Los Angeles feels like such a familiar travel destination — a place we all seem to know – because of its strong influence on popular culture through the entertainment and film industry. Yet, it wasn’t until we landed that we realized that exploring Los Angeles with kids could be full of surprises and a perfect family travel destination to soak in sunshine and culture.
We’re a family of five, and our kids Angelina (11), Hugo (9) and Max (6) have traveled a fair bit since they were born. We love long journeys as much as quick city breaks and love the challenge of finding something of interest for everyone in the family wherever we go. We’ve learnt it’s important to get the balance right between sightseeing and being active, having unscripted and spontaneous stops.
The vastness of this large metropolitan city only dawned on us as we landed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The city sprawled before us and we started to question how we had only planned to spend a day and a half in LA with the kids and an additional day in Disneyland.
Los Angeles, we soon learned, is also quite different from cities like London, Paris, New York in that the sights and attractions are spread out across the city. As the city evolved and property prices rose, various hubs emerged and boosted different parts of this huge city, each gaining a unique vibe.
We felt we had to make the most of our very short time in Los Angeles with kids. Yet, as is the nature of family travel, it is impossible to cram a lot into itineraries, otherwise you’ll be left with irritable, unhappy mini travellers for days to come.
So, just how do you find the essence of a city and how do you experience its uniqueness in such a short time, especially catering to everyone’s tastes?
Do a Hop-On-and-Off Tour for a Quick Orientation
To begin with, we felt slightly overwhelmed with all the sights LA has to offer and our bucket list was way too long to fit leisurely exploration into our whistle-stop tour. There are so many things to do in Los Angeles with kids! Besides strolling along Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame and taking an open top bus tour, we were leaving the rest of our plans to spontaneity and a democratic family vote based on what inspired us.
But we decided early on that taking a hop on hop off bus tour is the most convenient way to move a family of five around the city within a short timeframe.
On our first day, we drove into Hollywood and parked at the Hollywood and Highland Mall. (Parking costs just $15 for the day.) This placed us very conveniently at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where the Starline City Sightseeing tour buses leave every half hour.
City Sightseeing in Los Angeles has four color-coded lines and three connections. We started our hop on, hop off sightseeing tour of Los Angeles with the kids on the Red Line. Leaving Hollywood Boulevard, the bus wove along the streets with us sitting upfront on the open top deck. We passed the famous Chateau Marmont hotel known for its Old Hollywood glamour at the top of Sunset Boulevard towards Beverly Hills. The tour commentary made time pass quickly despite LA’s well-known traffic jams.
My daughter Angelina particularly enjoyed this part of the day, as she’s our movie and music buff, recognising many of the celebrity names dropped by the commentary.
Tip: Take some snacks and drinks with you to use the time on the bus efficiently. Combining meal time and sightseeing at the same time is a win in my book!
Explore Santa Monica Pier and the Beach
The Yellow Line took us down to Santa Monica. The bus drove down to the beach, accompanied by musical hits from American rock band, The Beach Boys, who were very popular during the sixties and were the soundtrack to California living. California, especially Southern California, is strongly shaped by its beaches and “hippy” culture. Beautiful world-famous beaches run down the Pacific coast, with perhaps the most iconic being Santa Monica beach with its pier.
At Santa Monica, at the unequivocal request of all three kids, we hopped off to get our toes sandy on the beach, let the kids run around, and grab some food from restaurants along the famous Santa Monica Pier. The iconic pier is over 100 years old and no trip to Los Angeles with kids would be complete without at least a brief stop here. From its solar-powered Ferris wheel and the old carousel at Pacific Park, to lots of eateries and people-watching, there’s so much to experience here. Santa Monica Pier also has an aquarium which is a great place for kids as well.
We could’ve stayed at the pier and the beach all day if it was up to the kids. They loved it! And we loved watching them have fun.
Visit the Rich and Famous
Later the bus, conveniently, looped back to allow us to hop off and explore the Farmer’s Market and Beverly Hills. Meandering through suburbs with great architecture from the early to mid-20th century, we drove past the shopping districts such as Rodeo Drive frequently visited by the rich and famous, with our tour guide sharing anecdotes of Hollywood royalty’s antics. We drove by famous landmark hotels, like the Beverly Wiltshire where Elvis and John Lennon had both stayed along with many other celebrities, and the Beverly Hilton where legendary singer Whitney Houston died.
Arriving back to Hollywood Boulevard, we were looking forward to the Walk of Fame to see how many names us adults recognised versus how many our kids were familiar with. With decades of pop culture under our belts, my husband and I easily won, but Angelina was close behind. The kids particularly enjoyed exploring the hands, feet and other object imprints in front of Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre which immortalize some of the brightest stars of show business.
You’d think one day is not enough time to see Los Angeles with kids, but with the City Sightseeing Tour we saw so many Los Angeles attractions. Plus, the kids were entertained by the headphones and cultural commentary.
It makes for a long day, but one where you don’t have to do lots of walking if you choose not to. Hopping on and off also gave us a glimpse of LA and allowed us to decide what we were going to explore a little bit more the following day. We took a vote and it was a close call between LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and La Brea Tar Pits… the woolly mammoths won!
Explore the Famous La Brea Tar Pits
The next day, we headed to La Brea Tar Pits & Museum, a natural phenomenon only found in one other place in the world. At La Brea, the tar from underground oil reserves bubbles up into pools of water. Over thousands of years, this tar has captured animals that were passing by as well as those coming to prey on animals trapped in the tar, with the most famous being species from the last Ice Age such as woolly mammoths.
La Brea Tar Pits really captured all our imaginations. The park is free to enter, the tar pits are mostly fenced off, except some newly escaped tar, so tread carefully! The Museum is where significant finds from the tar are kept such as fossils of woolly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, giant sloths and over 1,800 dire wolves. An interesting fact – we were surprised to see camel skeletons and we learnt that camels evolved in North America and were living in this area in the last Ice Age. They migrated from here to the other continents and became extinct in North America. Entry into the museum ranges between $10 to $15 depending on age. The fee also includes a 3D educational movie about the animals of the Ice Age.
Besides the fossils, there’s also a hands-on area where kids and adults can experience what it was like to be trapped in tar. A glass enclosure houses the paleontology lab, where researchers can be observed at work, cleaning up finds from the tar pits. The whole area smells like a road with fresh asphalt laid on a hot summer day.
To us, the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum seemed like the most fascinating and certainly the most unique museum in the city and was a great way of exploring a different side of Los Angeles with kids. Hugo found it quite hard to leave–he could’ve spent days looking at the remains in minute details.
Have Fun at Universal Studios
From La Brea, we took a metro ride to Universal Studios, which is a well-known amusement park as well as home to some film production studios. You can while away time exploring its numerous shops and eateries along Universal City Walk. For Harry Potter fans like my daughter, visiting the Harry Potter Shop on site is a must.
Besides shopping, drinking and eating options, there are a couple of cute features geared towards kids, such as a water fountain and lights that dance to the music. You can also pose with angel wings for a photo opp since Los Angeles is also known as the City of Angels.
Tip: If you don’t have time for the full Universal trip–theme park and studio trip–it’s still worth coming up here to grab a bite and do a bit of shopping.
While you could probably spend a month exploring Los Angeles, this multi-faceted city, and still only scratch its surface, our whistle-stop tour of LA with kids gave us a solid overview and good taste of what the city and its surrounding regions have to offer.
The LA Bonus: Take a Day Trip to Disneyland Park and California Adventure
A trip to Los Angeles with kids truly feels incomplete without a day trip to Disneyland Park and California Adventure, which lies less than an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, barring any traffic. Guaranteed to cater to kids of all ages, there are so many classic attractions such as the Matterhorn and Toon Town and thrilling rides to experiences around New Orleans Square and Frontierland, as well as a variety of eateries to quench every craving.
The highlights for us were the rides on Radiator Springs Racers and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We laughed so much on the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Grizzly River Run and sang “It’s a small world” for days.
To make the most of your day at Disneyland and California Adventures, download the Disneyland app and buy MaxPasses for the day–this will allow you to book fast passes for your favourite rides during the day, download any official photos of you for free and help with orientation around the park. You can book fast passes for rides every 90 minutes. Set your alarm for 90 minutes after making each booking to ensure you get the max number of fast passes for the day. This could mean an extra go on your favourite ride at the end of the day.
Don’t forget to take snacks, drinks and a raincoat (or poncho) with you. The snacks and drinks will help keep kids and grown-ups going, as well as make queueing times pass quicker.
Raincoats will protect you on rides like the Grizzly River Run, but also will allow you to have the best and most immersive views of the World of Color show of lights, water and fountains…a spectacular and unmissable show, by the way!