3 Great Family Weekends in L.A.
Just beneath its star-studded, concrete-covered surfaces, Los Angeles houses a deep and inviting well of cultural attractions and natural wonders. Pushing right up to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and sprawling across the valleys and hillsides, the nation’s second-largest metropolis forms one big destination filled with a colorful collection of neighborhoods and cool things for families to see and do.
To fully appreciate this diverse locale to the south, explore its many faces in several trips, tackling a different theme with each visit. Here are three great weekends that are guaranteed to make you as well-versed in Angeleno culture as the locals.
Weekend #1: Movie Magic
When most people land in L.A., the first question is inevitable: “Do you ever see any celebrities?” Unless a gaggle of paparazzi happens to tip us off that Britney is in the building, we don’t usually notice them among us. But this tour offers some assurance that you’ll get to see a big-name star, even if it’s only on the silver screen or merely tracks left behind in cement.
A three- or four-day tour of Tinseltown should begin on Hollywood Boulevard at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (manntheatres.com/Chinese/index.php). You can still catch a movie at this architectural wonder, which opened in 1927, but most visitors go to gawk at the stars’ footprints cemented into the sidewalk. Just up the boulevard at Hollywood and Highland (hollywoodandhighland.com), you’ll find shops, restaurants and plenty of star look-alikes (from Marilyn Monroe to Spiderman) mingling about. You can also check out the Kodak Theatre (home of the Academy Awards and several other performances), which offers guided tours for $15 per person.
If you stay on Hollywood Boulevard you can’t miss the twinkling lights of Disney’s El Capitan Theatre (elcapitan.go.com), a lavish, historic building that houses not only Disney movies and accompanying entertainment but also the Jimmy Kimmel Show, which tapes next door. For even more historic Silver Screens, amble just a bit farther east and south to Sunset Boulevard to the old Cinerama Dome and adjacent Arclight Theaters, one of which serves as a cinematic landmark for movie watching, while the latter rolls out the red carpet on luxuries, such as extra-cushy seating, access to a bar that serves martinis to go with your popcorn and assigned seats.
Schedule at least one day for delving into the mechanics of movie making at Universal Studios Hollywood (universalstudioshollywood.com). Aside from the heart-stopping rides, high-tech movie theaters (that include an IMAX screening room) and over-the-top eateries, Universal Studios is still one of the best ways to get a glimpse into the inner workings of movie and TV show making. Production companies actually film movies and TV shows here, so look for familiar sets, such as Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives and street scenes from CSI.
Top off a long weekend with a high-society side trip to Beverly Hills, where you can enjoy some window shopping or “do lunch” at one of the chic restaurants that dot the boulevards. Opt for the city’s official trolley tour ($10 for adults, $5 for children) for a 40-minute guided view of celebrity homes and other landmarks. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (remember the Oscars?) is headquartered here, too. Check out the exhibitions and public screenings here, as well as up the street at the Paley Center for Media, where you’ll find events, guided tours and exhibits centered on all forms of media.
Weekend #2: Culture Shock
Despite L.A.’s reputation for celebrity antics and Valley girl vernacular, the City of Angels is a world-class art destination. First stop? Make it the Getty, one of the most highly regarded warehouses of art and antiquities in the world (getty.edu/museum.) Free except for a $15 parking fee, the museum was established by businessman and art collector J. Paul Getty, whose legacy was to make art accessible for all.
You’ll find special storytelling, drawing and other events for kids that are designed to stimulate their interest in the art world. And with its open grounds and expansive gardens, the well-designed complex offers families space to stretch out and explore the travertine-covered galleries that house everything from precious manuscripts and sculpture to landscape paintings and decorative objects.
Plan to spend another day immersed in the halls of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (lacma.org), which has a much different feel than the Getty. Here you could easily spend a day getting lost among works that range from ancient to very modern. Kids younger than 18 get in free, so pick up the Family Guide to help you navigate among the more than 150,000 pieces on exhibit here – there’s even a free children’s audio tour. Look for classes and lectures, too.
If your youngsters need a stretch after broadening their minds, indulge in the short stroll over to the La Brea Tar Pits, where, oddly situated among the modern-day buildings, is an actual lake of tar. Then duck into the George C. Page Museum (tarpits.org) to experience a bit of the Ice Age and check out the thousands of fossilized remains that have been excavated from the tar pits (from dire wolves to saber-toothed cats), which provide a fascinating geologic record of the area we now know as Southern California.
Reserve a day in your cultural tour to experience a completely different genre and trot over to the Autry National Center of the American West (theautry.org). Here you’ll learn not only about singing cowboy Gene Autry, who co-founded the museum, but also about all types of people who were part of the American West experience.
The top kid spot at the Autry center is the Family Discovery Gallery, where young explorers can learn what life was like for a Chinese-American family in the 1930s. Kids can play in the re-created restaurant, antique store and home while they dress up, play with props and entertain their parents. Buckaroos can also participate in gold panning or join one of the crafting or story time events. And there’s plenty for moms and dads, too, including the galleries that honor the cowboy culture and American Indians.
If you prefer your culture in small bites, L.A. is packed with several compact museums that allow you to get a big dose of art in a short amount of time. The Norton Simon Museum (nortonsimon.org) in Pasadena has great collections and superb children’s programs. Or head downtown to enjoy a musical – and architectural – interlude at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry and home to the L.A. Philharmonic. Take a self- or docent-guided tour of the halls or Edna Disney’s rooftop garden. Also in the neighborhood is the Museum of Modern Art, as well as neighboring China Town and Olvera Street, home to some of the city’s most alluring shopping districts.
Weekend #3: Natural Wonders
Despite the oceans of concrete and asphalt, you’ll find several ways to catch a glimpse of L.A.’s more natural side. Check a local map for a veritable web of nature centers and trails if you like to get off the beaten path and into the footprints made by locals.
For a highly concentrated day of outdoor activities, fix your gaze upon Griffith Park (laparks.org/dos/parks/griffithPK/griffith.htm), L.A.’s massive and thriving green belt tucked among the hills and houses of Silver Lake and Los Feliz (pronounced “Los FEEL-iss). Here you’ll find facilities galore for biking, hiking, bird watching, swimming and even horseback riding, as well as miles of open space for picnicking, Frisbee-throwing and lounging.
You’ll also find a little slice of heaven for train buffs at Travel Town, which houses a museum of bonafide rolling stock, and a miniature train that takes passengers in a loop around the museum. The L.A. Live Steamers Railroad Museum nearby is also worth checking out, and rides on the 7-1/2”-gauge model train are offered on Sundays. The park shelters an old-fashioned carousel, built in 1926 and still going strong.
This lush sprawl is also home to the birds, mammals and reptiles who reside at the Los Angeles Zoo. Or explore the heavens at one of the real stars of the park: the Griffith Peak Observatory. This architectural landmark invites stargazers in for a telescopic look at the constellations or just to take in the planetarium, educational exhibits and sweeping views of the city. (Be sure to grab a bite at the Café at the End of the Universe, operated by star chef Wolfgang Puck.)
Plan another day around visiting one of the city’s public gardens. The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (huntington.org) feature not only some of the most splendid gardens in the country but also an extensive collection of early American and European artwork and manuscripts (Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy is exhibited here). The Children’s Garden is populated with plants just for kids, as well as other hands-on features, hidden nooks and a misty Rainbow Room that produces its own cloud forest.
Wrap up a nature-focused L.A. getaway with an expedition to the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific (aquariumofpacific.org), where you can learn a lot about our local oceans and why we need to take care of them. Kids are naturally drawn to the Shark Lagoon, where you can stick your hands into the touch tanks to feel the slimy, sandpapery skin of the more than 150 sharks (12:30-2:30p.m. Saturdays, the pleasure is free). The aquarium is relatively compact, but allows for leisurely strolling – kids can join craft activities and special events to keep them feeling fishy. The cafeteria even offers an education in the types of seafood that are Earth-friendly; pick up the brochure when you enter the aquarium.
Leave the fishies behind to linger in Long Beach, which, of course, is also home to the legendary ship, the Queen Mary. The waterfront area is the place to catch a Ferris wheel ride or check out other recreational opportunities, such as whale-watch outings, boat rentals and fishing trips.
Plan to catch the sunset by zipping up the coast a few miles to a scenic trio of classic SoCal beaches: Hermosa, Manhattan and Redondo.
Redondo Beach has its own SEA Laboratory, an education facility operated by the L.A. Conservation Corps, if you want to seek out more sea life. Or if you prefer some quiet time, settle in at either Hermosa or Redondo Beach or the slightly more upscale Manhattan Beach. Spread out a towel, slather on some sunscreen and sit back to pursue a classic Southern California pastime – soaking up some sand, sun and surf.
Carolyn Graham is editor of Bay Area Parent’s sister publication, L.A. Parent.
The following websites might come in handy when planning a Los Angeles getaway.
- Beverly Hills Conference and Visitors Bureau – beverlyhillsbehere.com
- City of Beverly Hills – beverlyhills.org
- City of Manhattan Beach – ci.manhattan-beach.ca.us
- Hermosa Beach Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau – hbchamber.net
- Hollywood Chamber of Commerce – hollywoodchamber.net
- Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau – visitlongbeach.com
- Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau – discoverlosangeles.com
- Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau – redondochamber.org