There are so many things to do and places to visit in Los Angeles, that a first timer in the city like myself could be completely overwhelmed.
Though it has been on my wish list for ages, it was only this year that I finally got a chance to visit Los Angeles for the first time.
Trying to select the best things to do in LA is a bit tricky. Luckily, I didn’t have to think too hard about where to go and what to do, as I went on a private tour with Tierra Marina Tours .
It’s a tour company that runs tours for small groups in California. The curated itinerary covering all the best Los Angeles attractions was sent to me a few days before my flight.
It made the visit to this huge city with its endless list of famous attractions much simpler 😉
With so many great places to visit in Los Angeles, our trip focused on the main highlights and the top things to do, and included one hidden gem as well.
The Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Chinese Theater
One of the most famous, must-do attractions in Los Angeles, that I guess you should see at least once in your lifetime, is the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But just before we walked among the stars, we began our day at a nearby landmark, the Chinese Theater.
This is a legendary venue where Hollywood movie premiers take place and celebrity movie stars come to watch them.
The building is interesting on the outside and looks like a Chinese pagoda.
It is super impressive on the inside and full of design elements and decorations crafted by Chinese artisans.
We took a guided tour of the Chinese Theater so we could see the interior.
During the tour, you learn about the history of the place, have your picture taken (if you like) against the background of the glorious cinema and see some original movie costumes.
In front of the Chinese Theater you’ll see cement hand and footprints of movie stars alongside their signatures.
You’ll see the name Sid mentioned quite a lot – That’s Sid Grauman who founded the Chinese Theater.
From there, we took a walk on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with its pink stars.
I tried to see how many names I could recognise…
There are icons on each star indicating how that person gained their stardom: Film, TV, radio, music or live performance.
It was funny to see that some stars belong to fictional characters, such as Mickey Mouse and The Simpsons.
Universal Studios Hollywood
One of the top attractions in Los Angeles, Universal Studios is a magical full day experience not to be missed.
The theme park has roller coaster rides, a studio tour amongst the show sets and some excellent shows (I especially like the one about how special effects are made).
You want to get there early and book tickets in advance, because the lines can be long.
Even if you arrive early you may not beat the crowds, but you’ll get to do more rides before the park closes.
Consider getting an Express Ticket if you want to skip the line.
Things to do at Universal Studios
There’s plenty to do and see at Universal Studios. Here are my highlights:
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The major highlight of Universal Studios Hollywood is undoubtedly The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The space is designed to look like the village of Hogsmeade in a way that really creates and immersive experience.
There’s a lot of attention to detail, from cobblestone streets to snow-capped roofs (that looked amusing against the clear blue Californian sky…)
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has two rides. One is a nice roller coaster which goes slowly at first, so you get a great view of Universal Studios from above.
The second ride was my absolute favourite in the entire theme park.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the ride that takes place inside a massive model of Hogwarts castle.
It’s hard to describe in words, so I’ll just say that flying on a broom is such a thrill!
As soon as it ended, all I wanted to do was to go on it again…
Even if you’re not an avid Potter fan, you’ll most likely enjoy it.
Apart from the rides, there themed shops with cool souvenirs, from plush owls to chocolate frogs and Every Flavour Beans.
The Simpsons Ride
Another amazing ride I really enjoyed and would go on again was The Simpsons Ride.
It’s just spectacular and features all the characters from the show. It’s just as funny as witty as you might expect.
The Studio Tour
A fascinating tour that you should definitely take. The lines are long, but it is worth the wait.
The behind the scenes tram ride takes you around the studios for about an hour. You’ll see where some famous movies and TV shows were filmed and the impressive show sets.
There are several stops on the way for special effects that are just amazing and so much fun! ☺ Can’t tell you more – No spoilers.
The ride stops running around 5 pm so make sure you don’t miss it.
There are many more things to do in Universal Studios, but these were my top 3 favourites.
Where to Eat at Universal Studios
When you get hungry, check the restaurants listed in the Universal Studios app. Each has the vegan, vegetarian and allergy friendly options indicated. You can also find this info on the paper map you get when you enter the park.
I had a nice vegan sandwich at Palace Theatre Cafe, and you can also find a vegan quinoa salad there. Mel’s Diner next to it has an Impossible Burger on its menu.
Amongst the many fun things to do in Los Angeles, this one is the classic choice.
As someone who’s never been to Disneyland as a kid, I appreciated the opportunity to go there as an adult.
In fact, I think I saw more adults than children around the park. Life is fun, easy and joyful at Disneyland… It’s a perfect escape from real life, just the kind of escape that many adults need from time to time 😉
Disneyland was one of the highlights of our LA trip and we spent an entire day there, making the most out of what you can see and do in one day.
We arrived early and stayed till late at night to see the after dark fireworks and video art display that was just magnificent.
Planning a visit to Disneyland
If you want to visit Disneyland in just one day, you need a strategy! It’s a huge place with long lines that requires quite a bit of planning.
Luckily for us, we were there on a tour with local guides who’ve been to Disneyland many times before, so they knew all the planning tricks and how to save time.
If you’re planning your first visit independently, use the Disneyland app to select your rides in advance.
You’ll be using the same app also to check the waiting times at each ride. Typically there are 30-45 minute lines, but for some rides you may need to wait even longer.
Note there are lines for the restaurants as well. I suggest you bring some fruit and sandwiches instead to save time (unless you’re really craving the experience of eating at a Disneyland restaurant…).
Eating a light meal will also help avoid feeling sick on some of the rides, if you’re prone to motion sickness.
I do recommend you try the Pineapple Dole Whip. Disneyland California is one of the only places where you can get it.
It’s a refreshing soft serve frozen dessert that’s dairy free, vegan and delicious.
Cool Disneyland Rides
These are some of the rides we enjoyed the most at Disneyland:
Hyperspace Mountain was the fastest roller coaster we went on and it was a lot of fun! You have your photo taken at the end and I had a big smile on my face.
The Haunted Mansion is a slow and spooky ride through a ghost ridden mansion. The art and presentation is really beautifully done.
Splash Mountain starts slowly, but towards the end you reach the top of a waterfall and that’s where the big drop is!
Prepare to get soaked. You’ll have your photo taken during the drop itself… You don’t want to know what face I was making 😉
Pirates of the Caribbean is also on water, but without any splashes. It’s a slow boat ride in the dark, through a wonderfully detailed pirate world.
Indiana Jones Adventure is a fast paced ride through the world of Indiana Jones with lots of details from the movies.
It’s a small world was the first ever Disneyland attraction. It’s meant for kids, but adults will appreciate how well done it is.
Different cultures of the world are featured in a glorious colourful display, with the song “It’s a small world after all” played in different languages in the background.
Griffiths Observatory – Los Angeles from Above
For a fantastic panoramic view of LA from above, you want to go to Griffiths Observatory and its massive viewing deck.
We went there in the late afternoon and stayed till after sunset. This way we could see the light change during sunset, as well as see the city after dark.
It was a cloudy day unfortunately, but the scenery was still splendid.
It’s one of the more places to go in Los Angeles (we were lucky to find parking…), partly because you can see the famous Hollywood sign quite clearly from there.
Soon you’ll find yourself joining a few dozen people all taking photos of the famous sign on the Observatory deck.
After you take in the view, visit the museum for exhibitions about space. I found that they gave some very clear explanations of very complex things.
We waited until it got dark, and it was certainly worth the wait. You get to see the lights all over the city at night and it’s a marvellous view.
Huntington Gardens are a real gem that you shouldn’t miss when you visit LA.
While it may not always be on the list of the typical Los Angeles tourist attractions, I’m really glad we went there.
The Huntington has 16 themed gardens, from a desert garden to a Japanese garden, all simply beautiful and some quite magical.
Apart from the gardens, there are art collections and a library with rare books on display.
It’s just a short drive from LA in San Marino. You can spend an entire day there and still not see all it has to offer.
I suggest you go on a day when you feel you need to chill and get out of the city to see some nature.
We went there after an intensive day at Disneyland and the timing was perfect, as we needed to do something relaxing.
China Town and Little Tokyo in Los Angeles
As part of our sightseeing tour in LA, we went to China Town and Little Tokyo.
Both are interesting culturally, though they are quite different from each other.
China Town is bigger and has many Chinese grocery stores with unique ingredients.
We went there around lunchtime, it’s the perfect place to find traditional Chinese restaurants and some Asian fusion places to eat.
Little Tokyo is in downtown Los Angeles and has some lovely Japanese shops and restaurants.
The sweet gift shops in Little Tokyo are full of Japanese toys, snacks and all things cute.
This is also where you’ll find the Japanese American National Museum.
Santa Monica Pier and Beach
On our first day in LA, thanks to the lack of jet lag, we went to watch the sunset in Santa Monica.
We got there early enough to walk along the pier, see the Ferris wheel and the amusement park and watch the people on the beach.
There’s a marvellous view of the Pacific from the pier that photographers will love.
We walked along the Promenade, an outdoor shopping centre in Santa Monica, and saw some cool street performers and fancy shops, before heading back to the beach to take photos of the sunset and the ocean.
About Tierra Marina Tours
I mentioned earlier that going on this private small group tour made my life so much easier, because the itinerary including all the best things to do in LA was curated for us before the trip.
That’s not the only advantage though.
This tour has a fresh concept: small groups of about 5 people or less, living in a house in LA, San Diego or Loreto, Mexico, together with a host who’s also the tour guide.
On this trip we had two guides who were perfect hosts, took us everywhere in a comfortable van and generally made sure we were enjoying ourselves and making the most out of the trip.
We never had to worry about LA traffic or parking (public transport in LA is quite limited).
The accommodation in LA and later in San Diego was definitely one of the highlights of this trip.
My travel mate, a fellow blogger Gili Elad (check out her photos from this trip) and I stayed in a beautiful house close to Beverly Hills.
The house was spacious, the kitchen was well equipped and the fridge was full.
Some nights we ate out and on a couple of occasions cooked dinner in the kitchen.
It was also very convenient to have breakfast in the house before we left each morning.
I asked in advance for vegan food and indeed when we arrived found almond milk and tofu waiting for me in the fridge, among other things.
Find out more about Tierra Marina Tours
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I was invited on the tour by Tierra Marina Tours. All opinions are my own.