Los Angeles is known for its car culture, but a little advanced planning will get you out of traffic and zipping through the city in an L.A. minute.
As any Angeleno will tell you, Los Angeles is not New York. Though both cities have vibrant cultures (and subcultures galore) and expansive metro systems, arriving in L.A. and expecting the same ease of use on public transit as in New York is a no-go. With a smidge of advance planning, you can make L.A.’s enormity shrink to fit your enviro-friendly, do-as-the-locals-do travel plans. My teenage son and I challenged ourselves to spend time in L.A. without planes and automobiles. On L.A. metro and its buses–and a stay at a hotel within the system–we ate, saw, and did all the things on our list. No car, no Uber. But plenty of feel-good, low-carbon public transportation and pedestrian power. Here’s how we did it.
Related: The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles
Step One: Plan What You Want to See
To best navigate the vastness of Los Angeles, pin down a few places you intend to visit and map them against a metro map before you arrive. I prefer a metro map that overlays a map of the city, such as L.A. Metro Map, as it allows for pinpoint accuracy and is helpful for trip planning well before you arrive. I was keen to tour the Frank Geary-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, stop by the expansive Grand Central Market for all the eats, and see the Pippilotti Rist exhibit at The Geffen Contemporary, while my teenage son was all-in on sinking his fingers into the tar at La Brea Tar Pits and Museum and checking out the Tupac Shakur exhibit at The Canvas at L.A. Live (his younger brother was green with envy to miss this).
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After looking up the addresses of our preferred destinations, I mapped them to the metro system. Other than the Tar Pits Museum, all our destinations were within blocks of the Red or Blue metro lines. With that in mind, I looked for a hotel within easy walking distance of a metro station. I chose The Godfrey Hotel in Hollywood for its proximity to restaurants and event venues, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and easy access to the Hollywood and Vine metro station.
INSIDER TIPThe Los Angeles Metro is a continually evolving transit system. Several new lines and line extensions are planned to open ahead of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. The newest line, the K Line (also known as the Crenshaw Line), opens in October 2022, and connects the E Line (the Expo Line) to South Los Angeles.
Step Two: Packing and Gear
Using pedestrian power means being able to schlepp all your stuff without difficulty. If you have backpacked around Europe or South America or put a few outfits in a wheeled suitcase for a quick weekend jaunt or a weeklong work trip, you got this. For our five-day trip, we each brought a TravelPro two-wheeled, soft-sided suitcase and a Swiss Gear backpack. All our luggage could easily be lifted into train baggage racks, wheeled up escalators, and squeezed through turnstiles or sliding doors with minimal effort. If you must bring large or unwieldy luggage, plan to hire a porter at the station and grab a taxi out front to ferry you to the hotel. Once we arrived in L.A., a backpack was all we needed for our day-long adventures.
Step Three: Arrival in Los Angeles
We booked Amtrak tickets from the San Francisco Bay Area, arriving at Los Angeles Union Station around dinner time. The station welcomed us with its restored beamed ceiling and stunning stained glass windows, a harbinger of the creative design elements found throughout the city’s metro stations. We bought a single-use metro pass at the station, but you can purchase tickets and passes in advance via the city’s Tap to Go online system. From the station, we caught a red line metro train to Hollywood and Vine, then walked the four blocks to our hotel.
Step Four: Consider Any Coverage Gaps
Strange things happen anytime you travel. Last-minute adventures appear like mermaids from the Pacific haze and propel you to deviate from your route. Or you are just running late and missed the bus. Stuff happens, especially in L.A., where everyone (and I mean everyone) who is not stuck in traffic is on public transit. We had to exit one bus after the driver was compelled to stop and report a fisticuffs incident between two passengers before continuing. (We caught another bus five minutes later.)
If your transit planning app tells you the next bus is not for a while, consider a service like Metro Micro. Using the same TAP card as mentioned above and at fees at a rate equivalent to public transit ($1.75 per ride), request a driver on-demand to pick you up at a designated location. The system is a new supplement to existing rail and bus service and is designed for short trips within L.A.
The shared electric scooter and bike company, Lime, operates in L.A. (Bird, Lyft, and Uber either have or are rolling out programs, too.) They are a great option for solo riders (no passengers allowed). The scooters are pay-to-play: reserve one 10 minutes in advance, and, like a taxi, once the meter starts, you are then charged per minute of use, making them ideal for short trips. The main drawback? Scooters tend to cluster near certain communities. You may see lots of scooters parked in Santa Monica near Venice Beach (near the end of the Expo Line or E Line to downtown Santa Monica) or along Hollywood Boulevard or in Downtown L.A.–but maybe not. (And yes, there are apps for finding scooters near you, and they work.) There is a lot of overlap between the scootering community and the metro-riding community–where you can ride metro, you can typically find scooters.
Step Five: Enjoy L.A.
Part of the fun of traveling is the random encounters and weird things that happen unexpectedly. Los Angeles is spread out, but you can easily experience many different neighborhoods and take part in the unique scene in each one using metro. Don’t rush. Relax, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Sample Three Day L.A. Itinerary
Start the day with a ride on the B Line (also known as the Red Line) to Civic Center/Grand Park to take an architectural tour of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Geary and home of the L.A. Philharmonic. On your way to lunch at Grand Central Market, walk south on South Grand Ave to take a ride on Angel’s Flight. The narrow-gauge funicular scoots down the hill and drops you off right in front of the Market. After sauntering among the counters and stalls, sit on a stool at Ramen Hood for a bowl of Cold Ass Noodles, amped with garlic and chili oils. Head back to The Godfrey for an afternoon swimming in or lounging by the hotel’s rooftop pool before sipping an Aperol spritz and enjoying a sushi dinner at the pool adjacent I | O Rooftop.
Start the day with a ride on the B Line (Red) to Civic Center/Grand Park to see the large-scale exhibits on offer at The Geffen at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Walk a block or so to Little Tokyo, a small neighborhood packed with Japanese restaurants and shops. Stop for lunch at Izakaya Gazen where the fresh tofu will blow your mind. Take the J Line (Silver) bus and exit at Flower/Olympic to see Tupac Shakur at The Canvas at L.A. Live exhibit. Afterward, stop for a margarita and a plate of street-style tacos at Sol Agave. From there, you can head back to The Godfrey via metro B Line (Red) or take the 14 bus, transferring to the 210 bus at South Galleria.
Walk up to the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga (about three blocks) to catch the 217 bus. Exit at Fairfax and 6th and walk one block east to the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. For lunch, walk back to Fairfax and go one block north for lunch at Saigon Pearl for a restorative bowl of bone broth soup filled with rice noodles, filet mignon, and meatballs. Take the 217 back towards the hotel, exiting at Hollywood and North Highland, then spend some time poking into shops and walking along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For dinner, grab a burger and a beer at Stout Burger before heading to bed.
Alternatively, the metro subway system will also take you all the way to the beaches of Santa Monica (though it’s a long journey from Hollywood): Take the Red Line to 7th Street in Downtown and transfer to the Expo Line, which ends at Downtown Santa Monica.