For years, Los Angeles was a dream destination for me and topped my United States travel bucket list. After all, between the sunny weather, restaurants, and endless amount of things to do, it’s hard not to want to visit. If you’ve never been to the City of Angels, this blog post gives you the best things to do for your first time in Los Angeles.
- In addition to giving you rec’s for things to do, I have also included a section on Where to Stay and How to Get Around in LA below!
When I was a child, one of my fondest memories is sitting on my mom’s bed while she got ready for the day. She always had the E! network on, and I would sit there and watch countless E! True Hollywood Stories about Anna Nicole Smith, Destiny’s Child, and Jennifer Lopez. I loved when the camera would show panoramic video clips of L.A. from way up in the sky. Growing up in West Virginia, none of that stuff seemed real to me. It was almost like Los Angeles was this make-believe, intangible world that didn’t actually exist.
I finally got to experience Los Angeles for myself when I was 26 years old, and it was everything I imagined it would be. I think I still saw it from the same magical, fairytale perspective that I did as a little girl. Despite being someone who falls in love with many places when I travel, there are certain moments from certain places that will forever stand out in my mind. For me, one of those moments will always be seeing the Hollywood sign for the first time.
Website Disclaimer: I most recently visited Los Angeles in April 2023. Although everything is accurate as of the publication of this post, it is important to keep in mind that prices, attractions, and other things may change with time.
Photo Disclaimer: A lot of these photos were taken back when I first visited Los Angeles in 2016 and had a lower-quality camera. However, I still wanted to include them in this post because they are relevant to the content.
The Best Things to do in Los Angeles for First-Timers
1. See the Hollywood Sign from the Griffith Observatory
In Los Angeles, there are 2 main places** that you get a really good view of the Hollywood sign: The Griffith Observatory and the The Hollywood & Highland Center, aka Ovation Hollywood. I recommend seeing it from the Griffith Observatory, hence the title of this section, but I will give you the pros and cons to each.
- **I have also read that you can see the Hollywood sign really well from Lake Hollywood Park, although I have never been there. I like telling people to see it from the Observatory or the H&H Center because I know there is a lot to do at both places, so seeing the Hollywood sign is an added bonus.
1. The Griffith Observatory
The Griffith Observatory is an observatory and planetarium located in Griffith Park, near East Hollywood. There are a few reasons I recommend seeing the Hollywood sign from here:
- You are way closer to the sign than you are at H&H Center -> since the Griffith Observatory is perched so high up on the mountain, the sign is much closer than seeing it from H&H.
- The views from the Observatory are unmatched -> aside from seeing the Hollywood sign, the views of Los Angeles from the top of Griffith Park are incredible. My favorite time to get there is right before the sun is setting, because you get to watch the entire city light up as it gets dark.
- You can explore the Observatory -> seeing the Hollywood sign, seeing the city of LA come to life at night, looking up at the stars through the (free!) telescopes, walking through the planetarium…there is so much you can do at the Griffith Observatory. If you were really into astrology, you could absolutely spend hours here.
- The Hollywood sign is NOT illuminated at night, so make sure you get here while it’s still somewhat light out.
- It is FREE to get into the Griffith Observatory, use the telescopes, and walk the grounds (but, there is a fee to see the planetarium).
Pro Tip: I would recommend Ubering here. Parking at the Observatory is a nightmare. If you truly desire to drive yourself, you are able to park along the side of the road if you can find a spot, or there are also a couple parking lots throughout the park. Once you park, you will have to walk up a hill to get to the Observatory.
2. The Hollywood & Highland Center/Ovation Hollywood
The Hollywood & Highland Center is an entertainment, dining, and shopping center on the same street as the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Its name has been recently changed to Ovation Hollywood, but because you can find it listed under both names online, I am including both for the time being.
Ovation Hollywood is a massive, 3-story complex with two large pillars and an archway built in the center towards the back. This will be where the best view of the Hollywood sign is.
Be mindful, between all the shopping, dining, attractions, and Walk Of Fame, this area is very touristy and can get very crowded. However, if you can’t make it to the Griffith Observatory, this is a great way to kill 2 birds with one stone. You can check out the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood sign, and get some shopping in.
2. Take a Walk Down Rodeo Dr.
If you love the movie Pretty Woman, taking a stroll down Rodeo Dr. is about to be a moment for you. Even if you can’t afford anything, it’s still fun to walk around and pretend you’re Julia Roberts about to blow all of Richard Gere’s money on Prada handbags and Chanel skirts.
Located right near the Beverly Hills sign, Rodeo Drive is about as ritzy as it gets…but there’s more to it than just the expensive stores. The entire street itself is simply beautiful and fun to explore. There are palm trees, brightly colored buildings, and cars you won’t find anywhere else. It is truly what you envision when you hear the words “Beverly Hills.”
The last time I was on Rodeo Drive, I stopped into Philip Plein to look around, knowing I couldn’t buy anything (I’ll confess, it was the giant skull made out of Swarovski crystals that drew me in). While in there, I met the sweetest salesman, Drew, who showed me around the store, let me try on clothes, and taught me that Philip Plein created his legacy by just “doing what he wanted.” Tell me you aren’t inspired!
The Golden Triangle Neighborhood of Beverly Hills
Rodeo Drive is the center of what’s known as the Golden Triangle. It is shaped by 3 major roads: Santa Monica Blvd, Wilshire Blvd, and Cañon Drive. I wanted to mention this because the Golden Triangle has some more affordable shopping and restaurants than what you’ll find on Rodeo.
Towards Cañon Drive and North Beverly Drive, you’ll find an array of boutique shops, restaurants, and open-air cafes. I even stumbled upon a European café there in an alleyway and ate lunch!
3. Check Out Santa Monica Pier
The Santa Monica Pier is a fun, lively boardwalk on the Pacific Ocean with restaurants, carnival rides, live street performers, souvenir vendors, and more. Below, some of the most popular things to do:
- Fish off of the pier – there’s even a bait & tackle shop for your fishing needs!
- Walk the along beach – and if you’ve never been to the Pacific Ocean, know it’s that it’s freezing
- Grab some food and people watch – you are sure to see some interesting characters…
- Ride the rides – best suited for those with kids
- Check out the Heal the Bay Aquarium
- Have a mini-photoshoot – the Pier is very picturesque and a great backdrop for photos!
- Speaking of photos, you must get your photo by the iconic Route 66 sign, located on the Pier!
- Purchase your favorite Cali souvenir at one of the beach shops – there are stores selling t-shirts, kites, beach gear, hats, beach-themed gifts…you get what I’m saying.
- Take a trapeze lesson – you’re braver than me.
Pro Tip: There are also a bunch of other shops and restaurants located within walking distance of Santa Monica Pier that aren’t overly tourist-driven. These are located on and between Broadway St. and Colorado Ave.
4. Find Marilyn Monroe’s Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
When it comes to movie stars, is there anyone more iconically “Hollywood” than Marilyn Monroe? Although seeing the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a must-do if you love movies and TV, most people have at least one famous star that they especially want to find.
For me, that star was Marilyn Monroe’s. Between the fashion, the glamour, the sass, and her unapologetically feminine spirit, Marilyn is everything to me. I had posters, calendars, Christmas ornaments, and even clocks with her on it growing up!
To get to the exact location of Marilyn’s star on the Walk of Fame, you can type in the following address: 6774 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Be on the lookout for a McDonald’s; once you get here, her star is practically right in front of it!
Hollywood Walk of Fame: The Chinese Theater
I couldn’t mention the Hollywood Walk of Fame without also telling you to check out the Chinese Theater! This movie palace is the most iconic in the world, and, on its opening day, was the most spectacular theater opening in motion picture history. To this day, it still hosts frequent movie premiers, along with red carpet shows and events.
In front of the Chinese Theater is the Forecourt of the Stars – a giant area of concrete with numerous handprints, footprints, and signatures of various celebrities permanently etched into the cement. This is one of the most popular areas to visit, and people spend a lot of time looking at the names of all the stars who have frequented the theater. Among the most popular to see are Michael Jackson, the cast of Harry Potter, and – you guessed it – Marilyn Monroe.
5. Take a Day Trip to Malibu
Think of Malibu as Los Angeles’s laid back, super cool cousin. A lot of LA locals go to Malibu when they are sick of LA and want to enjoy California outside of the city. Below, some of the top things to do in Malibu
- Visit Malibu Country Mart – this is a shopping center near Pepperdine University mixed with boutique shops, popular retailers such a Sephora, restaurants, wine tastings, and more. One of the boutique shops – Fred Segal – features Summer Somewhere wines, so you can do a wine tasting while you shop!
- Speaking of wine, do a wine hike – I’ll confess I’ve never done this, but have always wanted to. Malibu has plenty of companies that offer wine hikes and can be tailored to all skill levels. If you do one, LMK in the comments!
- Check out the beach – the beaches in Malibu are beautiful and less crowded than what you will find at Santa Monica Pier. There are numerous places to park on the side of the road and walk the beach. Other places further down the coast give you more direct beach access and have a bar/restaurant on-site, but they will likely charge you more to park (last time I was there, parking was around ~$20).
- Check out a unique beach – El Matador State Beach is a super cool, unique beach in Malibu with caves and rock arches that you are able to explore. It’s also very picturesque, so you’re sure to get some great photos here!
- Dine on the water – Malibu has plenty of nice restaurants that allow waterfront dining. Some of the places that I have been to are Moonshadow Cafe, Geoffrey’s, and Nobu Malibu.
- Tour the Getty Villa, a museum dedicated to Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiques with Roman-style gardens.
6. Grab a Drink at NOBU
If you’ve never been to a Nobu restaurant, now is the time to go. Created by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, it blends Japanese food techniques with Peruvian ingredients and is a worldwide culinary phenomenon.
The main reason that I’m telling you to grab a drink at Nobu is because you are almost guaranteed to see a celebrity. My first time at Nobu, I sat right in front of what was supposedly Kanye West’s table. The waiter informed me that part of the reason celebrities love Nobu so much is because it’s like a safe-space for them. In other words, you aren’t allowed to ask for an autograph or a picture, or you risk getting thrown out by the staff.
You can, of course, eat here too – but the menu is very pricey, especially for the amount of food that you get. Food here is small-plates style and meant to be shared. IMO, I thought the food was good, but they aren’t kidding when they say small plates. If I had Kanye West money, I would give you a much better food review. Instead, I’m gonna stick with my original advice: get a drink (and maybe an appetizer) and celebrity-watch. (Or, keep your sunglasses on and let people think you’re Jennifer Lawrence).
- Pro Tip: There are 2 Nobu locations in LA: Nobu Los Angeles and Nobu Malibu, and celebrities frequent both!
7. Take in the Views From Spire 73 Rooftop Bar
If you are looking for a rooftop bar to relax, sit back, and take in the Los Angeles skyline, this is where you want to go. Spire 73 is the tallest open-air rooftop bar in the Western Hemisphere, and the views are just insane.
Located on the 73rd floor of the InterContinental Los Angeles hotel, this is the rooftop bar that I recommend to everyone when they tell me they’re going to LA. Seeing the entire city from that high of a vantage point was one of the highlights of my trip and something I’ll never forget.
- Pro Tip: Spire 73 is located in downtown Los Angeles. Don’t even attempt to drive and find parking. I always tell people to Uber here!
The drink menu has an extensive list of cocktails, wine, champagne, and beer. They also serve a small selection of entree’s and apps, but I would recommend eating dinner elsewhere and then coming here for a drink after. There are tables along the edge of the rooftop along with firepits closer to the bar, so you are able to still take in the views even if you’re afraid of heights.
- Pro Tip: Make a reservation, even to just get a drink! The tables at the edge of the rooftop are usually reserved.
8. Live Your “Vanderpump Rules” Dreams at SUR and TomTom
You can’t deny that Lisa Vanderpump’s creativity is unmatched. Her first restaurant – SUR – is decorated to embody everything that is ultra-feminine, whereas TomTom is SUR’s sexy, metro masculine counterpart. Together, they reside in West Hollywood in a fun, LGBQT+ section of town near Santa Monica Blvd.
If you want the Vanderpump experience without the Vanderpump television drama, definitely check out these restaurants. I have eaten at both of them and loved what I got, although personally, I like the menu at SUR better. (The menu at TomTom is a little smaller.)
- At SUR, I got the charred Spanish octopus and Distefano burrata salad
- At TomTom, I got the brioche Kobe sliders, truffle fries, and chocolate decadence cake
- For other restaurants with amazing food and aesthetics, check out The Aesthetics: Restaurants, Bars, & Coffee Shops
9. Go Shopping in One of the (Many) Plazas
There are SO many places in Los Angeles to shop, some of which are more affordable than others. Some of my favorite shopping plazas include:
- The Commons at Calabasas
- Farmers Market LA
- The Beverly Center mall
- Ovation Hollywood (as previously mentioned)
- Malibu Country Mart (as previously mentioned)
- Rodeo Drive/Golden Triangle neighborhood (as previously mentioned)
Some other shopping centers I have not been to but I would check out if I went back are:
- The Grove
- The Bloc in Downtown LA
Where to Stay in Los Angeles
At the time of this post, I have been to Los Angeles 4 times. My first time, I stayed with a friend, and my second, I stayed in an AirBNB in West Hollywood. Regardless of where you choose, staying somewhere in West Hollywood is usually what I recommend because it is nicer and safer than most areas in East Hollywood.
In terms of hotels, I have stayed in the Loews Hollywood Hotel which is right near the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Ovation Hollywood. I LOVED staying here because of the location. This area is touristy and can get crowded, but you’re close to a lot of things which cuts back on time you will spend in the car (see next section on Getting Around L.A. below).
The most recent time I went to LA, I stayed at a hotel closer to the airport to save money. I did NOT like staying there because it took forever to get anywhere since I was so far out. I remember leaving and feeling like I spent the majority of my trip in the car.
Getting Around Los Angeles
You may have heard rumors about Los Angeles traffic, and I’ll confirm they’re true. Traffic is awful. Below, my recommendations for getting around:
- Every time I have gone to LA, I have always rented a car, which is what I recommend doing.
- I have had people ask me if they could just Uber the entire time they are there, and while you definitely could, I feel like this would be more expensive in the long run. If you have spent an entire weekend Uber’ing around, let me know your experience in the comments!
- Los Angeles as a whole is NOT walkable the way New York and Chicago are because it is not laid out in a grid-like fashion. There are areas that you can walk around, but as a whole, Los Angeles is very spread out in terms of where different areas and neighborhoods are.
My Favorite Los Angeles Restaurants
There is no shortage of good food in LA! Below, a few of my favorite places:
- Marmalade Cafe (for breakfast/brunch)
- Home (for breakfast/brunch)
- The Griddle (for breakfast – their pancakes are huuuuge!)
- The Butcher, The Baker, the Cappuccino Maker (breakfast/brunch)
- TomTom/SUR (dinner)
- Toca Madera (dinner)