Los Angeles is known, in part, for its exorbitant expense. An appetizer of vegan nachos can run you $15 or more; the Melrose Avenue–hatched Alfred Coffee empire centers its advertising strategy around a $10 latte; and finding a parking spot anywhere east of Koreatown for less than $8 an hour is nearly impossible.
Don’t let the hype deter you, though: With some proper planning, a visit to Los Angeles doesn’t have to require a celebrity’s salary. What the designer shops of Rodeo Drive don’t let on is that the best ways to really see the city are completely free—just pay for room and board and a sweet ride, and we’ve got you covered on the rest. Here are nine ways to see Los Angeles without spending a dime.
Explore the many faces of Santa Monica Pier
Walk, bike, or Bird-scooter down Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica until the sidewalk runs out, and you’ll find yourself on the wooden slats of Santa Monica Pier, which first opened to the public over 100 years ago. A stroll down the storied pier will grant you ocean views, of course, but also access to a mini amusement park (complete with a Ferris wheel and roller coaster), souvenir shops, and restaurants. In the fall, the pier doubles as a concert venue, hosting free shows from up-and-coming artists (Khalid, Rüfüs du Sol, and Matt and Kim have all performed in the past). An alfresco gym area set up on the beach neraby provides fun people-watching as daredevils walk slacklines, free-climb two-story-tall poles, and swing, Tarzan-style, on gymnastic rings. A couple of blocks inland, Third Street Promenade, with its plethora of restaurants and shops, can offer great window-shopping and additional enjoyable observations of L.A. natives at play.
The most quintessentially L.A. hike is the 2.6-mile Runyon Canyon loop; it also happens to be a great, free way to get a panoramic view of the city. Walking West Hollywood’s favorite trail wins you a sweet angle on the Hollywood sign, a peek at the Pacific, plus clear views of the downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) skyline, Koreatown, Westwood, Santa Monica, and the ocean. Locals and visitors alike don their best Alo and Lululemon for this one, and don’t be surprised to see an amateur music video shoot or an Instagram influencer or two snapping photos. Runyon is a dog-friendly park, so you’ll also be greeted with all manner of furry friends. Plus, there’s free yoga at the Fuller Avenue entrance seven days a week (check the Runyon Canyon Yoga Facebook page for info on times).
Look up and out at Griffith Observatory
While we’re on the topic of can’t-miss views: Griffith Observatory sits at the top of Griffith Park, another hiking spot known for its killer vistas of downtown, Hollywood, the Pacific, and the San Gabriel Mountains. When the hustle and bustle of the city get to be too much, or the traffic gets you down, Griffith Park’s views remind us that L.A. isn’t all paved over. The observatory redirects your view upward with its free museum that gives visitors a look at space through telescopes and, through simulations, a chance to see what it would feel like to stand on other planets. (The planetarium itself is also top-notch, although admission will cost you a few bucks—$3 to $7, depending on the show.)
Griffith Park is also home to the Bronson Cave Trail, which leads to a man-made mountain tunnel that once starred as the entrance of the Batcave in the ’60s-era Batman TV series. The whole loop is less than a mile, and you’ll get another look at the Hollywood sign on the way back.
Visit one of L.A.’s many free museums
Some of L.A.’s hottest museums are completely free. The much buzzed-about Broad Museum downtown has free admission every day (except for a fee to enter any special exhibitions, such as Yayoi Kusama’s wildly popular Infinity Mirrored Rooms). It’s best to arrive at the Broad early in the day to avoid waiting in an hour-plus queue—especially on weekends. The Getty Center (in the Santa Monica Mountains) and Getty Villa (Malibu)—two fantastic museums worthy of visits for art, architecture, and views—are both free. See edgy contemporary art at Westwood’s Hammer Museum, or head to Century City’s Annenberg Space for Photography and DTLA’s Bradbury Building (an architectural icon and National Historical Landmark, recognizable for its appearances in movies and TV shows, including Blade Runner and Mission: Impossible): all blissful ways to spend an afternoon.
Dig into prehistoric Los Angeles
Not surprisingly, thousands of years ago, Miracle Mile looked a lot different. Long before this museum-studded stretch of Wilshire Boulevard existed, mastodons (like mammoths, but smaller), saber-toothed cats, and giant ground sloths roamed grassy fields. This area was dangerous beyond the hazards of teeth, claws, and tusks: Tar pits, created when petroleum rises to the earth’s surface and pools there, would trap animals in the sticky muck. The creatures would usually starve there, unable to free themselves, and because they looked like easy prey, other carnivores would venture into the tar and get stuck, too. The L.A. tar pits—known as the La Brea Tar Pits—are still here and are being carefully excavated to uncover 15,000-year-old fossils, well-preserved in the thick, black petroleum. The tar pits are open to the public and while there is a fee to gain admission to the small museum on the site, the real action is free to observe outside. Watch the ongoing excavations of the tar pits by scientists, who might uncover a skull or femur while you marvel at the painstaking process of digging through quicksand-like tar.
Do Hollywood right
For the perfect Hollywood Sunday morning, do the following:
1. Pick up snacks from the Hollywood farmer’s market
2. Drive or walk the 1.5 miles to the Hollywood Bowl
3. Waltz in and set up a picnic wherever you’d like. The Hollywood Bowl is a ticketed venue when it’s hosting events, but at all other times the space functions as an open-to-the-public park, one that Time Out Los Angeles calls “borderline magical” for its shady paths and WPA-era sculptures and architecture. The museum on-site is free.
However, if you’re angling for celebrity sightings, eschew the stars on the Walk of Fame for a stroll around the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to see where the famous and infamous—including mobster Bugsy Siegel, actress-singer Judy Garland, and musicians Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone—are buried.
Seek sensory overload in Venice
The Venice Beach Boardwalk provides an entertaining walk any day of the week, with vendors selling all manner of art, clothing, and souvenirs; scents from various cafés and restaurants (and marijuana dispensaries) wafting around; and the sounds of skaters shredding concrete and musicians busking. As you amble the length of the boardwalk, take in the impressive skate park that often hosts competitions and is a frequent spot for near-professional skaters to show off tricks for a local audience, while the small outdoor Muscle Beach gym is known worldwide for its bodybuilder clientele. Nearby, stroll along the Venice canals to see how Venice got its name.
Don’t skip Downtown
Find the city’s best-kept secret scenic point where you’d never expect it: City Hall. The building’s 27th-floor observation deck (open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays; closed on holidays) offers panoramic views of downtown, Dodger Stadium, Echo Park, and Silverlake—the kind of Eastside views you don’t get as much of from Runyon Canyon’s trails. While you’re downtown, take a walk around The Last Bookstore, a cheeky new and used book and record store with a unique small-town-in-a-big-city vibe, and pick up lunch at Grand Central Market, L.A.’s original food hall with tastes from around the world.
Sample all the free entertainment
L.A.’s creative energy is powerful—a magnet that draws people from all over to the city. All those wannabe stars in one place means seeing talented acting, singing, dancing, and comedy is just a matter of being here.
For free and good music, Mondays are the night: Both Silverlake’s Satellite (an indie rock haven) and the Echo have free Monday-night shows (the Echo has launched the careers of acts, including Foster the People and the Airborne Toxic Event). Echo Park’s Bootleg Theater has a no-cover Monday night residency program, and the Avalon nightclub in Hollywood hosts a weekly free Monday night dance/music event at its Bardot lounge next door.
For comedy, the Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood is known for its all-star comedy lineups that sometimes include names such as Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari—and on Sunday nights, you can get a taste for free with its ASSSSCAT improv show. Other great options: The last Monday of every month, the Blind Barber hosts an invite-only gratis secret show (email firstname.lastname@example.org to get on the list), and Comedy Living Room has no-cover shows, as well as paid (check the event schedule on its website).
You won’t get away without spending some money, but you can definitely see a lot of Los Angeles and get a feel for its rich culture and spectacular coastal setting without breaking the bank.
>>Get More L.A. Trip Ideas From AFAR’s Los Angeles Travel Guide