If you’re planning a trip to Los Angeles, there’s a good chance you already know what you’d like to do. Of course you’ll get iconic views from the Griffith Observatory, wander around Venice Beach or Santa Monica Pier, look up at the Hollywood sign, and wait for a talent scout to recognize your true potential as the next big thing™.
As well as the famous stuff, there are also plenty of hidden gems in Los Angeles, offering surprising and unexpected insights into the city. On top of the standard tourist attractions (and perhaps some tips from local friends or acquaintances), here are some lesser-known places around Los Angeles that could be worth a visit during your trip.
The below list consists of some true hidden gems, as well as places that most locals will know about but aren’t necessarily written in your ‘Los Angeles for Dummies’ guidebook. Even if you live in L.A., there should be at least one thing on this list that you haven’t heard of before.
Hidden gems in Los Angeles: the paid ones
While it’s totally possible to have entire trips based on free activities, there’s no getting around it: sometimes you have to pay to do some especially cool stuff. Here are some lesser-known venues around Los Angeles that will show you a fascinating side of Californian life that you might never see otherwise.
The Bunny Museum
Also known as the “Hoppiest Place on Earth”, the Bunny Museum features a huge collection of rabbit-themed items. It’s a real labor of love: the museum was founded by Candace Frazee and Steve Lubanski, a local married couple who started giving each other small rabbit-based gifts. Legend has it that it all started when Lubanski was looking for a present and didn’t want to get a cliché bear, so he picked a bunny-themed balloon instead. Frazee reciprocated, and the rest is floppy-eared history.
Their collection now features over 35,000 items, serving as a shrine to both bunnies as well as the love between the couple who own and operate the museum. It’s one of the more unique hidden gems in Los Angeles, tucked away in Altadena, and is a must-see for anyone who loves rabbits (or a good love story).
“I’m pretty sure Iowa isn’t in California.”
Three responses to being asked where the USS IOWA is.
The Battleship USS Iowa Museum is considered one of the most fascinating museums in Los Angeles by those in the know – but for anyone who isn’t deeply immersed in local museum culture, it can be a bit of a hidden gem.
The USS Iowa was a hugely important battleship in her time, and served during World War II, the Korean War, and throughout the Cold War. It was considered the lead ship among the U.S. Navy’s battleships and earned various nicknames: “The Battleship of Presidents’’ due to hosting three American heads of state, and “The Big Stick” due to its massive firepower and destructive abilities.
These days, it’s an award-winning naval history museum that offers insights into the history of the ship as well as the US Navy itself. It’s worth a visit when you’re thinking of unconventional things to do in Los Angeles.
The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
Richard Nixon probably isn’t who you think of when you think about Los Angeles. In fact, Richard Nixon might be up there at the top of your list when asked to name the very antithesis of Los Angeles. However, America’s 37th president was born in Yorba Linda, 37 miles away from Downtown L.A., and his childhood home now serves as his official presidential library. The venue also features a scenic garden, as well as the original Marine One helicopter used by Nixon when he left the White House for the final time.
Most people know Nixon for his Watergate scandal, and for infamously saying “I am not a crook” – words that have never since been said by anyone trying to prove their innocence.
As you might expect from the first ever American president in history to resign from office, Nixon’s presidency was a fascinating time for the US: it saw space exploration, sweeping environmental protection laws, and turbulent developments in civil rights and foreign policy.
A visit here is an interesting deep-dive into one of the 20th century’s most influential politicians. No matter what your opinion is on Nixon as a president, the one thing you have to admit is that he knew how to take a loss:
“I could think of no worse example for nations abroad, who for the first time were trying to put free electoral procedures into effect, than that of the United States wrangling over the results of our presidential election, and even suggesting that the presidency itself could be stolen by thievery at the ballot box.”
Richard Nixon, after his defeat by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 general election.
Cruises (Newport Beach/Marina del Rey)
Most people visit one or two of the many popular beaches in Los Angeles (is it really a Los Angeles trip if you don’t go to Venice Beach?), but a surprising amount of visitors never actually leave the land! It’s a real shame, because admiring the city from the water gives you a unique perspective on the cityscape.
Unless you befriend a local millionaire, you’ll need to book a cruise in order to get access to a yacht that’s worthy of your sightseeing adventures. If contacting Justin Bieber and asking to borrow his boat doesn’t work out for you, check out some of the options available at Marina Del Rey and Newport Beach. These destinations are typically a bit less crowded than somewhere like Venice Beach or Santa Monica, and can give you amazing views of the ocean as well as Los Angeles itself.
Boomers Santa Maria
If you’re looking for a little hit of typical Californian fun, then Boomers in Santa Maria is just what you’re looking for.
Soak up rays in the City of Angels while enjoying funfair fare like go-karts, bumper boats, and batting cages. You’ll also find arcade games inside along with mini-golf, and laser tag. Treat the family to some good old-fashioned fun and let the kids indulge in pure play. Your inner child will thank you later.
Lighthouse Los Angeles
Immersive art has gotten a lot of buzz in the last few years, but Lighthouse Los Angeles have taken it up a notch by partnering with Emmy and Tony-award-winning art designer David Korins (known for his set design of countless Broadway hits including Hamilton) to breathe even more life into the works of Van Gogh.
Inside this exhibit space, state-of-the-art projectors throw the Dutch master’s works across the walls allowing you to experience his artistry outside of the conventions of a museum.
Hidden gems in Los Angeles: the free ones
Having a great time in Los Angeles doesn’t mean spending tons of money (though admittedly it does help). There are plenty of free things to do around L.A. – from stunning views overlooking the city to some of the best public art in the United States, here are some free hidden gems to consider checking out.
The Korean Friendship Bell – San Pedro
This massive monument was donated to the city of Los Angeles in 1976 by the Republic of Korea to honor veterans of the Korean War as well as to consolidate the friendship between the two nations. Its intricate design is full of symbolism and traditional imagery, and it’s a popular place for locals who want to get out of the city and take some unique photos or enjoy walking along a coastal hiking trail.
It’s a great spot to visit as part of a day out – the Korean Friendship Bell is close to a few other local hidden gems in Los Angeles: the San Pedro Fish Market (you can’t visit Los Angeles and not eat fish tacos – please) and Abalone Cove, a lesser-known beach known for its tide pools that tends to not be as crowded as other spots.
Baldwin Park Scenic Overlook
Griffith Park and the Griffith Observatory are must-sees, but the Baldwin Park Scenic Overlook is a fantastic alternative for anyone looking to get amazing views over the city. It’s often called the Culver City Stairs, in case your local friends are a bit puzzled when you bring up that you’d like to go to the ‘Baldwin Park Scenic Lookout’.
Follow this scenic outdoor staircase up a small hill to get postcard-perfect views over Downtown L.A., the Hollywood sign, and the Pacific Ocean. Los Angeles is a terrific destination to eat, drink, and party – but sometimes getting a bit out of the city for some fresh air and exercise is the perfect way to appreciate just how big Los Angeles really is.
Keep an eye out for wildlife! You’re likely to see plenty of local birds, rabbits, and even snakes (though they’re most likely to avoid you – you’re much scarier to them than they are to you).
San Gabriel Mission/Mission San Gabriel Arcángel
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Los Angeles as we know it today has a long and eventful history, dating back many centuries. The local area was originally ‘claimed’ by the Spanish in 1542 (despite already being home to an Indigenous population for thousands of years), and Los Angeles as a city was founded in 1781 under Spanish rule, before becoming part of Mexico in 1821 following the Mexican War of Independence.
You won’t see too many traces of this colonial history in the modern city as it is now, but you’ll find remnants of it in surprising places. One of these remnants is the San Gabriel Mission, founded in 1771. The building’s capped buttresses and the tall narrow windows give it a unique look, and show the heavy Spanish influence (as you would expect from a Spanish mission) on the architecture. The mission holds the remains of many original priests and settlers, as well as a museum with religious artifacts and more.
It should be mentioned that the mission was constructed by what we would now consider as slave labour from the local Indigenous population, the Tongva people. Prior to Los Angeles being founded, the area was home to a large village named Yaanga – the largest of its kind in the region.
Also known as the ‘Rainbow Stairs’, this staircase in Silver Lake might have popped up on your Instagram feed over the last few years. These quirky, multi-colored stairs somehow manage to make walking uphill fun – as a result, they’re a popular destination for locals trying to get in a bit of exercise.
One of the true hidden gems in Los Angeles, there’s a good chance you’ll drive straight past it unless you’re actively paying attention. The stairs are nestled between apartments and located right across from Micheltorena Elementary School on 3400 Sunset Boulevard. There are a few other decorated staircases in the area that are also worth checking out, including the Piano Stairs and the equally colorful Hoover Walk.
The LACMA Lights
While plenty of locals will know about the LACMA Lights, this location generally isn’t on everyone’s radar. Located on Wilshire Boulevard, just outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), this is actually a work of art titled Urban Light by Chris Burden. This large-scale installation consists of more than 200 street lamps from different time periods – mostly the 1920s and 1930s – arranged together in a grid-like format.
The columns of the lamp give the impression of wandering through an ancient Greek or Roman temple, and the way that the light and shadows interact in various ways makes this an ever-changing work of art that’s perfect for photo opportunities. Unlike many other large and imposing public works of art, Urban Light has been well-received critically as well as by locals. It’s a real hidden gem in Los Angeles, and will only get more and more popular as the years go by. Come see it while it’s still cool!
Hidden gems in Los Angeles: the edible ones
“It’s the food.”
“Oh my God, the food.”
Three replies to the question “What do you miss most about Los Angeles?”
In Los Angeles, food is more than just a treat. It’s a fundamental part of life that’s deeply rooted in the different cultures and ethnicities that call the city home. It’s an obsession for locals, who can argue for hours about what neighborhood has the best taco stands, and whether or not Howlin’ Ray’s is overrated (not even going to provide an opinion here for fear of being assaulted). You likely already have your own list of things to eat and places to try, but here are some additional things to take into consideration.
Chinese/Vietnamese food in San Gabriel
San Gabriel is a must-seek-out hidden gem in Los Angeles when it comes to food – specifically Chinese and Vietnamese food. With an Asian population representing 60% of San Gabriel’s residents, there’s no better place to get some bánh mì, dim sum, bánh xèo (Vietnamese crêpes), or Hainan chicken.
Taco trucks (and more) in Lincoln Heights
If you’re looking to get your taco on in Los Angeles, it’s worth checking out Avenue 26 in Lincoln Heights. Originally just one stand, it’s now a full-on foodie phenomenon full of vendors with all different types of street food. The atmosphere is buzzing and the area has seen a huge increase in popularity in recent months (with rumors circulating that this is now the biggest street vendor market in the United States). Come for the tacos, stay for the atmosphere. And the tacos.
Grand Central Market
Is the market itself a hidden gem for locals? No – but there are plenty of unique and hidden things to try here that even some of the city’s biggest food lovers won’t have experienced. Grand Central Market has a wide range of vendors, with everything from Mexican taquerias to Jewish delis ready for you to explore. The food is reasonably priced (especially by Los Angeles standards) and has a reputation for being authentic.
Smorgasburg Los Angeles
Let’s be real, Smorgasburg is basically a slightly more expensive hipster version of Grand Central Market. It’s the kind of place where you can replace your burger with a jackfruit patty and choose to add honey-sriracha mayo for an extra 50 cents. Are you going to spend a bit more? Probably. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
The Original Farmers Market
It’s historic, has dozens of tasty options, and is right next to The Grove, an atmospheric shopping area. If you’re staying in Los Angeles for a few days (or longer) and want to cook your own meals, this is the place to be. You’ll get some of the best and freshest produce at the Original Farmers Market, with a huge variety of cuisines and tastes catered for. Even if you don’t want to cook, you can pick up some ready-to-eat food like hot empanadas or grilled oysters to eat while you’re on the move.
More things to do in Los Angeles
Los Angeles is huge. It’s really, really big. Truthfully, it’s a collection of different cities and diverse communities all lumped together over a sprawling metropolitan area. A list of hidden gems in Los Angeles could go on for days. These suggestions are a starting point for anyone wanting to dig deeper into the city’s history and culture, but are by no means an exhaustive list. Check out any of the activities below for even more of L.A.’s top things to do.