Southern California in Winter - Carfree Travel
May 31, 2012 6:13 PM   Subscribe

Where should I go/stay/see in Southern California from mid-December to mid-January? I will not have a car since I want to promote low-carbon travel.

As part of an extended trip around North America, I'll be visiting California. Since my trip involves visiting college campuses, I'm "stuck" in SoCal for winter break (I like warmth). I know SoCal is notorious for its car culture but I am unwilling to rent a car and will be getting around by bus, train, and rideshare. I don't have a lot of money so places like Disneyland are not on my radar.

In early to mid December I'll be in Los Angeles (probably one of the worst places to not have a car?) I'd like to also visit Irvine and Santa Barbara. I went to San Diego last November and while it was wonderful, I don't think I need to spend the money right now to visit again.

I'd love suggestions on any other cities to visit or better yet, places within cities to visit (accessible via public transit). I am very interested in urban parks, public art, and whatever cool, sustainable initiatives that are being cooked up in that city like Fallen Fruit (urban foraging) in L.A.

Please don't tell me to just go and rent a car. Not only is it out of my budget (I'm under 25 so extra fees as well), but it goes against one of guiding principles for the trip.

posted by bluelight to Travel & Transportation around California, CA (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Pasadena's pretty walkable, once you get there via Metro. The Huntington Gardens, the Norton Simon Museum, the Gamble House, the Rose Bowl Swap meet, and Caltech are worthwhile.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:23 PM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Pasadena/Glendale/Burbank/etc. are all pretty OK, and they're even safer now than when I was a kid, when my dad and I walked all over the place, so. There are a lot of cute shops at street level in both Burbank and Fullerton.

The rest of this advice comes from someone who's done the LA-without-a-(reliable)-car thing for a few months, eight years ago.

The Metro stops at Hollywood & Highland (Orange line, I think?) which is fun if for no other reason than you can a) walk to a decent-ish view of the Hollywood Sign and b) see a recreation of DW Griffith's awesome insane set for Intolerance. Plus, stars on the walk of fame. I've slept on the Carpenter's star, but I don't recommend doing that without a small posse. Watch out for anyone who offers to give you a personality test - there's a Scientology storefront right nearby.

Be sure to visit the fun parts of downtown Los Angeles, especially Olvera Street. Also fun is attending concerts in Disney Hall, which is moderately accessible (there are a LOT of buses all over downtown LA.)

You may enjoy spending time in the audience for tapings of game shows, talk shows, and sitcoms. The NBC studios are pretty easy to get to. Beware, Jay tapes way, way earlier than he is broadcast. Eat at the Big Boy in Burbank on a Friday evening to see all the awesome cars.

Eat at Pink's. You can go anytime, but I personally don't like the neighborhood much past midnight.

Union Station is such fun for the history. And, by definition, is super accessible.

Seconding the Rose Bowl swap meet. They don't seem to have one at Dodger Stadium anymore (!!!???!!)

Griffith Park is awesome and fun, but I've never tried to get there without a car, and I'm not sure how possible it is on a random day.

Irvine is pretty dreadful without a car, in my experience. No clue about Santa Barbara.

Don't forget that LA has taxis, in case you accidentally get stranded someplace. They don't drive around looking for you the way they do in NYC and DC, but you can call them.
posted by SMPA at 6:38 PM on May 31, 2012

Santa Monica has great public transport, sadly the expo line won't be open for you yet, but you can see its construction!

You have the beach, tons of great parks, Bergamot Station galleries and much more public art in palisades park and various other spots. Santa Monica is very bikeable, rent a bike while you are there and use the new bike lanes. You can also take the bus to the Getty Center, or Culver City - visit the museum of jurassic technology and more public art.
posted by Joh at 6:39 PM on May 31, 2012

Parts of Los Angeles are very accessible without a car (especially the parts where the metro rail goes), and parts of LA are very difficult to get to without a car. Do you know where you will be staying?

If you don't know yet, I highly recommend staying within walking distance of a metro rail stop.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:39 PM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: That is a lovely time of year to visit SoCal -- very festive, and it's less congested here during that timeframe since many people leave town for the holidays and school break.

And you can have an absolute blast here without a car, if you aren't on a tight schedule in terms of having to be on one side of town at a certain time, and then crosstown at another. You'll be saving yourself all sorts of stress by going carfree, and you'll see the area in a way that the car-bound miss -- i.e., on a more human, slow, street level.

One way to enjoy L.A. sans car is to break the city down into walkable chunks of neighborhood, and explore on foot. There are all sorts of interesting areas in short distance from the Metro stops; and on a limited budget, there are tons of free- to cheap things to do. For example, most of our museums have one or more free days a month (days/times vary). Cheap eats are everywhere.

Do a day downtown. Do a day in Santa Monica/Venice. Do a day mid-Wilshire. Do a day in Pasadena. Do a day at The Getty (take the bus; free admission).

Since you'll be visiting campuses, you can check out the free museums on campus. UCLA's Fowler Museum is a gem. The Hammer Museum is right next to campus. The sculpture garden on campus is really neat, too.

Bring some good walking shoes, and enjoy!
posted by quivering_fantods at 6:41 PM on May 31, 2012

You'll have to rideshare to get to Irvine, which will absolutely not be walkable once you arrive. It just isn't pedestrian-friendly, or even bike-friendly. There's a bus from the university stop to Costa Mesa, which will get you to the Orange County PAC and South Coast Repertory (along with South Coast Plaza). UC Irvine itself architecture (when I was an undergrad, we joked that the buildings came in two flavors: ugly and functional and ugly and nonfunctional), but the park in the campus' center ring is nice to stroll about in. There are some non-pricey eating options in the shopping center right across the street from the U, but in general, Irvine is not a low-budget paradise.

Once you make it to Santa Barbara via Amtrak (pack books to read--it's a long trip), it's easy enough to get around using public transportation, bikes, and/or feet. However, you may have to call a cab from the train station itself. Buses will really take you wherever you want to go--the zoo, down to the beach (lots of good seafood restaurants), museums, shopping, etc. Check out the various wildlife preserves at the U while you're there.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:50 PM on May 31, 2012

Another option to get to/from Santa Barbara is the SB Airbus. Look around the site for the Day Tripper fare-- a one way fare that gets you a round trip if you return in 2 days or less.
posted by calgirl at 7:01 PM on May 31, 2012

In Santa Barbara, it's not a long walk from the train station to the downtown bus depot - less than a mile if you go straight there, slightly uphill, along beautiful State Street. That will get you anywhere else in the area, maybe with a transfer or two for some areas in Goleta.
posted by WasabiFlux at 8:27 PM on May 31, 2012

The NYTimes has some tips on bike tourism.

If you want to go to really Southern California you could jaunt down to Tijuana. Find someone to lend you a bike for Paseo de Todos, the civilized Mexican version of Critical Mass every first Friday at 8pm.
posted by akgerber at 9:31 PM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can take the Metrolink train to Irvine, but you'll arrive in a sea of office buildings right next to a giant shopping mall. Irvine is not walkable at all, unless your idea of walkable is crossing wide eight-lane arterials of traffic going 55 mph in order to get from one large parking lot to another.

You mentioned going on college visits -- if you are going to Irvine to visit UC Irvine, and can't get a rideshare, I would take the train to Santa Ana and then OCTA route 59 to campus. It's more frequent than any bus that runs from the Irvine train station to UCI, which is not all that close to the train station anyway.
posted by andrewesque at 7:10 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Public Transit Geek here.

You can also get from the Tustin Metrolink station to UCI via OCTA, which has a couple special buses that coincide with the morning & afternoon trains. You can actually ride the bus free with a valid Metrolink ticket. :)

The Orange station has a cool restaurant at the station (Ruby's, IIRC), and is within decent walking distance of lots of cool shops.

The Fullerton station has buses that run to CSUF, which has a very nice (free!)
Arboretum. You can also walk to some interesting places straight from the train station. (The Fullerton station services both Metrolink and Amtrak.) Fullerton (Community) College is also a couple bus stops from the station. It's smaller and prettier than CSUF. :)

From the Norwalk station, you can get a bus to the Green Line station via Norwalk Transit, if you want to try the light rails into LA.

The Expo Line via MTA will get you to USC. You can also take the Purple line as far as it goes and get a Rapid bus to Wilshire & Westwood. I believe there's buses that go from there up Westwood to UCLA proper. All MTA-based services (bus & light rail) are free with a valid Metrolink ticket. :)
posted by luckynerd at 12:32 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you flying into LAX? The LAX FlyAway Bus is a good option to get to/from the airport to downtown L.A. (7 bucks) or Westwood (10 bones).

Do not, repeat, do not use the cursed Super Shuttle (or its ilk) if you can at all avoid it. The horror, the horror--!

You can also take Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus Line 3 to/from the airport to downtown Santa Monica for a measly buck. There's a free shuttle that takes you from the airport terminal to the nearby public transit terminal, and you hop on the Big Blue there. Dead easy.

There are youth hostels in Venice and SaMo that have airport transpo, too, should you be looking to stay in budget digs near the beach.

For free stuff to do in a group setting, check out Walking tours, urban hikes, yoga on the beach, flash mobs...mingle with the locals. There are probably some sustainability-oriented meetups.

You could buy a beater bike, hook into the very active local cycling scene, and sell or donate your bike at the end of your trip.
posted by quivering_fantods at 10:49 PM on June 1, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.

I've decided to skip Irvine. Will definitely check out the Rose Bowl Swap, Pasadena, the Getty Center, and the many other suggestions you guys listed! I'm actually thinking about getting a L.A. Not for Tourists book while I'm there since I'll be walking around so much.

Since I'm promoting low-carbon travel I will not be flying at all.
posted by bluelight at 9:08 AM on June 2, 2012

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