The trick to having a decent quality of life in Los Angeles, claims one longtime Angeleno, is to live near where you work. The same adage holds true for visitors in that staying put in a single area of the city—being in a car for as short a time as possible—is a good rule of thumb. The best way to explore is one neighborhood at a time. Here are a few of our favorite itineraries to try.
Downtown Los Angeles
Best for fans of modern architecture and ethnic cuisine lovers.
If you have a half day: Formerly an unwelcoming neighborhood dominated by the glass-and-steel office buildings of Bunker Hill on one side and the poverty and despair of Skid Row on the other, Downtown Los Angeles has staged a major comeback in recent years.
While the skyscrapers and tent cities still exist, there is also a middle ground that lures visitors with the promise of high art and historic architecture.
Don't miss the gems of Grand Avenue the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art. At the concert hall, be sure to take the hour-long self-guided audio tour, which includes a walk through the venue's second-story hidden garden.
If you have a whole day: After checking out MOCA and Disney Hall, see the art deco icon Union Station to admire the heavy wood-beam ceilings, leather upholstered chairs, and inlaid marble floors.
Then, walk across Alameda Street to stroll past the shops and restaurants of L.A.'s historic Olvera Street, where you'll find traditional Mexican fare. Other ethnic eats can be found venturing into Little Tokyo for a wide variety of Japanese cuisine or to Chinatown, especially for dim sum.
Best for first-timers to L.A., as well as film and music history buffs.
If you have a half day: Tourists flock to Hollywood Boulevard to see old movie palaces such as TCL Chinese Theatre, where movie stars have left their mark, literally, in the concrete courtyard of the theater since 1927.
These days the theater's entrance is also graced by dozens of impersonators—from Marilyn Monroe to Spiderman—who are more than happy to pose for photos with visitors.
Go to Hollywood & Highland Center for lunch, followed by a tour of the Kodak Theatre, which hosts the annual Academy Awards ceremony.
Wander the Walk of Fame, a 5-acre stretch of bronze stars embedded in pink terrazzo that lines Hollywood Boulevard to pay homage to your favorite movie stars. Or visit the independent record store Amoeba Records for just about everything a music lover could want.
If you have a whole day: Some of the historic movie palaces, including TCL, still show films, but the real movie buffs should opt to see a movie at the ArcLight, a state-of-the-art theater on Sunset Boulevard that features gourmet food and reserved seating. The ArcLight also boasts an in-house café bar that is perfect for a quick meal before a film or an après-show martini.
Best for trend-savvy shoppers, farmers' market foodies, and parents pushing strollers.
If you have a half day: Thanks to its central location, West Hollywood is the ideal place to spend a couple of hours without committing an entire day—not that there isn't a day's worth of things to do in this neighborhood.
A shopping hub in its own right, visitors can choose to stroll around the outdoor pedestrian area, The Grove, or at the mammoth indoor Beverly Center. There are also countless small boutiques and specialty shops lining Beverly Boulevard, 3rd Street, and Melrose Avenue.
For lunch, grab a corned beef sandwich or some matzo ball soup at Canter's Delicatessen, a Los Angeles landmark since 1931, or to the Farmers Market for a collection of ethnic food stalls and local products.
If you have a whole day: Tack Robertson Boulevard onto your shopping agenda to find boutiques ranging from the local favorite American Apparel to the celebrity magnet Kitson.
West Hollywood is known for its buzzing nightlife, so afterward choose from hundreds of small restaurants for dinner, then follow up with a drink from one of the area's many bars.
Beverly Hills and the Westside
Best for high-end shoppers, ladies who lunch, and contemporary art museum–goers.
If you have a half day: Depending on how hardcore of a shopper you are, you can easily check out the boutiques of Beverly Hills in a couple of hours. In fact, with all of the designer flagships and tony department stores, it might be dangerous to spend too much time (translation: too much money) in this ritzy neighborhood.
Hit Rodeo Drive for all the runway names, such as Chanel, Christian Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Gucci, Prada, Valentino, and Versace.
Of course, not all the action is on Rodeo; don't forget to wander the side streets for more high fashion. The department stores—Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue—are located nearby on Wilshire Boulevard. After you finish shopping, refuel with a dose of sugar at local dessert favorite Sprinkles Cupcakes.
If you have a whole day: After all that shopping, jump in the car to get some culture by heading east to the Miracle Mile, a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that's home to the mammoth Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as smaller museums, such as the Craft and Folk Art Museum.
Santa Monica and the Beaches
Best for families with kids of all ages, sun worshippers and surfers, and anyone who likes cruising in a convertible.
If you have a half day: With a couple of hours on your hands, it's a quick trip (if there's no traffic) to the beaches of Santa Monica or Venice. While they may not offer quite as much in the natural beauty department as their Malibu counterparts, they have plenty of sights of a different variety.
Don't miss the boardwalk vendors who hang out on Venice Beach or the street performers who frequent the Santa Monica Pier. Grab a snack at one of the beach-theme restaurants on the Strand such as divey Big Dean's Oceanfront Café or dressy Shutters on the Beach.
If you have a whole day: The ideal way to see Los Angeles's most beautiful beaches is to set aside an entire day for Malibu. Driving down the scenic Pacific Coast Highway is a treat in and of itself with sheer cliffs on one side of the road and ocean views on the other.
Topanga State Beach, Malibu Lagoon State Beach, and Malibu Surfrider Beach are all beautiful and popular spots to pass the day, but it's worth the extra drive time to see Point Dume State Beach, which is nestled away from the hustle and bustle of the highway.
Be sure to seek out the single-track trail that winds its way up a nearby coastal bluff revealing breathtaking views of Santa Monica Bay, the Malibu Coast, and Catalina Island. Stop for lunch at any of the seafood shacks that line PCH.
Best for multigenerational groups, as well as art and architecture aficionados.
If you have a half day: Aside from spending time pouring over the massive collection of rare manuscripts and books at the Huntington Library, be sure to set aside a couple of hours for the Botanical Gardens to explore the more than a dozen themed areas, including authentic examples of both Japanese and Chinese gardens.
The Huntington has a beautiful outdoor café, as well as the Rose Garden Tea Room, where you can grab a tasty treat.
Another must-see museum is the Norton Simon Museum, with a collection that includes everything from ancient Asian art to 20th-century works.
If you have a whole day: Take a tour of Charles and Henry Greene's 1908 masterpiece the Gamble House, followed by a trip to the Castle Green, the architects' Moorish Colonial– and Spanish-style building.
Then, walk around into Old Town Pasadena, a revitalized shopping area with boutiques and eateries housed in historic buildings.
If you happen to be here during the once-a-month, massive Rose Bowl Flea Market, which takes over the Rose Bowl parking lot, you can browse around roughly 2,500 vendors' stalls.
Orange County and Catalina Island
Best for families traveling with young children and those who yearn for the great outdoors.
If you have a half day: Head to one of the seemingly endless string of beaches along this stretch of shoreline, extending from Long Beach to San Juan Capistrano. There’s plenty to do besides sit in the sand: head to one of the fascinating aquariums, explore a nature preserve, or take in some impressive art at the area’s surprisingly good museums.
Finding somewhere to eat won’t be a problem, as this area is a major foodie destination. There are also plenty of reasonably priced family eateries.
If you have a whole day: If you’re traveling with kids, you’re going to end up at one of the classic theme parks, either Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm. Grown-ups will be drawn to the natural beauty of Catalina Island. There’s a tiny town with its fair share of attractions, but make sure you see the unspoiled coastline.