Top 5 things to do in LA (and not need a vacation from your vacation)

A few weeks ago, I got into my feelings about my inaugural trip to LA and the happy, sappy thoughts it left me with. But now I don’t want to leave you hanging and not share some of the top hits from my trip as well.

If you’d asked me before I went away if I thought I’d come back feeling recharged, rested and balanced, I would’ve assumed no, as is the case with most vacations. Not true though. Buckle in buds, I’ve narrowed down 8 days of exploring to my top 5 must-do’s for the perfect LA trip — and not need a vacation from your vacation.

1. Neighhourbood hopping is essential. I honestly think this is the way you have to experience LA. So many people, myself included, don’t realize that LA is so much more than just downtown LA. Whenever I looked at a map and saw where friends lived (i.e Toluca Lake, Brentwood), I always thought “Wow, you live so far from actual LA though.”

Little did I know that LA truly is the sum of its parts. Each neighbourhood provides its own feel, variety, and character — and plenty of things to do. And in my opinion, if you don’t see them all you don’t get to truly see LA. We ventured everywhere: from our homebase in Toluca Lake, to Studio City, to Sherman Oaks, to Echo Park, to Beverly Hills, to Hollywood (North, West, the Hills, and everywhere in between), to Downtown, to Burbank. We covered it all.

It would be super easy to write up my favourite things to do in each neighbourhood, and maybe I’ll do that in a future post. LA: it’s the trip that just keeps on giving.

So, make sure you don’t limit yourself to just one part of this magical city. Hang out in different neighbourhoods, soak up the vibes (and the coffee), and don’t stress about running around trying to do everything everywhere simply to check things off a to-do list.

2. Hike it out – but don’t be basic. Of course I had Runyon Canyon on my list because I’m just your average basic Betty – and I was also convinced that this is where I’d meet Lea Michele or Juliana Hough and we’d sing and dance our way up the Canyon, making all my musical dreams come true.

My friend suggested instead that we hike up to the Griffith Observatory. He promised me I’d get the same epic views of the Hollywood sign (you do), and that, unlike Runyon, here I can have my own La La Land moment (an even better musical dream!) with the landmark Observatory featuring heavily in Sebastian and Mia’s love story. Yes please! The summary of this hike is: less populated with tourists, less “being scene”, and less intense than the fitspo Instagrammers you’ll find on Runyon.

A special surprise on this trip was the discovery of a secret trail just off of Mulholland Drive. We followed Aya Cash (yes, that’s a celeb sighting), her friend, and her pup off-road on this little-known trail careening along the Hills. If I knew what this trail was called it would defeat the purpose of it being secret, but it would also mean I can tell you so you can find it and hike it. The next best thing is to cruise the super scenic Mulholland Drive (which you should absolutely do) until you find a small parking lot with a well-hidden trail off of it. And that’s maybe the one.

Moral of the story is to get outside. There is so much nature in LA to be enjoyed that you have no excuse not to sweat at least once a day (and not just from the heat).

3. Slow down with rooftop drinks at Mama Shelter. Now, what was I saying about being a basic Betty? If you’re exploring Hollywood Blvd, sneak off the beaten path ever so slightly and head up to the rooftop oasis at Mama Shelter for an afternoon happy hour. Drinks are expensive but you’ll get to enjoy your $18 rosé with panoramic views of the city, the Hills, and the Hollywood sign in the distance. Plus you’re surrounded by plush, colourful lounge beds and tropical greenery, so you kind of forget that you’re smack dab in the middle of a bustling tourist mecca.

We didn’t go to too many restaurants or bars on this visit, but I would recommend (as it was to me by the locals) that you find a rooftop for an amazing view. I guess it’s just like an LA thing to do, and it also perfectly slows down the day. Mama Shelter seems to be the one on everyone’s list at the moment, but on a Tuesday afternoon in May around 2pm it was perfectly serene.

4. Make time for kitschy fun. Head to the hip Echo Park and with beautiful views of downtown LA as your backdrop, rent a swan paddle boat at Echo Park Lake — finally you get to live out your best Taylor-Swift-squad-on-a-swan fantasy. For $11/hour per person, you can paddle around the lake – which is actually more of a pond – and will spy so many ducks, and turtles (and baby turtles!), and lots of local residents and their dogs walking along the water’s edge.

From there, head downtown to Grand Central Market for an overpriced (but delicious) lunch. PBJ.LA and their epic, inventive, can’t-even-imagine PB&J sandwiches were recommended to us. We noshed on Horse Thief BBQ instead and have zero regrets. The Last Bookstore and the Bradbury Building should absolutely round out your touristy day downtown. I’d never heard of the former, and I’d argue that that made it that much better — don’t go Googling too much about it, and let yourself enjoy the surprise of what you’ll find. Even if you don’t like books, if you like cool spaces, go there. The Bradbury Building’s claim to fame of course is “as seen in” the OG Blade Runner movie. While it’s an operational office space, you can peruse the ground level and it’s a pretty cool architectural sight to take in.

While these are arguably some of our more touristy moments, they also felt like just another thing to do on a Saturday in sunny Los Angeles.

5. Leave the city for the ocean. As we’ve already established, LA is basically a collection of neighbourhoods with a bunch of hills in and around them, and the ocean nowhere in sight. So if you’re heading to LA, you need to plan at least a day trip to the beach. Especially if you’re like me and those ocean vibes just keep you grounded.

So, one day we road tripped to Santa Monica and Venice Beach where we spent the morning walking the historic Venice canals (definitely a highlight – do it), we caught a pick-up basketball game at Muscle Beach, found a touristy sweatshirt and regretted not buying it, and flew around the streets of Venice by scoot. You’ll notice these scooters everywhere in LA, and one of my favourite things about this trip was just scootin’ around. It’s the little things, you know?

Then we headed to Santa Monica for happy hour and sunset. You can actually scoot all along the boardwalk from Venice Beach to Santa Monica. We didn’t do this, we drove, but that would be really neat for next time. It doesn’t get much more touristy than taking in the sunset from Santa Monica Pier, but hey, the locals sometimes do it too and nothing beats the sound of those crashing waves as the sun peaks bright orange before hiding behind the silhouette of the mountains in the distance.

Even though we jam-packed a ton into 8 days, I left feeling so satisfied and with my heart full. It was definitely hard to go back to work and reality, but not because I was counting down the days until the weekend when I could catch my breath, but because I missed my little LA life so bad. 

Things on my hit-list for next time? Visit The Broad, take in a game at Dodgers stadium, and head out of the city to Joshua Tree or Palm Springs.

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