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20+ Unmissable Things to Do in Los Angeles For First Timers

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You’ve seen the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles, California in endless movies, TV shows, and music videos, and you don’t need me to tell you there are hundreds, if not thousands, of things to do in LA.

With year round clear blue skies, blissful beaches, arid mountains, and encompassing desert landscapes, there is something for everyone in the world’s most famous metropolitan.

LA takes a bit of getting used to. You may love it or hate it immediately, or like me, need a few visits before you can start to appreciate it.

Its diversity is to be celebrated and admired and there is something to suit everyone in this city.

But if it’s your first time visit to LA and you’re not sure what attractions to add to your list, then this guide shares the most unmissable sites and landmarks you need to check out.

Hollywood sign
Table Of Contents

Unmissable Things to do in Los Angeles

1. Hit the beaches

family walking on pier of Manhattan Beach, California
Manhattan Beach Pier

The first place I recommend a first timer check out is LA is the beach. This is where you will find a laid back, surf culture and a bustling community, but without it feeling overwhelming.

I also don’t think the beaches in LA are overly spectacular, but they can fun places to hang out regardless, and it will ease you into the chaos of the city gently – which you’ll need if you haven’t visited the city before.

First thing to be aware of, the Pacific Ocean is always cold off the coast of California. I never swim in the ocean here as it’s too cold for me!

Some of our favorite beaches are:

South Bay Beaches

girl bike riding along the beach
Manhattan Beach

The South Bay Beaches are our favorite beaches, which are not far from the airport.

We generally skip LA now and head straight down to Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach and it is well worth staying here for a few days.

The sunsets on the beaches are worth the trip alone. Make sure you stop for a sundowner at one of the many beer gardens along the Hermosa promenade.

If you enjoy beach volleyball then Manhattan Beach and Hermosa are the best places to have a friendly game. They call Manhattan Beach the Volleyball Capital of the World.

We love to ride along the beach promenade between Manhattan and Hermosa (you can even go further: north to Marina Del Rey and South to Redondo Beach)

Santa Monica and Venice

view of Santa Monica Beach LA
Santa Monica Beach LA

We are not great fans of Santa Monica. It feels too touristy, stale and manufactured (we much prefer the Santa Monica mountains), however it’s one of the most iconic beach neighborhoods so we can’t miss it off this list!

I haven’t spent enough time to get under its skin and discover the local flavors. Many people have told me how underwhelming they found it and were disappointed by it.

That being said, there are lots of tourists who love it, and if you have the time and you’ve not visited LA before, it’s worth going and seeing for yourself. At least ride the iconic Santa Monica Ferris Wheel and tick if off your bucket list!

Malibu Beach

Malibu Beach with green hills behind it
Malibu Beach

I possibly don’t appreciate the beaches in Malibu enough. I do however love the quieter vibe here and the soft golden sand.

It is very local and undeveloped due to several restrictions.

Malibu is a small strip of beach front land that is bordered by state park and protected natural areas. This is where its appeal lies to me.

The surrounding natural beauty is just divine.

2. Drive the Palos Verdes Drive

people standing on the edge of the cliff Palos Verdes Scenic Drive
Palos Verdes Scenic Drive

It’s well worth taking the time to do the scenic Palos Verdes Drive.

The drive starts just south of Redondo on the South Bay Beaches. It’s a 14 mile scenic drive through quiet neighborhoods and along windy roads to view craggy cliffs, wide sandy beaches, and stunning viewpoints.

I’d love to come back and enjoy a few of the cliff face hiking trails along the way here. The girls just weren’t cooperating with a few walks. They wanted to get into the city!

It’s worth stopping off to see the Wayfarers Chapel, a full glass chapel in a redwood grove with ocean views. Almost enough to send me back to Sunday mass!

3. Bike ride to Venice Beach

people riding bikes along venice beach
Bike to Venice Beach

Venice Beach is eclectic madness. Be papered for whiffs of marijuana. and homelessness. Many people report unsavory sightings here.

I kind of like it’s psychedelic ambiance that’s trapped in the hippy free love movement of the sixties. However, I never spend long here. Enough for a cycle in from Santa Monica (which is awesome) a quick poke around, and time to watch the basketballers and skaters.

There was this young maybe 9 year old girl absolutely slaying it when we last visited. The girls and I loved watching her.

4. Drink Craft Beer at The Dudes Brewing Company

On the top level of Santa Monica Place is the Dudes Brewery.

We only knew about it as we were meeting our blogging friend Spencer Spellman. I enjoyed it. It was family friendly and had plenty of games on hand for the kids to play (or you).

The girls could go for a wonder in the mall while we chatted with Spencer. They have gizmos or take one of our phones with them for extra security.

The beer was really good with a huge variety of locally brewed craft beer, and the pizza and wing dinner we had was gorgeous. There is a seating area outside and close by are the views of Santa Monica.

More tips for visiting Venice Beach:

  • There is Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade – neither of which we can rave about for you. Sorry!
  • The beaches north of the pier seem a bit nicer and not as populated.
  • Apparently the farmers markets are great in Santa Monica – one for us to come back for.
  • We’ve heard the Venice canals are worth exploring by foot or bike.

Video of Beaches in LA

Want to see what the beaches in LA are like? Here is our video of our favorite ones!

5. Wander around Malibu Creek State Park

girls looking at creek and mountains in Malibu Beach State Park
Malibu Beach State Park

You could easily be mistaken for thinking you have landed somewhere in Ireland with those verdant green rolling hills, or Asia with its craggy peaks and canyons.

Malibu Creek State Park has oodles of wow factor.

So you can imagine what the landscape is like, M*A*S*H was filmed her – not in Korea like you may have thought.

The absolute highlight of the week of me and one of my favorite state parks on our trip so far. I wish we had more time to explore more and hike out to the M*AS*H* filming site ( 5 miles return) We weren’t prepared.

Take the canyon road out to Malibu from here, it is quite dramatic.

6. Do the Malibu Movie Stars Tour

cher's home behind gates in malibu
Cher’s $100+ million malibu home

Celebrities love having a home here (or two!) You’ll be stunned by the opulence of their sometime beach residence. How could you spend several million dollars on a property that often sits vacant!!

In Malibu the homes are not hidden by privacy fences like in Hollywood. If you love this sort of thing, then you’ll love gawking at the homes of the rich and famous.

Things to do in Hollywood Area

I’ve always kind of turned my nose up at Hollywood because it’s so touristy, but it is for a reason.

On our last trip with the girls, we embraced this side of things as Kalyra has dreams to win an Oscar one day.

Surprisingly, I really enjoyed it. That was only because we did a couple of tours to go behind the scenes, otherwise it would have been a quick in and out experience.

They were also setting up for the Oscars while we there there which added an element of excitement.

7. Do the Hollywood Behind the Scenes Tour (Red Line Tours)

people walking onHollywood Walk of Fame
Kalyra

This 75 minute behind the scenes walking tour turned my opinion on Hollywood and gave it more meaning.

Without it, it just would have been a few stars with some name on the sidewalk and some hand printed in the cement.

The tour took us down Hollywood Boulevard and the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Because of those tour we learned of the traditions behind this and how the whole celebrity stardom thing happened – with one man’s dream to change the local Hollywood residents’ opinion of the actors and actresses who weren’t really anybody back at the time.

Sid Grauman changed all of that and put the stars in our eyes. It was an interesting tour taking in the Hollywood locations that tell the story.

It also took us to the Egyptian Theatre, which is known as the birthplace of red carpet premieres. 

Just a few blocks away is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. This isn’t included in the tour but it’s worth stopping by after to see where some of the biggest stars have their final resting place.

8. See hand prints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

tom hanks handrpints in the concrete
Chinese Theater

Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater, in front of the Dolby Theatre, is where you’ll find your favorite starts hand and footprints in the cement.

Stars only receive this special accolade if one of their films have been shown at the theater.

Each star will leave behind something signature about them as well whether it’s a saying or a particular imprint.

For example, the Harry Potter crew left imprints of their wands.

The theater itself is one of the most highly acclaimed in the city, and has even hosted the Academy Award on a few occasions.

Things to do in the Hollywood Hills

9. Hike Griffith Park

people hiking in griffith park with views of la
Griffith park hiking trail views

Griffith Park is one of the largest urban wilderness municipal parks in the US.

Its location in the eastern Santa Monica mountain range with its deep canyons, native plants, arid climate and stunning LA views makes it a place you do not want to miss when you visit LA.

I fell in love with it!

Griffith Park offers numerous attractions, an assortment of educational and cultural institutions, and miles of hiking and horseback riding trails. There is also the Griffith Observatory and Greek Theater.

I want to come back and explore many of its fabulous hiking trails. We did the short Hollywood Trail to the summit of Mt Hollywood.

The views here were spectacular, both out to the Hollywood sign and looking back over Griffith Park, the observatory and Downtown LA.

We didn’t make it to the sign – it was much longer to get all the way there.

The LA Sightseeing Pass includes guided hikes out here if you did not want to do it yourself. It’s perfectly safe and enjoyable to do it solo though.

10. Hike Runyon Canyon Park

views of LA from Runyon Park Canyon trail
Runyon Park Canyon

This is a popular place for hiking as it backs onto Mulholland Drive on one end and West Hollywood on the other. There are plenty of paved trails winding up and down the hills filled with runners, walkers and dogs.

We came from the Mulholland Drive section and walked to a couple of different viewpoints spending time to spy on Katy Perry’s swimming pool. We knew which one was her house thanks to our Celebrity homes tour last week.

Video of Hikes to do in LA

We love hiking in LA! Here is a video of our favorite hikes in the city…

11. Take in a concert at The Greek Amphitheater

Years ago, we were lucky enough to be in town when Ben Harper was playing at the Greek Amphitheater.

Of course we went. And I loved this music venue. An outdoor, small intimate stadium surrounded by trees in the picturesque hills of Griffith Park

12. See views from The Getty Center

Getty Museum gardens with LA syline in the background
Getty Museum Los Angeles views

The Getty Center sits atop a hill in Brentwood, Los Angeles and is reached via a three car cable pulled tram from the bottom car park.

The museum specializes in artworks, but way more interesting to us was the architecture of the building, the views and the beautiful sculptured gardens that surround the museum.

It’s worth a visit just for this alone.

We’re not big art or museum people so found this a little boring, but art lovers will rave about it.

The collections feature paintings, decorative arts, photography, and sculptures from medieval times. to the 21st century. There wasn’t enough modern art for me and the photography hall was closed.

It’s one of the best free things to do in LA, although parking is pricey, so you may want to get there another way.

Things to do in the West Hollywood Area

13. Visit The Original Farmers Market

Since 1934 the Farmer’s Market has been serving locals with a collection of restaurants, food stalls and gourmet shops.

It’s a good place to rest awhile although I didn’t find it as good this time around.

Possibly because I have since visited a lot of farmers markets and have more to compare it to.

There are tons of farmers markets in LA so research the region you are visiting to find when and where.

14. Relax at Bluestone Lane Cafe

coffee in la
Bluestone Lane Coffee, West Hollywood

Bluestone Lane Coffee is a unique concept – it’s both a coffee shop and flower shop. It’s our go to coffee when we visit New York and now they are springing up all over LA.

Their coffee is still exceptional, as was their lemon cake to go with it. I especially loved the Aussie artwork painted on the outside of the West Hollywood location.

They even have a restaurant at this one that I’d love to return to and check out.

15. Walk along the Sunset Strip

sunset bouleveard sign

Sunset Boulevard is one of the most famous streets in Los Angeles and is well known for its entertainment offerings.

At night, head to one of the famous live music venues such as the Whiskey A Go Go, The Viper Room, or The Roxy Theater.

If comedy is more your thing, head to The Comedy Store or Laugh Factory.

The strip is the place where you can discover rising stars before their famous.

Also, a great place to get views of the famous Hollywood Sign is from the Home Depot parking garage on Sunset Boulevard. There will be much fewer people spoiling your photos!

16. Check Out Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

If you’re an art lover, take a trip over to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Not only is the museum free, but it’s the largest art museum in the western United States.

It contains a collection of nearly 152,000 objects from around the world, spanning more than 6,000 years of history.

There are always temporary and rotating exhibits, so every time you visit there is something new to see.

Things to do in Beverly Hills

Style and luxury travelers will want to visit Beverly Hills.

It’s great to drive around and just look at the opulence. I love how certain streets all have a particular tree planted to form an avenue of trees.

17. Walk down Rodeo Drive

girls looking in window Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills
A popular LA attraction

Rodeo Drive is the place to visit without your wallet, unless of course you have oodles to spare – like $750,000 for a designer suit at House of Bijan!

It is worth a visit just to see how the beautiful and wealthy people shop. You just never know who you might run into window shopping in the ritzy designer label stores. Besides, it is a beautiful street.

Why not pop into the Four Seasons for a drink to top of the luxury experience?

18. Take a tour of the Movie Star Homes

hedged balcony of beyonces home in beverly hills
Another popular tour of LA

You’ll be seeing a lot of privacy fences on a celebrity homes tour of the Hollywood Hills and Beverly Hills area.

Years ago, we drove it ourselves with a self-guided tour map and didn’t really see anything. I don’t recommend you do it this way. Local knowledge is always the best knowledge.

On this trip with the girls, we joined a guided tour. It was so much better. We actually saw way more than I thought we would.

We were able to go into the exclusive neighborhood of Bel Air and help Kalyra’s dream of one day owning a house like Beyoncé’s and Jay Z’s with a guest house for her Mumma!

I also loved driving along Mulholland drive and looking out over the valleys and Beverly Hills gated communities.

It was so beautiful and helped me to appreciate LA more. I got the allure of living in this city.

Things to Do in Universal City & Burbank

Universal City pretty much is home to Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal CityWalk, and nearby Burbank is where you’ll find the historic and popular Warner Bros Studios.

The Go Los Angeles Attraction Card includes both attractions below and so could offer you good savings. Especially if you combine them with other LA attractions

19. Do the Warner Bros Studio Tour Hollywood

family sitting on Friends Couch Warner Bros Studios LA
Friends Couch Warner Bros Studios LA

The backlot tour takes you through New York, Chicago, France and Connecticut. And any other place you can think if really.

It’s amazing how they can cleverly recreate any place on earth. Even parts of Jurassic Park were filmed here.

You do this Warner Bros Studio Tour and you soon realize, everything is FAKE! It’s still fun though, and one of the best things to do in Los Angeles with kids.

I enjoyed seeing the Gilmore Girls square and Savannah was excited to stand on the Fuller House steps.

You can tour one of the sound stages. It was interesting to see the attention to detail that is given for all set designs.

I was hoping to see something a little more exciting, but they can’t really take you into a sound studio where filming is happening. We went into the Lethal Weapon one. Not so thrilling for us.

This is where Friends was filmed for 10 years – not NYC! and at the end you can sit on the Friends couch and pretend you were on the show. You know you and your friends were just like them when you came together one night every week to watch the latest episode.

It’s still so loved 10 years later it finished!

Ellen is also filmed out here and The Big Bang Theory is in its last season.

girl puttin gon harry potter sorting hat warner bros los angeles
The sorting hat

You can visit archive rooms to see costumes and props from Harry Potter and Batman films, You even get to try the sorting hat. Kalyra and Savannah got Gryffindor, I was Hufflepuff and Craig was Slytherin.

If you’re fascinated with the movie industry then you’ll find this tour worth it. If you’re tight on budget and nonplussed, I’d skip it.

20. Spend a day at Universal Studios

man holding Butter beer in Universal Studios
Love butter beer

For a day of movies, rides and entertaining shows, why not head to Universal Studios, which is just north of Hollywood (over the hills!) You’ll appreciate the views over the valley from here.

It’s not as big as Universal Studios Orlando, which makes it easy to do in a day and gives it a more relaxed vibe. Although I still prefer Universal Orlando.

Don’t miss the backlot tour here and the Mummy ride is fun. Of course there is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Grabbing a butterbeer and going on the Forbidden Journey are the first two things we do at Universal.

Video of Universal Studios Hollywood

You can watch our experience of Universal Studios in Hollywood in the following video…

Things to Do in Downtown LA

people looking at view Perch Rooftop Bar Downtown La
Perch rooftop bar

Downtown LA is does not have the same reputation it had 20 years ago. The revitalization here has bought a hip and edgy city full of artistic vibrancy and cool things to do.

In fact, it’s one of my favorite neighborhoods in Los Angeles – it offers everything you want from a metropolis but without the crowds.

It hasn’t been discovered enough YET!

There’s not a huge amount of attractions here, so you could explore the neighborhood in a day. Here’s a quick list of things not to miss in Downtown LA

  • Check out The Last Bookstore
  • Walking around the Arts District
  • Grand Central Market
  • Watch a concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall
  • Every 2nd Thursday of the month, downtown LA comes alive with the Downtown Art Walk. It’s a great time to visit and be sure to check out the many parking lots full of food trucks.

How to Save Money on Los Angeles Attractions

If you plan on doing a few attractions in LA, I recommend you get yourself a Sightseeing Pass.

It’s a city discount card, which will save you money on several big name attractions, including several we listed above.

We use them in all major cities we visit (See New York and New Orleans and San Francisco). We have found they can be a great saving tool when you travel, especially if you travel with kids.

An alternative is the Go Los Angeles Attraction Card. This allows you to save up to 50% off retail prices on admission to over 30 top attractions and tours including Universal Studios Hollywood, Madame Tussauds and more.

If you are visiting multiple cities in the USA, a USA Sightseeing Pass may work better for you. 

How to Get Around Los Angeles

Downtown LA street art of gigantic hand

The best way to get around LA is to drive. The best thing to do is pick a neighborhood, drive there, park up, and explore on foot.

If you don’t drive, rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft are widely used and safe.

The Metro is a great choice for Hollywood and Universal Studios, and for coastal neighborhoods, biking and walking are more popular.

Parking in LA

Parking in LA was not as bad as I was anticipating. Other cities in the US will charge more.

  • Down on the beach in Santa Monica down you can find parking in their beach lots for $7 – $18 a day.
  • Hollywood & Highland shopping center on Hollywood Blvd offers $20 for the day if you get the ticket validated at a store inside. (Tip: the Visitor Center can validate it!)
  • Malibu has free parking everywhere.

Top tip: You can find parking, and the prices, by checking out Parkopedia.com. It’s free to use, and has live updates!

LA metro light rail and bus lines

You can ride the metro to most places in LA. You can even make connections that will take you as far as Santa Barbara and San Diego, and with traffic, it may be a far better option.

The TAP card is a reusable transit-fare card that can be used at 26 LA transit agencies, making it easy to ride Metro alternatives. It can be purchased and loaded with fare at Metro stations and local vendors Check taptogo.net for more

You can use the Metro’s itinerary planner to help you map your routes.

We did not experience the metro on our last trip, but we had many years previous.

Bike sharing

There are Metro Bike Shares located all over the city and outside many Metro Stops. It’s available 24/7 and costs $1.75 per 30 minutes.

You can also purchase a day pass ($5 for unlimited trips free trips for 30 minutes or less.)

That means every 30 minutes you have to check your bike in and swap it with another. It will cost $1.75 per 30 minutes if you go over the 30 minute free trip limit.

You can rent bikes down by Santa Monica beach for around $20 a day. You can also rent a bike here for $45 a day to explore all of LA.

The scooter sharing programs are now popular and can be found all over the city.

For nervous bikers, perhaps a bike tour may be more your style:

Where to Stay in LA

Downtown Los Angeles skyline with orange sunset
The Gorgeous Ace Hotel Downtown LA

There are endless choices on where to stay in LA, and choosing accommodation is usually the hardest part when it comes to planning a trip.

When deciding on a neighborhood, consider how long your trip will be and which areas you’ll spend more time in.

Below are some recommendations for places we’ve enjoyed on our trips to LA…

Manhattan and Hermosa Beaches

There aren’t a lot of hotel choices here. Airbnb may be a better option

Hollywood and Universal City

  • The Garland Located in North Hollywood near Universal Studios it offers retro cool rooms on a seven acre shaded property.
  • Hilton Los Angeles – One block from Universal (with free shuttles) and a short trip to Hollywood, this is a great family hotel option.

Beverly Hills and Westside Glamor

  • Kimpton Hotel Wilshire – a sleek boutique hotel located near Beverly Hills, The Grove and LACMA. Rooftop pool and views await. We stayed at a Kimpton in Huntington Beach which we loved!
  • Hotel Bel-Air – Located in a tranquil wooded hills setting, this exclusive luxury accommodation will give you a taste of the celebrity life.
  • Four Seasons Beverly Hills for the ultimate celebrity like accommodation. Remember Pretty Woman? This is the hotel. It’s just off Rodeo Drive

Downtown LA

Art and culture lovers and business travelers will want to stay in Downtown LA

  • The NoMad Hotel Los Angeles  Downtown LA’s historic Giannini Building, the NoMad Los Angeles features several on-site dining options and a rooftop pool.
  • The Ace Hotel – this hotel in the historic United Artists Building gets my vote. I especially LOVE the rooftop pool and sunset views.
  • Sheraton Grand in the heart of the financial district. Great for business travelers and conference attendees
  • Hotel Indigo you can read our review of this boutique Downtown LA hotel

Final Thoughts

venice beach california

So there you have it, those are the most unmissable things you can do in LA on your first visit.

Please don’t start and end in Hollywood or Santa Monica. There is so much more to the city than its piers, beaches and the world famous sign.

Los Angeles County is the most populous county in the USA and the third largest metropolitan economy in the world!! It has 88 incorporated cities!!

This is a LOT for you to explore.

Each city in LA has its own culture, experiences and local flavors to experience.

I hope that this guide helped you pick out some attractions you’d like to see in LA, CA.

We still have not yet experienced everything there is to do in LA! That’s a lifetime project.

That’s where you come in with your tips! Please leave them in the comments below to help future readers to this post.

Our experiences come from visiting LA multiple times over several years, first as couple travelers and then with kids.

Video of Things to Do in LA

You can watch the video of my travels in LA by clicking play below

Tours of Los Angeles

  • Get your Guide offers many LA tours and attractions. They have lowest prices, guaranteed — no booking fees or hidden charges. You can pre-book tickets and skip the line at top attractions and cancel up to 24 hours before. See what LA tours are available here.

More California Travel Tips

Planning on visiting other parts of California? Here are some other travel guides that might be useful to you.

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Looking for Los Angeles travel tips? Check out these things to see and do for your trip to LA

What are you most looking forward to on your trip to LA? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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