Los Angeles may seem like it's the playground of the rich and famous, but it's also teeming with natural wonders, architectural riches and edgy art spaces many of which you can experience without breaking the bank.
So before you start saving your pennies for your trip to La La Land, be sure to remember, some of the best things in the City of Angels are free.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel and opening hours may vary. Check the latest guidance in Los Angeles before planning a trip, and always follow local health advice.
With Los Angeles County home to more than a dozen beaches, and even more within nearby Ventura County (to the north) and Orange County (to the south), you could easily knock off over 20 free things to do simply by exploring all of the area's free public beaches. If you're pressed for time, stick to the highlights: Santa Monica for the pier and its popular Ferris wheel and carousel, Malibu for its tide pools and coastline views and Venice Beach (see No. 4) for its art scene and people watching. Check out Lonely Planet's Best beaches in LA for more ideas.
2. Live TV
Can you really say you've visited LA if you haven't spotted a celebrity? One way to snag an up-close viewing of some of today's household names is by catching a live taping of a TV show, such as The Price is Right and The Voice. And with proper planning you can fit it into your Los Angeles itinerary without spending a cent. LA's official tourism board has all the details on how to get in on the behind-the-scenes action of live TV recordings, and covers the gamut of popular talk shows, game shows and sitcoms.
3. The Hollywood sign
Erected in 1923, the Hollywood sign, one of the most iconic landmarks in LA, is about to celebrate its 100th birthday. While it's not possible to touch the massive sign, it is possible to view it from many vantage points throughout the city. These various vistas not only provide postcard-perfect backdrops for your vacation photos, but also involve some of the city's most popular hiking routes (see No. 7). One of the best viewing spots is at the Hollywood & Highland Center, which is filled with plenty of popular restaurants and the Dolby Theater, home to the Academy Awards.
4. Venice Boardwalk
In addition to the hundreds of food, souvenir and art vendors, the Venice Boardwalk is known for its many free attractions: live performers; adjacent bike path (see No. 16); colorful murals known as the Venice Art Walls; the Venice Skate Park, Venice Pier, perfect for sunsets; and the "home of bodybuilding," Muscle Beach Venice, which is frequented by well-known bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. And if you go two blocks inland, there is also the noteworthy Venice sign. It's no wonder that, after Disneyland, Venice Beach is the second biggest attraction in Southern California, with as many as 30,000 visitors per day. And the best part: the major draws are all entirely free.
5. Olvera Street
The city of Los Angeles got its start, circa 1781, right on this very block. Now part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, it attracts more than two million visitors annually. Here you can find 27 of the city's historic buildings preserved, some of which are open to the public as free museums; these include the city's oldest surviving house, Avila Adobe. The street is also an ideal spot to sample Mexican cuisine, hear live music and go souvenir shopping.
6. Sunset Strip
New York City has Times Square and, not to be outdone, its west coast rival LA has the Sunset Strip. Although Sunset Blvd is now lined with larger-than-life billboards and neon signs between Laurel Canyon and Doheny Dr, it has been a happening nightlife spot since the last '20s a hundred years ago.
7. Griffith Park
Plan a half- to full-day visit to enjoy Griffith Park, with its hiking trails offering some of the city's best views of the Hollywood sign, and the Observatory (see No. 15). Within the park you can access three different routes with views of the sign: the easy, 3-mile Mt Hollywood Trail; the moderate, 6.5-mile Brush Canyon Trail, which includes areas filmed in the 1960s Batman TV series and many movies; and lastly the difficult, 3-mile Cahuenga Peak. The Hollywood Sign Trust has more details on the hiking routes and points of interest along the way. And if you're into hiking check out our picks for the best hikes in Los Angeles.
8. The Broad
Beyond the Broad's ever-popular Infinity Mirror Rooms, the always-free museum is known for its modern collection, including works from Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons and more. The Broad is worth visiting again if you've been before because only 250 of the collection's 2000 post-war works are on display at a time. Bonus: the building's exterior makes for a great photo opp.
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9. Rodeo Drive
Sure, the legendary Rodeo Drive may be home to some of the most expensive stores in the world, but it doesn't cost a thing to window shop. Be sure to drop by the original luxury boutique, Giorgio Beverly Hills, featured in the classic film Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts.
10. Getty Villa
Beyond oil tycoon John Paul Getty's collection of Greek, Roman and Estrucan antiquities – of which there are over 1000 displayed at a time – you'll find the Getty Villa also provides gorgeous ocean views of the shores of Malibu below. While the site is always free, you do need to book a complimentary timed ticket in order to enter (walk-ins are not accepted), which may require some advance planning during peak season.
11. Hollywood Walk of Fame
This sidewalk adorned with pink marble stars has been honoring popular Hollywood entertainers since 1960. Get your walking shoes on – there's upwards of 2600 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and they stretch over more than a dozen city blocks. Head to the intersection of Hollywood Blvd and Highland Ave, where it first began, and enjoy searching for the greats such as Marilyn Monroe and Aretha Franklin. If you happen to be in town when there's a Hollywood Walk of Fame star ceremony planned no worries, these events always have free public viewing areas.
12. Forecourt of the Stars
While you have to pay to watch IMAX and MX4D shows and go on a VIP tour of the history of movie-making in Hollywood inside TCL Chinese Theater, one of its greatest offerings, located out front, doesn't cost a thing. Visitors can get hands-on (and feet on) with the "Forecourt of the Stars" – where you'll find cement-preserved handprints and footprints of top celebrities from the past 100 years – all for free. Drop by and find out what it's like to step in Jane Fonda's high heels.
13. La Brea Tar Pits & Museum
As with many museums and cultural centers in LA, the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum offers free entrance at selected times, including on the first Tuesday of every month except July and August, and every Tuesday in September. The fascinating museum has been dubbed the "Gateway to the Ice Age," and is known for having one of the world's greatest fossil collections. For LA county residents, the museum is free Monday through Friday from 3pm to 5pm
14. Third Street Promenade
Simply "The Promenade" to those from Santa Monica and LA, the Third St Promenade turned into a car-free stretch long before pedestrian plazas became the norm. If you have a little room in your budget, it's a good place to do some shopping or to enjoy happy hour at a restaurant. The many street entertainers are also worth the spend.
15. Griffith Observatory
LA's landmark 1935 observatory opens a window onto the universe from its perch on the southern slopes of Mt Hollywood. Its planetarium claims the world's most advanced star projector, while its astronomical touch displays explore some mind-bending topics, from the evolution of the telescope and the ultraviolet and x-ray techniques used to map our solar system to the cosmos itself.
The public is welcome to peer into the Zeiss Telescope on the east side of the roof where sweeping views of the Hollywood Hills and the gleaming city below are especially spectacular at sunset. After dark, staff wheel additional telescopes out to the front lawn for stargazing. The observatory is open until 10pm, but the line closes at 9:30 so we recommend arriving around dusk.
16. Marvin Braude Bike Trail
Starting within Will Rogers State Beach in the Pacific Palisades and running south to Torrance County Beach, this 22-mile bike route that parallels the Pacific Coast Highway takes you past some of LA's best beaches, including Venice and Santa Monica. Be prepared for some of that classic LA traffic, in the form of runners, skateboarders, scooter riders and dog walkers.
17. Hollywood Bowl
When concerts aren't taking place, this outdoor amphitheatre, which boasts the Hollywood hillside as its backdrop, turns into a public park. Stomp around the grounds where the Beatles, Van Morrison and the Dave Matthews Band have performed. Open rehearsals for the LA Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra are held on some mornings during the summer season (always call ahead to confirm).
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18. Venice Canals of America
The Venice Canals of Italy may be the real deal, but there's still a certain charm in stumbling upon the unique version preserved in the Venice Canals of LA. While the area's gondola rides are a thing of the past, some of the original canals that made their debut in 1905 have survived (many others were paved over to make way for the era of the automobile). Those that live on are now listed on the Register of Historic Places. Get your camera ready for this 2.1-mile loop of an eclectic neighborhood full of pedestrian bridges, picturesque beach cottages and towering modern mansions.
19. Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Known simply as LACMA by locals, the largest museum in the western US offers free entry on the second Tuesday of every month. One of the most Instagrammed spots in all of LA is the museum's "Urban Light" outdoor installation, comprised of hundreds of vintage LA street lamps, and it's always free.
20. The Beverly Hills Hotel
Staying overnight at the "Pink Palace" isn't free (or even cheap), but there's no cost to strolling the grounds of the historic Beverly Hills Hotel. It's been a staple in Beverly Hills before there even was an incorporated city of Beverly Hills (the city's incorporation became official in 1914 while the hotel opened its doors in 1912). The Bad and the Beautiful, The Way We Were, Anywhere But Here, The Muppets Go to Hollywood and Beverly Hills Cop, among others, all had scenes filmed here. The hotel has also played host to many iconic guests, who range from Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra to Charlie Chaplin.
First published in February 2021, updated in September 2021.
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