Destinations / North America / California

LA like a local: 5 spots to skip (and what to see instead)

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LA is a world-class tourism destination to be sure: an amazing foodie scene, perfect weather, reasonably nice beaches, the seemingly-pervasive culture of “the industry” and more than enough aspiration to go around.

But there are plenty of stops on the typical circuit that belong in a particular category: L.A. tourist traps that people still keep visiting even though they should know better. Others (including my LA-born-and-bred spouse) may disagree with my list, but after living in LA for almost two decades my mind is basically made up on these.

But it wouldn’t be very nice of me to tell you what to skip in LA without giving you better options, now would it? Read on to find out what to leave off your LA itinerary and what to do instead. Hopefully these ideas will give you a better glimpse of LA from a local’s perspective!

But it wouldn’t be very nice of me to tell you what to skip in LA without giving you better options, now would it? Read on to find out what to leave off your LA itinerary and what to do instead. Hopefully these ideas will give you a better glimpse of LA from a local’s perspective!

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Skip: the Hollywood walk of fame

Please, just don’t.

If you take nothing else from this article, it’s that you shouldn’t bother going to the Hollywood walk of fame. There’s nothing truly “celebrity” about it, and neither regular locals nor stars hang out there. Hollywood overall is grimy and sort of seedy, plus it can be painfully expensive to park – sometimes $50 for a Saturday night.

Instead: take a studio tour at Warner Brothers

Yes, the Warner Brothers studio tour is still touristy. But if you want to go somewhere that gets you thisclose to the magic of the silver screen, WB is the place to be. I did the tour years ago and have recommended it to other visitors, who have also enjoyed it.

It’s possible you’ll see some stars. But even if you don’t, you’ll see where they filmed Back to the Future and Gilmore Girls (same place!), take a seat in Central Perk from Friends and more. According to most people in the know, it’s the best studio tour in Los Angeles.

Skip: the Farmers Market

Doesn’t look like much of a “Farmer’s Market”, eh?

Some of my LA peeps will hate me for including the Original Farmers Market, but I just can’t get behind it as a recommendation for out-of-towners. There are a few expensive “farm-style” stands, but mostly it’s a collection of overpriced food stands offering mostly mediocre fare and few random shops selling things like stickers, toys, candles and… shoes. Indeed, the Original Farmers Market is home to several shoe shops.

Instead: visit an actual farmers market (or an actual food hall)

The Grand Central Market, in continuous operation since in 1917, and still a great place to grab a bite.

LA is an incredible place to get farm-to-table food, or your own farm-fresh ingredients. There are actual farmers markets all over the city where you can get beautiful produce and also fun prepared foods. The most popular of these is the Santa Monica farmers market, which takes place on Wednesday and Saturday every week. You’ll find everyday Angelenos doing their shopping, restauranteurs picking up the best ingredients for their constantly-changing menus and maybe even a few celebs hiding behind big sunglasses and floppy hats.

More interested in the food hall experience? Head downtown to snag a bite and a piece of history at the Grand Central Market. Like the Original Farmers Market, it’s been selling food to Angelenos for over a century. But Grand Central Market offers a much better reflection of the quality of LA’s food scene in the 21st century. You have high-quality throwbacks like Wexler’s (where they smoke their own incredible fish), Lucky Bird (amazing fried chicken), McConnell’s ice cream (an import from nearby Santa Barbara) and new-kid Egg Slut (one of Ronnie’s favorites for breakfast).

Glad to see that Angel’s Flight is back open… again… after being closed… again.

Once you’re done indulging, head out that back to yet another LA icon: the often-closed-but-now-reopened Angel’s Flight funicular. For over a century it’s been carrying Angelenos up the steep Bunker Hill. It’s a cheap thrill at just $1 and offers nice views of downtown. You can keep exploring with a visit to the iconic Bradbury building right there in downtown LA.

Skip: most of Venice beach

Nothing like the smell of spray paint in the morning!

Venice beach has a reputation as the freak show of Los Angeles, and it’s much deserved. But unless you like to be surrounded by throngs of tourists while enveloped in a cloud the reeks of weed and spray paint, I rate the Venice beach boardwalk (and associated scene) a hard pass. The only redeeming element is the skateboard area, where you can watch the kids who wish they grew up in the 80s so that they could have been portrayed in The Lords of Dogtown.

For a different perspective on many of these sites, check out this huge list of things to do in LA.

Instead: bike along the beach in LA

The awesome bike path covers miles and miles of LA’s beaches

Instead of spending an hour hustling through Venice gawking and just how tacky a place can be, experience the more pleasant side of LA’s beach communities. Drive up PCH right near the California Incline and find the closest lot (you can use 930 Pacific Coast Highway as the address). Grab a bike from Perry’s Cafe and Beach Rentals, and then pedal your way south. You might want to borrow a lock as well, just in case you feel like stopping to gawk.

You’ll go through not-so-busy stretches, ride under the famous Santa Monica Pier (feel free to stop if you want to ride the ferris wheel or grab a funnel cake!) and then through the spectacle of Venice. You can keep riding the Marvin Braude Bike Trail along the beach until you get to Marina del Rey, where you’ll need to head inland through some alleys a bit if you want to continue further south.

Once you’ve had your fill, turn around and head back the same way. Continue a little past Perry’s to the public Annenberg Community Beach House. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a coffee or a sandwich with your toes in the sand, surrounded by Angelenos offering the best that the city has to offer.

Skip: Griffith Park observatory

Griffith Park Observatory

This is another one for which my fellow Angelenos will probably crucify me, but I just can’t get behind telling someone to spend a half day in LA visiting the Griffith Park Observatory.

Unless you’re planning something else in Griffith Park, it’s pretty inconvenient to get to since it’s almost at the top of a mountain. And some days the parking alone can take an extra half hour of circling or parking far enough down the mountain that you’re basically on a steep uphill hike.

Once you get into the Observatory, it’s not nearly as interactive as most space museums we’ve visited (and we’ve visited plenty!). There’s a planetarium show that’s ok, if pretty basic. Some people go primarily for the view, which is fine but often hazy and really just shows off the overbuilding of the city below.

Instead: take in some of LA’s more interesting views

If you’re in it for the views, LA has much more interesting options. A great way to spend a half day in LA is on one of the excellent hiking trails in the Santa Monica mountains. If you take a trail like Temescal Canyon, you’ll enjoy sweeping views of mountains, city, beach and ocean. And the air is actually clear. Here’s an awesome guide to LA’s best hikes.

La Brea Tar Pits

Alternatively, if your interest in Griffith Park is a scientific one then a great place to visit in LA is the La Brea tar pits. You can easily swing through the free outdoor area in the center of the city and learn about the geology and fossil record right under your feet. The associated Page Museum is pretty cool too.

Urban Light at night

From the tar pits you can walk next door to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. While I don’t love it enough to recommend a proper visit (sorry!), you need to take the obligatory photos in/around/behind/through LACMA’s famous Urban Light installation on Wilshire Boulevard.

Skip: shopping Rodeo Drive

The realism of this photo matches the subject perfectly

Let’s be honest: how many people actually go to Rodeo Drive to shop?

It’s all about the window dressing the the window shopping, and it’s alllll about the tourists. Rodeo Drive represents all that is wrong with the aspirational, wannabe culture that is a somewhat accurate stereotype of a certain set in LA. And Rodeo is only interesting if you’re really into luxury brands, which aren’t necessarily inviting of window shoppers becoming hands-on browsers.

Instead: shop the boutiques of Santa Monica

There’s luxury, but then there’s affordable luxury. Angelenos who are looking for something special (and expensive) often head to Santa Monica’s well-regarded shopping streets: Montana Avenue and Main Street.

What’s the difference between them? Montana is a little more sophisticated, Main Street a little funkier. You’re more likely to bump into starlets on Montana, which isn’t quite as crowded. Main Street skews younger in terms of non-celeb locals and also has a nicer mix of cafes and restaurants in addition to boutiques covering a wider range of shopping interests.

Either way, you’re more likely to have an “authentic” – and start-studded – shopping experience in Santa Monica than on Rodeo Drive.

Where to stay in Los Angeles

Don’t you want to stay there?

I may be biased, but I think the Westside is the best area for visitors (and locals too!) – specifically Santa Monica. You’re close to plenty of awesome things to do and it feels like slightly less of a concrete jungle than downtown. Even though you’ll still have to drive to plenty of attractions, you can get to some nice beaches, shopping and restaurants without getting in a car – and sometimes you need that break after a harrowing day on LA’s freeways.

Speaking of cars… make sure you rent one to really get around the city. Due to the city’s traffic, taking Uber or Lyft everywhere can add up quickly. There are often great deals for renting from LAX – we usually use RentalCars.com, but if you aren’t picky about the size or company then Priceline is a great place to snag a cheap rental!

We haven’t had to stay in a hotel because we had our own digs, but if we ever have to book a place these are the ones I’ll be looking at:

Budget: “Budget” is a relative term when you’re talking about Los Angeles, but there are two options that are more reasonably priced, especially for what you get. Both the Hampton Inn and Courtyard by Marriott are new properties, conveniently located in the heart of Santa Monica’s commercial area in close proximity to the Expo Line light rail station. Both offer suites for families or big groups, but Hampton Inn includes breakfast with their rate.

Alternatively, if you aren’t picky about your exact hotel you can score some AMAZING deals.

Moderate: There aren’t that many bed and breakfasts in Los Angeles, but you’ll find a charming one at the north end of Santa Monica at the Channel Road Inn. It’s homey and offers great service combined with a quieter, more local experience than the big hotels can give you. Nearby Will Rogers State Beach is a great place to relax and soak up the sea air, plus you can easily walk to the outrageously good (and outrageously expensive) Giorgio Baldi for a splurge dinner.

Want to stay in the heart of the action? Shore Hotel is impossible to miss thanks to its unique design and prominent location and it also has some great deals available (again, relative to the area).

Luxury: If you want to feel like you’re on a luxury vacation in Los Angeles, it’s hard to beat the iconic beachside twins of Shutters on the Beach and Hotel Casa del Mar. They both have incredible locations just south of the Santa Monica Pier overlooking the beach. They’re both absolutely gorgeous inside and out!

Prefer something that feels new and modern? Oceana has been totally reimagined and is in a quieter area, but no less lovely! It’s north of the Santa Monica Pier so you’ll easily be able to stroll in Palisades Park (one of our favorites!) but you won’t be able to walk out directly to the beach if that’s important to you.

Wrapping up

LA is truly one of those love-it-or-hate-it destinations. Hopefully if you skip these LA tourist traps you’ll enjoy a more authentically local – and positive – visit. If you’ve been to LA before, we’d love to hear your own see/skip list!

In the meantime, check out these awesome insider guides to Los Angeles to help you find more hidden gems and local favorites:

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