Los Angeles in 4 Days - Traveling by Metro
Los Angeles is a driving city. Or at least it always has been. When I moved from New York in 2009, I was annoyed to find that a car was needed to explore much of this sprawling, fascinating city. I had seen the demise of the streetcar portrayed in the obvious historic documentary Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and longed for the time when trains would become popular again out here. And it’s starting to happen! The LA Metro can now take you from the mountain foothills of the far eastern Los Angeles county all the way out to the ocean. With more train lines, bus rapid transit, and bike lanes, rolling out every year from now until the 2028 Olympics, LA’s car dependence might someday diminish. A lot of people moving here have started to use uber, lyft, and scooters to supplement their public transit, and have foregone trains altogether.
So, while cars can still be helpful when you’re visiting Los Angeles, here is an itinerary for your LA vacation that is entirely based on using the metro.
Los Angeles Metro Facts:
The cost of a ride is $1.75 one-way, no matter how far you go (aka there’s no zones). You’ll need to get a TAP card to ride the trains, which can be bought in the metro stations for $1. You’ll either load the card up with a set amount of money for fares, or pay $7 for a one-day pass to ride as many times as you want in that day. TAP cards also work on buses and regional rail. You’ll need to tap the card on the designated spot on the turnstiles to enter, and tap again if you’re transferring between lines or between a bus and a train. Trains run from 5am - midnight during the week, and until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. If you’re traveling solo, you might want to plan to end your trip by 11pm or so - the metro is safe 90% of the time, but the odds of it feeling a little dicey go up after 11pm.
Itinerary Day 1 - Out to the Ocean on the Expo Line
Starting from downtown heading west, you’ll take the Expo line, one of Metro’s street level light rail cars. Your first stop is Expo Park/USC. From here, you can walk over to visit the Natural History Museum, Expo Park’s Rose Garden, or the African-American Museum. You can also visit one of my personal favorites, California Science Center. This free, interactive museum houses the Space Shuttle Endeavor (it’s $2 to see the shuttle exhibit). Other sections allow you to see desert floods, local insects, or to experience an earthquake simulator.
Hop back on the Expo Line and head west to 26th St/Bergamot in Santa Monica. Here is Bergamot Station, a former trolley warehouse that is now an art gallery complex, showing both established and up-and-coming artists. You can get lunch at the outdoor Bergamot Cafe. Then head in and check out the galleries - you never know what you’ll find!
After you’ve gotten your art fix, get back on the train and take it to the end of the line, Downtown Santa Monica station. Make your way west through the crowds shopping along the promenade and head down to the iconic Santa Monica pier. This historic, well photographed pier is home to an amusement park, a merry-go-round, aquarium, and countless overpriced restaurants and souvenir stores. Ignore the touristy stuff, and just enjoy the views. Head down to the end to see the older men fishing off the end of the pier.
When you’ve had enough of the pier, start walking south along the beach pathway, known as the Strand. Some of the city’s best people watching can be found along this path. Find a good point to stop and enjoy the sunset over the ocean. Can you see the ‘green flash’ that appears at the moment the sun disappears behind the water?
After sunset, head back up to the Santa Monica Promenade. Get a hearty dinner at Ye Olde King’s Head, a well known British ex-pat pub. You’re likely to find a wide variety of nationalities up at the bar, all of whom are happy to chat. Make sure to get back to the train before 11pm!
Skip the museums and just head straight to the end of the expo line. Walk south along the Strand to Sea Mist Bike Rentals, directly south of the Santa Monica pier. Rent a bike for $20 for the day, which comes with helmet and lock. From here, you can ride north to the northern edge of Santa Monica, or south potentially all the way to Redondo Beach. Stop for food, drinks, photos, or to stick your feet in the water.
Day 2 - Hollywood, old and new on the Red Line
From downtown LA, you’ll be taking the underground red line. Try to head up on the early side to the Hollywood & Highland stop. This area is the Times Square of Los Angeles, complete with costumed characters who will take photos with you for a fee, people hawking their demo cds, a wax museum, and of course, more shopping. You’ll want to avoid all of this. Earlier in the day is quieter calmer, which is why it’s nice to get there before 10am. Don’t worry, there’s multiple coffee shops in the area to get your caffeine fix. Ignore all the people trying to get your attention and head straight to the Chinese Theater. Enjoy finding the foot and handprints of celebrities old and new. From there, follow the Walk of Fame east down Hollywood Blvd. See how many of the stars you recognize, and if you can spot why they’ve been given the star. There are categories - live theater, motion pictures, radio, music, and television. Each star has a symbol of one of those categories. A number of celebrities have multiple stars for multiple areas!
On your walk, pause on the south side of Hollywood by Wilcox. You’ll find a number of murals depicting Hollywood’s past along the whole street, but this is one of the bigger ones, showing the stars of the past in a movie theater together. If you’re a music fan, take a right on Cahuenga and head down to Amoeba music, home of hard-to-find and collector’s editions of albums, as well as newer releases. It still routinely hosts musical acts holding release performances inside its store. If that’s not for you, don’t worry. Grab lunch at one of the many, many venues along Cahuenga Blvd.
From there head up to Hollywood/Vine. Stop to enjoy the view of the Capital Records building, built to look like a stack of records on a turntable. From there, take the red line east two stops to Vermont/Sunset. Get out and follow signs or your phone’s map directions up to high-on-a-hill Barnsdall Art Park. From the park’s spacious meadows, you’ll have views of the Hollywood sign, Griffith Park, and possibly all across the city. Take a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic Hollyhock House, one of several Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the neighborhood of Los Feliz. There’s also a small municipal art gallery there that’s worth checking out (it is free).
Exit the park along Hollywood Blvd. Walk over to Vermont and make a left. You’re now on the main commercial stretch of Los Feliz. These next few blocks host a number of restaurants, pubs, sidewalk cafes, and vintage clothing stores. Get off your feet and get something to eat - there’s also delicious pie for dessert! For after dinner drinks, step back into the past by a visit to the Dresden Lounge - Marty & Elayne, the musical duo from Swingers still perform there 5 nights a week.
-Skip Barnsdall and take the DASH bus (25 cents) from the Vermont/Sunset metro station up to Griffith Park. Stop at the Observatory for a free visit to the planetarium, and amazing views all the way out to the ocean!
Day 3 - Gold Line to the Foothills
Start your morning by taking the Gold Line light rail north to Memorial Park Station in Pasadena. Walking south down to Colorado Blvd, where you’ll find yourself in Old Town Pasadena. Part shopping haven, part historic buildings, all very pedestrian friendly. Head west. You have two options - stop at the fantastic home of Impressionist art and sculpture, the Norton Simon Museum. Option two - keep walking and find yourself on the Colorado Street Bridge. This dramatic bridge has been seen in everything from Charlie Chaplin films to La La Land. The 1930’s era street lights give it an instantly romantic look. It also has a more macabre nickname… ‘Suicide Bridge.’ This is far more myth than fact, but it’s a popular ghost hunters stop.
After getting lunch at one of the cafes along Colorado, head back to the Gold Line Station, and take it south to Highland Park Station. Highland Park is a funky, hipster neighborhood northeast of downtown. Its main thoroughfares, Figueroa and York, have exploded in popularity over the past few years. From the station walk down to Figueroa and take your pick amongst a late-afternoon coffee shop like Cafe Birdie or Kindness & Mischief, or a local pub like La Cuevita or The Greyhound. Live music can often be found at Highland Park Bowl, including open mics and intimate afternoon performances with up-and-coming bands.
Take the Gold Line south all the way to Mariachi Plaza. You’re now in Boyle Heights, one of the more historic Latinx neighborhoods in LA, and home to some amazing tacos, tortas, as well as the namesake mariachi bands.
Day 4 - The Expanding Downtown Scene
Stay downtown, or take whatever train line you’re on to downtown LA. Downtown used to be a dead zone on nights and weekends, but that is fast changing, as more and more apartments, restaurants, bars, and art galleries open up in this area. Check out the Broad, the free modern art museum that requires advance reservations or a stint in the day-of line. There’s a twitter feed that will tell you how long the wait in the line is - obviously weekday mornings are going to be the shortest wait. The Broad is home to several Instagram-friendly exhibits, as well as special exhibits that will cost extra to view. Not your speed? Check out the Museum of Contemporary Art, or take a tour of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Get lunch at Grand Central Market. This historic food hall used to house mostly Latin food vendors along with fruit and vegetable stands. They’ve gained more popularity in recent years by opening stands from trendier restaurants, along with offering craft beer from the local Golden Road, and an outdoor BBQ restaurant. However, my preference is still for one of the taco stands or pupuserias.
After lunch, head across Broadway and check out the lobby of the Bradbury Building. You’ll recognize the art deco building lit by skylight from Blade Runner, though it’s been used in countless films for at least the past 100 years. As it’s still a working office building, you’ll only be able to go up to the first landing, but it’s worth it.
Take the bus or the Gold Line to Little Tokyo. Check out the Japanese American Museum for firsthand accounts of the Japanese internment in California. They also have (unsurprisingly) a first-rate tea house. Make your way down to the cobblestone streets through the arts district. This area used to be warehouses (you can still see the tracks of trains that would run down the streets delivering supplies), which were taken over by artists to create loft spaces. And as things go, the artist lofts are being converted into pricey real estate, and the surrounding area has had an explosion of micro-breweries and high-concept restaurants. Skip the newer restaurants in favor of dinner at mainstay Sushi Gen - some of the better sushi that you’ll find downtown. Follow it up with a final pint at one of the nearby breweries. Angel City is one of the older ones in the Arts District and hosts art shows in its warehouse location. Arts District Brewing is newer and has skeeball and other arcade games.
-Stop into the historic Clifton’s Cafeteria for a drink or just to explore this 4-level cafe and bar. Each level is intricately decorated in a different theme - Anything from Redwood forests to tiki to a Gothic cathedral.
Another option for all days:
As I’ve mentioned before, I love food tours. They’re the best way to situate yourself in a new town. LA has several tours that focus on downtown, Koreatown, Venice, Boyle Heights and more. All worth checking out!!
I hope you enjoy your trip to Los Angeles. Let me know what your favorite part is!
To read more about Los Angeles, check out my list of free, cheap, and offbeat museums you can visit in LA.