Encompassing 500 square miles, Los Angeles spans pockets of lush national forests and stretches of arid deserts in between crowded cities. Multicultural communities thrive in areas that range from traditional neighborhoods to converted warehouse lofts. There's too much to see and do in the greater L.A. area to tackle it all in one trip. Even if you tried, the price tag of such an excursion could add up quickly. Luckily, you can tour some of the most historic and eclectic sites in the city for free, whether you're in town for a week or on an overnight layover. From art museums to parks, infamous stretches of road to renowned architectural structures, the City of Angels has plenty to offer the frugal visitor.
Nestled atop Mount Hollywood in Los Angeles's Griffith Park complex is one of the city's best-known treasures. The Griffith Park Observatory, an Art-Deco masterpiece, was part of a significant donation to L.A. intended to bring astronomy to the masses. Since its opening in 1935, the observatory and surrounding trails have been free to the public. Enjoy views of Downtown Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean from the carved stone terraces, or wait for the sunset to watch the city streets light up like the night sky. Wander the dirt trails on several hikes to fantastic viewpoints and the famed Hollywood sign. Inside the renovated observatory, you'll marvel at beautiful murals and track the earth's rotation with the Foucault Pendulum. Browse the space-themed galleries, learn something new in the Depths of Space exhibit, and take advantage of year-round public telescope viewings and informative hikes.
The Griffith Park Zoo closed its doors in 1966 when the new Los Angeles Zoo opened for business just down the road. Despite attracting over 2 million visitors a year at the time, the old zoo was could no longer safely house the animals. Today, the ruins of the old park are a storied landmark and a reminder of the importance of animal welfare. Local artists paint the walls with colorful murals and letterings, effectively creating a Grafitti Art gallery in the hills of Griffith Park. Be sure to pack a lunch to enjoy at the picnic tables or on a nice stretch of green grass. During the summertime, it's best to start your hike early in the morning or evening to avoid soaring temperatures.
The Walk of Fame follows Hollywood Boulevard from Gower Street to North La Brea Avenue in a loop through the heart of Tinseltown. The round trip journey is just over three miles long, without a dull moment along the way. Search for your favorite entertainer's name as you follow the path past Hollywood and Highland and Grauman's Chinese Theater. Stop for a selfie in front of the Pantages, and keep your eyes open for any celebrities out and about. If you need a rest or some retail therapy, stop at any of the numerous souvenir shops and thrift stores along the way before grabbing a bite to eat. You can also mingle with the locals at a dive bar and enjoy a few cocktails before completing your tour of the stars.
Melrose Avenue travels from Silver Lake to the border between West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Life on this side of town is vibrant, eclectic, and always on the cutting edge of pop culture and fashion. In between locally-owned eateries and retail chain stores, antique shops and designer flagship stores line the busy sidewalks. Melrose Avenue is a great spot for people-watching and gaining inspiration for this season's wardrobe. If you're in the mood for an impromptu photo session, head for the Melrose Arts District that stretches from Fairfax to Highland. From murals to stenciled sidewalks, this open-air art gallery attracts some of the world's most talented graffiti artists to Los Angeles. Walk the mile-and-a-half route, and pose for some of the coolest Instagram photos from your vacation.
The Broad in Downtown L.A. is one of the newest and most exciting art museums in the City of Angels. It's stark white, honeycomb-like exterior is a nice contrast to the undulating silver metal forms of the adjacent Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Broad's impressive permanent collection includes works by Yayoi Kusama, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns, to name a few. Admission to this contemporary art museum has always been free, so expect a short line in the early mornings. If you're in town on Thursday, plan to arrive later in the afternoon. When the Broad closes at 5, walk across the street to the Museum of Contemporary Art. The MOCA is always free on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m., which is more than enough time to tour this modern gallery space.
Tucked into a small passage between Little Tokyo and Chinatown, Olvera Street is a cultural center for traditional Mexican arts, fashion, and cuisine. The open-air market is easily walkable and perfect for sunny afternoon photo sessions or people-watching. Browse the small shops and colorful kiosks, and search your pockets for spare change toward a few pieces of authentic Mexican candy. Once you've toured this tiny neighborhood, walk less than a mile to the elaborately adorned gates of Chinatown. This small pocket of Chinese culture is home to older businesses and traditional restaurants, as well as a growing diversity of South Asian cuisines. Enjoy the inspired architecture of the train station and head for the main plaza for cultural events. For a unique experience, visit the Thien Hau Temple.
Los Angeles has no shortage of stunning beaches. Santa Monica Pier, Malibu Beach, and the Venice Beach Boardwalk are all legendary California destinations, but you're bound to find large crowds at these locales year-round. Man-made Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro is a much quieter seaside city at the entrance to the Port of Los Angeles. Families and locals enjoy calm waters and cool ocean breezes, while the adventurous head into the open water for kitesurfing, windsurfing, and kayaking. After a day in the sun, head over to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium to learn about marine life and habitats. Admission is donation-based. Before the sun sets, make your way over to Angel's Gate Park to see the Korean Bell of Friendship. The intricately carved bell and pavilion overlook the Los Angeles harbor, the Catalina Channel, and San Pedro hill.
High in the hills of the Brentwood neighborhood of L.A., the Getty Center houses a part of one of America's most impressive and extensive personal art collections. You could spend hours wandering the galleries and admiring the beautiful architecture of this hillside complex. Plan for a picnic lunch in the Central Garden and forget for a moment that a city of millions lies beyond the travertine walls. Have your picture taken at the beautiful fountains or with the bronze sculptures on the terraces. Admission to the museum is free of charge, but parking can cost a pretty penny. Bicycles park for free in the garage, so look into rentals if possible. You can also carpool to split the cost of parking, hire an Uber, or park for free at a Park and Ride lot and take the bus.
It's tough to get around Los Angeles without a vehicle. Public transportation will take you to the busiest of neighborhoods, but between bus, subway, and train fares, a rental car may be a more economical choice for your trip. If you find yourself behind the wheel on your L.A. adventure, try fitting a leisurely ride down Mulholland Drive into your itinerary. Scenic overlooks pepper the route as it winds past the cliffs, but the Hollywood Bowl Overlook is the most recommended viewpoint. Past Topanga Canyon Boulevard, the Mulholland Highway twists and turns through the Santa Monica Mountains to Pacific Coast Highway and Leo Carrillo State Beach. Motorcyclists will love navigating The Snake, a serpentine section of road through Malibu Springs.
The Arts District in Los Angeles is a haven for graffiti artists and creatives looking for some color in their everyday lives. Murals and art pieces adorn walls and alleyways, and the district's blocks are lined with galleries, creative shops, and stylish cafes. The community is friendly and eager to discuss the arts with visitors and aficionados alike. Spend an afternoon strolling through this picturesque neighborhood before walking to Little Tokyo. An L.A. fixture for over a hundred years, Little Tokyo is a cultural hub for Japanese Americans visiting this historic neighborhood. Numerous Japanese restaurants line the streets, including some of the oldest establishments in the city. The Japanese Village Plaza is Little Tokyo's main hub. Its pretty streets lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes are a nice respite from the congested streets and freeways of the city.