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10 Survival Tips for Visiting Los Angeles for the First Time

First-time visitors will find out that it's easy to get swept up in the glitz, glam, and gridlock of Los Angeles when you've first arrived. LA is a complicated place on the surface. So, having a few survival tips for visiting Los Angeles can ensure your stay is safe, fun, and memorable.

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First Impressions of LA

When we first arrived, I wanted to do it all! But I quickly felt overwhelmed by the sheer size of the city and surrounding metropolitan area. I was also overwhelmed by the number of things to do and see.

Needless to say, I've learned a lot about the city over the past five years. Slowly I began to understand the flow of traffic, how to know my directions without a compass or navigation, etc.

So, take it from me, my friends. Learning to navigate LA will make it seem like a different place altogether. Check out my best tips for visiting Los Angeles to start your LA vacation off on the right foot.

LA is Large

Seriously y'all. LA is HUGE! I'll never forget what my parents told me after landing in LA for the first time. They described looking out over the blanket of lights below while landing during their evening flight and saying to each other, "How will we ever find our little girl in such a big city?"

Flying into LAX really gives you a sense of how truly large the LA area is. The city is home to 4 million people, and Greater Los Angeles has 16 million.

And with so many different pockets, annexed cities, and historical neighborhoods, there's enough to do and see for weeks! I suggest doing your research long before booking your flight or lodging. And unless you plan to "Go Metro", you'll definitely need a rental car to get around.

"The" Freeway

A quick note to any visitor: Angelenos refer to their freeways as "THE 10," "THE 101," "THE 5," and "THE 405" (just to name a few). Don't ask me why. They just do. Not only are interstates referred to as "freeways," they are also preceded by the article "THE." Having grown up in the South, I was surprised by this phenomenon. It seemed really foreign and funny. Where I come from, "THE 10" would be called Interstate 10. So, needless to say, it took me a while to get accustomed to using the preferred nomenclature.

Traffic is Terrible

Yes, all the rumors you've heard are true. Los Angeles traffic really is as bad as everyone says. Granted, there are times of the day that are worse and areas that are particularly bad. But, generally speaking, no matter the time or place, you should be prepared for a traffic jam to occur.

One of my best tips for visiting Los Angeles is to allow for extra time whenever planning excursions. If Google says it will take 30 minutes, plan for an additional 15 minutes just in case of an accident or gridlock. Another great tip is to avoid using WAZE. I have found that WAZE will typically take me far out of my way to avoid traffic, often adding to my commute rather than subtracting from it.

get that L.A. look

LA has a TON of Freeways


I'll never forget first looking at a map of LA and thinking, "I'll never learn my way around this place." And to hear the traffic report rattled off on the radio gave me a slight panic attack.

Learning the freeway system here, not to mention the different neighborhoods/cities and other major thoroughfares, seemed impossible when I first arrived. But take it from me, it is possible to get around even if you don't understand the freeway system.

Since you're only visiting, you'll want to have a sense of where you're going to maximize your sight-seeing time. You'll want to be able to use Google maps to help you get around without too much trouble. For those of you coming from other countries, invest in an international data plan so you can get around.

You Can Make Do with the Metro

One of the best tips for visiting Los Angeles that I can give you is to explore using the public transportation system. Sure, it may mean adding extra time to your schedule, but the convenience might be worth it.

Los Angeles has an excellent public bus system that runs 24 hours a day, ferrying passengers all over the city. And although the subway system here can never rival that of NYC or London, there are enough lines and trains to go car-free in LA as long as you plan accordingly. Stay tuned for my post dedicated to a car-free holiday in LA.

Savings Passes Really Matter

Most people visiting Los Angeles for the first time are interested in seeing the major attractions (think studio tours, theme parks, etc.) But these attractions can add up, especially for families.

Buying Savings Passes like the Los Angeles Go Card can help you save money on the main attractions. Also, look for deals on sites like Groupon and ViaTour before booking directly to save a few extra bucks.

Beware the Left Turn

And now, one of the most valuable tips for visiting Los Angeles: red lights don't necessarily mean stop in Los Angeles. Especially not if you're turning left at an unprotected signal. In LA, it is EXPECTED that the car trying to turn left and the one following it will turn as (or even just after) the light turns red.

Most of the time, that car will be in the middle of the intersection waiting for the light to change, so don't be alarmed if that happens. Also, know that you will be honked at (a LOT) if you do not inch into the intersection or take advantage of the changing light to make the dreaded left turn.

You'll also want to avoid using the WAZE app, as it has a tendency to put you in left turn situations. Relying on Google Maps is the best way to go in LA.

Bicyclists Don't Get No Respect

You'd think that a SoCal city known for outdoor living would be more bicycle friendly. Unfortunately, LA does not have that reputation. Sure, there are some pockets of the city where cyclists get more respect than others, but generally speaking, bicyclists are second-class citizens.

Many choose to ride on sidewalks rather than brave the streets unless there's a protected lane on which to ride. Just beware if renting a bike! Drivers aren't necessarily going to give you the right away you deserve.

Watch Out for Motorcyclists

Another thing about Los Angeles that first-time visitors should know is that motorcyclists in LA are daredevils. No, seriously! These men and women risk their lives on the daily to commute in some of the heaviest traffic EVER.

In California, motorcyclists are permitted to ride the lane boundaries (even if this seems crazy to everyone else). Out of nowhere, they can suddenly appear, whizzing by you on "THE 405" like a bat out of hell. It can scare the bejeezus out of you, trust me. But it's considered normal behavior here, no matter how dangerous.

Explore Outlying Areas

Don't confine yourself to "LA" if you can help it. There are a lot of different places to go. Downtown has lots going on, from LA Live to Little Tokyo.

But you should be looking for world-class Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, beach life and athlete-spotting in the Beach Cities (Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach), quirkiness in Venice Beach and Santa Monica, greaser punks in San Pedro and Long Beach, theme parks in Anaheim and Universal City, luxury brands in Beverly Hills, avant-garde art in Culver City, the LGBT scene in West Hollywood, Craftsman cottages in Pasadena and Orange, and mid-century modern in Mid-City LA.

Consider fitting in a scenic drive or LA architecture tour to get a real sense of the city. Much of Los Angeles' best culture can be found in the surrounding cities.

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