Small wonder that Los Angeles is America’s dream factory. Its eternal sunshine seems to have baked in a spirit of endless opportunity. Sometimes success happens overnight, sometimes it takes years, but whether it’s in showbiz, the sciences, foodways or scaling a hill to a dazzling sunset supernova, generations have striven, succeeded and found their bliss in the City of Angels. 

Beautiful sunset of Los Angeles downtown skyline and palm trees in foreground
Centuries of seekers have transformed Los Angeles into a vibrant metropolis and a magnet for innovation © choness / Getty

Follow the first Angelenos 

La Plaza de Cultura y Artes tells the story of LA’s origin steps from where it happened. In 1781, an intrepid, multicultural mix of 44 from Mexico named their outpost the daunting El Pueblo Sobre el Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula (thankfully shortened to LA). Nearby, Olvera St, LA’s first, looks for all the world like a pedestrianized mercado in old México, busy with sightseers and diners on Cal-Mex classics. A magnolia-shaded square turns into a street fair on weekends complete with strolling mariachis, and the city’s most historic church, affectionately known as La Placita, dates from 1814.

Enter the birthplace of dreams

LA (and the world) have not been the same since the first movie studios opened here in the 1910s. By all means visit Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood – these entertainment-inspired theme parks are top destinations for a reason – but for an up-close-and-personal view of movie making you’ll want to take a studio tour. Warner Bros, Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures Studios all offer small group tours by golf cart and/or on foot, visiting recognizable sets, costume and prop shops and more. Elsewhere, get a rush of nostalgia from the costumes, props, photos and memorabilia chunked chockablock inside the Hollywood Museum. And keep an eye out for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, scheduled to open in 2020. 

Another medium with deep local roots, the recording industry gets its due at the Grammy Museum in Downtown LA with dozens of exhibits from rock stars’ outfits to recording booths. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, many of history’s greatest musical acts (Frank Sinatra to Katy Perry) have laid down tracks inside the iconic 1956 Capitol Records Building, instantly recognizable for its design like a stack of 45s, complete with stylus-like spire. 

But LA’s creative community doesn’t stop with the entertainment industry. If you’re in town during the Made in LA Biennale at the Hammer Museum, you’ll see the work of some 100 local artists. Or visit art colonies like the Brewery or Santa Fe complexes, check out cutting-edge shops and lofts in the Arts District, and browse tiny galleries on hipster walk streets in LA’s Chinatown. Budding fashionistas, meanwhile, learn the trade at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, and architects at the Southern California Institute of Architecture

Diner sign advertising Mexican food, tacos, pastrami, and burger
Venture to earthy, vibrant Boyle Heights for a quick bite © cdrin / Shutterstock

Cater to curious palates

Many of LA’s ethnic communities are the largest outside their countries of origin – Thai, Korean, Iranian, Salvadoran and Mexican for starters – and have settled in neighborhoods where chefs cook for those who know their food best: humble tacos to decadent dim sum, succulent shwarma to refined Japanese kaiseki. While there are specialty eats all over LA, you’ll find some of the biggest concentrations in Boyle Heights for Mexican cooking, Koreatown, Thai Town, Persian Square in Westwood, Little Armenia in East Hollywood, the San Gabriel Valley for Chinese cuisine and three (count ‘em!) Japantowns, not to mention the dozens of restaurants lining Sushi Row in the San Fernando Valley. 

A mammoth sculpture in a tar pit, tusks and trunk pointed at the sky
La Brea Tar Pits is one of the world’s most famous fossil sites © Zack Frank / Shutterstock

Discoveries on Earth and in heaven 

Past, present and future loom large at some of LA’s most prominent museums. Ice Age critters like woolly mammoths, saber tooth cats and dire wolves that used to wander what’s now the Mid-Wilshire district became stuck in tar and met their ends at La Brea Tar Pits. The still bubbling pools of tar are on display, and as bone fragments continue to be discovered to this day, they’re transferred to the on-site museum where visitors can watch modern-day paleontologists catalog them. 

You can also let your scientific side run wild in Exposition Park. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County looks backwards to dinosaurs and LA’s original Tongva native culture, while staying current with its First Fridays programs with both lectures and DJ parties. The California Science Center showcases one of only four Space Shuttles alongside exhibits from natural habitats to the digestive system. Nearby, be on the lookout for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, currently under construction. It’s in an appropriately futuristic building given its backing by Star Wars creator George Lucas. 

Serious scientists can try for the weekly tours of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (the Mars rover people) in Pasadena; you’ll need to apply weeks in advance. 

People walk along a hiking trail at Runyon Canyon Park, in the Hollywood Hills, Santa Monica Mountains, California.
Hiking Runyon Canyon will reveal lovely views of the LA Basin © Alex Millauer / Shutterstock

Explore the great outdoors

With some of the continent’s most perfect weather and a landscape that spans beaches to mountains to enjoy it, LA is tailor-made to get outdoors and explore. It’s a truism, and also true, that in LA you can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon, while in between are innumerable trails for hiking, biking, skating and scooting. Northeast of LA, mountain communities like Big Bear offer a high-altitude escape from city life and easy access to slopes. Back in town, Griffith Park and Runyon Canyon are popular, quick jaunts for hikes with encompassing views across the LA Basin, and further afield are more strenuous hikes in the likes of Topanga State Park and Mt. Wilson

Or just head out to the Pacific in Santa Monica to rent a bike – or a board (surf or skate) – and chill as the sun sets over the vast ocean before you. Bring your sunglasses, all the better to contemplate your next adventure. 

Read more

Everyday explorations in Boston: city of innovation 
Everyday explorations in Brooklyn: New York City’s trendsetter
Everyday explorations in Manhattan: New York’s resonant heartbeat 
Everyday explorations in Atlanta: cultural capital of the South


Produced by Lonely Planet for Ford Motor Company. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

Explore related stories

Features - IMG_4598


Quirky LA – experiencing the unexpected in Los Angeles

Jan 22, 2016 • 5 min read