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Let's face it, there's no shortage of things to spend your money on in L.A. But if renting an oceanside Malibu beach house and cleaning out the exclusive boutiques of Rodeo Drive are not on your to-do list, there are plenty of other, cheaper, more entertaining ways to get to grips with this metropolis of excess. Here's a quick guide to some of our favourite, free ways to experience the City of Angels...
Santa Monica State Beach
Santa Monica State Beach is, for many, the embodiment of the ultimate California beach. Familiar to millions as the setting for Baywatch—the most popular TV show of all time—it's the ideal destination for an active, outdoor holiday with a range of free sights and activities on offer. In addition to the landmark 1909 Santa Monica Pier with its famous ferris wheel and historic carousel, there's a two mile stretch of wide sandy beach dotted with lifeguard towers, perfect for swimming, surfing, sunbathing, fishing and beach volleyball. There's also a free outdoor chess park, a popular aquarium (free to under-12s, $5 donation suggested for adults), and a promenade with adjacent bike and running trails which winds past picnic areas, shops and cafes.
South of Santa Monica, Venice is an ocean and canal-side district on the Westside of L.A, and its beach boardwalk is the most popular tourist attraction in southern California. Probably one of the best destinations for people-watching in all of the USA, this is where the body-beautiful come to play and be seen. Running parallel to the beach, the 'Ocean Front Walk', passes famous Muscle Beach, a skate dance plaza, and various basketball, paddle tennis and handball courts. An assorted human landscape of rollerbladers, acrobats, musicians, chainsaw jugglers, tattoo artists, conspiracy theorists, mindreaders, portrait painters, breakdancers and t-shirt vendors line the shore.
With all the action on the beach it would be easy to miss the canals, but this would be a mistake. This peaceful, upscale neighbourhood makes for a great stroll, especially for those who like to peer nosily into the unattainable homes of others (more a case of natural curiosity, we like to think). When you hit Venice Beach Pier, turn inland and head east along Washington Boulevard. The canals will be on your left.
The Getty Center and Getty Villa
Overlooking the L.A skyline and California coast, the Getty Center houses an extensive permanent collection of 19th and 20th century American and European paintings, photographs, furniture, sculpture, antiques and decorative objects, alongside an inspiring, world-class programme of exhibitions. Currently on display is Crosscurrents in L.A: Paintings and Sculpture, 1950-1970, part of the ambitious Pacific Standard Time regional collaboration of art events across 60 different venues, which will showcase every major movement in the Los Angeles art scene from 1945 to 1980.
The Getty Museum is open every day except Mondays and admission is completely free. It's easily accessible via public transport too, on the Metro Rapid Line 761 - use the Trip Planner to find your most direct route. Parking is also available for $15, but is free after 5pm. Entrance to Malibu's Getty Villa - an educational centre, museum and gardens dedicated to Roman and ancient Greek art - is also free, though an advance, timed-entry ticket is required.
Olvera Street is a buzzy and vibrant Mexican marketplace located in downtown Los Angeles. It's part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument; the original 1781 birthplace of the city. The Olvera Street alley is lined with a variety of vendors selling all manner of arts, crafts, puppets, guitars, sombreros, pottery, ponchos and serapes, and other items that play to a romantic notion of Old Mexico, along with several authentic Mexican restaurants. Listen to live mariachi music, watch folkloric dances and take a free tour of the Avila Adobe, the oldest existing house in L.A.
Griffith Park and Observatory
Griffith Park is a huge 4,310-acre urban park in L.A's Loz Feliz neighbourhood, at the eastern end of the Santa Monica mountains. The park comprises a mixture of landscaped parkland and picnic areas, mahogany woodlands, deep canyons, and wilderness, and is criss-crossed with bridle, jogging and hiking trails. Other attractions include tennis courts and four municipal golf courses (fee payable), the Travel Town Museum, a free attraction dedicated to the preservation of the United States' railroads, with displays of historic steam locomotives, passenger trolleys and cars, and the newly-restored, free-to-enter Griffith Observatory which hosts regular star-gazing events. The Hollywood sign is also located here, on the southern side of distant Mount Lee - you can see it if you look northwest from Griffith Observatory's car park.
Another off-radar neighbourhood worth exploring in downtown L.A is Little Tokyo, declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1995 for its enduring collection of pedestrianised streets, unique shops and superlative sushi joints and ramen restaurants. Serving as an important hub for Japanese immigrants in the early part of the 20th century, the neighbourhood is one of only three official 'Japantowns' in the United States (the other two are in San Francisco and San Jose) and is now something of a playground for Japanese Americans who have revitalised its streets with new businesses and annual festivals like Nisei Week and VCFest (the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival).
As well as several Buddhist temples and a substantial collection of artworks and public sculpture, Little Tokyo is also home to the Japan American National Museum (free every Thurs between 5pm and 8pm and every third Thursday of the month) and a couple of Japanese gardens, including one on the rooftop of the nearby Kyoto Grand Hotel.
Thanks to Flickr photographer LWY.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.