Photo: Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Griffith Observatory offers sweeping views of the city from its hilly perch.

Photograph by Conrad Piepenburg, laif/Redux

By Kelly Corrigan

Think of Los Angeles and your mind could likely default to an image of surfer dudes, beach babes, or celebs donning the latest on the red carpet. All images aside, L.A. will still leave you awestruck. For starters, several American cities delight in having a Chinatown, but L.A. treasures its Koreatown, Little Armenia, Thai Town, and Little Ethiopia too. The Chumash, the Tataviam, and the Tongva Indians were some of the region's first native peoples; today's natives collectively go by "Angelenos." As one of the most curious destinations in California, the city is where traffic issues remain unsolved and celebrity sightings are plentiful. Look to this guide for an inexpensive way to experience the city.

Art

Admission to the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu is always free. View pre-20th century European paintings, sculpture, drawings, and manuscripts, and walk among contemporary sculpture throughout the Getty Center. At the Getty Villa galleries are arranged by themes and portray the Trojan War and gods and goddesses, with Greek, Roman, and Etruscan artifacts dating to 6500 B.C. Parking costs $15 per car but is free after 5 p.m.

The Hollywood Bowl, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic and all guest musicians rehearse for their evening stage performances, offer visitors a chance to watch rehearsals for free many mornings during the week. During the summer the Edmund D. Edelman Hollywood Bowl Museum doesn't charge admission. See art and historical exhibits with hundreds of videos, audio, and video samples.

Every year since 1998, the Independent Shakespeare Co. has brought classic works to a contemporary audience. In the warmer months, watch a free performance in Griffith Park. The plays take place Thursday to Sunday evenings in a natural amphitheatre at Griffith Park's Old Zoo, and parking is free too.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, as it's known, free admission on the second Tuesday of each month will admit you into all permanent galleries. Visit LACMA on a Sunday for a chamber music concert and/or to sit in on recitals by local or visiting musicians. From April through November, hear jazz performed at the museum every Friday for free from 6 to 8 p.m.

L.A. wouldn't be L.A. without its murals. The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles works toward preserving, restoring, and documenting these murals located throughout the city. Visit the conservancy's online database for location information on murals, and see one or two in person if you're in the area.

Meet some of the hundreds of authors who show up annually at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held on the UCLA campus during one weekend in April. General admission to the festival is free, but tickets are required for all indoor speakers and panel sessions.

Free to the public on the second Tuesday of each month, exhibits on topics such as opportunity, the cowboy, imagination, and romance make the Autry National Center a must for any visitor to Southern California.

Attractions

Spanning 2.4 miles, the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Blvd. and Vine St. encompasses more than 2,400 stars made of terrazzo and brass. Locate the star you'd like to visit ahead of time using the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce's star finder (Audrey Hepburn's star is at 1652 Vine St.; Michael Jackson's is at 6927 Hollywood Blvd.). Stars that will be added to the Walk of Fame are announced in June each year. Attend a ceremony for free and watch the celebration from a public viewing area. The ceremonies typically take place at 11:30 a.m. and finish less than an hour later.

Thousands lined up to view the opening of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 1927. The theater remains a top choice among studios for premiering Hollywood films—you could get a glimpse of celebrity glam and frenzied paparazzi at work.

Stop by the Capitol Records building at 1750 N. Vine Street that once housed the record label's headquarters. No public tours are offered here, but you can step inside the lobby to admire the gold records on the wall. If you happen to visit the building after the sun has set, notice the tower's red light up top that blinks "Hollywood" in Morse code.

While backlot tours of studios such as Paramount Pictures, NBC, Sony Pictures, and Warner Bros. will cost around $20-50, a myriad of television tapings take place at these studios, and tickets to sit in on a taping as a part of a show's live audience are free. It's best to order the tickets ahead of time by visiting the show's website for details on calling or writing in for tickets. Be a part of the audience for shows such as Last Comic Standing, Deal or No Deal, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Ellen, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and more.

A visit to Los Angeles is not complete without setting your eyes upon one of the most common symbols associated with the place: the Hollywood Sign. The sign that sits upon Mt. Lee never intended to be a symbol of the Hollywood that we know. In 1923, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler commissioned the sign, originally spelled as Hollywoodland, in a stunt to promote his new suburban housing development of the same name. Decades later, the sign would fall into disrepair and it would be entirely replaced in 1978. While it's illegal to see or touch the sign up close, there are several vantage points that will give you a great photo op. A cruise down Beachwood Canyon Drive is one—you'll close in on the Hollywood Hills and see the sign framed magnificently in the landscape. Don't turn back until you pass through the original gates of Hollywoodland.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, otherwise known as JPL, was founded in Pasadena under the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s. As a NASA laboratory, JPL is responsible for having launched America's first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. They also sent the first robotic spacecraft to the moon. Most recently the lab is overseeing the journey of a few Mars rovers and Kepler, a telescope in space that's seeking Earth-like planets. Tours of JPL are free, but all tours (they last two to two-and-a-half hours) must be made in advance by phone. You'll see a multimedia presentation, hear of past accomplishments and current endeavors, and visit the Space Flight Operations and the Spacecraft Assembly Facilities.

Get a feel for an upscale shopping spree by window-shopping Rodeo Drive. Boutiques and stores here in Beverly Hills span three blocks from around Wilshire Blvd. to Santa Monica Blvd.

At its famed location at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue, the Original Farmers Market opened on a dirt lot in July 1934 with farmers selling goods from the back of their trucks. Today, the operation is open daily with baked goods, meats, produce, seafood, nuts, and candies. It's free to enter and inexpensive to eat.

Culture

Part of El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historical Monument, Olvera Street is one of the city's most treasured spaces. Located across from L.A.'s Union Station and La Placita Church, a pueblo was founded here in 1781. Wander the stalls for handmade trinkets or leather goods, admire the work of local artists, listen to musicians perform, or taste authentic Mexican food. Don Francisco Avila, who once served as mayor of L.A., built a house here in 1818 that's considered the city's oldest existing house.

In the 1970s, Hee Deok Lee's grocery store on Olympic and Harvard Boulevards was one of the first shops in the community to make up Koreatown, also known endearingly as K-Town. Meander through the area's shops, and if you work up an appetite, stop for Korean barbeque. About ten minutes from Koreatown in the Miracle Mile area, you'll find the Korean Cultural Center, where many of the programs and exhibitions are free to the public. Visit the center's 2,700-square-foot gallery, which houses traditional and contemporary art, or attend a film screening. Screenings are free and feature contemporary and classic Korean films with English subtitles.

The year 1938 marked the dedication of L.A.'s Chinatown. If you start at Central Plaza, you'll spot a statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen and a nearby wishing well that dates to 1939. Step outside of Central Plaza to Phoenix Bakery—Chinatown's oldest—where you'll be tempted to try its famous strawberry whipped cream cakes. Take a moment to pause at the Taoist Temple on Yale Street, where incense fills the air.

On South Fairfax Avenue between Olympic Boulevard and Whitworth Drive, Little Ethiopia has thrived since the 1990s. The enclave was officially recognized by the city in 2002. Stroll the area's shops, restaurants, and vintage stores. If you're looking for a boost, stop for a genial coffee ceremony in which coffee is served to you only after the beans have been carefully washed, roasted, ground, and boiled.

In 1999, a section of East Hollywood was designated America's first Thai Town. Some refer to the area as Thailand's 77th province. The Thai New Year falls in early spring, and in L.A., much of the celebrating is done at the Songkran Festival. Attend the festival for free. Taste Thai curry, sit in on the Miss Thai New Year Pageant Show, or watch a boxing competition or a traditional folk dancing session. In the early morning, a ceremony commences to gently bless respected elders with water.

In 2000, Little Armenia was officially recognized in East Hollywood. The area, which comprises only a portion of L.A.'s thriving Armenian community, is sometimes host to a festival to celebrate Armenia's independence. The festival takes place in late May or early June. The free admission, live music, traditional Armenian fare, and vendors have enticed thousands to celebrate the event in the past.

For a jaunt into L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, visit Mission San Fernando Rey de España, one of California's missions founded by Fermin Francisco de Lasuén and named for King Ferdinand of Spain.

Docents offer free one-hour tours of the downtown Los Angeles Public Library. View the Goodhue Building's sphinxes and chandeliers, as well as its thirteen-and-a-half-foot-tall lanterns designed to portray a profile of an upside-down human at each escalator landing. Admire Julian Garnsey's second-floor murals, completed in 1932 and named for his depiction of California's notable periods: Discovery, Mission building, Americanization,  and the Founding of Los Angeles.

Kids

May 1 marks Día del Niño, or Children's Day, and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach celebrates the day by hosting a two-day festival. A parade of children marches from the aquarium, along the Rainbow Harbor waterfront to Shoreline Village, and back. You can watch the parade for free; paid admission to the aquarium gives you the opportunity to see children perform Mexican folkloric dance, West African drums, Hawaiian hula dance, and a Cambodian folk dance.

If you're spending a day at Venice Beach, stop by the 16,000-square-foot Venice Beach Skate Plaza and watch local skaters, anyone from young kids to adults, go at it from morning until sunset. It's free to watch and free to join this So-Cal staple that opened with speeches by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, skateboarder Jesse Martinez, and a 21-board salute.

See spacecraft that has literally been to the moon and back. The California Science Center has spacecraft on display that have flown with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. The free permanent and hands-on exhibits tell of life sciences and human innovation. The newest, Ecosystems Experience, cost $165 million to make and dedicates 11 galleries of immersive environments to the topic. In one gallery, stand eye-to-eye with horn sharks, sea bass, and wolf eels in a 24-foot-long transparent tunnel to see a replicated coastal kelp forest. Download the free Ecosystems application on iTunes beforehand. Discovery rooms designed for children seven and younger will let youngsters romp around in the name of science. Admission to the science center is free (some traveling exhibitions and the IMAX Theater charge a fee).

Watch paleontologists pore over fossils in the Dino Lab of Los Angeles's Natural History Museum, where all children younger than five are free. Sit in on story time on weekdays at 2 p.m. or on weekends at noon and be sure to check out the museum's spider pavilion. On one Saturday each month, the museum's Critter Club—a group for three- to five-year-olds accompanied by an adult—commences with live animals and discussions about metamorphosis and camouflage.

Free on the first Tuesday of each month and for children younger than five, the La Brea Tar Pits is a staple field trip for most of Los Angeles's school children. Known for its vast collection of over three million fossils from extinct plants and animals dating to the Ice Age, the Page Museum here also portrays what Los Angeles was like 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, when it was home to mammoths and saber-toothed cats. Step outside and wander among life-size replicas of extinct mammals and discover how tar pits were formed, trapping plants and animals and opening the door for today's scientists to discover prehistoric Los Angeles.

Free for children younger than five, the Petersen Automotive Museum showcases the last one hundred years of the automobile. Permanent exhibits tell the story of the car in Southern California, cars of film and television, and how the past can inform the future when it comes to ideas for alternative fuel.

Outdoors

In 2009, the Santa Monica Pier celebrated its first hundred years. Walk to end of the pier, passing artists along the way; meander through Pacific Park, the pier's amusement park featuring a solar-powered Ferris wheel; and step into the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, where children 12 and younger are free.

Take a gander at the scenes that Venice Beach has to offer along its Ocean Front Walk; there's certainly no price on people watching. Then take a dip in the Pacific Ocean. Watch the local news the night before to hear the meteorologist's take on any anticipated swells.

Nighttime at Griffith Observatory will show you what's beyond L.A.'s smoggy chokehold. Use a telescope to glimpse the stars, the moons of Jupiter, and the craters of the moon. The sweeping view you'll get of Los Angeles from the observatory's hilly perch is an added bonus. Admission is free except for the $3-7 planetarium show.

La Plaza Abaja, established in 1866, was renamed Pershing Square in 1918 to honor the World War I general, John Joseph Pershing. Pershing Square's Art Squared Gallery is an outdoor gallery with six eight-foot by eight-foot wall spaces that display digital reproductions of art by California artists. Every summer, the square's outdoor amphitheatre and 40-foot by 20-foot screen accommodate guests for its Friday Night Flicks program when the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks screens films here for free.

Pack your warmest sleeping bag and a canister for hot cocoa, and spend the night in the streets of Old Town Pasadena for the best seats of the Rose Parade, held each year since 1890 on New Year's Day. Tickets to sit in the bleachers cost money, but roughing it on the sidewalk is priceless. When the parade is over, view the floats made with leaves, seeds, bark, and flowers up close along Sierra Madre and Washington Boulevards in Pasadena.

Walk the grounds of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where many of Hollywood's early directors, writers, and performers are buried. The cemetery opened in 1899. Rudolph Valentino is buried here, as is Harvey Wilcox, the founder of Hollywood, and Victor Fleming, director of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

Sunset Boulevard starts in downtown Los Angeles and continues into Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica. The Sunset Strip, a star in its own right, is great for a casual cruise, be it morning, afternoon, or night. The final scene of Woody Allen's Annie Hall was filmed at a café on the strip, and the street's name served as the title of the 1950 movie starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden. Pass by the Laugh Factory, where so many comedians got their start, and Whisky A Go Go, where rock and roll has been a mainstay since 1964. Just south of the Strip is the Troubadour, where Elton John played early in his career.

Often the site of weddings, private events, or quiet respite, the Rose Garden near the University of Southern California in Exposition Park is open from 9 a.m. until sunset, with fountains, pathways, and roses of many colors. From January 1 to March 15, it's closed to the public for maintenance.

University of California Los Angeles is home to the seven-acre Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden, where 5,000 species of tropical and subtropical plants thrive. More than five acres of UCLA's campus consists of the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, home to over 70 sculptures, some of them by Henri Matisse, Jacques Lipchitz, and Jean Arp. One mile from campus in Bel Air is the UCLA Hannah Carter Japanese Garden, which opened in 1961. There's a five-tiered pagoda, garden house, bridges, and a shrine. Reservations to visit the garden are required and it's suggested they be made at least ten days in advance.

More Information

Los Angeles Times

Discover Los Angeles

Hollywood Reporter

Los Angeles Magazine

LA Weekly

City of Los Angeles

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