California’s Most Underappeciated Adventure Hotspot Is Also Its Easiest to Reach


Yes, you might bump into Jennifer Aniston at a market in Brentwood, but there are so many better reasons to visit Los Angeles. It’s one of the largest cities in the world with a mountain range running through it—two of them, actually—making it a primo place for hiking and biking amid skyscraping views and discovering rugged refuges deep within SoCal’s vast urban hub. In L.A., there’s surfing, kayaking, volleyball on the beach, parasailing over the Pacific, and cultural gems off the beaten track from a time even before there was a Hollywood.

Once a nightly ghost town, L.A.’s revamped downtown—aka DTLA—is now an action-packed hub for locals and visitors. 

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Take, for instance, the final resting place of the residents here from 50,000 to 11,000 years ago—saber-toothed cats, mastodons, dire wolves, and more—preserved by the geological quirk of sticky tar lakes and on display at the remarkable La Brea Tar Pits & Museum. Or the best place to hear award-winning mariachi singers and performers while chowing down on some of the best Mexican food in L.A. at Casa Sanchez restaurant near Marina del Rey. Or gazing out at an eternal ocean sunset on a happy hour Pacific cruise. It’s all here. 

Related: This High Desert Town Is the Southwest’s Favorite New Getaway Spot

Hiding near LAX, Sam First is the city’s best jazz bar—featuring top musicians in an intimate space reserved for savvy locals and travelers. 

Courtesy of Sam First

If it’s music you’re after, the recording capital has it all—from the excellent Grammy Museum to the historic Troubadour, Roxy, and Whisky a Go Go, which launched careers from Elton John to Chicago. You’ll find no shortage hip hop, house, and techno hives, plus the flashy L.A. Live and superstar concert venues downtown. Jazz fans can head to Sam First, a hidden gem just steps from LAX featuring the cream of modern jazz talent.

Other than at Christmas, you won’t see a strand of tinsel in the real Los Angeles—as you take in the outdoor and indoor smorgasbord of one of the world’s great cities. Here’s a three-day feast of what amazing L.A. has to offer.

How to Get to and Around Los Angeles

If you’re flying here, your weekend will likely start at L.A. International Airport—aka LAX—unless you can swing a flight to the smaller, less hectic Burbank or Long Beach airports nearby. When you exit the baggage area, look for the green pillar and sign that says “LAXit,” and wait for a green LAXit bus that anyone who wants a cab or Uber needs to take to a taxi and rideshare zone adjacent to the airport. There are separate pick-up lanes there for taxis, Uber, and Lyft. If you’ve rented a car, car rental shuttles will take you to your ride. 

Getting around L.A. isn’t easy without a car. The Metro train goes to Santa Monica, downtown L.A., Redondo Beach, North Hollywood, and Long Beach, but the stops are often far from the attraction you’re looking for.

L.A.’s postcard coast stretches for over 75 miles from Malibu (pictured here) to Long Beach. 

Patricia Marroquin

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When to Visit Los Angeles

Los Angeles is known for its great weather, so it’s a true all-year destination—with one caveat. If you want sun in your selfies and any beach days, avoid coming here in May and June, when the annual “May gray” and “June gloom” blanket the city in daily cloud cover straight out of Seattle. Spring and fall are best—mild, clear skies, and not overrun with visitors.

The Huntley Hotel Santa Monica Beach

Courtesy of The Huntley Hotel Santa Monica Beach

Where to Stay in Los Angeles

L.A. is vast, so you’ll want to pick your hotel headquarters wisely. We suggest staying in Santa Monica for its picturesque coastal setting and proximity to many of the city’s top attractions. Tucked away just a couple blocks from the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Promenade shopping mecca, The Huntley Hotel Santa Monica Beach gives you a fantastic location at a reasonable price for the area—plus a restaurant on the top floor with expansive views of the Pacific up to Malibu. 

Great value for a base near LAX are the Sonesta Los Angeles and Sheraton Gateway. If you’re going to spend time at Universal Studios, try the Hilton Universal. They offer a complimentary shuttle to the theme park. For a more upscale experience and an ideal locale for Hollywood area attractions, try Cara Hotel, an elegant boutique hotel with a restaurant that caters to gourmet tastes.

John O’Groats. Fuel up with favorites like high fiber buckwheat pancakes or Oreo French toast.

Courtesy of John O’Groats

Los Angeles Restaurants: Best Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

A hearty breakfast is the engine of your L.A. explorations. You can’t go wrong at John O’Groats on Pico in West Los Angeles’ Rancho Park district. They serve breakfast and stacks of pancakes all day. When lunch calls, try the Clark Street Diner in Hollywood, where specialties range from juicy patty melts with grilled onions and homemade baguettes and breads. La Vecchia Cucina, on Main Street, in Santa Monica, is a great destination for dinner, featuring Northern Italian home cooking. The homemade bread is so addictive, you may not have room for the meal, so beware.

The Roger Room

Courtesy of The Roger Room

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Best Los Angeles Bar

If you’re looking for a place in the Hollywood area to relax with liquid refreshment after a busy day, the Roger Room beckons. With a vibe that’s a throwback to speakeasy days, this unpretentious bar on La Cienega is known for its cocktail artistry. Behind the entrance curtain, you’ll find a cool place to chill with a conversation decibel level that keeps you from having to yell above the crowd noise.

Lavish gardens, sea breezes, and one of the world’s best collections of Greek and Roman antiquities come together at the Getty Villa Museum, perched above the Malibu coast. 

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Don’t Miss: Top Attraction in Los Angeles

It’s very hard to boil down the host of attractions here, but it’s tough to top the Getty Center and its Malibu cousin, the Getty Villa Museum, for spectacular experiences, collections, architecture, and settings. The Getty Center itself, with its hilltop perch overlooking L.A. and outdoor gardens that feature a stunning hedge maze, is a work of art. Built at a cost of $1.3 billion, it houses a robust collection of European art. Malibu’s Getty, built in the style of a classic Roman villa, complete with central reflecting pool, showcases 44,000 Roman, Greek, and Etruscan antiquities.

Savvy Traffic Tip for Visitors to Los Angeles 

L.A. has nearly 4 million inhabitants, and it can seem like most of them are on the city’s freeways. Do your heavy driving between the lighter traffic hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and after 8 p.m. to avoid jams. 

L.A.’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area provides over 153,000 acres of city adjacent escape for hikers and MTB trail blazers. Pictured here: Topanga Canyon.   

aschlabach/Getty Images

Day 1: Hike or Bike the Hills, Cruise the Coast, and Spin Through Santa Monica

Start your trip on a high, with a morning hike on the Temescal Canyon trail just north of Santa Monica off the coast highway. You’ll get a bird’s eye view of the city, the Pacific, and backyard swimming pools. Or, if you want to take in stellar coastal scenery, head up Highway 1 to Zuma Beach for the Point Dume Cove Trail. Make a left just before Zuma at Westward Beach Road and drive to the parking lot at road’s end. Scramble up the 1.1 mile trail, and in minutes you’ll be at the top of a volcanic promontory that was a former lookout and sacred site for the Chumash Indians. The cliffs, Pirate’s Cove far below, and vista up the coast are spectacular.

Point Dume

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For the real pulse booster, hop on a bike and blast up into the maze of twisties and trails winding above the coast in the Santa Monica Mountains. We recommend riding up the Pacific Coast Highway and making a loop from a couple of the roads curling through the canyons, such as Topanga Canyon and Tuna Canyon (link them through Fernwood). While that route is paved, there are ample single- and doubletracks branching off the main roads if you’re seeking dirt trails.

Farther afield on the northern “Valley” side of the hills, greater L.A. explorers can try Los Robles Trailhead (aka “Space Mountain”) or Potrero Trailhead in Thousand Oaks, or Cheeseboro Canyon Trailhead in Agoura Hills, which leads from oak-studded valleys to lofty ridge lines with dramatic views. Need to rent some wheels or hook up with a local guide? Rent a top-of-the-line electric mountain bike from Malibu Mountain Bikers, or book a guided MTB tour in the hills with Life Rush Adventures

Santa Monica Pier’s iconic Pacific Wheel is the world’s only solar-powered Ferris Wheel. For another classic spin, rent a bicycle and join the wheeled crowd along the flat, breezy, 22-mile Marvin Braude Bike Trail, tracing the coast from Pacific Palisades to Torrance.

Mitch Diamond/Getty Images

After your hike or bike, head to famed Venice Beach. For a milder ride along the coast, you can rent beach bikes here (and an assortment of other wheeled devices) for a spin through the wilds of street musicians, artists, skaters, and exhibitionists en route to the Santa Monica Pier. Jump on a roller coaster at its throwback amusement park, Pacific Park, or try your luck at the basketball booth. 

In the early evening cruise over to Main Street in Ocean Park at the southern edge of Santa Monica and knock back liquid refreshments at Jameson’s Pub, where there’s always a lively crowd. You are now positioned perfectly to walk one block to an amazing dinner at La Vecchia Cucina. This long-running Italian restaurant is a local favorite, beloved for its super-tasty dishes, including pasta and pizza, and that tempting bread served with olive oil.

Ice-Age L.A. unearthed at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum. 

Robert Landau/Getty Images

Day 2: Time Travel at the Tar Pits, See the Stars in Hollywood—and Beyond at Griffith Park and DTLA

First stop today is the La Brea Tar Pits, a remarkable time capsule of Ice Age L.A., where bubbling lakes of tar preserved animals trapped in them in a stunning record of pre-Los Angeles life. Mastodons and saber-toothed cats stand tall once again, astride Wilshire Boulevard. The menagerie is on display at the Tar Pits Museum, where you’ll see a boggling collection of animals found in the tar—and scientists and their helpers cleaning the latest finds—for a whole new (but old) perspective on pre-human L.A.

Griffith Park Observatory features planetarium shows, nearby hiking trails, sunset panos, and Hollywood’s most iconic set piece—from Rebel Without a Cause to La La Land.  

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Next, take La Brea Avenue up to Hollywood for preservation of a different kind—obscure and famous celebrities’ stars on Hollywood Boulevard and the hand and footprints of Golden Age stars at Graumann’s Chinese Theater. From this mandatory tourist stop, it’s a short jaunt to take in the real stars at the superb Griffith Park Observatory, which sits atop a Hollywood hill and offers great views of the city—including the nearby Hollywood sign. Touch a meteorite, find out what you would weigh on Uranus, and look through a solar telescope. There are also nearby trails that take you into Griffith Park, the largest urban-wilderness park in the U.S. at 4,310 acres.

Grammy Museum at LA Live

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Cap off your day with a visit to the Grammy Museum and LA Live, a hub of nightlife in L.A.’s remarkably revitalized downtown core—packed with concert venues, clubs, and top restaurants. Right next door is Arena, home of the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings. 

L.A.’s lofty Getty Center is as famous for its hilltop views, gardens, and vast travertine campus as it is for its pre-20th-century European paintings—including “Rembrandt Laughing” and Van Gogh’s “Irises.” 

Frédéric Soltan/Getty Images

Day 3: Gaze Upon the Getty and Paddle or Parasail the Pacific

Get the day off to a big start with one of the most ambitious monuments to art and architecture this side of the pharaohs—the Getty Center, perched atop a ridge in the Santa Monica Mountains above Brentwood and the 405 freeway. If you’re driving, you’ll park in a structure at the base of the hill, then board a monorail to the entrance. Inside, the Richard Meier-designed complex, which sports 1.2 million square feet (not a typo) of imported wall marble, exhibits European artworks from 16th through 20th centuries, including pieces from Manet, Renoir, and Van Gogh. Outside, the gardens are sublime, especially the hedge maze.

Fisherman’s Village, Marina del Rey

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From here, make your way to Fisherman’s Village in Marina del Rey for a day of sea activity. You can rent a kayak and explore the marina and/or try an aerial tour of the coast with a parasailing adventure. You can also sign up here for a sunset cruise to wrap up your L.A. adventure. When you get back to the dock, it’s a short hop to a legend in the Marina—the Warehouse—a funky Tiki and sailing-themed place that looks out on the boat slips. It has superb seafood and some of the most affordable cocktails in the city. The restaurant bar features live bands on Saturday nights and salsa dancing on Fridays.

Rest up. You’re going to need the energy to take in all the activities in this lively city, from the sea to the sand to the mountains and music and entertainment attractions galore. 

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