (the most in-demand rides can only be accessed via a virtual line that you have to join a few hours in advance in some cases). You have to plan your time accordingly – and, of course, multi-day entrance tickets and “premium” entry options maximize your ability to get on the rides you want when you want.
There is also Downtown Disney ♥ – an attractive open-air mall, with fountains, shops, and eateries, which is a nice place to unwind in the evening if you are staying nearby.
Staying in one of the Disney properties is certainly the most convenient way to access the parks, both location and time-wise. However, that will come at a premium. Staying at non-Disney accommodations in the area can reduce lodging expenses while being less convenient. One option is Radisson Blu Anaheim, a relatively new modern sleek hotel with huge rooms that offer all modern amenities in addition to views over Disneyland in the distance. The public transport shuttle system to the park may take some time to overcome initial kinks. Both sit-down and coffee-shop breakfast options are available. On the top floor, Skybar, a tapas restaurant and lounge, is an excellent dining option.
Many of the eateries inside the amusement parks are pretty reasonable in quality, if certainly conveniently overpriced.
One other place worthy of a dining recommendation is Jazz Kitchen (in Downtown Disney), with an excellent New Orleans-inspired menu, and superb and accommodating service.