13 Mistakes Travelers Make in Los Angeles — and How to Avoid Them
From getting stuck in traffic jams to settling for overcrowded beaches, here are things no traveler to L.A. should do.
Even experienced travelers can fall prey to pitfalls in popular destinations like Los Angeles, which gets over 50 million visitors in a typical year. While there's no wrong way to visit L.A., here are some common mistakes travelers make when visiting the City of Angels — and how to avoid them, so you can make the most of your trip.
1. Trying to See the Entire City on One Trip
Though the city of L.A. is only around 500 square miles, surrounding Los Angeles County, where many of the area's attractions are found, comprises almost 4,100 square miles and is home to nearly 10 million inhabitants. That's a lot of ground to cover, so don't try to see everything in one visit. Not only will you spend way too much time in your car, but you'll miss out on interesting neighborhoods by blowing straight past them on the freeway. Instead, pick one or two areas to concentrate on, such as Downtown and the Eastside, or Santa Monica and Venice, and plan your trip around those.
2. Underestimating Traffic
Visitors always seem surprised that L.A.'s notorious traffic is as bad, if not worse, than they've heard. According to GPS navigation company TomTom, the city has ranked as the most congested in the U.S. for years now, though. Drivers lost an average of 101 hours (that's four days, five hours!) in rush hour last year. So, take a cue from Angelenos who know to avoid cross-city jaunts in the morning and evening, and plan your drive times during off-peak hours.
3. Renting a Car, or Not Renting a Car — It Depends
If you plan to log some miles shuttling between several parts of the city, you might want to rent a car just to have an affordable means of transportation. If you park, read the street signs carefully, as you don't want to blow a day's budget on a ticket. On the other hand, rideshares in L.A. are relatively inexpensive compared to other cities, if you stick to a single side of town. Depending on where you're staying, you might also be able to take one of the six Metro lines, which hit 93 stations, with an all-day or seven-day pass for $7 or $25, respectively.
4. Only Booking Flights to LAX
While Los Angeles International Airport is the biggest, busiest airport in L.A., it is by no means the only option in the area. You might even find cheaper flights to the others. "Be sure to check fares to all of L.A.'s airports, not just LAX," advises Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights. "According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, average fares to nearby Burbank (BUR) are 12% lower than LAX, and Long Beach (LGB) is 20% lower. While average fares to Ontario (ONT) and Orange County (SNA) are more expensive than LAX, they may actually be cheaper for your specific trip, so be sure to broaden your search."
5. Leaving Your Hiking Boots at Home
People might not walk in L.A., but with over 2,000 miles of public trails in Los Angeles County, they sure do hike, whether it's for unparalleled panoramas of the city or gentle meanders to hidden waterfalls and beaches. "For great ocean views and spring wildflower viewing," AllTrails' program manager Christina Parker recommends Solstice Canyon. "For those willing to drive a bit outside the city limits, Vasquez Rocks is a super-unique area with impressive rock formations and an opportunity to get away from crowds," she says. She even put together a list of handpicked hiking gems.
6. Not Exploring Smaller Beaches
L.A. has 75 miles of coastline, much of it made up of wide, sandy, public beaches. But not all beaches are created equal. You might enjoy the eccentric characters along the Venice Boardwalk, or join a game of pickup volleyball in Santa Monica. But you can also find more secluded strands up the coast in Malibu, like rock-strewn El Matador State Beach and family-friendly Paradise Cove, or further south like the bluff-flanked Abalone Cove with its vibrant tide pools.
7. Staying in L.A. for a Visit to Disneyland
Disneyland is only 30 miles from Downtown Los Angeles, but those 30 miles can take well over a 90 minutes to traverse. If the point of your trip is to visit the "Happiest Place on Earth," you're better off booking closer hotels in Anaheim. If you're toting the tots along and want to avoid the Mouse House, you can head to Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain, too.
8. Skipping Smaller Neighborhoods
It's up for debate whether Dorothy Parker, who lived in L.A. on and off for 30 years, actually said Los Angeles was, "72 suburbs in search of a city." Although Parker meant that as a barb, the L.A. of today is a prolific patchwork that encompasses 272 distinct neighborhoods by the Los Angeles Times' current estimation. Take time away from tourist traps to explore some of the city's unsung quarters. Angelino Heights, for example, is a mix of hipster hangouts and restored Victorian mansions near Dodger Stadium. And in addition to the brightly lit bars of Boystown, West Hollywood is home to some of L.A.'s buzziest bistros and most fashion-forward boutiques.
9. Spending a Day on a Celebrity Tour
The only thing worse than getting stuck in L.A. traffic is…getting stuck in traffic while crammed into a roofless van with dozens of other tourists as the sun beats down on you. While a tour of stars' homes sounds fun, chances are you'll only see empty houses where someone famous once lived decades ago. Just skip it.
10. Missing Out on Museums
You might come for the beach or theme parks, but don't miss visiting at least some of L.A.'s outstanding museums. "Many museums in Los Angeles are experiential as well as cultural," says Baxter Gaston, a renegade tour guide for Museum Hack. "From the priceless artifacts and gardens at the Getty Villa in Malibu, which was painstakingly recreated from ancient blueprints to be a near-exact copy of a real Roman villa that existed near Pompeii, to the brilliant grounds and collection...at the Huntington [Botanical] Gardens in Pasadena, many L.A. museums offer unique and stunning environments in which to spend hours ambling, picnicking, and even having a drink."
11. Focusing on Famous Restaurants
No one will fault you for dining at icons like Spago or Nobu, but restricting your reservations to famous eateries with celebrity chefs would be a mistake in a city with such a rich culinary heritage and dining scene. "To fully understand why Los Angeles is the best eating city in the world, you have to drive east of the Los Angeles River to taste food that is lovingly prepared by the working-class Latino immigrants who help make it the edgy, world-class city…you probably want to move to today," says cookbook author and editor of L.A. Taco, Javier Cabral. "If you're short on time and hungry for life-changing tacos, head to Olympic Boulevard's so-called 'Olympic Taco Row.' Start with some asada on a handmade flour tortilla at El Ruso, have world-famous crispy tacos de camarón at Mariscos Jalisco, and some birria at La Unica."
12. Staying in a Huge Chain Hotel
L.A. has its fair share of Hiltons, Hyatts, and Marriotts, including recognizable hotels like The Beverly Hilton. "However, some of the better-known hotels are so much more fun to stay at," says Jay Johnson, president of Virtuoso member Coastline Travel Advisors. "The pools, views, and cuisines are fantastic, and each hotel has a 'cool' factor. The Beverly Hills Hotel, for instance, is iconic, and every time we go to the Polo Lounge, we see someone famous. If a client is looking for a smaller property and they have kids, I usually suggest Shutters on the Beach, since it's near the Santa Monica Pier with its Ferris wheel and other attractions."
13. Thinking You Can Hike Right Up to the Hollywood Sign
Thanks to the magic of movies, you might think it's possible to walk right up to the most recognizable landmark in L.A., but the Hollywood sign is actually off-limits. "There are hikes in Griffith Park, which take you close to the sign, but hiking directly up to it is not permitted." explains Diana Wright of RBI, who handles PR and communications for the Hollywood Sign Trust. "The iconic sign sits on a steep slope and is off-limits and monitored night and day for trespassers. However, there are plenty of great trails that offer incredible views of it." If you just need that Instagram-worthy shot, Wright suggests hiking from the Griffith Park Observatory along the fire roads that lead behind the sign. "You get a stunning view of the city and the large, white letters. It's the picture-perfect place to say, 'I made it.'"