Having close family in California means we have been regular visitors to Los Angeles for the last decade or so. A huge, sprawling city -busy and crazy and full of cars – LA might not be an obvious choice for a child friendly trip. It hasn’t got the greatest reputation in the world either meaning some people visit California and miss it out altogether or just visit Universal Studios for the day before heading off to somewhere else. But to do that means you miss a whole load of cool stuff; family friendly museums and art galleries, parks with sweeping ocean views, and wild beaches with huge waves. LA is a beautiful city with lots to offer families and if you are planning to visit California, you should definitely include it on your itinerary.
Like all great cities, most of the best things to do in LA are free; a beach or pool day, a hike in the parks, a scenic drive, a visit to a gallery or museum to see some cool art. You could easily spend a week here with kids; we’ve been in spring when the Jacaranda trees turn the city purple, in summer when it’s beach season and the days are long and warm and in winter, when it’s 70 degrees and definitely shorts weather but all the locals are shivering in coats and sweaters.
If I ask my kids what they remember from our trips to Los Angeles, they’ll talk about sitting on the beach watching the sunset over the sea, putting their hands into the hand prints of the stars outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre or hiking up to the Griffith Observatory for the views of the Hollywood sign and the sweeping city below. They’ll also talk fondly about their parents’ explosive profanities on the freeway (“which one is the f’ing fast lane?….It can’t be all of them”) and the time we went to an expensive restaurant for a ‘special’ dinner and our youngest, finally giving in to brutal jet lag, fell heavily and suddenly asleep landing head-first into his thirty dollar burger. If holidays are about making memories, then we’ve made lots over the years in LA.
General tips for visiting LA with your kids
Families will need a car. There is public transport in LA but, how can I put this diplomatically, you’ll feel much happier and safer with your own set of wheels. Car hire and gas are cheap and anyway, driving in LA is all part of the experience. You’ll need a great LA playlist, a confident navigator in the passenger seat and nerves of steel. With the exception of the freeways, that are very fast, I find driving in LA much easier than driving in London. Also, London is much more congested.
Like London, LA is made up of diverse neighbourhoods, many of which tend not to have an obvious centre. If you want to walk out at night and have something to eat and drink, you’ll need to choose your accommodation carefully; because of the size of the place, there just isn’t the same walking culture as other cities. Many families choose to stay in Santa Monica because it is more compact, has a discernible centre and you can walk to the bars and restaurants from your hotel/apartment.
Like any city, LA does have some dodgy areas but you just need to keep your wits about you and make sure you don’t visit them by mistake. For me, Downtown LA is a bit too ‘cutting edge’ for families and I prefer Santa Monica, West Hollywood and The Grove area. If you want to visit Disneyland, then you should stay in Anaheim which is a good hour’s drive from central Los Angeles. You need to be in the park before the gates open so staying local is essential. I would not recommend basing yourself in Anaheim if you want to ‘do’ LA. For more information on the Magic Kingdom, read my Disneyland post here.
Where to stay
If it’s important for you to walk out and about with your kids, then Santa Monica is the place to stay. We have stayed in the Doubletree Hotel in Santa Monica which is well located for Downtown, 3rd Street Promenade, the beach and the Pier and is the most reasonably priced out of all the hotels in Santa Monica; it was comfortable and more importantly gave our free cookies to kids. That’s breakfast sorted.
You don’t necessarily need to be based in Santa Monica though. We have also stayed at the Loews Hotel in Hollywood which has a fab rooftop pool with views of the Hollywood sign in the distance. The rooms have views of the city and the hotel is next to the Hollywood and Highland Shopping Centre and literally a stone’s throw from the attractions of Hollywood. The whole area was busy well into midnight. We also really liked The Farmers Daughter which is a kind of upmarket, trendy boutique hotel opposite The Grove shopping mall and Farmers Market, both of which you can walk to. The hotel also has a small pool and its own restaurant.
What to do
The best thing to do with children is to visit Santa Monica Pier and Pacific Park. Like a sexier version of Brighton Pier- minus the willy warmer stall and drizzle and people wearing cagoules- Santa Monica’s Pier is touristy as hell, but absolute kid heaven. During the day it’s entertainment enough to just take a walk to the end of the pier and hang out people watching, listening to the musicians and looking out at the ocean. Kids will love spotting dolphins and California Sea Lions as well as seeing what terrifying creatures the anglers fishing off the end of the pier are pulling out of the sea. There’s also an aquarium and an old carousel, as well as the end of Route 66 sign for a good photo opportunity.
If your body isn’t up to roller blading in a stars and stripes bikini or bench pressing a grown adult, then you can spend a lot of time here watching those that can. The South Coast bicycle trail hugs the coast for 22 miles and is busy with walkers, roller bladers, runners and cyclists somehow managing not to crash into one another. We hired bikes from Santa Monica Beach Bicycle Rentals at the foot of the pier and cycled about 3km to Venice stopping every so often to people watch; our children particularly loved watching the bodybuilders at the famous Muscle Beach. The ‘scene’ is why people come to Venice; it’s a tie-dyed, baggy panted, tattooed, weed smoking, diabolo -juggling kind of scene. The kind of people who, in the early 90s, went into ‘Martha’s Emporium’ on the high street to buy crystals and joss sticks and never came out again. Your kids will have lots of questions afterwards.
Pacific Park is the funfair on the pier and I recommend you do this in the evening as the sun sets over the ocean. It’s free to enter and if you want to go on any of the rides, you should really go on the roller coaster and the solar powered ferris wheel. The ferris wheel is beautiful and an iconic image of California. It’s also very high and if you’re prone to anxiety about being suspended above the ocean in a piece of industrial machinery in an earthquake zone, you might want to just look at it instead. We found the most cost effective way was to buy a wrist band for our youngest and just purchase tickets for two rides for our oldest – we found an hour there in the evening was more than enough. A dinner at Frito Misto, a gorgeous child-friendly neighbourhood Italian, will finish your evening off perfectly. Or try The Ivy at The Shore if you’re feeling flash – just make sure you don’t fall head-first into your burger.
The scenery of California gets more incredible the further you go up Highway 1, the legendary Pacific Coast Highway. A short drive from Santa Monica to Malibu, the road hugging the ocean all the way, will take you to El Matador Beach. This is a wild, beautiful beach with wild rock formations, craggy cliffs and strong, loud waves occasionally completely soaking sunbathers. To get to the beach, you have to descend down some rocky steps. Here, the ocean is breath-taking to look at but on the day we were there, too rough to even paddle in.
After that you can head to the Malibu Country Mart and grab a light lunch from John’s Garden, and have a coffee while your kids enjoy the play area possibly rubbing shoulders with some celebrity offspring. There are lots of little super expensive shops and boutiques here for you to browse in – contour table made of nautilus shells for $29000 anyone?
Another scenic drive is the drive up to Topanga State Park on Topanga Canyon Boulevard; a windy, twisty scenic drive through the canyons with great views of the Santa Monica Mountains and a fantastic view of the city once you get to the State Park.
The Farmers Market is an absolute must do. Situated next to The Grove, an upmarket shopping mall (worth a visit in itself – it’s great) here you’ll find some of the best food in LA. There is a stall serving pretty much every possible type of food you can imagine – from Louisiana style Jambalaya to Texas pit barbequed beef. There’s a French crepe stall, a Korean food stall and plenty of places serving fast food classics. It’s total food heaven and a great place to people watch. We loved Loteria with its vast selection of tacos – the pork pibil comes particularly recommended.
Hiking up to the Griffith Observatory at the top of Griffith Park will give you the best panoramic view in LA from the Hollywood Hills to the hazy city streets below. It’s easy to park in or around the different entrances to the park. The first time we visited, we parked in a residential area and followed a dusty trail up to the Observatory where, if you fancy, you can channel your inner Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone or be sensible and look at the exhibits and learn about astronomy. You can spend a day in Griffith Park just walking the nature trails and soaking up the views. There is also a zoo here and the Museum of the American West if it rains. Which it probably wont.
The Getty Centre is a hilltop museum and art gallery with beautiful gardens overlooking the city. It’s free to get in and regularly runs child and family friendly art projects. It’s one of those unexpected child friendly delights – kids will particularly love the driverless tram journey there. There’s also a beautiful gift shop and a great café with incredible views over the city.
Another scenic drive is Mullholland Drive, a route that takes you through wealthy neighbourhoods of the Hollywood Hills and into the Santa Monica Mountains. Worth it for mansion spotting and the views of the city.
Hollywood is lots of fun for kids although it is really crowded. They won’t care though as there are people dressed up as Transformers and Disney characters and Marvel Superheroes. Tip them if your kids want a photo. We breakfasted at The Griddle and then headed to the Kodak Theatre (home of the Oscars), the Walk of Fame and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where you will find the handprints of the stars. The Hollywood and Highland shopping mall is also here with a food court at the top.
You can then head to Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard and stock up on cool posters, T Shirts and vinyl.
Although there’s lots more of LA to do, an easy day trip from LA is to Palm Springs. Palm Springs is a perfect place for a weekend and this place really deserves a blog post of it’s own. The drive there is so awesome, right into the desert with the landscape becoming more and more dramatic every few miles.
However, we’ve had two trips there and have seen hardly anything that we wanted to, despite having good intentions to see loads. Bad timing and back luck with the weather has been the cause of this travel malfunctioning. The first time we visited was in August. Which was stupid. It was so hot, I swear I saw a bug creep out from under a bush and get instantly fried in a shaft of sunlight. All we could do was laze in the pool at the gorgeous Hyatt Regency staring out at the mountains. Every bar and restaurant had misting systems that sprayed you as you ate so you didn’t end up getting fried like a bug too.
We also visited it in the winter during an unseasonable storm! When we left LA it was 75 degrees and I was wearing a cotton dress. Two hours and 100 miles later, it was so cold, we had to stop at the excellent shopping mall, Desert Hills Premium Outlets, and buy jumpers. And a leather bag. And some shoes. We had planned to go up to the aerial tramway and visit Mount San Jacinto National Park but apparently sandals and snow are not a classic mountain friendly combination. We’d also planned to go to the Indian Canyons and the Joshua Tree National Park but there were flash floods. Not keen on drowning or freezing to death on holiday, we ended up sitting in the hot tub in the rain, following a bottomless brunch here.
I promise, Palm Springs, next time. You and I will get along! One consistently good thing about Palm Springs is Lulu’s restaurant. Cocktails as big as your head and fantastic food.
I always feel emotional when we leave LA – it’s usually our first and last stop with trips to see family in San Diego in the middle – and it always with a tinge of sadness that we say goodbye to our family, and then to the ocean and the sunshine. We always have such a great time here and as our children get older, more and more things get added to the list – La Brea Tar Pits, Universal Studios, a Movie Studio Tour and Catalina Island.