Know Before You Go: Los Angeles

Dorothy Parker famously called Los Angeles “72 suburbs in search of a city.” True Angelenos beg to differ (and so does the city government, with plans to link downtown and the Pacific Ocean by subway). Still, L.A.’s sheer sprawl and urban diversity make it a tough city to grasp. But have no fear. With these simple steps you’ll be hanging like a local in no time.

>> When to go: 

The car is still king in L.A., so rent one and hit the Pacific Coast Highway. (Photograph by Charlie Cowins, Flickr)

Fall: Summer may seem like an ideal time to take advantage of the city’s much-touted beaches, but natives know that the dreaded marine layer shrouds much of L.A. from May to July (locals call it June Gloom). For clear skies and still-better-than-where-you-live weather, visit the City of Angels in the late summer and fall. Winter is nice, too, but the rains come in January and February, so make sure to bring an umbrella.

>> Getting There:

The Greater Los Angeles Area boasts five (five!) airports that provide access to the region. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the nucleus of the airport network, but Bob Hope Airport (BUR) and Long Beach Airport (LGB) aren’t too far from areas like Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Orange County’s John Wayne Airport (SNA) and Ontario International Airport (ONT) are each about an hour outside of the city, but a good fare can justify the trip.

>> Getting Around Once You’re There:

Drive. In the city of the big screen, it can be said that public transportation hardly plays a supporting role. A meager (albeit improving) rail system seems to placate public works expectations more than it serves the working public and, though buses abound, traffic kills their potential. Sad, but true, the car is still king (and the only way to access many of the area’s must-do attractions). That said, be prepared to pay to park virtually everywhere you go in L.A., a place where valet is practically an art form (and cabs are as rare as unicorns).

Downtown Los Angeles. (Photograph by John Coke, My Shot)

Learn the Big Five. Los Angeles is not a grid city. But if you’re directionally impaired, there’s a remedy: learn the thoroughfares. Five major east-west boulevards (Pico, Olympic, Wilshire, Santa Monica, and Sunset) span the distance between downtown L.A. and the beach and connect many of the city’s hotspots. So wherever you’re headed, it’s likely that at least one of them will get you where you need to go.

Weigh Your Options. Surface streets or the freeway? It’s a question pondered by even the most seasoned L.A. drivers when they’re on the go, but one that might not occur to the casual visitor. Skip the headache and let the state’s department of transportation do the heavy lifting. Caltrans’s QuickMap analyzes traffic conditions so you’ll know in advance whether to make a dash for the freeway or how to get around the latest Sig Alert (a term, coined by the L.A.P.D. in the 1940s and widely used in Southern California, denoting heavy traffic). There’s even a mobile app.

>> Three Essential Tips:

Get in a Golden State of Mind. You’re in California now, so slow your strut, smile, and relax. Indelibly influenced by the entertainment industry and built on big dreams, this is a city that values first impressions, self-confidence, and showmanship. Play the part and keep it cool. Cliché? Probably. Superficial? Maybe. But it’s an unshakeable part of L.A.’s surprisingly endearing social fabric.

Catalina Island makes for a great side trip. (Photograph by Cody Simms, Flickr)

Take a Hike. The Santa Monica Mountains slice directly across the city’s core. Combine that with blue skies and a fitness-conscious culture, and hiking’s rising popularity becomes a no-brainer. Local favorites include lush Temescal Canyon in the Palisades and Hollywood’s go-to-be-seen Runyon Canyon and Hollyridge Trail (which ends right behind the big sign). Though you may be more likely to spot a celebrity than wildlife while you’re on the trail, strapping on your hiking boots will give you a glimpse into another side of L.A. Plus, higher altitudes provide a rare and welcome overview of the original city of sprawl.

Go Afield. Cruise up the Pacific Coast Highway (or U.S. 1. Note: West Coasters say “THE 1,” as in “take the 1″) to Malibu and watch the waves froth up just feet from the blacktop, then head to the top of Mulholland Drive at night for an unparalleled light show. Don’t forget to take a spin through the In-N-Out drive-through for a “Double-Double” and a shake.

Or, take a true pause from the big city and experience another side of Southern California. Hop the ferry to Catalina Island, ride Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner along the coast to Orange County or San Diego, ramble up U.S. 101 to explore Santa Barbara’s booming wine country, or head east on Interstate 10 for some R&R in Palm Springs.

Do you have Know Before You Go tips for your city? Share them in the comments below or use the #B4UGO hashtag and shout us out @NatGeoTraveler on Twitter.

Related:

Alex Markoff, an editorial intern at National Geographic Traveler, provided reporting for Know Before You Go: L.A. 

 

Comments

  1. Kurt Varner
    SF via LA
    December 10, 2012, 4:55 pm

    I 100% agree that the public transit is terrible in LA. But to anyone needing to get around by car, realize that LA has the *worst* traffic in the world. Rush “hour” literally lasts all day. Just keep this in mind as you plan your days.

  2. Brenda
    Los Angeles
    December 10, 2012, 5:30 pm

    What a great article. I live in LA and just learned a few new things.

    Thank you!

  3. Metro Duo
    Los Angeles
    December 11, 2012, 10:57 pm

    We disagree with your claim that the Los Angeles Metro Rail system is meager and inadequate. Our independent blog, LA by Metro [http://metroduo.wordpress.com], covers many ways that visitors as well as residents can take advantage of Metro’s reach to many popular sites and events in and around Los Angeles. As the traffic in Los Angeles makes travel by road an ordeal, particularly at rush hour, the surface and subway trains zip along at the speed limit, allowing riders to relax and arrive at their destinations without the stress of dealing with LA by road. Visiting LA without a car saves time, money, and aggravation. We invite you to check out the possibilities.

  4. Steve
    LA
    December 15, 2012, 12:19 pm

    Regarding Metro Duo’s defense of the LA public transport system, while I’d say it’s improving, it’s not the way I’d recommend a tourist get around Los Angeles. Some (newer) lines such as the Gold from LA to Pasadena are great, but I’d steer clear of most others. The Red line under the city is old and dirty. The Green line to LAX would be great – if it actually went to the airport. Instead it stops a mile from the airport. Idiotic. Useless. The Blue Line from Long Beach is like the wild wild west and stops on every corner. A long, tedious trip to downtown LA. Getting from one line to the other through Union Station in downtown LA is like traversing O’Hare Airport . Long, steep escalators to the underground portions are broken down as often as they run. Elevator and transit line outages are a regular occurrence, as shown in the Metro Twitter feed. https://twitter.com/metrolosangeles Kudos to the Metro for working to improve, but sorry, it has a long way to go.

  5. Lawrence Aldava
    United States
    January 2, 2013, 10:33 pm

    I disagree with Steve. I think the L.A Metro is a great way to experience parts of the city and as noted the system is improving. I’m an L.A native and use the system daily. The Gold Line is great for visitors going to Pasadena/South Pasadena for a day trip and I wouldn’t consider the Red Line dirty compared to other subway systems I’ve ridden. It’s fast and gets you to Hollywood and the Los Feliz area pretty easily. If you’re coming into LAX take the LAX flyaway to Union Station for 7 bucks and transfer to the system from there. I would say explore part of the region via metro rail and use a car for the other parts. It’s hard to get a true feel for the city when exclusively using the automobile.

  6. Steven
    Los Angeles
    January 5, 2013, 9:53 pm

    I have to respectfully disagree with Lawrence. Most tourists will never venture to Pasadena/South Pasadena and taking the Flyaway to Union Station is counterintuitive if you’re planning on heading west or north anyway. Yes, the public transportation system has improved vastly, but compared to cities like Washington and NY it just doesn’t make sense. Advising a tourist to use public transportation in LA is like telling a tourist to drive in New York City. The makeup of this particular city does not lend itself well to buses and trains in the same way to NY isn’t really conducive to cruising around in a car.

  7. Mario
    Germany
    January 9, 2013, 11:55 am

    Please consider that John Wayne Airport, Orange County IATA 3-Letter designator is actually SNA. The one you proposed is actually situated in Zimbabwe, quite a difference ;)
    Apart from that, nice article.

    • Leslie Trew Magraw
      January 9, 2013, 1:00 pm

      Thanks for the correction, Mario. Quite a difference indeed! The post has been updated :)