Help me figure out a weekend in Los Angeles
November 24, 2021 8:29 AM   Subscribe

I have no idea how far away anything is or how long it takes to get places. I'm hoping some of you could help guide me to a place to stay, fun things to do, and hopefully stay near/get to the ocean.

I scored free tickets to an event in Los Angeles in January. The event is happening at the USC Campus, Bovard Auditorium.

Does it make sense to rent a car? Stay near LAX?

My goal is to relax, be by the water, and attend this show.
Thanks in advance. The idea of planning an LA trip is very overwhelming to me!
posted by retrofitted to Travel & Transportation around Los Angeles, CA (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you'd like to be by the water, I'd recommend maybe staying in Santa Monica in an Airbnb. If you don't want to drive, you can also ride the Expo line (light rail) to the event. Not super close- probably about an hour on the train, 20 minutes in a car if there isn't traffic.
posted by pinochiette at 8:46 AM on November 24

So, the bad news is, USC is in downtown LA (DTLA), and the beach is significantly further west. I used to work for USC at an off-campus site in Playa Vista (north of LAX, south of Venice), and I budgeted 30-45 minutes to commute to/from campus mid-day. Traffic snarls up even worse in the morning/evening. There were shows I went to in DTLA that took an hour+ to get to by car from my apartment in Mar Vista (slightly inland -- northeast of Venice, southeast of Santa Monica), and that's ignoring parking (Campus parking is also a whole thing).

Agree that an airbnb in Santa Monica near the Expo Line is your best bet, assuming you're comfortable using public transportation during a pandemic.
posted by Alterscape at 8:49 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

You should rent a car.

Staying near the ocean is hard. The beaches themselves are almost entirely state park land, and then residential real estate consumes most beachfront private property across the street. Also, in January, actually going to the beach requires a coat and gloves - it's cold, the wind is a sustained 10+mph at all times, and in the morning and evenings most days you can expect to be enveloped in a drippy low-visibility fog. Santa Monica has made vague gestures at clamping down on airbnbs, but my understanding is that there's still plenty and January, at least after about the 10th when most schools are back in session, is low season for both tourists and residents who have other homes in warmer climes.

It will be a bit warmer inland, and either sunny clear skies OR if we are very lucky (sorry) miserable with rain and our complete lack of ability to cope with rain (from the palm trees dropping 20' or 20lb fronds or chunks of whatever that shit is that falls off them to our clogged storm sewer drains to the oil that rises up on the water on streets to turn them all into some kind of stunt-driving course), since we get pretty much the entire year's supply in January.

But! It is pretty easy to drive to visit the beach, and also lots of places to park in your car with it running with the heat on for a while and look at the beach while you warm up from a brisk walk. The drive from Santa Monica to Malibu is pretty classic, and from there I suggest coming back inland through the first set of (little) mountains, through Topanga Canyon or Las Virgenes Road to the 101 and then you can head back east to the 405 to go south again. The Sherman Oaks area/Ventura Blvd area (intersection of 101/405) is a good place to get lunch on your way back - just about anything you want can be found there.

My recommendations will vary depending on what days of the week and how long you will be here/have free time, and what you like to do. Jan-Feb are more indoor months here, but our shopping and restaurant landscape is all weird from the pandemic.

People always ask where to eat, and my advice is always this: unless there is some very obscure thing you're looking for (like a very specific type of Russian food or Bhutanese or something, in which case you will need to find the one option in the city), plan your itinerary around non-food things you want to do and then use Yelp when you are there. Real estate is too expensive in this city for a crap restaurant to last long, all you need to do with a well-reviewed restaurant is sort reviews by most recent to make sure they haven't abruptly closed or been taken over by terrible new management. There are a few specific areas that are destinations for certain kinds of food - the Sawtelle Blvd/Little Tokyo area for Japanese food, the San Gabriel Valley for Chinese, Little Armenia, but every part of the city has good options for most of those, and you don't need to stick to any specific neighborhood for excellent Korean, Thai, Filipino, Mexican, South American, Middle Eastern, vegan etc.

Where to stay will depend again on what days, how long, how much free time. If you only need to go to USC once, you don't need to stay particularly close. If you need to go somewhere between 7-9:30a and 3-7p, you want to try to be close to that place outside of those times. The downside of staying in Santa Monica is it's kind of an island, access-wise, with not a ton of ways in or out and they're all congested during rush hours. But there's nothing especially terrifying about the traffic (people get scared about it, but you're going 0-15mph, it's far more terrifying when it's not so congested and everyone is going 80), it's just slow and takes a long time to get places.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:24 AM on November 24 [9 favorites]

On submit I see your post title says Weekend - traffic rush hours aren't so bad on weekends; there is more evenly-distributed traffic all day so you don't need to worry about timing too terribly much.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:28 AM on November 24

A few questions: Are you pretty comfortable driving in different cities? What kinds of things do you like to do? (Museums, sightseeing, people watching....what's your idea of fun and relaxation?) Do you like slow and quiet or a more bustling scene?
posted by biscuits at 9:30 AM on November 24

I agree with the above. As much as I hate cars, it's astonishingly hard to get around in LA without one. The hassle of a car rental is probably worth the tens of hours you'll spend trying to make public transit work across town if you want to visit more than one or two places. The USC neighborhood is a welcome exception, and the blue line will get you to or from the beach, eventually, but getting to most other places of interest will be hard. (With the exception of Hollywood.) If you haven't spent much time around the pacific ocean, it's worth emphasizing that the water is surprisingly cold, even when the weather is unbearably hot. When planning your beach experience, think Scotland, rather than the Caribbean.

Staying near LAX is unlikely to be rewarding. There are some really cool things and great food near there, but you'll spend hours walking past endless mini-malls and business parks to get to them. (There's a long, sometimes ugly history behind that.)
posted by eotvos at 9:59 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

I love LA and for a brief stint, I went for a few weeks every year. I haven't been back since prior to covid though, so take this with a grain of salt.

I personally would just stay in DTLA and spend time in that area. I always stayed with a friend, but an AirBNB would be fine. In non-covid times, I'd suggest considering a hostel as well, but even if they are open, I think it's probably too communal for comfort. But hostels on the west coast are pretty awesome and I've met amazing people from all over the few times I've stayed in one. I'm looking forward to doing that again in the not-to-distant future.

Unless the ocean is an absolute, I'd honestly say skip it and just explore the immediate DTLA area. I say this as someone that always feels cheated if I don't see the ocean when it is close by.

LA is such a big city with so much to do, that every little part of the city could keep you busy for weeks! It does really depend what you like to do when traveling, but you are almost certain to find it near whereever you are. When you're in LA, its a Big Deal to go outside your neighborhood. Not that people don't, but its a Thing to meetup outside the part of the city you are living in.

As an example, one time I was there, I took an uber to a coffee shop about 4 miles away. It sounded interesting. The friend I was staying with offered to pick me up when he got done with work. When I told him where I was, he could not, for the life of him, figure out why I was ALLLL the way out in Korea Town just for coffee (4 miles, 15 minute drive, but in his mind, it was WAY far away).

I'm not saying people don't drive, they do. A lot. But also as much as possible is going to be done in a small area, and then bigger things, like a Friday Night Out, Brunch, etc.. might be across town. I would say its a cultural thing within the city for what is ok to drive for and what is not.

You can get around without a car pretty easily. Public transportation is good, but LA natives will mostly look at you like you are insane if you mention taking the bus or walking. The buses are nice and easy to navigate even just using google maps. At least with the prevalence of ride sharing, visiting without a car is more normalized. Also neighborhoods can abruptly change from decent to really sketchy, so walking to get places can be "interesting".

Be aware of the daily temperature changes - LA is a desert, you can get warm days and cool nights even this time of year, and there isn't a lot of humidity to hold on to the heat. Depending where you are from, 55 at night is a lot colder than it sounds. And don't be surprised if its HOT during the day, even if before you leave the temps are predicted to be milder. I'm not saying it will with a short visit, but if it does, you'll be running out looking for shorts, then a few hours later wondering how you are shivering. The heat only really peaks for a few hours though, and different parts of the city are hotter when its hot than others. I.E. The Valley.

I will say this, I've never managed to pack the right kind of layers and clothing, and almost always needed to change at some point in the day, and often needed to buy something there because I packed wrong.

Whatever you do, make sure you get street tacos while you are there. This is a must; even without thinking about the "best" taco trucks in LA, any will have tacos better than other places and must be experienced. But if I must recommend a place, head out of DTLA to El Chato.

(A lot of this I learned from metafilter before going to LA my first time. Gosh I miss that city; thank you for reminding me what a wonderful city it is!)
posted by [insert clever name here] at 10:29 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]

I think it really depends on how much traveling around you plan on doing apart form attending the USC thing. If you plan on staying in a spot that is walkable to what you mostly want to do (apart from the USC trip), it's likely easiest to do a combination of taking cars and using transit rather than renting and dealing with where to put the car when not in use.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:31 AM on November 24

I am very thankful that I learned to drive in LA many years ago. That being said, it is a challenge if you are not used to a lot of traffic. And the many, many freeways and interchanges can get you into trouble - wrong direction. As for staying near the beach and not too far from USC, Santa Monica (lots to do there) is not a bad choice, just know that your "free" trip is going to be very expensive, probably no matter what you choose.
posted by Grok Lobster at 10:44 AM on November 24

Hmm, since I don’t know much about your budget or other specifics, I’m going to recommend based on what I know so far. I’d go another direction and recommend staying south of the airport in Manhattan Beach. It’s less expensive than Santa Monica, a little more peaceful if you can get near the beach, and you can take walks, get coffee and good food, rent a bike and bike along the bike path along the ocean down to Redondo Beach. Also, they have a spa there called Trilogy where I’ve had some great massages if you want that. To get to USC, I’d rent a car or you could take an Uber? You won’t really need the car if you want to just stay by the beach, but maybe you have specific places you want to explore?
posted by biscuits at 3:23 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]

Sea Shore Motel is a nice, basic priced motel in Santa Monica that would be close to the ocean and all there is to do in Venice and Santa Monica. Call and talk to the manager for availability; as you can see from the price list you can go from $150 to $350 which is really affordable for the area.

I would get an air bnb in Koreatown during your USC dates; that would ease your commute worries.

Koreatown is adjacent to USC, so you could easily get an Uber to your event so you don't have to worry about trying to park at a large event. Plenty of inexpensive airbnb rentals in KTown, and safer than the Exposition Park area of USC. Close to downtown, but not right in it. For downtown, take a look at Olvera Street website and The Last Bookstore website for a start, and you may find some interesting events from there. Advise you to be careful in Exposition Park/USC area as it has had some problems with robberies; big city.

I would then stay at the Sea Shore for the section devoted to the ocean. There's plenty to do from the Third Street Promenade to Main Street to just the walkway along the Pacific Ocean to keep you entertained and well fed.

You can search under any of the terms I gave you and get an association with events and businesses. Ask the Sea Shore if they can arrange an airport shuttle for you or call Super Shuttle.

There's also a person that goes by LAist on Twitter that lists fun events in the Los Angeles area.

Have fun, and I hope there is some helpful information here.
posted by effluvia at 5:23 PM on November 24

The weather might actually be 75 and warm ... it's just kind of a crapshoot in January. I would stay in/near Santa Monica or Marina Del Rey, rent a car, and drive to USC for your event. It's not THAT bad if you study the route in advance. Since you said you like beach, there is a nice beach on the ocean side of MDR, and there is a beautiful Marina where you can rent kayaks and paddleboards, as well as waterfront restaurants from casual (Hiho) to LA Cliche (Killer Shrimp) to fancy.

Or if you stayed closer to Long Beach area: If you have a whole second day and the weather is nice, you might enjoy a day trip to Catalina Island (Catalina Flyer/Catalina Express - leave out of Long Beach/San Pedro). Also, January is whale season, and there are great whale watching cruises out of Long Beach harbor. Also near there is the incomparable experience of San Pedro Ports o' Call on a Sunday afternoon - a fantastic spot to pick out your fish, get it cooked however you like, and eat it with a beer on open air picnic tables with many local families (sometimes with karaoke, always with many children). If it's cold, you can go to the aquarium instead. There are also boat tours of the Port of LA that are pretty fun. Long Beach is well within reach of Santa Monica/etc though - weekends are a lot easier traffic-wise. Maybe half hour ish.
posted by bluesky78987 at 8:30 AM on November 25

Seconding the Check Yelp While Out method. One of my fave places downtown is The Last Bookstore. Downtown adjacent: Shopping Santé Alley is also a purely LA experience and it's relatively close to the Lost Spirits distillery tour, which I've heard great things about. Farther out, there's a nice one-two you can do by visiting the Tar Pits and LACMA, which are next door neighbours. That puts you also close to The Grove, which is a fantastic place to eat, as it houses a unique outdoor food court sort of place with a little bit of anything and everything. As for the Venice / Santa Monica strip, I like to start in Venice and end at the pier. That way the train to downtown is right there for when it's time to head back to the hotel.
posted by foxtongue at 8:25 PM on November 25

PS. Staying by LAX will only be convenient for the day you leave. I've done it and it added hours and hours of driving to my trip. Better to stay near the things you want to visit.
posted by foxtongue at 8:26 PM on November 25

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