I grew up in Koreatown, Los Angeles, so no matter how much I travel, LA will always be #1.
My first city guide was the Essential New York Guide, organized by category. Since Los Angeles is so spread out, I organized this post by neighborhood. I've simplified all the neighborhoods in the illustration above, and highlighted the key neighborhoods to remember. (For those LA nazi's, the recommendations below are based on ballpark locations.)
I know this list is pretty long, so I've starred* the top of my top recommendations. I know these won't exactly suit everyone's tastes, but hopefully it's a good starting point or it'll give you some ideas. By the end of your trip, you'll be talking like this. Best of luck with traffic!
*SANTA MONICA BEACH (See below under BEACHES)
*GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY This is one of my favorite places in the world. I've been coming to Griffith Park with my parents since I was a little kid, so it holds a lot of good memories for me. Come here to hike, to tour around the observatory (it's free!), and to watch the views over the city (sunrise and sunset are the best).
URTH CAFFE Something about this cafe screams LA. It might be the amazing organic coffee, the healthy menu full of yummy salads and sandwiches, the boba drinks (don't ever call it bubble tea) despite not being an Asian restaurant, and its good-looking clientele. There are a couple locations scattered around the city, so take your pick and enjoy!
*MEXICAN FOOD Nothing compares to Mexican food (outside of Mexico) in California. I can't remember the last time I had an authentic taco outside of CA (I'm looking at you, halfway adequate tacos in New York, Chicago, Miami). Here are some of my favorite places: EL TAURINO / KING TACO (death by the red sauce! Get the torta & carne asada tacos & sopa & carne asada fries...actually get everything, it's not that expensive anyway), MEXICALI (the best toppings), EL CHOLO (a bit "upscale in terms of Mexican food, great guac, and 50% off your menu item if you're a USC Trojan like me and bring your ID), RICKY'S FISH TACOS ('cuz you can't come to cali and say you didn't try fish tacos), KOGI BBQ TRUCK (okay, I'm cheating and putting a fusion Korean + Mexican one on here, but you can't come to LA and not experience its food truck culture), MARISCOS JALISCO (another note-worthy taco truck)
*KOREAN BBQ Korean BBQ in LA can't be topped (besides the ones in Korea of course, but even then it's comparable). Recently there has been a wave of all-you-can-eat (AYCE) places popping up, which I love, but there are great non AYCE places I go to for really high-quality meat. Favorite AYCE places: HAE JANG CHON (gets pretty busy, so be prepared for a wait or go at an off hour), O DAE SAN (one of the best deals for lunch, around $10 for AYCE), OO-KOOK (can't go wrong with this place). Favorite non-AYCE places: KANG HO DONG BAEK JONG (I love all the sides and currently trending, so prepare for a wait), CHO SUN GALBI (a bit expensive, but definitely worth it), SOOWON GALBI (very authentic and our family's go-to place for birthdays, anniversaries, etc.)
*BE ACTIVE Hike, kayak, surf. Interact with the ocean in some way. Best hiking paths: RUNYON CANYON (you'll find people stopping to pose for pictures more than concentrating on hiking itself, but still has amazing views of LA and can't be missed), HOLLYWOOD SIGN HIKE (as a LA native, I don't really like when tourists are crawling all over this path, but if you want that iconic picture in front of the sign, go for it!), GRIFFITH PARK (also includes the Hollywood sign hike, but another range of good hikes all around the park, MALIBU ESCONDIDO FALLS (Malibu has a lot of other trails that give a great view of the ocean, but this one is most popular because of its waterfalls)
*SANTA MONICA This is the most touristy and popular beach in Los Angeles and is not the cleanest for swimming or being a beach bum, but is beautiful and has a fun pier. It's also a short walk away from great restaurants and a great outdoor mall, 3RD STREET PROMENADE, which is my favorite place to go shopping in LA. Don't forget to stay for the sunset, PALISADES PARK is a good place to overlook the beach and watch the sun dip below the ocean's horizon. You can also get an awesome workout in at the SANTA MONICA STAIRS.
*VENICE This beach is just south of Santa Monica (they're connected!) You can take a bike ride on the beach that will take you through all the beaches. Venice is good for people watching (watch out though, lots of bums too) with weird street performers, graffiti, random medical marijuana shops, etc. Just east of Venice Beach is the ABBOT KINNEY shopping street, full of cool boutiques and great brunch places (see below). If you have time, I would also check out the VENICE CANALS, a mini replica of the Venice canals in Italy (though nowhere as pretty or exotic), but good for a quick stroll.
*MANHATTAN This is a secluded, quieter beach that has a lot of cute brunch places and a smaller, quieter pier. It’s also good for volleyball and surfing. The water is cleaner than in Venice or Santa Monica.
MALIBU A bit north of Santa Monica, this is a quieter, cleaner, and is more residential-feeling beach. Stop by the GETTY VILLA, a very cute art museum/garden/house. You have to sign up online before you go though. Entrance is free but there is a parking fee.
HUNTINGTON Personally, I like beaches in Los Angeles more than the ones in Orange County (perhaps it's because of what I'm used to), this is a good all around beach to hang out in.
LAGUNA True to the stereotypes portrayed on TV shows likes "The OC" and "Laguna Beach", these clean and beautiful Orange County beaches around here have a more upscale and suburban feeling.
*GETTY MUSEUM This modern architectural gem is located around Westwood with a lot of beautiful art, beautiful garden, and beautiful views of the city.
*GETTY VILLA As mentioned before, it's located in Malibu, sign up online before you go! Free entry, but you have to pay for parking.
*BOUTIQUES ON ABBOT KINNEY This street in Venice has the best up and coming stores, cafes, and restaurants and is exceptionally designed. Stop by WARBY PARKER, A+R, HEIST, SATINE CONVENIENCE STORE, MILKMADE, INTELLIGENSIA (for you coffee addicts out there), and LEMONADE (if you aren't hungry, at least try their amazing lemonade). Actually, you might as well check out every store.
*3RD STREET PROMENADE Another outdoor mall, but the selection is lot better than the Grove or Americana malls. It's huge and has pretty much every chain store you can think of. It's also only a couple of blocks from Santa Monica Beach!
MELROSE TRADING POST Every Sunday from 9-5, this outdoor flea market opens up. I love all the unique and beautiful decor items, clothes, and jewelry. Take back a unique souvenir or find gifts for your friends back home!
*FATHER'S OFFICE Amazing burgers and amazing fries and an amazing selection of craft beer.
CRUISE DOWN THE PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY If it's within your budget, I highly suggest you rent a convertible for your stay. Or at least a car with a sunroof. The PCH has amazing views of the beach. You don't have to go too far, and it's the only way to get to Malibu.
*BIKING ALONG THE BEACH All of the beaches in LA are linked through a bike path. It's a great way to be active and get a feel for the different beaches. To feel like a true native, use a long board instead.
PIZZERIA MOZZA I absolutely love the truffle oil pizza here.
WURSTKUCHE Exotic hot dogs (they have buffalo, rattlesnake, rabbit, etc. and normal meat too) and great beer.
UMAMI BURGER I'm obsessed with the burgers here. Try the truffle fries too!
HOTEL ERWIN Best rooftop bar (called High Rooftop Lounge) that overlooks Venice Beach.
ANIMAL Amazing food and amazing ambiance loved by critics and everyone else.
*SUGARFISH They have a couple locations in LA, it's a great sushi place.
*CAFE GRATITUDE Lots of locations scattered around LA, take your pick from this great healthy, organic, vegan food place.
HOTEL SHANGRI-LA BAR Enjoy a drink while overlooking Santa Monica beach.
HOLLYWOOD & VINE As an LA native, I avoid this busy place, but it's one of those touristy must-dos. Visit the intersection of Hollywood & Vine, and the Chinese Theater where they have those A-list red carpet events!
*RODEO DRIVE The luxury shopping destination that is extremely photogenic and appears in a lot of movies. Also great for spotting celebrities if you're lucky! Personally too expensive for me, but always worth a visit, especially for those new to LA.
*THE GROVE LA It doesn't have the largest selection of shops, but this is a gorgeous outdoor mall with a beautiful fountain. Don't miss this place! Great to go during the day or night. Around Christmas it has the best Christmas display (and no snow of course haha)
*LACMA You can spend days and days here. It's kind of like LA's version of the Met in NYC, but more modern. There's a fair amount of outdoor installations, like the lampposts URBAN LIGHT and the enormous rock LEVITATED MASS that are definitely worth seeing.
LOS ANGELES FARMER'S MARKET This is a huge outdoor historic farmer's market, fun for buying souvenirs, trying out all types of food, and buying locally grown produce. This is also a great spot for people watching. It's also connected to The Grove mall, a gorgeous outdoor shopping mall.
TOAST BAKERY & CAFE Great place for brunch and lunch. You might recognize this place from a couple TV shows like Entourage or The Hills.
MARIO'S PERUVIAN & SEAFOOD Drool-worthy Peruvian. Go for the lomo saltado. Portions are huge.
*ALCOVE CAFE I love sitting outside in this cafe with a great selection of salads, sandwiches, and desserts. This place is so pretty!
*SPRINKLES I'm still a strong evangelist of Sprinkles cupcakes. Sorry, Georgetown.
*YAMASHIRO I come to this Japanese/American fusion restaurant with my parents sometimes. I love the view of the city, it's incredibly romantic and beautiful inside as well as outside. If you don't want to dish out $$$ for a full meal, you should still go and grab some tea in the Japanese garden.
SKYBAR AT MONDRIAN HOTEL A bit trendy, but a gorgeous rooftop bar with a great view and gorgeous pool. (LA's pool culture can't be beat!)
*MILK All the desserts here are on point. I especially love the macaron ice cream cakes!
*JITLADA I still dream of this Thai place from time to time. Yummmmm....
VELVET MARGARITA Mexican restaurant/bar with funky decor and cool vibe.
SQIRL A great cafe with a unique menu. Great for brunch.
REPUBLIC A gorgeous interior to match the amazing food.
SALT & STRAW I like the LA location of this originally Portland ice cream store. Larchmont is a cute little street with good shops and cafes.
ALFRED COFFEE & KITCHEN But first, coffee. Beautiful, insta-worthy aesthetics and amazing coffee to match.
EVELEIGH Outdoor patio dining, great atmosphere, great food, great drinks.
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES Recently has been going through a massive makeover. There are a lot of hidden gems, and though not as easily walkable as NYC or some other downtown cities, it is worth exploring (as long as you know where to go!) Don't miss the WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL, ANGEL'S KNOLL (currently closed but still a cute place to go around), LA CENTRAL LIBRARY, *BRADBURY BUILDING (for your architecture enthusiasts out there! I also suggest the DTLA ARCHITECTURE TOUR if that's your cup of tea), OLVERA STREET (browse unique souvenirs in this historic market), but be careful not to get pickpocketed!), CITY HALL (go to the free observation deck to get a great view of DTLA and hang out by the huge fountain in Grand Park just outside!) Quick tip: avoid Skid Row (a large homeless population resides there), which is around 6th St & San Pedro.
*THE LAST BOOKSTORE An epic bookstore with the best labyrinth of books.
ACE HOTEL Beautifully designed interior and uniquely curated items. A great place to stay, too!
GRAND CENTRAL MARKET Home to a great selection of vendors. It's a good mix of the old and new LA.
LA NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM I really like the rose garden just outside too!
*PERCH This is a super cute rooftop bar with great drinks and the cutest bartenders wearing bowties.
SEVEN GRAND Classic downtown bar known for its great whisky. Great place to meet people as it gets nicely crowded. They have pool tables and jukebox and sometimes a live band.
FAR BAR A pretty, low key bar in the heart of Little Tokyo.
*WI SPA A Korean sauna, I love going with friends to chat and sweat out toxins and eat.
THE EDISON Classic downtown bar with gorgeous, 1920's decor, performers, and absinthe.
*DAIKOKUYA First place I've ever had ramen and hands down the best in America. Cash only! Be prepared for a long wait, but its located in Little Tokyo, a charming neighborhood that's fun to explore.
*BESTIA Beautiful interiors, awesome food, and pretty much on every "best eats of LA" list.
EGGSLUT Fun name that delivers. Located inside the Grand Central Market (mentioned above).
DOCUMENT COFFEE BAR Yum coffee.
BOTTEGA LOUIE A great restaurant with beautiful marble and high ceilings. They have a great bakery as well with the best macarons in LA.
*M GRILL All-you-can-eat Brazilian BBQ. This place is amazing.
*MISS COFFEE A cute little Korean cafe. I go for the enormous paht-bing-soo (shaved ice) served in an epic pyrex beaker. Green tea and fruit are my favorite! Waffles there are great too.
BACO MERCAT Good food, good vibes. Also shows up on many "best eats of LA" lists.
THE DAILY DOSE Cute place for breakfast and coffee. I love sitting outdoors.
LA RIVER Don't go unless you like taking photos and exploring unlikely places.
*HUNTINGTON LIBRARY This is my favorite ever botanic garden located in Pasadena. I really like their Japanese garden. And my mom loves their cacti garden for some reason. Pasadena is a very cute city with a lot of pretty/romantic restaurants and cafes.
AMERICANA This is owned and managed by the same people as The Grove, and has the same look and feel. It has a great and very pretty atmosphere. Park for free at the mall across the street, Glendale Galleria! Americana's parking is quite expensive.
FOSSELMAN'S ICE CREAM A classic ice cream place. The ice cream is amazing! And I don't find a lot of places that makes ice cream like this anymore.
HALF & HALF Best boba in LA. Get the one with pudding and honey boba. It can be a bit sweet, but you can always ask for half sugar.
*PORTO'S Great Cuban bakery that's also good for lunch. Their meat pies, potato balls, and plantain chips will fill you up fast.
KING'S ROW PUB Good beer. Fun vibe.
SAVOY A great Asian place. Go for the chicken over rice.
BOILING POINT Delicious Taiwanese hot pot in Monterey Park. For the best Chinese food, skip Chinatown in Downtown LA and drive over to Monterey Park, home to a huge Asian community with the best Asian restaurants.
ELITE RESTAURANT My go-to place for a dim sum fix.
BRUXIE'S A new take on the Belgian waffle by putting it together with eggs, chicken, etc.
*BOILING CRAB Put seafood and cajun flavors together and you'll get this amazing place. Prepare for a long wait, but it's definitely worth it. I could eat here everyday.
MILK & HONEY Acai bowls, frozen yogurt, organic coffee, outdoor seating.
SOUTHCOAST PLAZA Go if you're in for a serious day of shopping. You can pretty much find every single chain store here. From low-end to mid-tier to luxury brands.
GUPPY TEA HOUSE A classic modern Asian dessert place. Great for groups and shaved ice and butter toast.
EAT CHOW Great for brunch.
ANAHEIM PACKING DISTRICT Great variety of foods in a beautiful interior.
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