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Los Angeles is an incredible city, whether you love it or not. It’s a cultural center of the United States and draws hopeful talents – artists, musicians, actors – every year hoping to break it big. But what about for us travelers, who want to explore places but not necessarily live there… Even before I moved to California, I started taking trips to Los Angeles – including one stop on the PCH where I spent one day in L.A.
Turns out L.A. is full of incredible things to do, so much that you can pack several days full of interesting activities no matter whether you love the silver screen or the stars overhead. If you only have one day in L.A. though, you can still pack a lot in.
After my various trips to Los Angeles, I’ve finally updated this post to share exactly how I recommend spending one day in L.A. – whether it’s your first trip, you’re just stopping by on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, or something else brings you to the City of Angels.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Chumash and Tongva (Gabrieleno) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in June 2014, and updated in October 2017 and again in March 2021.
The Best Things to Do When You Only Have One Day in L.A.
If you only have one day in L.A., you’ve got to pack a lot in. To help you make the most of it, I put together this map that covers the basics of each place I recommend below. Read on to learn about how to visit each one and why this is the best way to make the most of your day in Los Angeles.
1. Hike to the Hollywood Sign
We’ve seen it in movies – and y’all know you can’t believe everything you see on the silver screen – but the Hollywood sign is real, wildly enough!
Hiking to the Hollywood sign is a great way to start your one day in L.A.; getting in a good hike is actually a common local’s activity – though you likely won’t see them here near the admittedly ostentatious tourist sign.
There are actually three trails to hike to the Hollywood sign (one is currently closed); I recommend parking at Griffith Observatory (next on the itinerary) and making the easy hike from there on the Mt. Hollywood Trail. Once you reach the sign, you’ll have sweeping views of L.A. sprawled out beneath you. It’s a three-mile hike with 500 feet of elevation gain; plan accordingly and bring water and a hat to protect yourself from the fierce SoCal sun.
2. Visit Griffith Observatory
Once you return back to your car, head into Griffith Observatory (assuming it is open; it has been closed due to the pandemic, so be sure to check the website for details) to learn more about the other kind of stars people care about in Los Angeles. (That would be the ones up above, not the ones with mansions in Malibu and Beverly Hills.)
Don’t miss out on the stunning views from the exterior walkways; you can look out over DTLA (that’s “Downtown L.A.” and all the way to the Pacific on a clear day. You can also see the Hollywood sign from here, if you weren’t up for that morning hike I recommended.
3. Walk the Hollywood Walk of Fame
I’ll admit: this was the top reason I ever wanted to visit L.A. – visiting the Walk of Fame was on my bucket list from an early age. This is probably because I was always obsessed with celebrities and movies, and this just seemed like the epicenter of it all!
After all, it’s along the Hollywood Walk of Fame that you’ll see the stars embedded in the sidewalk. It’s where you can pass TCL Chinese Theater, the stunning and a bit unexpected Eastern architecture of the world’s premiere movie theater. And in front of that theater where the red carpet rolls out, with handprints and signatures inlaid into the cement.
Admittedly, the area around here is certainly dodgy. But if it’s your first trip to L.A. or you’ve never been to this part of Hollywood and only have one day, it’s a must.
4. Roll Down Sunset Boulevard
As you make your way south along the Hollywood Hills, you’re going to pass through some fancy parts of L.A., specifically Beverly Hills. And how will you get there? On Sunset Boulevard, of course! (Yep, it’s also real.)
Sunset Boulevard will take you from Hollywood to the Getty Center with a quick detour for lunch (more on all that below). I don’t have a specific recommendation for stops along the route – just that if you’re already driving this general direction, don’t let Google put you on an interstate when you can take this famous road instead!
5. Lunch at In n Out Burger
As mentioned, you’ll make a quick detour off Sunset Boulevard for lunch. Specifically, you’re aiming for the In N Out Burger at 922 Gayley Avenue. It’s basically right on the route and a perfectly L.A. lunch spot if you’ve never tried ti before.
In N Out Burger is SoCal’s local burger spot, though you’ll now find them spread out throughout the West Coast and even into the Southwest. It’s cheap, fast, and surprisingly delicious, given the other two adjectives I just used.
My go-to order? A Double-Double with no onions (protein style if I’m trying to be healthy), an order of fries Animal style (if I’m not trying to be healthy), and a vanilla shake. Best of all, it’ll cost you less than $10.
6. Explore Getty Center
Next stop on your one day Los Angeles itinerary is the gorgeous Getty Center. Arguably one of the best art museums in the world, the Getty Center opened in 1997 and cost $1.3 billion. Yep, with a B. (To be fair, the Getty family is still estimated to be worth about five times that…)
The Getty Center Museum is free to the public and houses art and artifacts dating back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as art in its many forms through the millennia. It’s honestly hard to choose which exhibits to highlight here, and they change with some frequency. Just give the website a peek to see what’s on and which art forms you want to experience.
(Also, it’s worth noting: the Getty Center is still closed due to the pandemic at the time of writing, but has plans to reopen as early as mid-April 2021.)
7. Stroll on Santa Monica Pier
After you’ve drunk your visual fill of the many other art forms that call L.A. home (aside from just TV and movies!), it’s time for some fresh air. You can park in between Santa Monica Pier Venice Beach (three miles apart) and walk between the two, or drive from one to the other. In either event you’ll get to stroll along the idyllic Pacific Coast that helps so many people fall in love with Los Angeles.
Santa Monica Pier is now an amusement park, so if you also want to get your heart pumping, there are rides and other attractions to do that. You can also just enjoy the lights and crowds a bit after the tranquility of the Getty Center.
8. Sunset at Venice Beach
Next, it’s time for a short 10-minute drive down to Venice Beach for sunset and some colorful characters. And they definitely are colorful – both literally and figuratively.
Venice Beach Boardwalk is definitely a sight to see, though it admittedly feels very different than the rest of L.A. Here you’ll find shops selling tie-dye shirts, Bob Marley flags, and pot (which is legal in California) next to funky eateries and patio dining spots. Around the corner is the unmissable mini donut shop, Zelda’s, but you may have to pass a few panhandlers, weave around a few rollerskaters, and pass the guys pumping iron at the outdoor Muscle Beach gym.
As I said, it’s a colorful place. But it’s also one of those uniquely Los Angeles things to squeeze in when you only have one day. Don’t worry though – for the rest of your one day in L.A., it’s more about rest, rejuvenation, and refueling.
9. Dinner in Little Tokyo
Skip dinner with a beach view and hop back in the car. You may encounter some classic L.A. traffic on your way to Little Tokyo, but it’s worth it to enjoy dinner in one of the best foodie neighborhoods in town. (Don’t just take my word for it; Thrillist named it the best too.)
As the name suggests, Little Tokyo is the original Japanese neighborhood in L.A. It was here I discovered the small memorial to Angeleno astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger crash for my San Francisco Chronicle story about the city’s space spots. Here too you can discover incredible food, like ramen at Daikokuya or incredible sashimi at Hama Sushi. If you don’t love sushi, I also had a great meal of sausage and beer at Wurstküche on the edge of the neighborhood.
10. Drinks at one of the Famous L.A. Tiki Bars
Last but certainly not least, no trip to Los Angeles would be complete without sampling the city’s diverse nightlife scene.
While others might be up for cover charges and clubbing, I prefer to sample a different flavor: tiki culture! Did you know that tiki culture began in greater Los Angeles when Don Beach opened the world’s first tiki bar (Don the Beachcomber) in 1933? Well, now you do!
Don the Beachcomber is no longer open, there are other great tiki bars to try in the area:
You won’t be able to visit them all in one night – tiki drinks are too strong for that! So pick one and plan for a few cocktails there to toast an epic day in Los Angeles.
Where to Stay for One Night in Los Angeles
To fit all of this in to one day in L.A., you need to spend at least one night in the city too. Here are a couple places I suggest:
- The ultra-luxe Shade Hotel. From $399/night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- The budget-friendly Wave Manhattan Beach Hotel. From $113/night, book on Hotels.com.
- The well-supplied, cozy Venice Beach Waldorf. From $150/night, book on Hotels.com.
- The funky, fresh Hotel Erwin. From $339/night, book on Booking.com.
Have an Extra Day in Los Angeles? Here’s How to Fill It
If you’re sold now that one day in Los Angeles is not nearly enough and want to change your plans, you might wonder what else there is to do. Here are some ideas for how I would fill extra travel time in L.A.:
- Universal Studios Hollywood – Y’all know I love Harry Potter and visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter always makes me happy. (I celebrated my 30th birthday here!)
- Visiting the SpaceX Factory in Hawthorne – There’s a full-size Falcon 9 outside the factory, and a fab spot for lunch nearby (Eureka!).
- California Science Center – If you love science, this is the place – and also great for families.
- Watch a film at Cinerama – One of the many great movie theaters in L.A., this one is a bucket list stop for you fellow movie nerds.
- See a Show at the Greek or Hollywood Bowl – These are two great venues to enjoy live music if that’s your preferred art form.
- Go to Disneyland – It’s not my style, but it’s easy to spend a day at Disneyland if you want to visit the (other) happiest place on earth!
I hope that shows that even two days in Los Angeles isn’t quite enough… but maybe you’ll just have to plan a trip back!
Have any questions about spending one day in L.A.? Let me know in the comments!