Los Angeles is a place that lends itself to checking off bucket-list experiences, for it is packed with attractions that are known throughout the world as must-do experiences. You haven't really lived until you've been to Disneyland at least once, made a trip to Universal Studios to see how movies are actually created and placed your feet in the cement hand and footprints made by world-famous movie stars in front of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. So many of L.A.'s hotspots have been memorialized in films and on television that they have become necessary stops along the way for any newcomer to the City of Angels, from Venice Beach and the Santa Monica Pier to the Griffith Park Observatory and the Getty Center. Angelenos love roaming from the water to the mountains, soaking in the natural beauty of Southern California one day, getting out onto the ocean another and tackling the man-made challenge of riding the world's biggest and fastest roller coasters the next. The city is so large and diverse it is almost impossible to choose just ten top attractions and activities, for these just scratch the surface of the myriad experiences to be had here. But these top ten are certainly a great place to begin a memorable Southern California experience.
A perfect day or overnight trip is a visit to Catalina Island. Get there by heading "26 miles across the sea" via the Catalina Express, the high-speed ferry that leaves from Long Beach. Book into their Commodore Lounge for comfortable seating and excellent views and keep an eye out for whales or dolphins going by during the one-hour trip to Avalon, Catalina's main city. Spend the night at the cozy new Pavilion Hotel, located right on Crescent Avenue, the town's bustling main street, and settle in for lunch just down the block at Steve's Steakhouse. That award-winning restaurant has expansive views of Avalon's famous harbor and serves up some of the best steak and seafood on the island. Plan to be at the Catalina Casino at 3 p.m., to experience the behind-the-scenes tour of that fascinating Art Deco building, built in 1929, that has played host to everyone from Cary Grant and Errol Flynn to Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne. Check out the Catalina Museum there, too, to learn about the UFOs that were once spotted here, and all about the rest of the island's star-studded history. Dine at Bluewater Avalon, have the famous Wiki Wacker rum cocktail at Luau Larry's and be sure to experience some exciting rides through the skies at the Zip Line Eco Tour. (310-510-1520)
Venice Beach isn't quite sure what it is, but it sure is interesting. The boardwalk stretches from Venice Boulevard north to Navy Street, with Muscle Beach, the basketball courts and skate park to the south and many of the head shops, surfboard rental places, boutiques and restaurants scattered along the way. You'll see guys juggling running chainsaws, people gathered in drum circles, even Hari Krishna followers parading with elephants now and then. It's a sea of people on the weekends, so be prepared for a crowd; wander off the beach toward Abbot Kinney Boulevard where chic art galleries, shops and top-notch restaurants await. Keep going north on the beach and you'll find Santa Monica's pier, where you can find the famous Ferris wheel, an amusement park and restaurants. Or just grab a towel and take a swim, but be prepared: the Pacific Ocean is never really warm here. (310-305-9505)
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
Stroll the 120 acres of the Huntington's astonishing and varied gardens (Chinese, Japanese, Australian, Desert, Rose, Jungle, Subtropical and more), then explore the library's extraordinary collection of rare books and enjoy the art gallery's impressive collection of artistic masterpieces including Thomas Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy." Be sure to check out the Greene and Greene collection that commemorates the work of Pasadena's famed architects, too. Located in San Marino (about ten miles north of downtown L.A.), the Huntington has recently installed two new pavilions to its Chinese garden, added five rooms to its American Art Gallery and will open a new visitor center in 2015. During summer months, the Huntington is open daily (except Tuesday) from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (626-405-2141)
TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX
While it is no longer called "Grauman's," the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX remains the most iconic landmark in Hollywood. Since 1927, this historic theater's front courtyard boasts the hand and footprints of fantastic stars from past to present. From John Wayne to R2D2, your favorites are almost certain to be there, so make sure to step into their shoes. It really is a must-do moment for any newcomer to Los Angeles. Catch a film here, too, for the theater's interior renovation has turned it into a first-class spot for a trip to the movies. Spend time wandering along Hollywood Boulevard once you've seen the theater, and look down. That's where you'll see the golden stars cemented in the sidewalk, for the Hollywood Walk of Fame stretches down the boulevard and beyond, honoring the industry's finest. (323-463-9576, 323-461-3331)
From April to October, the Hollywood Bowl is the place in SoCal to see concerts and performances of every kind. The summer home of the L.A. Philharmonic, it's also the spot where the Beatles and the Doors played back in the day and the venue that hosts the Playboy Jazz Festival weekend every June. There's sometimes ballet on the beautiful bandshell stage, sometimes a classic movie musical unspools with the whole audience singing along, and other times rock, country, Latin or pop musicians belt out their tunes. Bring your own picnic, wines – and especially if you are sitting in a box – tablecloths and candles. Or have a first-rate dinner at Patina at the Hollywood Bowl before the show; and remember that there's no hurry to leave when the music ends, as the parking lots stack everyone's cars, so it often takes a while to find a way out. (323-850-2000)
Situated on 4200-plus acres in the Santa Monica Mountains, Griffith Park is home to a number of museums and outdoor attractions. Inside the park you'll fine the Los Angeles Zoo, the Autry National Center (a museum dedicated to the American West) and the Griffith Observatory, as well as a merry-go-round, the L.A. Equestrian Center, Travel Town Museum (all about transportation) and the venerable Greek Theatre outdoor performance space. Plus, there are plenty of hiking trails and bridle paths, miniature railroad rides and bike rentals, a swimming pool, tennis courts and golf courses. In other words, there's something for everyone in Griffith Park! (323-913-4688)
The Getty Center is the legacy of billionaire J. Paul Getty, a gorgeous paean to the arts. Perched high in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Richard Meier-designed complex is stunningly beautiful both outside and in. The museum's vast collection includes works by Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne and many other artistic masters, as well as ancient antiquities, modern sculptures, illuminated manuscripts and more. The gardens are particularly inviting and the Restaurant at the Getty offers up locally sourced fare with an amazing view. The permanent collections are always on view as well as constantly changing special exhibitions. Admission is always free, but note that parking is $15. (310-440-7300, 310-440-6810)
Six Flags Magic Mountain
Roller-coaster lovers know that Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia is one of the world's best amusement parks, boasting more hair-raising rides than any other on the planet. Fearless adventurers will find record-breaking rides like the Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom, the X2, Viper, Tatsu and the Riddler's Revenge, the fastest stand-up coaster in the world. Plus, there are family and kids' rides, too; nighttime shows featuring laser lights and live music; and the Looney Tunes characters can be found throughout the park. But anyone with motion sickness might prefer hitting Hurricane Harbor, the 22-acre water park that is right next door. It's much easier on the stomach. (661-255-4100)
Universal Studios is the real thing, a working movie studio that also happens to have a theme park attached to it. Which means visitors get the chance to see where some of their favorite movies and television shows are made – think the "Psycho" house, the "Desperate Housewives" neighborhood and the "Back to the Future" town square – as well as take some thrilling rides. Take the Studio Tour, then hop on King Kong 3D, The Simpsons Ride, Shrek 4D, Transformers The Ride 3D and many more. Then enjoy Universal CityWalk, where 30 restaurants, six nightclubs, an IMAX theater and tons of shops await. It's a full-day experience that brings every element of Hollywood to life. (818-622-3036)
Disneyland is Walt Disney's original vision for "the happiest place on earth," and more than 50 years later it remains just that. Kids of all ages adore spending all day (and night) at this massive amusement park in Anaheim, beginning with a walk down Main Street and ending with the fireworks-filled parade and laser light shows that happen every evening. In between, go on all the big rides – the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones and the Haunted House – and make sure to meet Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Cinderella and all their friends, too. Don't miss Mr. Toad's Wild ride or the Mad Teacups and spend another day next door at Disney's California Adventure Park, too. (714-781-4565, 714-520-5050)
About Jenny Peters
Jenny Peters – aka Jet Set Jen – is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, editor and party columnist specializing in travel, entertainment, film, food, wine, fashion and the other good things in life. She is a founding/voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, who present the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards every January. Her favorite places to be are on the beach in Southern California playing volleyball, scuba diving with the sharks in warm tropical waters or strolling the streets and soaking in the atmosphere of one of the world's great cities (New Orleans and Florence are her favorites).
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