There is so much to see and do in Los Angeles that it almost sounds ridiculous to even think of only spending one day there. Sometimes though, that's just how it has to happen. When Claire started planning to visit for only three days, I knew that one of those days needed to be spent in LA. When my parents came into town with a friend and my aunt for a few days last year, I knew that we could knock a few touristy things off the list by going up and spending one day exploring LA. There is plenty to see and do in Orange County for sure, but when people fly in from across the country and are suddenly only 45 miles from Hollywood for the first time in their life, why not spend one of these vacation days visiting one of our country's most famous and exciting cities?
After playing tour guide with friends and family several times in our two years here, I feel like I have a decent grasp on how to see many of the LA hot spots in a limited amount of time. Being that I don't live in LA, I know that there's a ton I still haven't seen and explored myself. I know that I'm not totally "in" on all of the wonderful little secret spots that the locals love and that my time in LA has only scratched the surface of what's available to see and do there. That being said, I've figured out how to make the most of one day in the city that allows a first time visitor to check many things off of their "LA Bucket Lists" and hopefully they'll visit again another time to see more of the city in depth.
Because I live in Orange County (Tustin/Irvine) I always begin and end my visits to LA with between one and three hours of travel time. Sorry about it, but driving in Southern California can be a nightmare sometimes. If you're visiting OC and planning to visit LA for a day, just be prepared to block out several hours for travel time. When I travel up on a weekday, I leave after 9am (most people have completed their commute to work by then) and plan to hang out in the city until after 7pm (most of the rush hour craziness has settled to a manageable level by then.) My drive to LA usually takes around an hour to 90 minutes. My drive home fluctuates between 90 minutes and three hours, depending on if there are any accidents, LAX traffic, etc. (2 hours is the norm.) Weekend travel is unpredictable but usually about the same, though travel time up can be shortened by leaving earlier in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays while everyone else is still sleeping (7 or 8am.) I drive to LA on the 5 North and home on the 405 South, working my way across the city from East to West throughout the day.
The first stop from East to West on our tour of LA is always downtown and/or Olvera Street. I highly suggest Olvera Street for an early lunch of the best Mexican food in town mixed with a
After a little time downtown, I'll hop on the 101 North and continue my tour west. Next stop, Hollywood. Here you'll get your first glance at the infamous Hollywood sign and have a chance to see the most touristy part of LA. Most people who have visited me want to see the stars on the Walk of Fame or put their hands in Marilyn Monroe's handprints in front of the Chinese Theatre. To see these things, head down Hollywood Boulevard and park at the Hollywood & Highland center (6801 Hollywood Blvd.) Parking in the garage below (accessible by turning north on Highland Avenue) is the cheapest around and gives you direct access to great views of the sign, stairs to the Walk of Fame, and is directly beside the Chinese Theatre. There are also many shops and restaurants inside and around H&H. The Chinese Theatre (where many red carpet premiers take place) offers several 20-minute tours daily, are full of historical info about the theatre, and would be easy to fit in during a quick day in LA.
Escape the chaos of this part of town by heading south on Highland Ave towards the famous Sunset Boulevard. Turn right on Sunset to head west. Stop for pancakes or French toast and the delicious Griddle Cafe (7916 Sunset Blvd) or cross the street for burgers and fries at The Counter (7919 Sunset Blvd.)
Head south on Fairfax Avenue until you reach Santa Monica Boulevard. Turn right (west) and head on towards the coast. You'll pass through the exciting neighborhood of West Hollywood, which is also worth a stop and wander for a little bit. I've never stopped to eat in this neighborhood, but there are bound to be plenty of amazing places to stumble in.
Driving west on Santa Monica Boulevard will bring you out of West Hollywood and directly into Beverly Hills. Take a right turn, any right turn, and zig-zag your way up and down the residential streets to admire the homes. The homes closest to SM Blvd are the "smallest" and least private homes. I imagine that these belong to wealthier families and higher ups in the entertainment business. The farther you drive up into the hills, the larger and more private the homes become. Sorry to be the one to tell you, but most of your favorite celebs' homes are surrounded by giant walls and hedges. I would want the privacy, too. My only bragging rights are that Dan and I once found the gate to the Playboy Mansion... it's about as exciting as it sounds. There are many websites online that will give you addresses so you too can see the hedges or gates belonging to your favorite celebrities! Just, try not to get lost. GPS is your friend. Good luck getting out of there.
After finding your way back to Santa Monica Blvd, maybe take a quick drive down the famed Rodeo Drive. You may spot a celeb shopping at Celine or Chanel, so park and take a walk if you're into that. Taking a right on Wilshire Blvd will bring you back to SM Blvd. Turn left and keep on heading west towards that golden coast.
Santa Monica is a wonderful part of LA to visit and is definitely worth a few hours. From the Third Street Promenade and farmer's market to the Pier, there is just so much to check out here. Here is an entire post dedicated to Santa Monica, including the best place to park. (Save yourself the click: GPS to 1444 4th Street.)
Pro tip: try to get to Santa Monica before 4pm on a weekday or you'll spend quite a bit of time in traffic. The stretch between Hollywood and Santa Monica can become almost gridlock between 3:30 and 6:30, so the sooner you get out of there the better.
By the time I've explored Santa Monica with friends or family, we're usually exhausted and ready to hit the road back to Orange County. I definitely suggest grabbing dinner here and waiting out rush hour before doing so. If you still have plenty of energy after 7pm, maybe rent a bike and pedal down the boardwalk down to Venice Beach. You could also opt to hop back in your car and drive up the PCH to Malibu and find a nice beach where you can picnic with a take-out burger or milkshake and watch the sun set. Maybe even make reservations at Geoffrey's.
There are so many things to do in LA that can take up several hours of your day if you choose to explore those options. From museums to theme parks to studio tours to being part of a live studio audience for one of your favorite shows...if one of these activities is number one on your list of LA priorities, you need to arrange your entire day around that activity. Going to a taping can be really fun, but can take up to six hours. Museums and theme parks can take an entire day, easy. If you only have one day in LA, you can choose to partake in one of these exclusive activities, or split your day into little pieces and see a little bit of everything.
If you're determined to get in a little bit of the Hollywood experience in your one day visit, I highly suggest the Warner Brothers Studio Tour. This tour will only take around three hours of your day and is easy to fit in. Buy and reserve your tickets and tour time in advance for $62. No, this isn't a sponsored plug, but I've done this tour twice already (different each time!) and personally feel it's the best "Hollywood experience" tourist attraction in LA.
So there you have it. You've knocked out a ton of sightseeing in just a few hours while experiencing a little downtown, a little Hollywood, and a little of the LA beach life. I hope this might come across as helpful for anyone who attempts a quick visit. If you have a little more time to spend in LA, check out some of my other Los Angeles posts for ideas on other places to explore, from the Griffith Observatory to the Getty Villa on the coast.