California, why are you so good to me? This marks my 3rd time in Los Angeles in the past 5 years. I tried to do newer activities to explore more of LA than I’ve already uncovered in past trips. I was also determined to try and find a lot of free activities to do (with the exception of paying for food, parking and Disney) and I definitely was able to find a decent amount of things to do and see, so much that I didn’t even get to do everything I had put on my list. The goal was to try and make this the most cost-effective Instagrammable visit to LA.
So. For those interested in LA, but have a limited budget, this might be the post for you.
There’s a lot of ground you can cover and explore here, with something different within a few blocks radius. I parked my car near the Grand Central Market, and walked all around for the rest of the day. Grand Central Market is a big food hall, with different offerings and cuisines with something for everyone. It’s also a repeat destination for me, but this time I did NOT have Eggslut like I usually do, but I do recommend Eggslut if you’ve never had it. The line is unfortunately and notoriously always long and wraps around the corner. I was on a schedule this day though and wanted something quick so I opted for a grilled beef salad from Bento Ya.
One of my favorite ice cream shops on this trip is located in Little Tokyo, a few blocks away from Grand Central Market and within walking distance going east. Bae is a cute soft serve ice cream shop specializing in unique flavors, perfect for the gram. I definitely recommend this stop as there are so many combinations of different flavors and toppings you can get. The shop is big and spacious and perfect for photos. Little Tokyo is also full of cute little specialty shops too if you’re interested in looking for kawaii culture, anime, mochi ice cream, Japanese groceries and cosmetics only found overseas. There’s a wide range of shops in the shopping center there as well as many restaurants, depending on if you’re in the mood for ramen or sushi or whatever.
If you head west of Grand Central Market, you’ll hit The Broad, a free museum to all, as long as you reserve tickets ahead of time online. I wanted to come here mostly for the coveted infinity mirror room, made famous on Instagram. Once inside, you simply walk to the kiosk to sign up for this exhibit and it’ll text you when your spot in line is up. You’re free to explore and enjoy the rest of the museum while you wait. There are many works on display and the space is HUGE, although a bit deceiving. From the outside, the building looks massive. But once in, there’s really just one floor of exhibits to browse, in terms of the collection housed inside, but it’s still huge in terms of space and ceiling height for that one floor. You definitely won’t feel claustrophobic there. For a free museum though, I would still say the exhibits are still impressive and worth your time. One of my favorites was the huge dining room set that you could walk in and out of, making you feel like you’re on the set of Honey I Shrunk The Kids. It took about an hour and a half for our time to come up for the pièce de résistance, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity mirror room, which was perfect because you can definitely get through all the exhibits upstairs in that amount of time and then do the mirror room as your last thing before you leave. The trick here is to be quick, because once inside, you only have 45 seconds to take as many photos as you can. Have your camera and pose ready. Once the door closes, the quick light show begins and you have to snap those IG photos QUICK and hope you got the shot. I see why they only give you 45 seconds because it’s so popular, but you truly need two visits to fully enjoy it. One entry for photos and another just to experience it fully without having to worry about nailing a good shot. It really is a beautiful exhibit to see in person. It’s officially named The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away and you can see why. There’s something mystical and magical about this room and all those lights and what they represent.
And if you walk right across the street north of the Broad, you’ll hit the Walt Disney Concert Hall. I didn’t have enough time on my itinerary to actually go in, I was only able to view it from across the street and stupid me, forgot to take photos of the outside. It looks impressive so maybe on my next visit I’ll finally check it out.
The Last Bookstore
If you go south of the Grand Central Market, you’ll find this little gem called The Last Bookstore which I found on Instagram as well. The way they decorate with books is so cool. I had to go. And it didn’t disappoint. It is a real bookstore as well and you’re free to sit and read and explore at your leisure, as well as purchase anything that catches your interest. They just don’t allow big bags or backpacks in but there is a free bag check upon entry, so be mindful of this rule when visiting. The labyrinth is located upstairs and up there you’ll find many different quirky displays and uniquely placed shelves of books. You are free to take as many photos as you like as well, so long as you don’t disrupt other guests. This was one of my favorite stops as it was not only free but perfectly Instagrammable.
OUE Skyspace LA
One stop in the heart of downtown LA that I enjoyed was actually not free but I do recommend it if you love city skylines is OUESkyspace LA. It was right down the block from the Broad and was definitely worth the view. Tickets were $33, which includes the skyslide, a clear slide giving you an amazing view as you slide down one floor from the 70th floor. Compared to the experience I had in Chicago at the Skydeck, this was definitely must better. It wasn’t crowded at all, there was plenty of space, and the staff was friendly, helpful and very patient making sure everyone had a good experience. There were interactive parts to this exhibit like a red carpet photo-op which is empty until you step into the center and then paparazzi comes out to swarm you. It makes for a really cute video as well as photos. They have also have a big photobooth and Colette Miller wings, as well as plenty of lounge chairs and couches for you to sit and relax and enjoy the view at your own pace. There is no time limit. And I didn’t have to wait on a line for hours just to ride the elevator to the top! In Chicago, it felt like I was on a line at Disney, waiting nearly 2 hours, just to be rudely told I had to get out before I could take any photos, meanwhile the family in front of me had ample time PER person and for a group photo.
I’ve been wanting to live out my Malibu Barbie dreams and visit these beautiful beaches but somehow the itineraries for my past two visits just didn’t have them in the cards. This time around, my husband got a convertible rental car and it was pretty lit as we drove through Malibu with the top down. The drive there was also pretty amazing but scary, driving through the mountainside. I even saw areas that were damaged by the fires last year, all black and ashen. We stumbled upon the beautiful Malibu Hindu temple on our drive there, hidden in the mountainside, which we ended up circling back to walk through and view later on. If you have time, it’s worth a quick stop, but the temple also has limited hours so check before you stop in. It’s free to park and walk around.
We had lunch on the waterfront at Nobu Malibu, which was expensive but worth it for the experience. It’s been recommended to me by so many people so why not? Once in a lifetime, go all out. It was just beautiful having lunch and watching the waves crash against the sand, just several feet away. It’s funny because I can’t swim, but something about being near the water calms me. Maybe it’s because I grew up on Long Island near the water. I’ve always loved it. The people there were friendly and accommodating, despite my being an hour late for my reservation due to traffic from picking up a beautiful flower arrangement from J’Adore Les Fleurs (which I also highly recommend if you’re ever looking for beautiful arrangements while staying in LA), bad timing and my just habitually being late for everything. The restaurant was busy when we arrived but they still seated us right away and at a prime spot with a direct view of the water. We ordered drinks, sushi, and steak and everything was delicious! I would definitely say go if you can afford to splurge a little.
Point Dume Beach
After lunch, we drove out to Point Dume beach. Parking was only $3 because it was later in the afternoon and the hike up to the cliffs was easy enough. At the top, we got to watch dolphins swim! We heard from other locals sometimes you can also spot whales from here. This was a beautiful beach to visit and hike. I also wanted to go further West and see El Matador beach but we ran out of time. Next time!
Santa Monica Pier
On the way home, we drove alongside the coast and hit up the Santa Monica pier. I’ll be honest, this was a bit of a letdown, but to be fair, it was a rather cold and windy evening so I was only there for a good 15-30 minutes before I decided to leave because it simply wasn’t worth my time except for a photo for the gram. The park was closing pretty early and there weren’t that many rides to begin with, let alone anything impressive. It’s an iconic spot everyone hits up when they come to California but this is definitely a one and done for me.
This is one of my favorite spots in LA for photos. It’s a museum with a famous outdoor art installation of street lights called the Urban Lights that always draws me in. They’re just absolutely beautiful. It’s free to view them but LACMA itself is only free on certain days and time. I’ve never actually taken the time to go inside the museum, to be honest though. I’ve only come for the lights. If you’re here to do the same thing, my advice would be to come at 7pm when the parking is half price and the lights are about to turn on within the hour. It’s the perfect lighting too. Before they turn on is when your crowd is the lowest but once they turn on, you have about 5-10 minutes before the place gets swarmed with people trying to do the same thing as you. So time your visit right and snap fast to get a photo with minimal people in the background, otherwise you might have to play a strategic game of blocking people with your body and poses, as well as angling the lights just right.
This is actually a very boring spot, if I’m being honest but it’s iconic, albeit touristy. It’s literally just like two blocks of seeing stars on the sidewalk and walking by the famous Mann’s Chinese Theater. Nothing really fancy or exciting but it’s a free thing to do and view in LA. Another one and done experience for someone new to LA/Hollywood. It would probably be a nicer experience without all the solicitors hassling you as you walked though.
Hollywood Sign Hike
I’ve been meaning to do this too in past trips but the stars didn’t align until now. And alongside my Princess half marathon buddy too! We were both determined to hike all the way up to the Hollywood sign in the most inappropriate hiking attire, hahaha. Unfortunately my husband wanted to kill me and so we cut our hike rather short, but we still managed to get our iconic basic bitch Hollywood sign pics. For the gram! If you’re interested in a short hike to the Hollywood sign for quick photos, my best recommendation is to either get dropped off by Uber or park your car alongside the hill of Lake Hollywood Park (parking is free as long as you can find proper street parking) and walk alongside the Innsdale Trail. It gets pretty close up to the sign compared to the viewpoints alongside Lake Hollywood Park. I saw trail tour groups doing the hike too if you prefer the security of knowing where you're going with a big group but if you're on a budget and not navigationally challenged, this is totally doable on your own and another free activity on it's own. My word of advice though. The entirety of the various Hollywood sign hikes are 99% without shade so definitely pre-sunscreen as well as bring it with you to keep applying. Rain is very rare in LA and even with some cloud cover, those UV rays are still strong and it only takes 15 minutes to get a nasty sunburn. Make sure you bring a bottle of water too to hydrate as there are no "rest stops" along this trail or stores nearby as the area leading up to the trails are all residential neighborhoods. This was definitely fun to do though despite the elevation and severe incline changes. But if that’s not your thing, you can still get some decent pictures just lounging around at Lake Hollywood Park without having to hike at all.
Disney I promise I will cover in a different post altogether simply because there’s too much to cover and well, Disney is just in a different category altogether when it comes to tackling that on like I do, from open to close, and both parks. I did a photo shoot there, which I will cover for those interested in how I research, plan and execute those out. This was also not a free activity as I had to purchase park tickets to attend, but I definitely recommend this as a stop if you are a big Disney fan and love the parks. And just because you've been to Disney World, doesn't mean you should pass on Disneyland. I get this question all the time as to which park is better but honestly they're both different. There are some things that Disneyland actually does better than WDW because they're a more local park and can cater to smaller details and there are some things that WDW does do better than Disneyland simply because they have the resources and space. My advice would be to not compare the two and let them shine on their own. Go and see for yourself, but mostly enjoy the experience! It's worth the stop.
Other Miscellaneous LA tidbits
Ice Cream/Foodie Stops
There were a few ice cream stops on this trip, of course. There wasn’t really anything I didn’t like so I recommend everything I stopped for and tried.
Venice - Wanderlust Creamery: This artisanal ice cream shop specializes in unique flavors inspired by travel. I tried 3 different flavors and seriously was blown away. I had sticky rice mango, creme of the poppy (Game of Thrones inspired), and the White (inspired by the nostalgic White Rabbit candies - if you know, you know). I came initially just for the White, because of all the raves online about this new unique flavor and it didn’t disappoint.
Garden Grove - Eiswelt Gelato: My friend who lives in California told me about this place 2 years ago so it’s been on my list to try ever since for my next trip back. I made sure that it was a stop on my itinerary since I absolutely love Garden Grove. You can tell you’re there because the air smells like pho the moment you drive through the area. I love that you can get specialty Vietnamese cuisine in LA. You’d think being such a melting pot, NY would have decent Vietnamese cuisine but alas, it does not. In my recent travels, I’ve found that Boston and Garden Grove does it better when it comes to offering more than just pho and banh mi. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, there’s just so much more to Vietnamese food than those staples which I wish more people would know about because it really is one of the best cuisines.) Anyway, I finally made it to Eiswelt Gelato, which is known for their super kawaii animal designed scoops. The flavors there were light and perfectly balanced so it wasn’t overbearing. I would definitely love to come back on my next trip.
Alhambra - Bopomofo Cafe: Back in high school/college days, I stumbled upon a video called Yellow Fever by Wongfu Productions, a group of college kids that made funny videos just for fun on the internet. Over time they made more and started a cult following. They make great comedy shorts and they make cute music video shorts too. Anyways, they just opened up their own bubble tea shop and being a fan, I wanted to make a stop and show support. Unfortunately with my luck, the day that I decided to stop there, Phil, the face and founder of Wongfu, was in NYC (celebrating his new feature on a YouTube campaign with his face plastered around NYC billboards) as fate would have it. It’s great to see these small groups I followed from their early humble beginnings make it big and make a name for themselves, especially since Asian representation is finally getting some much needed and well deserved recognition in this day and age. It’s really inspiring to me since as an East Coast Asian, I feel like I don’t take as much risks as the West Coast Asians do in terms of business ventures and entrepreneurship. Which is why I wanted to stop by and show my support. Maybe one day the stars will align and I’ll get to meet the crew.
LA - Milk - I love their ice cream macaron sandwiches. I always have to grab a fruity pebbles one. This time I also got their strawberry shortcake ice cream bar and man, was it amazing. I wish they had these in NY. I want another one already.
DTLA - Bottega Louie - My friends always bring me back their macarons when they visit me on the East coast because they're one of my favorites. I ordered a small box to take back home to NY with me. I've also had dinner here a few years ago for my birthday and this was my first time here for lunch. Everything was delicious. Service is always excellent and the dining room is gorgeous and spacious. The aesthetic of this place makes me miss Paris so much.
I’ve only ever rented a car for my LA trips but my friend who joined me for a few days to do the Hollywood hike and other adventures with me did take public transportation to visit her own choice venues. According to her, she found the trains and buses pretty easy to navigate and use. I never used them simply because the destinations I chose for LA were always sprawled all over the place and I wanted to hit them all up one after another and get from spot to spot quickly. If you’re like me and on a mission to hit everything up on a gram tour, then I recommend renting a car. If you can take your time and aren’t on a schedule, then try public transportation. I also noticed walking around downtown LA there was a lot of construction going on to expand the train lines to provide faster and more direct express routes from popular points of interest like between DTLA and the Santa Monica Pier.
My husband also drove for most of the trip with the exception of one day where I drove from Irvine into DTLA myself for a girls day. I was nervous at first but I actually found LA traffic not too terrible and navigating around pretty easy. It just looks initimidating at first because WTF 7-8 lanes on a highway and a free-for-all as people just dash across lanes like crazy. But I got the hang of it being on the highway for about an hour both there and back. A big tip though is to be mindful of parking rules everywhere. Almost nowhere is there free parking in LA, and if there is, there are very limited rules about it. You have to pay almost everywhere and most places and meters are cash only. Actually a lot of places, food-wise and venue-wise were cash only. Luckily I had some cash to spare, but in NY I’m so used to cards being accepted everywhere so I rarely carry cash anymore. So another big tip to those out of state. Carry cash.
Other Points of Interest
I didn’t cover these on this post but I have done them before in past trips so if you’re looking for more places to visit, I can recommend these:
1. The Griffith Observatory - This was closed during my visit otherwise I would’ve gone. Another favorite stop in LA and another free thing to do and houses great exhibits inside. It’s also got a great view of the city from above, both during the day and at night. The planetarium shows are also great and if you have your student ID on you,are discounted to $5.
2. Beverly Hills Rodeo Drive - Let me know if you can spot the shop where the infamous Pretty Woman scene took place where she was scoffed at and kicked out.
3. Venice Beach - Maybe one day I’ll be worthy enough to step foot onto Muscle Beach. There’s also a big skatepark nearby where I saw a cute little girl killing it last time.
4. Universal Studios Park - the park is much smaller than the Orlando counterpart and has much less attractions so I usually reserve this for when I come for Halloween Horror Nights since I can do both the rides and the Halloween event at the same time. I do highly recommend their Halloween event as they do a great job at it compared to Orlando in that aspect.
5. Universal Studios Tour - The studio tour is separate from the theme park but nearby. It was really cool to see the behind the scenes of movies, shows and view set design and wardrobe. We got to tour a huge warehouse of props and see how they select what they need and catalogue it all, as well as visit a huge warehouse that houses all the Batman vehicles from the old movies to the Dark Knight trilogy to the new reboot with Justice League.
All in all, I had a great time in LA this trip and I can’t wait til my next one, whenever that may be. Somehow I’m still always finding new stones to uncover each time I go. The only thing that’s really stopping me from moving there and becoming a West Coast Asian is I’m too lazy to open up my textbooks again to study for their state pharmacy boards/NAPLEX and the fact that gas is currently $4.59. FOR REGULAR. Which means the cost of living there is more astronomical than the cost of living in Long Island/New York. Maybe one day. Until then, I guess I can’t complain about my $2.89/gallon gas prices anymore.