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Visiting LA for the first time and wondering how to tackle the USA’s second largest city?
LA can certainly be extremely daunting for first-time visitors!
Luckily on my recent visit to the City of Angeles, I had the help of a local to teach me the do’s and don’t of travelling in LA.
So to help others without this insider knowledge to hand, I’ve put together this ultimate first-time guide to Los Angeles…
What you'll find in this post
The different neighbourhoods of Los Angeles
Los Angeles is huge! In fact, it is one of the most widely spread out cities in the world, which can make navigating your way around a little difficult.
In my opinion, the easiest way to get your head around LA is to think of it more like a number of smaller towns rather than one big city. There are numerous different districts within LA that are not only split by the freeways but also have totally different vibes.
For the beach and a more chilled out atmosphere you have Santa Monica and Venice Beach.
Beverly Hills is the place to hit the designer shops and high-end restaurants (and possibly spot a celebrity).
Hollywood is where you’ll find the iconic Walk of Fame and Chinese Theatre.
Westwood is a young and student-friendly neighbourhood with lots of affordable bars and restaurants.
La Brea is a new and trendy area which is also home to the La Brea Tar Pits.
Downtown LA is the more built-up business district.
And this is just to name a few.
Think about what you want to see and do, then carefully plan which neighbourhoods you’ll be visiting on which days to cut down on overall transport time and costs.
Where to stay in Los Angeles
Leading on from the previous point, it’s important to strategically plan which area of LA you’re going to stay in to avoid spending your entire holiday travelling around the city.
Westwood and West Hollywood are two safe and central options, while those with a slightly higher budget might consider Beverly Hills. These three are safe and convenient bases for exploring all of LA.
Santa Monica, Venice Beach and Marina Del Ray have some lovely hotels and rentals that are walkable to the beach and provide easy access to other coastal areas such as Malibu. However, they are slightly further away from many of LA’s other attractions such as Hollywood and Griffith Park.
Areas to avoid staying in are Downtown LA (business area only) and Inglewood (unsafe and inconvenient location).
During my recent 10 day trip to LA, we spent 4 days based in Marina Del Rey by the beach then moved close to Westwood for the next 6 days. If you’re spending a couple of weeks in LA, splitting your trip between the beach and a more inland location might be a good idea.
Or travelling with your furry friend? Check out this dog friendly guide to Los Angeles.
Getting around Los Angeles
With a city of LA’s size, one of the most important things to consider is how you’re going to get around. Here’s what I learnt from my experience…
People don’t walk
One of the things that really shocked me about LA is that the locals just don’t walk anywhere. For such a populous city, you’ll very rarely see people wandering around the streets. There are some areas such as Westwood, Beverly Hills and the beaches where you’re more likely to find people strolling about outside, but other than this, most people will simply travel between their destinations by car or taxi.
Taxis are your best option
When it comes to getting around LA as a tourist, taxis are probably your best bet. Uber and Lyft are extremely popular, with plenty of drivers all across the city and reasonably affordable fares. If there’s only 1 or 2 of you, you can also save money by choosing the rideshare option.
One thing I noticed about getting taxis in LA is how friendly the taxi drivers were, more so than any other city I’ve travelled around by Uber or Lyft. Whilst some of our drivers stuck to the awkward ‘no eye-contact, no speaking’ rule like in London, we had some really talkative and lovely drivers who kept us chatting and laughing for our entire journey. Travelling around LA by taxi is a great way to meet some of the locals and even get some local advice (one of our drivers told us about an off-menu speciality at IN-N-OUT Burger).
Traffic and parking is terrible
It might sound easier to hire a rental car if you’re staying in LA for a while, however, LA traffic and parking will only make your holiday more stressful than it’s worth.
When asking yourself the question ‘should I hire a car in LA?’, just remember, the roads are complicated to navigate, traffic is bad, parking is difficult to come across and expensive when you find it, and traffic cops are more than willing to give you a ticket for the smallest mistakes.
Public transport in LA is difficult
LA does have public transportation in the form of a metro system and buses, however, using public transport in LA is not simple.
The metro isn’t as popular as it is in other large cities and you won’t find stations close to many of the more popular tourist attractions. Buses reach more parts of the city but you can’t always guarantee that they’ll run on schedule and can be slightly unsafe at night.
Public transport in LA is there for those travelling on a budget, but it certainly isn’t the most convenient method of getting around Los Angeles.
Grab some wheels and whizz down the beach
If you’re spending a while exploring the neighbourhoods of Venice Beach and Santa Monica, leave the Ubers behind and grab some wheels instead. Head into a rental shop (there are loads of them) and grab a bike, or be even more LA with a skateboard or rollerblades to whizz down the boardwalk.
Alternatively, these areas are now littered with electric scooters from brands such as Uber, Lyft and Bird which can be activated via your smartphone and cost $1 to unlock and then 15 cents per minute to ride. Pretty cool right?
Is Los Angeles Expensive?
One of my main concerns during my first time in Los Angeles was the price. Would the city of glamorous celebs and movie stars be far out of my price range? Well, just like any city, it completely depends where you go.
If you choose to stay in a luxurious 5* hotel, go shopping on Rodeo Drive and hit the wine bars of Beverly Hills, then yes it will be an expensive trip. But there are also many very affordable places in Los Angeles.
Visiting Los Angeles on a budget
Where to stay: Unfortunately, you’re probably not going to find super cheap accommodation if you want to stay in a nice hotel in the more desirable areas of LA. Of course, hostels, motels and guesthouses will be cheaper than the more glitzy hotels so do your research. I would definitely recommend trying Airbnb first, we had a group of 6 and managed to find some lovely apartments in good locations for a very reasonable price.
Where to eat: If you’re travelling on a tight budget then stick to eating at chains such as IN-N-OUT and IHop which aren’t only delicious but are extremely affordable, as well as LA’s farmers markets and food markets which serve large and tasty portions of food which won’t cost a fortune (check out my area guide for more info on where to find these).
Where to drink: Head to the area of Westwood for affordable student bars where you can find beers for as low as $4-5. You’ll also find some cheaper spots in Koreatown where you can enjoy a night of drinks and Karaoke.
Where to sightsee: Some of the tourist activities in LA can be pretty expensive, such as the theme parks and movie studio tours. But there are also plenty of other free and cheap things to do in Los Angeles, such as enjoying the beaches or visiting the many museums – the Getty Centre, The Broad and Griffith Observatory are always free.
Is Los Angeles safe?
An extremely common question regarding travelling to LA is… is Los Angeles safe?
Like most cities, LA certainly has some neighbourhoods which are safer than others. As long as you’re sensible, vigilant and stick to the safer areas then you’re sure to be fine visiting Los Angeles.
Safe neighbourhoods in LA
Neighbourhoods such as Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Le Brea and Westwood are pretty safe places to visit, even during the evenings. Venice beach is full of people and has a great atmosphere during the day, however, during the night the area is known for its drug trade so may be better to avoid.
Where to be cautious in LA
Downtown LA is the only area which I visited where I felt a little on edge, especially after a homeless woman swung a bag at my friends head. Downtown LA is home to Skid Row, LA’s infamous ‘homeless neighbourhood’ where an unfortunate amount of these people have drug problems or mental illnesses meaning you’ll need to keep your wits about you.
There are some cool museums and restaurants in Downtown LA which are definitely worth a visit, but my advice would be to get taxis around if you’re going any substantial distance, stay vigilant to who is around you and only visit during the daytime.
South Central (including Inglewood) has a seedy reputation due to rival gangs. The conflict and violence are usually just between the groups, however, it’s best not to risk being a bystander in the area. Compton is another dangerous area in South LA which is well known for prostitution, gang and narcotic activities. There are no real landmarks or tourist attractions in either of these neighbourhoods anyway so there probably won’t be any need for you to go near them.