Los Angeles is legendary for its sunshine, glamor and cultural edge – as well as for its high costs. Yet there are many exciting activities and experiences that don't cost a dime. If you know where to find them, that is.
Here are some of the most rewarding free things to do in LA.
1. Immersive yourself in another (literary) world at the Last Bookstore
Calling all bookworms: The Last Bookstore in DTLA isn't just California's largest independent new-and-used bookstore: it's an immersive experience. The store enchants visitors with its archways made from books and a visually captivating atmosphere.
In addition to the 500,000-plus volumes that line the shelves, the literary hub also features displays of vinyl records and work by local artists. This one-of-a-kind atmosphere is always free – though keep in mind even a small purchase helps to keep it going.
2. Soak in the LA views at Griffith Observatory
You've seen the views of sprawling, twinkling LA in countless movies. Griffith Observatory is one of the best vantage points from which to see it all with your own eyes.
From the Hollywood Sign to the towers of Downtown, the views from the top of the hill are worth the hike. Beyond offering stellar panoramic views, the observatory houses engaging exhibits on astronomy and space exploration. Don't miss the chance to peer through the Zeiss Telescope, which affords the opportunity to observe celestial objects and events like Halley's Comet.
What began as a WPA-funded educational project in 1935 has now welcomed more than seven million people to explore the universe through the original refracting telescope. Indeed, it's the most looked-through telescope in the world. Public telescope viewing usually starts at around 7pm each night.
Planning tip: Sunset is the most popular time at Griffith Observatory; the views speak for themselves. Parking outside and near the Observatory runs at $10 per hour. If you're not in a rush to make it to the top, park a little lower down the hill in one of the free parking areas in Griffith Park. From there, make the short hike up the hill – and you'll be rewarded with one of the best vistas LA has to offer.
3. Attend a free concert at the historic Hollywood Bowl
The historic Hollywood Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater in the heart of Hollywood, has hosted some of the world's biggest stars as well as internationally acclaimed classical musicians and orchestras. While most of the shows at the amphitheater require paid tickets, they often start for as low as $1, and the calendar occasionally features free concerts and open rehearsals.
Whether they're attending a show or not, those fascinated by the history of the famed venue can go on a self-guided tour and enjoy free admission to the on-site museum. Within the Bowl itself, you'll find a variety of exhibits and artifacts that showcase the history of the venue and its prominent role in the entertainment industry.
Local tip: The Bowl stands are also free and open to anyone on days when no show is scheduled. Pack a picnic and spend some time soaking in the ambiance of this historic venue.
4. Indulge in art and culture at the Getty Villa Museum and the Getty Center
The Getty Villa Museum and Getty Center are absolute must-visit destinations for culture seekers, art enthusiasts and history buffs visiting LA. Run by the same entity yet each with a very different (and very wonderful) feel, the two Westside institutions are about a 20-minute drive from one another.
The Getty Villa Museum in Malibu takes architectural inspiration from an ancient Roman complex, complete with soaring atriums, column-lined loggias, mosaic-tile floors, an outdoor amphitheater and other evocative, opulent touches. The complex served as the first public home of the art collection of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty; when the foundation he established decided to expand, the Villa became the repository for its priceless holdings of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. There may be no more splendid venue in the world for taking in these antiquities.
A stunning hilltop complex in Brentwood offering panoramic views of the city and the Pacific, the Getty Center opened to the public in 1997. Notable as much for its stunning Richard Meier architecture as its collections and rotating exhibitions of European paintings, sculptures and manuscripts, the Getty promises aesthetic riches at every turn.
Visitors shouldn't miss the Getty's Central Garden, "a living work of art" that features displays of flowers and local plants plus peaceful waterfalls. The views aren't shabby, either.
Local tip: While admission to both Getty museums is free, parking runs $20 at each. If you visit the Getty Villa and the Getty Center on the same day, however, you'll only have to pay for parking once (not applicable for Monday and Tuesday). Alternatively, both locations have Metro bus routes that stop just outside.
5. Attend a taping of your favorite TV series
Since LA remains the entertainment capital of the world, why not experience the magic firsthand by being part of an audience during a live show? As someone who's been to countless tapings, I can confirm that the energy is electric and will leave you wanting more. While you'll have to invest some time, you're guaranteed to see celebrities and performers while they work, you'll get a behind-the-scenes look at your favorite productions, and you might even catch some exclusive moments viewers at home will never see.
Planning tip: From Jimmy Kimmel to American Idol, many different shows invite audiences in – but you'll need to be organized and book in advance, sometimes logging on a precise time to snag tickets. Also note that many shows go on break during the summer, so audience experiences may be harder to find if you visit during that time.
6. Lift off into space at the California Science Center
The California Science Center delights anyone who enjoys immersive, hands-on exhibits that encourage curiosity about the world. From deep dives to discovery rooms, the center offers four free zones to explore: World of Life, Creative World, Ecosystems and the famed Air and Space. As someone who's always been indifferent about space travel, even I was left in awe when I got an up-close look at the space shuttle Endeavour – a vessel that's traveled to space and back 25 times.
The four free displays may be more than sufficient for your visit. But if you want even more, the center hosts other special exhibitions and IMAX screenings for an admission fee.
7. Find your favorite stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Yes, it's touristy. Yet the Hollywood Walk of Fame is great fun – and it's great for kids, too. The famed 1.3-mile public sidewalk along Hollywood Blvd features over 2700 brass and terrazzo stars inlaid in the sidewalk, honoring significant entertainers who have excelled in film, TV, music, radio and live performances.
Planning tip: The strip gets very busy and crowded from mid-morning all year round. If you want to take your time and take pictures with your favorite stars, start your day early.