My first small group tour travel experience – Part 1
The start of a 3-week road trip across America with 10 strangers!
Within minutes of meeting my companions for the next 3 weeks You can read my previous blog on this here), we were all climbing into our mini-bus and being driven by our tour guide across the city to our first stop – Hollywood. Conversations in the bus at this point mainly consisted of the “What’s your name again?”, “Where did you say you’re from again?” kind and when we were dropped off and given an hour to wander around Hollywood Boulevard, we drifted into smaller groups – the 2 Swedish girls sticking together, the 20-something guys grouping up and then those of us that didn’t fit any other group wandering off together too. Hollywood was setting up for the weekend’s big Oscar Ceremony which, having been to the Walk of Fame many times before, made the stop a bit more exciting for me as we saw the preparations going on and watched through the fence as reporters broadcast from the red carpet already running down the middle of the road to the Kodak Theater.
Once we were all back at the bus, we made one more quick hop off and on stop nearby to get a photo of the Hollywood sign from Beachwood Canyon before settling in for the 2 hour drive to San Diego. Lunch was at a truck stop just outside the city with a choice of fast food options (most of us tried Wendy’s!) and then it was off to drop our things at our hostel in the Gaslamp District. Like me, this was to be the first hostel experience for most of the group. We were allocated two 6-bed dorms to share between us, there were plenty of bathrooms along the corridor and breakfast was provided in the morning. Our room overlooked the main street in the Gaslamp Quarter, where all the bars were so we had loud music pumping through the walls until the early hours of the morning but it was only for 2 nights and our next stop would be a hotel in Vegas.
After we had settled, we met back at the bus and were taken to Mission Beach for the afternoon. Despite it being February, the weather was a balmy 20 degrees and we wandered along the sands chatting and getting to know each other a bit more before returning to the city for our first group dinner at Bepe di Bucco’s family dining restaurant. That night, we split into those who wanted to go partying and those who didn’t with some of us opting instead to keep out of the bars and get frozen yoghurt instead as we planned to be up early the next day for a trip to the zoo.
What we did on our free day was completely up to us but with the suggestions being SeaWorld or San Diego Zoo, most of the group was keen on going to the zoo so our tour guide offered to drive us there and then we could make our own way back. Only 2 of the group – the two Swedish girls who were mainly keeping themselves to themselves at this point – decided to stay in the city and do their own bit of sightseeing. The zoo was huge, so much so that we lost one group member at one point which was a good point to decide we should all swap numbers and start a Whatsapp group! After spending most for the day there, we walked through Balboa Park and back to the hostel. Our tour guide suggested a seafood place for dinner but with none of the group too keen in that idea, we ended up in Hooters which, if nothing else, was cheaper!
It was a very early start the next morning to begin our drive to Las Vegas and most of us slept in the bus. Lunch was at a bizarre Greek-style diner in Baker, California, opposite the World’s Largest Thermometer(!) before continuing to our destination.
After 2 nights in a hostel, our room at Bally’s Casino seemed like luxury and I was surprised we were in a hotel on the Strip and in such a good location, expecting to be Downtown from reading other Trekkers’ experiences online. With hotel rooms being for 2, the two Swedish girls shared a room, I shared with the other solo girl (we’d already become good friends at this point – 2 days can seem a lot longer when you’re spending all that time in someone’s company!) and then the guys paired up, taking it in turns to have a room to themselves with there being an odd number of them.
We had the rest of the afternoon as free time but were to be back early evening for our included Party Bus activity. As my roommate and I had decided we’d like to see Britney play the following night, we headed straight to the Planet Hollywood box office to acquire some tickets before joining the others strolling through some of the hotels on the strip. Then it was all round to our tour guide’s room for some group-bonding drinking games and Chinese food before we piled onto our private Vegas Party bus. The bus drives up and down the strip while music blasts out and the inside is like a mini-dance club.
Unimpressed by the very clubby music, one of the group asked if he could instead plug in his iPhone and we instead sang and danced along to cheesy 90s pop tracks from the Spice Girls and 5ive and tunes from Disney’s Frozen. The bus made a stop Downtown in time for us to catch the hourly laser show at Fremont Street and then at the Welcome to Vegas sign for us to get photos before dropping us off at the Bellagio to watch the penultimate dancing fountain show of the night. We loved this so much we decided to wait 15 minutes to watch the final show of the night too before following our tour guide to her favourite karaoke bar at Ellis Island Casino just behind Bally’s.
The next morning we split into 2 groups – those of us who had returned to our hotel at a reasonable time and were up to spend the day exploring Vegas, and those who were sleeping it off! By the time we met with the rest of the group later that afternoon, we had already had a huge Denny’s breakfast, took a gondola ride at the Venetian hotel, and got lost in Circus Circus. We were joined by a few more group members at the top of the Stratosphere where we screamed our way through the 3 rides sat on top of the tallest building in the Strip.
That evening, we all went off to see various shows and for me that meant the chance to see Britney’s Piece Of Me show, something I’d wanted to do since it was announced so I was ecstatic to discover she was playing on our free evening in the city. We’d managed to get our hands on pit tickets so were up close, especially when Britney came out along the catwalk and the show was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped. After, we met up with a few other group members for a late night ride on the High Roller Ferris Wheel to see the bright lights of Vegas from above.
I’d been to Vegas a few times before this trip but never experienced it quite like this. Being in a group tour situation was already taking me out of my comfort zone – drinking games, party buses, late night karaoke bars, none of these things were how I’d usually spend my time on holiday – and yet I was loving every minute and really enjoying the company of this eclectic band of individuals.
4 days in and things were going great but I should know by now to expect the unexpected…
If you’ve read my previous post about my decision to travel solo for the first time, you’ll know that rather than spending my entire trip completely by myself, I opted to join a small group tour. Specifically, the Southern BLT Tour with the established small group tour company, Trek America.
I booked the tour through the touradar website in their Christmas sale and the tour was to begin mid-February meaning I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my decision. With the extra nights I had added in LA and New York either side of the 3-week tour, I would be away for 4 weeks in total, the longest I had ever been away from home before.
As the departure date approached I decided to take up Trek America’s offer of a free FairFX prepaid currency card rather than just taking cash as I would on a shorter trip. This came with access to an app which I could use to top up the card with dollars if I was getting low at any point as long as I had internet access and as the tour was advertised as having on-bus WiFi and I knew from previous visits stateside that WiFi was easy to find, finding internet access shouldn’t be a problem.
The tour required us to take a sleeping bag for the night spent in a cabin and I also went out and bought a pair of special walking trainers from Sports Direct for any hiking we’d do, a quick-drying travel towel for use at the hostels and various other bits and bobs that I wouldn’t ordinarily take on holiday but I thought I might need in a trip like this!
My biggest worry was what size case to take. Or whether to take a case at all as I figured a lot of the passengers might be serious backpackers with, well, a backpack. For just a 2 week holiday, I would usually take my large case but I knew luggage was to be stored in our minibus as we travelled and would have to be dragged in and out of our accommodation every day or so (we had no more than 2 nights in any one place on the tour) so maybe a large case was too much. But would there be chance to do laundry or would I have to take enough clothes to last the entire trip?!
What to pack in itself was another problem. I’d assumed when I booked the tour that travelling through the Southern states meant that even in February/March, it’d mainly be warm although I did realise once we reached Washington DC and New York it would be chillier. But after googling the weather for some of our stops, I realised it was likely to be cool in quite a few places along the way so layers, a few jumpers, hoodies and even my winter coat might be necessary!
I eventually opted to take my medium-sized case, squashing as much as possible in and deciding if there was no opportunity for laundry, I could probably get a couple of wears out of most tops!!
So with lots of excitement, and some trepidation, I headed to the airport a few days before the start of the tour to begin my trip. I had booked 2 nights by myself in Santa Monica at a motel I had stayed at with my family a couple of years before and would then spend the third night staying at Trek America’s “gateway” hotel – the one the tour departed from – the night before the tour began.
Whereas I would usually share a taxi with my travel buddies to get us to our hotel quickly and easily after a long flight, it was a lot of money to spend for just one person so I had researched how to get to Santa Monica on public transport. So after arriving at LAX, I went to wait for the Airbus service hoping to save a bit of money. But after waiting and waiting and seeing numerous buses come and go for Hollywood, Downtown, Anaheim and various other districts of Los Angeles but none for Santa Monica, I gave up and, just wanting to get there, ended up in a cab!
It was odd finding myself alone in a city I had visited many times before with family and friends and needing food, I was unsure what to do. Not being brave enough just yet to go to a restaurant alone, I instead opted for the food court in Santa Monica Place shopping mall before heading down to the beach to watch the sunset.
To keep myself busy over the next few days, I’d planned plenty of activities, again extensively researching how to reach places on public transport. After breakfast at Denny’s (eating alone wasn’t actually that bad!), my first stop was Sony Studios for a backlot tour. Using public transport ran smoother than it had the previous day and after asking for directions just once when I got off the bus, I found my way to the tour check in point with plenty of time to spare.
After the tour, I wandered around the nearby area of Culver City before catching the bus back towards Santa Monica. I spent the afternoon in Venice following a self-guided walk around the canals which I had downloaded before my trip, another part of the city I had not seen before.
The following day, I had booked onto another tour to see the Star Homes in Malibu and then, after lunch alone at Barney’s Beanery – my favourite Santa Monica eatery – I hired a bike and rode to Marina del Rey, again ticking off a few more places I’d not been to before. In all honesty, I kept myself too busy to even notice I was by myself and I actually enjoyed not having to compromise on anything and being able to do what I liked and at my own pace.
That evening, it was time to move from my cosy Santa Monica B&B to my Trek’s departure hotel, the Custom Hotel bear LAX. Wanting to avoid paying out for another taxi, I had again looked up how to get there on public transport. One direct bus which would drop me outside my new hotel seemed doable although I hadn’t factored in travelling in rush hour with a case and bag!
6 weeks before your Trek America tour departs, participants are given access to an online group where you can ‘meet’ other members of your tour group. This only works, of course, if other members are active in the group and no one seemed to be using it for the tour I had booked. Undeterred, and curious as to whom I would be spending 3 weeks travelling with, I instead, left a message on the Trek America forums asking if anyone else was going to be on the Southern BLT tour departing that week. By the time I had left for LA, there had been no replies but a few days later, 2 people had answered saying they too would be on the tour.
So the evening before the tour departed, once settled in at the ‘gateway’ hotel, I made my way up to the hotel’s rooftop bar where I had arranged to meet 3 of my fellow travelling companions. Everyone seemed nice – we were all solo travellers who were travelling solo for the first time and it put my mind at ease slightly about the next few weeks. After a few drinks and some small talk, it was off for an early-ish night ready to start my 3-week cross-country adventure the following morning.
It was an early start the next day where I met the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. 11 of us in total, 7 guys, 4 girls, aged 20-34 from the UK, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. After brief introductions, some form-filling and a talk from our American tour guide, it was time to load our luggage on to the trailer and board our minibus ready to get on the road!
After almost 10 years of fitting in city breaks around my teaching career, I finally took the plunge and quit my full time job in order to travel more extensively. Up until now, any trips I’d taken had been with friends, often fellow teacher also tied down to taking trips in the school holidays, and had mainly been short breaks with the odd 2-week trip when there was more time over the summer break. But now I was no longer tied down to travelling in the school holidays – which was great as it meant I could take advantage of the cheaper term time flight and accommodation prices – but it also meant that my teacher friends were not available to come with me and, with wanting to go away for longer than the standard week or fortnight, no one else was able, or willing, to get the time off work either. The choice was simple. Stay at home, taking the first long term supply teaching job I was offered and continue to make the odd trip at weekends and in the holidays, or really make use of the situation I had put myself in and go it alone.
I chose the latter and started to research solo travel. Having visited many of the main US cities over the last 10 years, America was a country I knew I felt comfortable in and wanted to see more of – specifically travelling outside of the cities – so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d been receiving brochures from the group travel company Trek America and it’s sister company, Grand American Adventures, for a few years after entering a competition to travel with them once and ending up on their mailing list and I had always flicked through them half-heartedly before throwing them in the recycling but now when the new brochures arrived, I paid a bit more attention and started doing some online research into the companies and their tours. I’d had a few friends do larger group tours with companies such as Contiki and was pretty sure this wasn’t for me but a small group tour sounded more appealing.
Trek America offered a wide range of tours In North America aimed at 18-38 year olds. The majority of the tours offered were camping based, which I knew I did not want to do! – but they also offered some of their tours as BLTs or Budget Lodging Tours which used a mixture of hostels, motels and cabins. I’d never stayed in a hostel in my life and it didn’t particularly appeal to me but if it was just for a few nights here and there between hotel/motel stops, I figured I could cope. The alternative was to choose a tour with another company such as Grand American Adventures which used hotels and motels only but these were a lot more expensive and were open-aged tours which worried me in case everyone else on the tour was a lot older than me. Being in my mid-30s at this point, there was always the risk that doing a Trek America tour would find me as the only ‘older’ traveller in a group of 18 year olds but I decided that choosing a BLT tour over a cheaper, more affordable camping tour plus the 21 years old drinking age in America, would minimise this risk and hopefully the tours would attract a slightly older age group.
Once I’d narrowed down which tour company to use, the next step was choosing which tour to do. There were about 6 BLT tours on offer, all varying in length and visiting different areas of the US. Having spent a lot of time in the obvious cities – at this point I had already visited New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington DC on city breaks – I wanted to find a tour that went to enough new places for me that it would make it worth while. A lot of the west coast trips mainly spent time in LA, Vegas and San Francisco and the North East BLT tour went to New York, Boston and Niagara Falls which I’d also seen before. Their Deep South BLT certainly looked a possibility as I’d always wanted to see New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but it was only a one week tour and, not being a drinker, I did worry again about it attracting a partying, younger crowd. Also, I thought that if I was going to do this, maybe I should go all in and go for a longer amount of time rather than testing the waters on a one week tour.
The company’s most encompassing BLT tour was the Grand BLT, a 6 week trip travelling coast to coast from New York to LA through the Northern states before returning to New York travelling back through the Southern states. The trips for that year had already departed and didn’t start up again until the following summer but I was itching to get going sooner than that so I saw that the trip could be split. The company’s Southern BLT tour ran through the winter months as well as the summer months. Paired with the Northern BLT which ran just through the summer months, it creates the Grand BLT. Maybe I didn’t have to do the entire trip in one go but could split it into two 3-week trips, one now and one in the summer. That way, if it turned out it wasn’t for me, 3 weeks is less of a commitment than 6 and I just wouldn’t book onto the second leg.
So after a bit more inning and ahhing, talking it through with various friends and family members who all encouraged me to go for it, I booked myself onto the February departure of the Southern BLT tour, adding on a few days completely by myself in Santa Monica, LA before the trip and in New York after the trip – both cities familiar to me so a few days alone in both seemed manageable!
I’ll write about my experiences on the trip in a future post but suffice to say I loved it, it was without a doubt the best thing I have ever done. I did book myself onto the Northern BLT that summer and I have done numerous small group tours since with Trek America and various other companies.
So if you are thinking thinking of travelling solo but maybe don’t want to spend your time completely by yourself, definitely consider a group tour!
As mentioned in my post on Hollywood, it’s possible to see the famous Hollywood sign clearly from the walkways across the arch at the Hollywood Highland Centre and if you take a Star Homes Tour into the Hollywood Hills, you will most likely stop at the Mulholland Lookout Point. But while both of these places give you good views of the sign and enable you to get a photo of the sign if you zoom in on your camera, they are not great if you want a clear photo with the sign as it looks tiny in the background from here.
If you want to get closer, you are going to need to take a hike!
Along with the Walk of Fame, the Hollywood sign will probably be a must-see on any first time visit to LA. As I’ve mentioned previously, you don’t need to leave Hollywood Boulevard to see the sign with it being visible from the arch at the Hollywood Highland Centre and other viewpoints include the stop along Mulholland included in most of the Star Homes Tours or from Griffith Observatory. But if you want to get closer and get a good photo of yourself with the sign, then you really need put on your walking shoes!
Both times I’ve got a bit closer to the sign, I’ve taken a DASH bus from the intersection of Hollywood and Vine – by the Capitol Records Building – towards Beachwood Canyon. The first time I went looking for a good viewpoint, we got a little lost and ended up climbing Deronda Drive where we accidentally stumbled upon a great view of the sign in a residential district.
It did mean standing in the road in between cars passing by to get a photo with it though – probably not the best or safest idea!
The next time I went looking for the sign, I followed a set of instructions found on line which took me onto the Hollyridge Trail via a pathway by Sunset Ranch. I followed the trail – and other hikers – to a trail that eventually lead me to a path that climbed up behind the Hollywood sign. Unfortunately, access to this trail at Sunset Ranch has now been closed but that doesn’t mean you can no longer hike to the sign.
You can now pick the trail up at the ‘Deronda Gate’, further along Deronda Drive at it’s intersection with Mulholland. It’s about a 1 mile walk from where the DASH bus drops you in Beachwood Canyon but the path is steep making it a difficult walk especially in the LA heat. If you don’t have a car, you can get a taxi or Uber to the gate then hike the trail from there. Although the main trail takes you behind the sign, there are great views of the front of it too, close enough for you to get a photo with it, or you can turn off the main path to get a bit closer before retracing your steps and hiking back.
If you’re unsure of finding the sign yourself and think you might end up lost in the Hollywood Hills, there are a few companies offering guided hikes. This year, I’ve booked a sunset tour with Bikes and Hikes LA. While I’m not expecting to get as close to the sign, I’m looking forward to hiking into the hills from Griffith Park and hearing a bit about the area and the history of the sign from the tour’s guide as well as getting a few photos from a different angle.
Another different way of visiting the sign is by horse back. Sunset Ranch in Beachwood Canyon offer various guided horse trail rides into the Hollywood Hills and past the sign throughout the day.
I’m a huge movie buff and cult TV viewer and I love a good movie tour and LA currently offers 4 of them. For some reason, I never got around to doing any of these tours on my first few visits to the city but I’ve since made up for it doing 2 of these tours on my 3rd visit and the others on my 2 subsequent visits. While I did have a favourite – the Warner Brother’s Studio Tour – they all had their merits and are worth doing if you are a film and TV fan.
Warner Brothers Studio Experience
Our WB Studios Tour was included on our Go LA pass but we wanted to book in advance to guarantee a spot at the time we wanted. This wasn’t a problem as we’d booked our pass well in advance so it was just a case of emailing the studios with our Go Card reference number to get our time slot scheduled in. Getting to the studios required a bus journey from Hollywood, the first time I’d ever used a public transport bus in the city and typically, the next stop announcer wasn’t working. Luckily, we got a friendly driver who took pity on us now knowing where on earth we were going, gave us a shout once we were at the stop we needed!
Anyway, the tour itself was great – we were taken around the studios on a little golf-buggy type vehicle passing exteriors used in shows including Friends – I’ve never been so excited to see a patch of grass but it was the patch of grass that Phoebe ran on!! We also had time to explore the Studio’s museum, one of which had a collection of Batman memorabilia from various shows and films over the years, another a Harry Potter exhibition with many props and costumes and one with a collection of vehicles used in WB films and shows including the Batmobile – as a complete geek who love Harry Potter and any comic book shows, I was in heaven! Next, we got taken to some of the studios’ sound stages seeing inside the studio where the Ellen Show is filmed and another where a comedy show was shot in front of a live audience. Then we saw an outdoor area which, at the time, was set up as ‘Bluebell, Alabama’ in the series ‘Hart of Dixie’ but also doubled as the town in Pretty Little Liars amongst other things. As I watched Hart of Dixie at the time, I was very excited to see the familiar shop fronts from ‘Bluebelle’ and well as walk into the church set used in the show and then see the sound stage where the interior shots are filmed!
The final part of the Warner Brothers Studio Experience, and probably a big selling point for many, is a visit to the Central Perk set from Friends, now recreated in unused studio where you can sit and pose for photos on the couch!
Universal Studios Hollywood
The day after we visited the WB Studios, we spent the day at Universal Studios not far from Hollywood. To tour the studios here, you need entry into the park. Getting there was an easy ride on the metro from Hollywood/Highland Station followed by jumping on the free shuttle bus up the hill to the Universal City Walk. The City Walk is a vibrant entertainment district with shops and restaurants with the Studios complex itself at the end of it. Despite it being the start of August, the Studios weren’t too busy and we managed to go on most of the rides without too much of a queue. We also enjoyed all the shows on offer.
The actual Studio Tour can be taken at any time during your visit. After queuing, we boarded a bus which then rode around the studios while our guide commentated on what we were seeing. Unlike the WB Tour, there was no opportunity to stop and get off the bus on the way around – in fact it moved constantly – and, for the most part, sets were much more in the distance than at Warner Brothers. The tour also felt a bit more like a ride as special effects were timed to go off as we drove past. The highlight for me was seeing ‘Wisteria Lane’ where Desperate Housewives was filmed!
Sony Pictures Studio Tour
I toured the Sony Pictures Studios on a flying visit to the city during which I was staying at Santa Monica. From there, I had to catch a bus to Culver City – part of LA I really enjoyed strolling through and felt had a really nice feel to it! – then walk to the Studio Building where the tours went from. The directions on the confirmation email were not great and I struggled to find the building at first but luckily I’d left plenty of time and thanks to some helpful studio employees giving me directions, I eventually found it. The building housed some props and costumes from various films which we were encouraged to look at while we waited for our tour to be called.
No bus or golf buggy this time – instead we toured the studios on foot. The studios are most famous for being where classic film The Wizard of Oz was filmed and as you enter, a huge rainbow looms over you and can be seen from most points of the tour! I found this tour a lot more informative on the workings of the studios and film and TV production in general than the other tours which made it one of my favourites as I found it really interesting. We were taken to rooms where various stages of post-production take place such as where the sound effects are added and – one of the tour’s highlights – we got to stand in the music studio where Judy Garland recorded Somewhere Over the Rainbow! Sticking with the Wizard of Oz theme, we got to glance into the sound studio where the movie was filmed – obviously set up for a completely different production now. Like in the Warner Brother’s Tour, we got to see inside a current set although this time, I wasn’t lucky enough for it to be for a show I watched.
The final tour offered in LA is of Paramount Studios, just outside of Hollywood. I took an easy bus ride followed by a short walk to get there. After photos in front of the famous studio gates, we again boarded a golf buggy type vehicle to be driven around the back lot. I feel we got to spend a bit more time out of the vehicle walking around the back lot than we did on the WB Tour but there were less-recognisable things to see than at Warner – to me at least! I was excited to get to stand inside the ‘McKinley High’ set from Glee which luckily had yet to be dismantled despite the last ever episode being filmed there recently!
At the end of this tour, I really enjoyed seeing the room where a lot of old props and costumes are stored!
While I really enjoyed all of these tours and seeing a bit behind the scenes of some of my favourite films and shows, just a warning that doing a tour will completely ruin your illusions when watching in the future. There are so many times now that I’m watching TV shows or films and I recognise sets from one of the studios and am able to pinpoint which studio it was filmed at, it can take me away from what’s happening on screen a bit! I the same way, the first few films I saw after doing the Sony Tour, I spent the whole time thinking about what we’d been told about sound effects every time there was a background sound or door creak. But if you’re ok with this, then I definitely recommend booking a tour if you’re in LA!
Visiting Hollywood and wondering what there is to do and see? Read through my ideas and tips to get the most out of your visit!
No matter where you’ve decided to stay, A visit to Hollywood Boulevard is probably going to be on your itinerary. So what to expect? Yes, it’s tacky. Yes, it’s full of crowds of tourists all congregating in the same small areas of pavement. Yes, the far ends of the Hollywood Boulevard and anywhere slightly off the Boulevard, does not feel the safest place in the World to wander. But go with your expectations not too high and you’ll find plenty to enjoy.
You’ll more than likely find yourself wandering along the Walk of Fame eyes down with exclaims of ‘oh Britney Spears!’ , ‘Look, there’s Tom Cruise!’ and ‘Kermit the Frog!!!’ – no, not pointing out the actual celebrity of course but just shouting out the name on every other star you walk past with no real reason why you’re doing it. Be prepared to get annoyed as fellow tourists decide to sit in the middle of the pavement to get photos with various stars only to find yourself doing exactly the same when you see one of your faves.
Then as the pavement opens out in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, push your way through the crowds waiting for your turn to see how your shoe size measures up to your Hollywood faves. When in Hollywood…!
Looking for a particular celebrity’s star? Then download the Walk of Fame app which will pinpoint the exact place of any star you are looking for or look on the Walk of Fame’s official site. You can also find out if there’s any new stars ceremonies going on while you’re in town. https://www.walkoffame.com/
If you can raise your eyes from the pavement long enough to notice, you’ll find various costumed individuals around the area in front of Madame Tussaud’s encouraging tourists to have photos with them – remember, they are expecting hefty tip in return – and many competing tacky gift stores selling cheap and cheerful souvenirs – fake Oscar statuette with you name on anyone?! Look out for the $10 store which seems to constantly have an ‘everything is just $5’ sale on!!
For a handful of high street stores and chain restaurants, the Hollywood and Highland Center, a 3-storey entertainment complex, is a good bet and also provides some great photo opportunities with it’s over-the-top Babylon Gate entrance flanked by elephant statues, the jumping water jets/fountain in the central courtyard and the ‘casting couch’ from which you can follow the Road to Hollywood with it’s anonymous stories of industry stars’ rise to fame.
From the walkways across the arch at the back of the center, there are views of the Hollywood sign in the distance. Not really close enough for you to get a photo with the sign but you can definitely get a photo of it. (You can find my tips on getting closer to the Hollywood sign here.)
From the center, you can access the neighbouring Dolby Theatre – famous for being the most recent location of the Oscars ceremonies. Take a tour of the theatre and if you’re lucky and there’s no current production on there, you’ll get to step onto the stage where so many winners have accepted their award. Or for free, just pose on the red carpet steps leading up to the theatre’s entrance!
A few doors down, you can also take a tour of the Chinese Theatre to hear some of it’s history although personally, I didn’t really feel the tour was worth it and you can see just as much of the theatre by seeing a film there!
I much prefer a visit to the Hollywood Museum, just off Hollywood Boulevard opposite the Hollywood & Highland Center. The building it’s housed in is the former Max Factor Building and now contains props and costumes from Hollywood films and TV shows. The museum changes and updates a lot of its displays regularly so I like to return whenever I’m visiting Hollywood to see what’s currently on display.
Next door to the Hollywood Museum is one of my favourite places to eat in Hollywood, Mel’s Drive In, a traditional 50s style diner.
Slightly cheaper fare than at the Hard Rock Cafe across Hollywood Boulevard and better value, in my opinion, than the similar Johnny Rocket’s in the Hollywood Highland Center, it offers the usual burgers and sandwiches-type diner menu.
There’s plenty of other entertainment opportunities along the strip including Ripley’s Believe It or Not and two wax museums. If you’ve bought a tourist card such as the Go Los Angeles pass or Starline’s Hollywood Pass then it’s likely you’ll have a visit to Madame Tussaud’s included. If nothing else, a walk around the heavily air-conditioned museum is a welcome relief from the hot summer days or if you’re looking for a quieter visit, go in the evening after 8 when the queues are usually non-existent and you can move around much easier once inside.
Star Homes Tours
When my brother and his wife visited LA, they googled a map and headed of into the Hollywood Hills from Hollywood Boulevard by foot the one day and into the Beverly Hills on foot from Rodeo Drive another day!! It was the middle of August and sweltering heat but they had a great time exploring. If you have hired a car or also enjoy a hike then maps of the Star Homes can be purchased in many stores around the Hollywood area or you can indeed find plenty of information just using google but if not, there are plenty of companies offering these tours departing from Hollywood Boulevard!
I’ve taken 3 of these tours from Hollywood – and one to Malibu from Santa Monica – all with different companies and quite honestly, they’re all pretty similar – driving up into the Hollywood Hills via a stop at the Mulholland Drive lookout point to see the Hollywood sign in the distance before continuing through the Hollywood Hills and into Beverly Hills all the time with the driver shouting out the names of the celebrities that supposedly live at the various gated mansions you pass along the way! I say ‘supposedly’ because quite honestly, they could be saying anything and I’d have no idea if they were telling the truth or now but it’s always fun to see the huge compounds and see how the other half lives if nothing else!
A Star Homes Tour is included on the Go LA tourist card and also in a lot of the tourist combo tickets available but if you haven’t purchased one of these then I recommend just walking along Hollywood Boulevard bartering with the tour guides – they are all trying to get you on their tour and are willing to offer competitive prices to gain your custom so don’t sign up at the first price offered or the first company you come to, see what’s on offer and haggle!
To read about the Malibu Star Homes tour I took, see my post about LA’s Beach Cities here.
If you’re a movie buff or US TV fan then you’ll probably enjoy one, or all, of the 4 film studio tours LA currently offers. All are pretty easily accessible from Hollywood via the metro or public buses and while I do have a favourite – the Warner Brother’s Studio Tour – they all have their merits and are worth doing if you are a film and TV fan. The studio tour at Universal is only available with entry to Universal Studios Hollywood amusement park and is almost like a ride rather than a traditional backlot tour as you stay on an almost constantly moving bus past the film sets and there are many effects laden set pieces to add to the fun. (A more in-depth ‘VIP’ tour where you do get to tour some of the sets is also available but at a much higher cost.)
Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures and Paramount all offer more traditional backlot tours at their working studios with the opportunity to step foot on some of their sound stages and see the sets of some of their current shows. The tours are quite similar in some ways so you probably wouldn’t want to do all 4 on one trip as they could all end up blending into one. To help narrow it down, it could be worth looking into what’s currently filming at each one to give you an idea of what sets you might get to see although it’s all dependent on what’s not being used on the day. It is possible to apply to be an audience member at some of the shows but many have long waiting lists making it difficult to guarantee tickets for the days you are in the city.
For a more detailed account of my own experiences of the various Studio Tours available in LA and what they each have to offer, see my page here.
Griffith Park and Observatory
I’d often see Griffith Observatory high up in the Hollywood Hills while in LA and was familiar with it from various films and TV shows, but it wasn’t until my most recent visit that I finally paid it a visit. The observatory lies in Griffith Park but on top of a steep hill so unless you want to hike up it, the easiest way to get there is on public transport.
When I visited, an easy public transport option didn’t exist so I caught an Uber there and walked back but now you can catch a red metro line train a few stops from Hollywood Boulevard to the Vermont/Sunset Station and catch a DASH bus from here which will drop you right outside the observatory! DASH buses are not included on TAP card fares but having a TAP card will get you a discount, making the fare just 35 cents, otherwise, it’ll set you back a whole 50 cents – bargainous either way!!
The observatory itself is free to enter and has some really interesting space-related exhibitions but the big attraction for me was the view.
From the observatory it is possible to pick up hiking trails that will eventually lead you closer to the Hollywood sign but if you do plan on taking one of these, make sure you have plenty of water on you and the right footwear as it’s quite a long walk! Otherwise, I recommend strolling back down the hill and through Griffith Park itself before walking or catching a bus back into Hollywood!
Running parallel to Hollywood, a block south, is Sunset Boulevard. After passing along this road a few times on the sightseeing bus but never hopping off to explore I finally decided to take a walk down there on my last visit to the city.
The main reason I’d decided to head down to Sunset Boulevard was to visit Amoeba Records, the World’s largest independent music store. The store did not disappoint with 2 floors of cds, dvds, vinyls and music merchandise and is definitely worth a visit if you’re a music fan.
Walk a bit further west along Sunset Boulevard and you will come to Hollywood’s Rockwalk outside another music store, this one selling instruments. Like a mini-versions of the pavement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre only this time, for musicians, the Rockwalk at the Guitar Centre has the handprints of many famous rock artists as well as bronze plaques on the walls for some well-known names.
Moving into West Hollywood by continuing a few miles along Sunset Boulevard, you will come to the infamous Sunset Strip. Here, Sunset Boulevard is lined with bars and clubs. The strip is a short taxi ride from Hollywood Boulevard and comes alive at night with clubs offering live music and comedy. During the day, there is shopping at Sunset Plaza.
The Grove and Farmers’ Market
If you are heading out of Hollywood towards Beverly Hills on public transport, then it’s likely you’ll turn south on Fairfax Avenue and pass The Grove Shopping Centre and neighbouring Farmer’s Market along the way.
Both worth a stop, The Grove is a pleasantly laid out open shopping mall with lots of high street stores, department stores, cafes, restaurants and even a cinema all set around a pretty lake and fountain area. A tram runs through the Grove complex connecting it with the LA Farmers Market where you will find a variety of food stalls selling both fresh produce and plenty of lunch or snack options.
While visiting The Grove and Farmers Market, why not walk a block south to the corner of Fairfax and Wiltshire where you’ll find LACMA – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. While I’ve still not got round to actually visiting the museum, I did enjoy walking through it’s ‘Urban Lights’ sculpture while waiting for the bus back to Hollywood. Next door to LACMA, you’ll find the La Brea Tar Pits which I plan to visit for the first time on my LA visit later this year – can’t wait!
While most of the Star Homes Tours offered from Hollywood will drive through Beverly Hills past the huge mansions and along Rodeo Drive passing the designer stores, they don’t tend to make a stop here so you may decide to go back to explore this area a bit more by yourself.
Whether you’ve hired a car to drive yourself or if you’re getting a bus from Hollywood or Santa Monica, you will probably find yourself at the large Beverly Hills sign in Beverly Gardens Park.
Across the road from the park, you’ll find the Beverly Hills Visitors Centre where you can get a photo with one of the famous Beverly Hills shields. It is also just a short walk to Rodeo Drive which I have walked down window shopping many a time but never had the nerve to enter any of the high end designer stores!!
Nearby is the Beverly Hills City Hall which is the building used as the police station in the Beverly Hills Cop films.
If you want to experience a bit of Hollywood glamour, walk to one of the 2 famous Beverly Hills hotels. The Beverly Wiltshire at the end of Rodeo Drive featured in the film Pretty Woman and the Beverly Hilton is just to many red carpet events including the annual Grammy awards!
On my first ever visit to LA, we had a few hours to fill on our last day and a valid hop on/off tourist bus ticket so decided to go on the tour of Downtown LA. It was a rare dull day, nothing we passed sounded or looked particularly interesting and we didn’t have time to hop off and explore anywhere further anyway and it was a Sunday so everywhere we passed seemed dead. Not the best first impression of the area!!
Deciding I hadn’t given it a fair chance, I made plans to explore the area more on a solo visit to the city a few years later. Researching online before my trip, I made a list of some of things I wanted to see or do downtown and plotted a route to follow. As I was staying in Hollywood, I began my day by catching the red line metro from Hollywood/Highland Station to Union Station. The station itself, the largest in West USA, is worth a wander around and is on the National Register of Historic Places. From here, I crossed the road from the front entrance to find Olvera Street.
Olvera Street, part of the El Paublo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, is one of the oldest streets in Los Angeles and is lined with Mexican themed stalls and restaurants. The street has become a big downtown tourist attraction and is a fun place to visit or for a spot of shopping.
After wandering down the street, I visited the nearby Avila Adobe, the oldest standing residence in LA. The building was set up inside as it would have been in the 1800s. It was free to enter and look around and there was information in each room about what life would have been like for the family that lived there.
From Olvera Street, I walked towards LA’s City Hall. I had read that with a valid ID such as a passport, it was possible to enter the building and get the elevator up to an observation deck at the top. I love a good observation deck and if it’s free, even better, so I thought I’d give it a try. I followed some other visitors in who, it turned out, were there for the same reason. After an ID and security check, we were shown instructions on how to find our way to the 27th floor!
The views from the top were pretty good. There’s not a lot of room to move around but luckily there weren’t too many people around – it was midweek at the end of June, I don’t know if it gets busy at weekends and holidays. I spent a bit of time looking out across the sprawling city and taking photographs before catching the elevator back down and heading off to get some lunch.
For lunch, I already knew exactly where I was heading having seen Philippe’s French dipped sandwiches on an episode of Man vs Food!! I walked back on myself back towards Union Station then along Alameda Street past the Post Office Building to find the restaurant.
My roast beef dipped sandwich was just as delicious as I had hoped it would be!
To walk off my sandwich, I took a quick stroll around China Town.
Then I walked back towards City Hall and through Grand Park behind it. The small, rectangular park has a fountain as it’s centrepiece and plenty of places to sit in the surrounding areas. There’s also a cafe for snacks and refreshments.
Right by the park is the Los Angeles’ very modern looking Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The church’s exterior and interior are very different from most Cathedrals I have visited before. There were beautiful stained glass windows, tapestries and other pieces of art and religious artefacts and it was definitely worth a look around.
On the opposite side of Grand Park, you will find another modern construction, the shiny silver building of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the LA Philharmonic. The unusual building is part of the larger surrounding LA Music Center and although I didn’t go inside, it is possible to take self-guided audio tours on certain days. https://www.musiccenter.org/visit/Exploring-the-Center/Self-Guided-Tours/
After a quick pit-stop for refreshments in Grand Park, I caught the metro a few stops from the Civic Center/Grand Park Station to 7th Street/Metro Center Station and walked a few blocks South to the Staples Center, home of the LA Lakers Basketball Team. I wandered around the grounds of the complex where there were statues of some of the NBA stars who have played there before walking back on my self to the neighbouring Grammy Museum.
I’d wanted to visit the Grammy Museum for a while. The museum is part of downtown’s LA Live entertainment complex and is full of costumes and other pop memorabilia belonging to a variety of Grammy Award winners. There were lots of interactive displays which I’d probably have participated in more if I’d not been touring the museum by myself but I’m returning to the museum later this year and dragging my friend along to see their current Backstreet Boys exhibition so maybe I’ll get more of a chance then!
And that ended my day touring the downtown area of LA. I was glad I’d given it another chance and seen a bit more of what it had to offer and I’m looking forward to returning later this year!
“There’s nothing there.” “It’s dirty.” “I didn’t like it.” “Hollywood is a dump.” “I wouldn’t bother.” Just some of the comments I’d heard about the City of Angels, Los Angeles. But I’d seen it in the movies – Hollywood, the Walk of Fame, the beaches, the mansions, the glamour, the Californian sunshine – what wasn’t there to like, right? And so, I floated the idea to my friend of possibly spending a few nights in the city of dreams on the way back from the trip we were planning to Australia, making our flight ticket a round-the-world trip, and the next thing I knew, we’d booked it and were planning our stay. Truth be told, I was as excited about our few days in Hollywood as I was about our 2 weeks in Australia – if not more so! – and despite the various warnings? I loved it. I’ve been back multiple times and still love it. I’ve taken family and friends there and made them fall in love with it. I’m going back there for my 6th visit this summer. I really have no idea why so many people I talk to don’t love it!!
So here’s my guide to LA!
Where To Stay and Getting Around
“It’s impossible to get around LA without a car.” I read or was repeatedly told when investigating my first trip there. Time consuming and complicated at first, maybe. Impossible? No. I’ve not had a hire car on any of my trips to the city and I’ve rarely even used taxis or ubers and yet I’ve still managed fine and seen everything I’ve wanted to see each time. And looking at the traffic in the city, there’s no way I’d ever want to drive there! The trouble with LA is it’s such a big place. Everything is spread out and unlike in New York, although improving, the metro system is currently not comprehensive enough to make getting from one place to another as quick or easy as it should be. Instead you need to make use of a combination of buses and trains. Choosing the right place to stay goes a long way to making getting around easier. I’ve always said that in an ideal world, I’d spend a few days staying in different areas – downtown, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills…but assuming you’ve got just a few days to a week in the city then you need to choose just one area to base yourself in.
For most of my visits, I’ve based myself in Hollywood, as close to the corner of Hollywood and Highland as possible. From here, most of the Hollywood sights are walkable, you have plenty of entertainment options to keep you occupied in the evenings along Hollywood Boulevard and the red line metro can be accessed easily. This is the line that runs downtown to Union Station in one direction but also to Universal Studios and City Walk in the other direction. Anything not accessible by metro, you can probably catch a bus to it from Hollywood! If you plan on using the hop on/off tourist bus to get around, then 3 of the routes – the Hollywood route, downtown route and Hollywood Bowl bus – all have a stop on Hollywood Boulevard.
I have stayed a couple of times in Santa Monica – which I absolutely love – but it’s not as convenient as Hollywood for getting around. The first time I stayed there we planned on taking the hop on/off bus to Hollywood the one day but it took so long to get there -it’s not even direct, you have to hop off at Rodeo Drive and wait for the Hollywood bus from there! – that we got less time than we thought we would there so decided to go back again the next day – which meant catching the hop on/off bus all over again! (Since then, I should point out that a new metro line has opened connecting Santa Monica with downtown and hopefully making the journey between there and Hollywood a bit easier – I’ll let you know after my trip this summer!) The second time I chose to stay there was for a quick visit before starting a tour which was meeting nearby, so a visit to Hollywood wasn’t on my itinerary and Santa Monica was just more convenient for my plans than Hollywood happened to be.
For my upcoming visit to LA this summer, we looked at possibly staying downtown as prices were a bit cheaper than Hollywood and from there we could easily catch the metro into Hollywood or the new line to Santa Monica. But not knowing the area as well, we were unsure which of the cheaper hotel options were in an area where it was ‘safe’ to stay – especially if we were out late and had to walk from the metro back to our hotel in the evenings. So we’ve plumped for a motel just off Hollywood Boulevard again, sticking with what we know!
These buses run from the airport to most of the main touristy areas of the city – and slightly further a field – and I’ve found them to be a convenient, relatively cheap and easy way to get to and from the airport in the past. If there’s larger group of you then a taxi might be more cost effective and convenient .
If you’re arriving by train into Union Station then the metro is the cheapest way of getting to Hollywood or Santa Monica. Having tried it once, I wouldn’t advise the public buses as not only do they take forever in the LA traffic but there’s not much room to take a giant suitcase on there!!
To use the buses or metro system in LA you’ll need to get a $2 TAP card which you then load with cash or metro passes (you can add a one-day, 7-day or one-month pass). While cash fares are accepted on buses (exact fare only), you must use a TAP card on the metro so if it’s likely you’ll be using both forms of transport, you may as well just purchase a card. To plan your route, use the journey planner feature on the LA metro site. https://www.metro.net/riding/trip-planner/
Just don’t expect to get to travel between places as quickly as you can in other big cities – the last time I caught the bus from Hollywood to Santa Monica, it took a good 2 hours to get there. I’m hoping the recent metro extension will cut this down a bit when I try it later this year but looking at the journey planner on the metro site, it won’t be by much!
Whenever I’m doing a city break, I always weigh up purchasing a ‘tourist card’ where multiple attractions are included in one price against paying for the attractions individually. The problem is, a lot of the time many of the included attractions were never on my ‘to do’ list to start with but when I see them all listed on the card’s website, it seems too good value not to buy it as long as I can fit everything into my visit so I end up actually spending more by buying the card than I would have if I’d made a list of what I wanted to do and just bought admission to those things individually! Not that that’s always a bad thing – sometimes there I things included on these cards that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered going to but because I’ve purchased a card and I’m in the area I’ve popped in and actually really enjoyed then attraction!
Anyway, there are a few tourist card options for LA. On my first visit, we had just a few days stopover on the way back from Australia and were based in Hollywood but wanted to see a bit of Beverly Hills and the beaches too. Starline Tour’s Hollywood Pass was perfect for what we wanted – it included Hollywood attractions such as Madame Tussauds, the Hollywood Museum and Dolby theatre tour, a Star Homes Tour which took us into the Hollywood and Beverly Hills and the Hop on/Off bus pass which we used to get to Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica from which we walked to Venice Beach and back. We even had time to do a loop on the Downtown Hop on/off bus route – albeit without getting off to explore – on the last morning before we headed to the airport. Starline still offer similar passes now as well as add-ons and tickets and tours to many other LA attractions. https://www.starlinetours.com/
The hop on/off bus tour run by Starline/Citysightseeing in LA will often offer tourist bundles as an incentive to sell tour tickets. When staying in Santa Monica, we enquired about bus tickets but were quite non-committal about it only for the cashier to suddenly offer to throw in a Madame Tussaud’s ticket in with every pass we purchased! Many other tour companies will off various combo packages on attractions so it’s definitely worth shopping around to see what discounts you can get.
The company offer all inclusive cards valid for set number of days or you can build your own card starting from 2 attractions – the more you add, the more you save. In my opinion, the all inclusive card is only worth it if you’re staying for upwards of 3 days and you are going to spend one of those days at Universal Studios as this is one of the more expensive attractions to visit and goes a long way to getting your money back on the card and ending up in profit on what you’d have spent paying for attractions individually. Even with a visit to Universal, you need to plan your trip well to fit enough in to get the full value of it but if you’re planning to do one of the studio tours and a few of the Hollywood based attractions then it soon adds up.
As LA is such a huge city, I’ve written separate pages on different parts of the city and things to do: