I moved from Sydney to Los Angeles more than five years ago, and I've come a long way from trying to order flat whites, thinking the entrée was the appetizer and assuming a biscuit was the same as a cookie. Learning to master the City of Angels goes beyond food and drink hurdles, but the following tips should set you on your way.
From unique and vibrant neighborhoods to the many different cultures of its residents, LA is such an exciting, quirky and charming city to visit. If you’re short on time, two to three days will give you enough time to focus on a few iconic highlights, such as Hollywood and Santa Monica. If you're looking to venture beyond the typical tourist spots and live like a local, seven to 14 days would be ideal, but you can also fit a lot into five to seven days.
This guide will address the big questions you may have about LA, including the challenges, tips on local etiquette and advice on the city's hidden charms. Whether you’re looking to witness landmarks such as Runyon Canyon and Malibu Pier or explore lesser-known corners of town, these tips will help you make the most of your adventures in Los Angeles and keep you safe and sound while doing so.
1. Plan your time or spend your trip stuck in traffic
Visitors are often surprised by the sprawling nature of Los Angeles and how far attractions are from one another. A friend once visited and planned to get breakfast downtown, go to Disneyland in Anaheim and enjoy some afternoon shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills before heading to dinner at Nobu Malibu. As you might expect, she didn’t make it past her breakfast stop.
Surprisingly for such a big city, Los Angeles is short on public transportation. Depending on where you plan to go, a rental car may be necessary, but the traffic in the city can bring travel to a standstill. To avoid any disappointment (and tick as much off your bucket list as possible), familiarize yourself with the areas you plan to visit on a map, avoid traveling during peak hours and plan your time ahead.
2. It isn't all sunshine – bring a jacket!
Growing up in Sydney, the thought of gathering around a fire during the summer was incomprehensible. When I saw movies of people in the US roasting s'mores with jackets on, I just couldn't understand it. Moving to Los Angeles, I quickly learned that things were different -- even in summer, it can get cold here at night.
There's also a misconception that winter doesn't exist in LA. While many other US states experience much colder weather, temperatures do still drop on the West Coast, so wear layers and pack for all weather conditions.
3. Always make restaurant reservations
LA is home to over 30,000 restaurants, and the city is famous for its vibrant international food scene. While the options are endless, and you can always find somewhere that accepts walk-ins, reservations are recommended and often essential for popular spots. A week or two in advance will suffice for most places. Many restaurants accept bookings through websites such as OpenTable and Resy. If you want to eat like a local, the prime time for dining is between 7pm and 9pm.
4. LA may be the city of glitz and glam, but dress down
For all its movie stars and fashion icons, Los Angeles has a relaxed and casual vibe, especially when it comes to visiting the beaches. A mix of casual, trendy and comfortable is the typical dress style, with many locals trading heels for sneakers throughout the day. However, for more upscale restaurants, events and theater shows, dressing a little more formally is appropriate.
5. Beware of smoking rules
The use and possession of cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vapes and cannabis is legal in Los Angeles. However, the city has very strict regulations regarding where you can light up. Smoking is prohibited in public spaces, including indoor areas such as offices, restaurants and bars, and most parks. If you do want to smoke, check the regulations in each county as rules vary.
Regardless of where you are, you cannot drive after consuming marijuana. If you ignore this rule, a misdemeanor Driving under the Influence (DUI) charge can lead to fines, six months in county jail, suspension of your driving license or even deportation (if you’re a tourist).
6. Be prepared for high levels of homelessness
Homelessness is a complex issue in Los Angeles. Some 75,000 people go without a roof over their heads on any given night, and seeing people living on the streets can be quite confronting, especially for children. It’s important to educate yourself and your family about the issue ahead of your travels to LA.
Homelessness occurs in many parts of the city, and there can be associated social problems, but you shouldn't avoid visiting certain areas because of it. If you encounter people in this situation, show compassion, respect personal space and avoid confrontation. For safety, it can be a good idea to travel in a group in some districts at night.
7. Be open-minded toward different cultures
California is the second-most diverse state (behind Hawaii), with an ethnic and racial diversity of 69.7% and the nation’s largest Hispanic and Latino population. When visiting Los Angeles, you’re in for a treat with myriad cuisines, cultural festivals and entertainment genres to inspire the senses.
While embracing LA's many cultures, be both curious and respectful, particularly when partaking in customs and activities that are unfamiliar to you. Approach conversations and interactions with cultural sensitivity and avoid making assumptions.
8. Always purchase travel insurance with good medical coverage
It’s one thing to risk your bag not making it to your destination, but you’re playing with fire if you travel to Los Angeles without travel insurance that includes coverage for medical treatment. There is no universal healthcare system in the United States, and if you don't have coverage, you’ll be left with an extremely hefty bill in the event of a medical emergency. When my mom visited recently, she had to consult a medical professional, and the bill for a 10-minute visit came to over $4,000. Luckily, she had medical coverage!
9. You can drink tap water (but you may prefer purified water)
On paper, the tap water in Los Angeles is safe to drink. However, the safety of doing so is a subject of ongoing debate. While contaminants in tap water do not exceed permitted levels, many locals choose to drink filtered or bottled water due to trace levels of chemicals such as arsenic, disinfection byproducts and nitrates. Do your own research and determine what’s best for yourself and your family.
10. Be prepared in case of natural disasters
While not a frequent occurrence, natural disasters are a feature of life in Los Angeles and something visitors should be prepared for. The city is prone to earthquakes due to its position on the tectonically active Pacific Ring of Fire, and there are an average of two to three tremors per year. Familiarize yourself with safety protocols such as "Drop, Cover, and Hold On" and be ready to shelter under a table or desk (not in a doorway) if there is an earthquake during your travels.
Wildfires are also a problem in the Los Angeles area, especially when conditions are dry and windy. Keep up-to-date with fire reports and monitor the media for evacuation orders. Even if you’re not in a fire zone, the air quality can quickly deteriorate due to the smoke and ash. If you have respiratory problems, stay indoors and use air purifiers where available.
More common than earthquakes and wildfires is extreme heat. Temperatures can exceed 120℉ in some areas in summer, with a record temperature of 130℉ measured in 2012 at the Santa Fe Dam. If you engage in outdoor activities such as hiking, stay hydrated, use high-factor sunscreen and avoid being outside during the hottest hours of the day, especially if you’re not accustomed to high temperatures.
The good news is that the Los Angeles County and Los Angeles City authorities send out mass emergency notifications by telephone and text – opt-in via their websites and keep your devices turned on and updated while traveling.