Planning a Los Angeles itinerary for the first time and feeling overwhelmed? Follow this guide below to make it easy!
You know, growing up on the East Coast, LA almost doesn’t feel real. You see it in so many movies and read about it so often with celebrities and actors and singers, but still. It’s some far off place where it’s always sunny and both glamorous and a little seedy! Weird to think, but I visited the big cities of Europe before I even thought of making my way over to the City of Angels!
My first trip happened for two reasons. Since I was teaching in Korea and coming home for summer vacation, I knew I’d be flying through California no matter what. And it just so happens my friend, Elissa, had the same summer vacation and is from Los Angeles! I joined her family on a little California trip that ended up back at their house and managed to get a local introduction to this famous city!
Since then I’ve been back twice. Once on my way home from Korea again where I crashed with Elissa’s family for a few days before getting my next flight to Philly. We did a few things, but mostly I was exhausted and we vegged on her couch watching the BBC miniseries “North & South”!
Recently, though, I returned with my friend, Sher, at the tail end of our California road trip! We had about two nights and three-ish days, and I had a list of spots I wanted to see! It was also Sher’s first time in LA, so I re-visited some spots and got to re-remember what I saw the first time.
Between all these visits, I’ve put together what I think is the perfect Los Angeles itinerary for any first time visitor. Before I get in exactly what to do and where to go, I’ve listed some tips below so you know what you’re getting into. LA is not like other cities, so there are some things you should be aware of beforehand!
Tips for Your Los Angeles Itinerary
You’re going to need to drive
The one thing you have to know about LA, is that it is not a walkable city. Everything is very spread out and the public transportation is okay in the best of times and downright sketchy and unsafe during pandemic times. Even then, it doesn’t cover everything and you’ll still wind up taking an expensive Uber to cover the awkward distance in between.
Elissa obviously drove when I visited her, but when I did my road trip, Sher and I rented a car via RentalCars.com which landed us with Thrifty. I was hesitant to drive in LA but it actually was pretty okay as long as you’re used to driving in cities and on freeways.
Traffic is a guarantee
The downside to LA? The traffic. I mean I’m sure you’ve heard a late night show comedian joke about it, but it’s truly a guarantee. I would say we actually got pretty lucky on this recent trip and traffic was never horrible, but I remember it being pretty bad when I visited Elissa before!
Your best bet is to allot an hour to get anyway just in case, more if you find yourself driving during rush hour.
Where you stay is key
Because of the driving factor, where you stay is key. LA is massive and often expands beyond the city limits. I’ve stayed with Elissa’s family in Glendora and then in Downtown LA, which I honestly hated. I feel like unless you know you’re going out or going to the STAPLES Center, there are a million other nicer neighborhoods to stay in!
For this itinerary, I think the best spot is to stay in Beverly Hills as it’s the most central to all the places you’re going to want to go and the worst you can say about it is that it’s expensive. I’ve only been to The Grove, but it seems nicer than DTLA and is still fairly central.
|Hotels in Beverly Hills||Where to Book|
|The Beverly Hills Hotel $$$||Hotels.com, Booking|
|Four Seasons Hotel $$$$||Hotels.com, Booking|
|The Maybourne Beverly Hills $$$||Hotels.com, Booking|
|AKA Beverly Hills $$||Hotels.com, Booking|
|Short Stories Hotel $$||Hotels.com, Booking|
For this itinerary, if you spend an extra day and want to do Venice Beach, it’s much nicer to just go over the evening before and stay the night! This way you don’t have to worry about packing up in the morning and driving over with traffic and instead can have the whole morning and early afternoon to enjoy the area. Plus parking is kind of frustrating, so it’ll be easier to leave your car at your hotel and bike from there.
|Hotels in Venice Beach||Where to Book|
|Hotel Erwin $$$||Hotels.com, Booking|
|Venice V Hotel $$$||Hotels.com, Booking|
|Samesun Venice Beach $$||Hotels.com, Booking|
|Inn at Venice Beach $$||Hotels.com, Booking|
|Podshare Venice||Hotels.com, Booking|
It’s almost always hot and sunny (and often smoggy)
Listen, if you go to LA in November and the weather map tells you it’s going to be 50-60F, it’s lying. Chances are it’ll be 90F and if you only bring clothes appropriate for weather 30 degrees cooler, you will sweat your butt off. Take it from me!
Also keep in mind LA smog is a real thing, and probably added to my feelings of exhaustion by the end of our road trip. Shocker – a city where everyone drives and traffic is a guarantee is also home to some of the worst air quality in the country!
What to wear
LA is a very casual city. Unless you’re going to a fancy bar at night, it’s really all about easy, breezy outfits. Elissa joked that if you really want to blend in just wear athleisure everywhere. Each time I’ve been, I’ve always worn casual outfits and never once felt underdressed or overdressed. Keep in mind, LA is a tourist hotspot, so you’ll see everyone in all types of outfits no matter where you go!
How to Spend 3-4 Days in Los Angeles
And now for my LA itinerary guide!
Day 1: Arrival to LA
Hike to Griffith’s Observatory
I’m going to assume you’re not arriving to LA early in the morning but more towards the middle of the day! If this is the case, the first thing you do once you settle-in is to change into some hiking clothes and head over to Griffith’s Observatory for a little hike to stretch your legs. The observatory is on the south side of Mount Hollywood and is pretty iconic. You probably recognize it best from La La Land or, more recently, Adele’s comeback special.
The observatory itself was named after its benefactor, Griffith J. Griffith. While you can go inside, really the coolest part is wandering around outside and taking in the insane views over the LA skyline.
I wish we’d realized that you can still access Griffith Park and wander around the observatory even if it’s closed. The opening times are pretty narrow (Friday – Sunday) and of course the crowds are too much. In fact, I didn’t even get out of my car when we went! Sher just hopped out and ran around, and I circled until she was done. That’s how frustrating the parking was!
If you hike, though, it’s much easier. There are a few various trails (just check AllTrails) or you can book a guide with this hiking tour. You’ll have someone to lead you and tell you more about LA’s history.
Grab either Mexican or Korean for dinner
Once you’re done with Griffith’s Observatory, head back to your hotel get cleaned up and then head into the city for dinner! You could stick around Beverly Hills or La Brea or head more into the city around Koreatown. There are at least two types of cuisines you’ll want to try in LA – Korean and Mexican (I might just be biased). Either head to El Cholo for tacos or Ahgassi Gopchang for Korean BBQ. I haven’t tried either personally, but when I asked Elissa for some restaurant recommendations, she listed both of these spot.
Day 2: Major Sightseeing
See Hollywood Boulevard for yourself
One of the must-see spots on a first visit to LA? Hollywood Boulevard, aka the street with all the stars. I’m going to be honest – it’s not that great. Think of Times Square in NYC. You get there and it’s kind of cool for about a minute and then you’re like, “Ok what else?” Not to mention because it’s such a tourist hot spot, there are tons of tour operators vying for your attention and homeless people asking for spare change. It’s also frankly kind of dirty.
However, beneath this grimy exterior is a street teeming with Tinseltown history. Practically every building has multiple stories going back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and it’s pretty fun to imagine what kind of craziness this street has seen.
With that said, go with a tour guide. I cannot recommend this enough. Go with someone who can regale you with stories about what went on in this building or how all the old time celebrities, decked out in their Oscars gowns, had dinner at this restaurant before the show. When I worked on my post about Hollywood Boulevard, I found myself wishing I wasn’t finding out all this information after the fact!
Here are some tours worth looking at:
Parking: If you’re like us and drove over to Hollywood Boulevard, don’t worry. There are plenty of parking garages. Park at one by the Pantages Theatre as that’s a good starting point!
Get a cool view of the famous sign at Hollywood Lake Park
If you do a Griffith’s Hike on the first day, you’re probably going to encounter the famous Hollywood sign. But if not, or if you want to visit when you’re not sweat from a hike, then drive on over to Hollywood Lake Park! It’s not too long of a drive, and it gives you a few really cool views of the sign.
Just a warning – the street leading up gets very narrow and winding. When you park on the side of the road, don’t forget your emergency break! I’d say the best view is in the little grassy park area (so skip past the dirt area a lot of people will be taking photos from).
Get lunch at Guisados
Once you’ve gotten your pics at the Hollywood sign, find a Guisados on the way back to your hotel. We stayed in downtown LA, so the one we stopped at was on Sunset Boulevard. It’s nice but pretty small and had very limited parking with one of those lots that’s hard to pull out of if you can’t park anywhere. If you stay in Beverly Hills, there’s one on Santa Monica Boulevard and one on S Linden Drive.
Not a taco fan? There’s also a Din Tai Fung on Santa Monica Boulevard where you can get the most delicious xiao long bao!
Once you’ve eaten, relax and freshen back up at your hotel and leave your car with valet for the night!
Spend the evening in Downtown LA
Downtown LA is honestly one of my least favorite areas for now. There’s kind of a weird vibe going on as this part of town is gentrifying rapidly while not properly helping the equally rapidly growing homeless population. I don’t know. I feel like I ought to give it another chance someday but much more rested and wearing more weather-appropriate clothes.
Like Hollywood Boulevard there’s a lot of history and really cool architecture in this part of town that goes beyond Tinseltown history. So while I don’t recommend staying here, I do think spending at least an afternoon or evening is worth it.
Just take an Uber in so you don’t have to worry about parking and maybe do a tour so you have someone who can provide more cultural and historic insight!
Some tours that looked interesting:
- Old and New DTLA Walking Tour
- DTLA Architecture Walking Tour
- Private DTLA Architecture Tour
- DTLA Food Tour
- Private DTLA Foodie Tour
When we went, we hit three main areas in the evening:
When getting your Lyft or Uber, have them drop you off at this building from 1893. Its name comes from the gold-mining millionaire Lewis L. Bradbury and is still used for various offices and buildings. The real architectural gem is in the inside, and in normal times you can go in on the first floor to see the gorgeous cast-iron filigree balustrades that line the stairs and halls of all five floors. Unfortunately, things are still closed to tourists for now, so we only managed a peak through the window!
Grand Central Market
This is where you’ll get dinner! Right across the street from the Bradbury Building is Grand Central Market, which has been a mainstay in DTLA since 1917. Situated in a Beaux-Arts building, it’s full of various food vendors of just about any cuisine you could imagine. We pretty much beelined for Sticky Rice, a Thai comfort food stand, and then I tried the vegan ramen spot, Ramen Hood. Elissa also let me know The Donut Man opened up a stall there as well, but by the time I finished my ramen, I was too full for anything else.
I will note that when I posted about Grand Central Market on my stories, a friend replied disappointedly that she can’t believe how quickly the market has gentrified and how it used to be a mecca of Hispanic and Asian hole-in-the-wall vendors as little has half a decade ago but changed the minute Eggslut was added. There’s a really interesting article from LA Mag if you want to dive in more.
The Last Bookstore
I wish I had words to explain how obsessed I am with this bookstore. I mean, I’m a pretty big sucker for bookstores in general, but this has to be one of the coolest. This was the last thing we did on our last full day in California, and it felt like I’d been revived when I exited with my newly purchased book, Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa.
The Last Bookstore has been around since 2005 when it was initially founded by Jos Spencer in a DTLA loft. Today it’s two floors and sells over 250k books both used and new. There’s literally a whole wall of cheap used books that if you’d given me the whole afternoon, I’d probably have sat there and looked at every single one. Seriously do not skip!
Day 3: Beverly Hills
Morning – Getty Villa
After grabbing breakfast, drive over to the gorgeous Getty Villa on the Malibu coast! Hands down this is one of my favorite places in Los Angeles and I’ve been twice over my visits. (It helps that it’s also Elissa’s favorite place in LA, so she’s always down to go).
Not to be confused with the Getty Museum, the Getty Villa was designed after the museum ran out of room with his art collection. Its design is mainly based off the Villa dei Papyri in Italy and is absolutely stunning. Enjoy the various art collections as well as the gardens.
Just be sure to reserve your spot in advance. Even before these times, they limited the number of people so everyone can enjoy the grounds in peace. Tickets are free but parking is $20.
After the Getty Villa, head over to The Grove. Technically it’s just a shopping complex, but it’s really pretty and partially outdoors. I remember going on my first trip with Elissa and her sister, and it was just nice to stroll and do some window shopping. (Also why you guys are getting a circa 2015 style TSGA photo lol).
Plus this is a great spot to get lunch as it’s home to the historic Farmers Market, which has been around since 1880. On your way out grab some cupcakes from Sprinkles!
Parking: There are a few different parking options, but you’ll most likely want the self-parking option. The Grove has a parking structure off Fairfax Avenue that is $2 for the first hour all the way up to $30 for a daily maximum. Double check with restaurants or stores to see if they have complimentary parking. Also if you spend over $250, go to Caruso Concierge and you can get free parking as well.
LACMA & the La Brea Tar Pits
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is still one of those art museums still on my list! It’s just always slightly out of the way for my LA trips, so cross fingers next time I finally make it there and the famous La Brea Tar Pits.
LACMA itself is probably most recognizable from the Urban Lights exhibit at the Wilshire Boulevard entrance. This exhibit, which is an Instagrammer fav, comprises of 202 restored street lamps from the 20s and 30s. This exhibit is free but the museum itself requires tickets purchased in advance.
As for the La Brea Tar Pits, they just look so random and cool! There have been over a hundred excavation done at these asphalt pits, and these fossils, which range from mammoths to sloths and more, are all on display in the museum.
Parking: Parking for LACMA is at the Pritzker Parking Garage on 6th St. and is $18 or $10 after 8PM while parking for La Brea Tar Pits is between Curson Ave and 6th Street. There’s also metered street parking around, but watch the time limits! The two spots are literally a 6-minute walk from each other, so I’m assuming you can parking in one and walk back after you’ve done both sites. (If you go, let me know if they have time limits on parking!)
Drive over to Venice Beach
Once you’ve finished with LACMA and the main part of LA, head over to your Venice Beach hotel for your final night and day! I’m putting my main things to do in Venice Beach below, but feel free to adjust depending on how much time you have in the afternoon and evening on Day 3 and when you fly out on Day 4. Our flights were around 2/3 PM, so we were able to have most of the morning in Venice Beach.
Day 4: Venice Beach
This time about a 120 years ago, Venice Beach was founded as an independent resort town! It’s only about a 20-minute drive from the main areas of LA and a nice way to end your Los Angeles itinerary. The name is obviously inspired by the Italy’s Venice and the founder, Abbot Kinney, even had canals built. Though this was also for practical reasons as the land for Venice Beach was very marshy.
I recommend staying here your final night to have a little more quiet than what LA will offer on its own and to enjoy the area! There are a few ways to do it from walking to surfing and more, but here are some tips from my very brief morning there.
Tours for Venice Beach
- Ultimate Venice Beach experience
- Venice Beach Surf Lessons
- Santa Monica & Venice Beach Ebike Tour
- Venice Beach Private Walking Tour
Brunch at Great White
One of the fun breakfast spots in Venice Beach is Great White. It’s very popular, so I’d make sure to make a reservation, especially if you’re here on a weekend morning. Everywhere has a sizable wait time for weekend brunch times! Great White has a really delicious menu and focuses on seasonal, organic produce from California. Highly recommend the breakfast burrito as well as the salmon mezze board and the shaken iced latte!
Bike around the canals
We didn’t have enough time, so all I did was catch a quick glimpse of the Venice Canals. But if you have more time, I’ do some sort of boardwalk and canals tour!
Shop and eat along Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Afterwards I’d stop in at the different restaurants, cafes, and shop along the palm-tree-lined Abbot Kinney Boulevard named, of course, after Venice Beach’s founder. In normal times, there’s a fun food truck event every first Friday of the month! Keep an eye here for its return.
And there you go! All my best tips for planning a solid Los Angeles itinerary for first time visitors. It hits all the “must-sees” as well as some more underrated gems and, most importantly, hits all the best spots for food. Let me know if you have any questions or even more recommendations below!
for more california travel
- How to Plan the Perfect Santa Barbara Weekend Escape
- 27 Unique Things to Do in Santa Barbara
- 18 Fun Things to Do in Truckee in the Summer
- Going to San Francisco for the First Time?
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