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How to see Los Angeles for free

Let’s face it, there’s no shortage of things to spend your money on in Los Angeles. But if renting a Malibu beach house and cleaning out the boutiques of Rodeo Drive are not on your to-do list, there are plenty of cheaper, more entertaining ways to enjoy this metropolis of excess. Here’s a quick guide to some of our favourite free things to do in the City of Angels…


Santa Monica State beach

In many ways Santa Monica State Beach is the embodiment of the perfect California shore. Familiar to millions as the setting for Baywatch – the most popular TV show of all time – it’s the ideal destination for an active, outdoor holiday, with a range of free sights and activities on offer.

In addition to the landmark 1909 Santa Monica Pier with its famous ferris wheel and historic carousel, there’s a two mile stretch of sand dotted with lifeguard towers – perfect for swimming, surfing, beach volleyball and sunbathing. There’s also a free outdoor chess park, and a promenade with adjacent bike and running trails which winds past picnic areas, shops and cafes.


Venice Beach

South of Santa Monica, Venice is an ocean and canalside district on the Westside of L.A, and its beach boardwalk is the most popular tourist attraction in southern California. Probably one of the best destinations for people watching in all of the USA, this is where the quirky, the flirty, and the body-beautiful come to strut their stuff and be seen. Running parallel to the beach, the Ocean Front Walk passes famous Muscle Beach Gym, a skate dance plaza, and various basketball, paddle tennis and handball courts. An assorted human landscape of rollerbladers, acrobats, musicians, chainsaw jugglers, tattoo artists, conspiracy theorists, mindreaders, portrait painters, breakdancers and t-shirt vendors line the path.

With all the action on the beach it would be easy to miss the canals, but this would be a mistake. This peaceful, upscale neighbourhood makes for a great stroll, especially for those who like to peer nosily into the unattainable homes of others (more a case of natural curiosity, we like to think). When you hit Venice Fishing Pier, turn inland and head east along Washington Boulevard. The canals will be on your left.

The Getty Center and Getty Villa

Overlooking the L.A skyline and California coast, the Getty Center houses an extensive collection of 19th and 20th century American and European art, alongside an inspiring, world-class programme of exhibitions. The Getty Center is open every day except Mondays and admission is completely free. It’s easily accessible via public transport too: use the Trip Planner to find your most direct route. Parking is also available for $15, reduced to $10 after 3pm. Entrance to Malibu’s Getty Villa – an educational centre, museum and gardens dedicated to Roman and ancient Greek art – is also free, though an advance, timed-entry ticket is required.


Olvera Street

Olvera Street is a buzzy Mexican marketplace located in downtown Los Angeles. It’s part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument; the original 1781 birthplace of the city. The Olvera Street alley is lined with vendors selling all manner of arts and crafts, puppets, guitars, sombreros, pottery, ponchos and serapes – colourful, blanket-style shawls – along with other items that play to a romantic notion of Old Mexico. Listen to live mariachi music, watch folkloric dances and take a free tour of the Avila Adobe, the oldest existing house in L.A.


Griffith Park and Observatory

Griffith Park is a huge 4,310-acre urban park in L.A’s Loz Feliz neighbourhood, at the eastern end of the Santa Monica mountains. The park is home to landscaped parkland and picnic areas, mahogany woodlands, deep canyons and wilderness areas, and is criss-crossed with bridle, jogging and hiking trails. Other attractions include tennis courts and four municipal golf courses (fee payable), the Travel Town Museum; a free attraction dedicated to the preservation of the United States’ railroads, and the free-to-enter Griffith Observatory which hosts regular star-gazing events. The Hollywood sign is also located here, on the southern side of distant Mount Lee – you can see it if you look northwest from Griffith Observatory’s car park.

Little Tokyo

Another neighbourhood worth exploring in downtown L.A is Little Tokyo, declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1995 for its enduring collection of pedestrianized streets, offbeat shops and superlative sushi joints and ramen restaurants.

Serving as an important hub for Japanese immigrants in the early part of the 20th century, the neighbourhood is one of only three official ‘Japantowns’ in the United States (the other two are in San Francisco and San Jose). It’s now something of a magnet for entrepenurial Japanese Americans, who’ve revitalised its streets with new businesses and annual events like Nisei Week and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

As well as several Buddhist temples, Little Tokyo is also home to the Japan American National Museum (free every Thurs between 5pm and 8pm and all day every third Thursday of the month) and a couple of Japanese gardens, including one on the rooftop of the nearby DoubleTree Los Angeles Downtown Hotel.


Written by Maxine Sheppard

Image credits:

Griffith Park Observatory © iStock: Eric Hood

Santa Monica pier © iStock: stellalevi

Ocean Boardwalk at Venice Beach © iStock: mixmotive

Griffith Observatory, Mount Hollywood © iStock: David Sucsy

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