Think of Los Angeles and your mind likely defaults to 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." Look to this guide for an inexpensive way to experience the city.
Admission to the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa near 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 discounted after 5 p.m.
The Hollywood Bowl, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic and all guest musicians rehearse for their evening stage performances, offers visitors a chance to watch rehearsals for free many mornings during the week (on a show-by-show basis). The Edmund D. Edelman Hollywood Bowl Museum doesn't charge admission. See art and historical exhibits with hundreds of videos and audio samples of recordings from the bowl.
Since opening in 1998, the Independent Shakespeare Co. has brought classic works to a contemporary audience. In the summer months, bring a blanket and picnic and watch a free performance in Griffith Park. The plays take place Thursday to Sunday evenings (and some Wednesdays) in a natural amphitheater 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 and some federal holidays will give you access to all permanent galleries. Admission is always free for children under 17 and after 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, for L.A. County residents. Visit LACMA on a Sunday at 6 p.m. 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 University of Southern California campus during one weekend in April. General admission to the festival, including all outdoor programming, is free; free tickets (with a dollar service fee) are required for all indoor speakers and panel sessions.
Free to the public on the second Tuesday of each month and on New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Day, and Presidents' Day, the Autry in Griffith Park explores the history and art of the American West. Its ongoing firearm exhibition features Annie Oakley's gold-plated handguns with pearl grips and Teddy Roosevelt's Colt and Winchester guns. Visit the Mount Washington campus to see the museum's rare collection of Pueblo ceramics spanning four centuries. Open Saturdays only; admission free.
Spanning 2.4 miles, the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street encompasses more than 2,500 stars made of terrazzo and brass. Locate the star you'd like to visit ahead of time using the star finder on the Walk of Fame's official website (Audrey Hepburn's star is at 1652 Vine Street; Michael Jackson's is at 6927 Hollywood Boulevard). 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 start 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. Now called TCL Chinese Theatre, the venue 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 Vine Street, which houses 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 red light on top of the building—it blinks "Hollywood" in Morse code.
While backlot tours of studios such as Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, and Warner Bros. will cost around $50, you can be a part of the live audience for shows such as Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Ellen, and Jimmy Kimmel Live for free. It's best to order tickets ahead of time. Visit a show's website for details.
A visit to Los Angeles isn't complete without setting your eyes upon one of the most common symbols associated with the place: the Hollywood sign. The sign that sits on Mount Lee was never intended to be a symbol of Hollywood. In 1923, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler commissioned the sign, originally spelling out "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 get very close or to touch the sign, 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 near Pasadena under the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s. Now a NASA laboratory, JPL is responsible for having launched America's first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. They also sent robotic spacecraft to the moon. Most recently, the lab has been overseeing the journey of a few Mars rovers and Kepler, a telescope in space that's seeking Earthlike planets. Tours of JPL are free once a week on Mondays or Wednesdays, but all tours (they last two to two and a half hours) must be booked at least three weeks 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 the upscale shopping spree by window-shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The street's boutiques and stores span three blocks from around Wilshire Boulevard to Santa Monica Boulevard.
The Original Farmers Market opened at its famed location at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue in July 1934, with farmers selling goods from the backs of their trucks. Today, the operation is open daily and offers baked goods, meats, produce, seafood, nuts, and candies. It's free to enter and inexpensive to eat.
Part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument—which commemorates the first settlement in Los Angeles in 1781—Olvera Street is one of the city's most treasured spaces. Wander the stalls for handmade trinkets or leather goods, admire the work of local artists, listen to musicians perform, or taste authentic Mexican food. It's located near L.A.'s Union Station and across from La Placita Church.
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 affectionately 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. Parking is free in the back of the building.
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 West 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 spring, with much of the celebrating done at the Songkran Festival. Attend the festival in L.A. for free. Taste Thai curry, sit in on the Miss Thai New Year pageant, 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 a portion of L.A.'s thriving Armenian community, hosts a festival in late May or early June to celebrate Armenia's independence. The free admission, live music, traditional Armenian fare, and vendors have enticed thousands to celebrate the event in the past.
If you're up for a jaunt into L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, visit Mission San Fernando Rey de España, a mission founded by Fermin Francisco de Lasuén and named for King Ferdinand of Spain.
Docents offer free one-hour tours of the public Los Angeles Central Library downtown. View the Goodhue Building's sphinxes and chandeliers, as well as its 13-and-a-half-foot-tall lanterns, designed to portray the 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.
If you're spending a day at Venice Beach, stop by the 16,000-square-foot Venice Beach Skate Plaza and watch locals—anyone from young kids to adults—skate from morning until sunset. It's free to watch and free to join this SoCal staple.
See a 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 Ecosystems experience features eight zones, each of which immerses visitors in a different environment, including forest, island, and river. Enter a 24-foot-long transparent tunnel to stand eye-to-eye with horn sharks, sea bass, and moray eels in 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 children two and under get in free (admission for kids ages three to twelve is $5; adults, $12). The museum offers free admission to all on the first Tuesday of each month, except for July and August. 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 (except for July and August) and for children under two, La Brea Tar Pits is a staple field trip for most Los Angeles schoolchildren. 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 the tar pits were formed, trapping plants and animals and opening the door for today's scientists to discover prehistoric Los Angeles.
In 2009, the Santa Monica Pier celebrated its first hundred years. Walk to the end of the pier, passing artists along the way; meander through Pacific Park, the pier's amusement park, which features a solar-powered Ferris wheel; and step into the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, where children 12 and younger are free. Help the staff feed the sea stars in the touch tanks on Tuesdays and Fridays at 2:30 p.m. For little tots, there's story time each Saturday at 2 p.m.
Take a gander at the scenes that Venice Beach has to offer along its Ocean Front Walk; there's certainly no price for people-watching. Then take a dip in the Pacific Ocean.
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 three- to seven-dollar planetarium show.
La Plaza Abaja, established in 1866, was renamed Pershing Square in 1918 to honor 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 amphitheater accommodates guests for its free Friday Night Flicks program. Summer also brings free lunchtime concerts during the week.
Pack your warmest sleeping bag and a thermos for hot cocoa, and spend the night in the streets of Old Town Pasadena for the best seats at the Rose Parade, held each year on New Year's Day since 1890. 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 Pasadena's Sierra Madre and Washington Boulevards.
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 adjacent to 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 thousands of species of tropical and subtropical plants thrive. Take the self-guided tour or join a drop-in tour, offered for free on the first Saturday of the month at 1 p.m. 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 Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin, and Jacques Lipchitz.