Ten Admission-Free Places in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is one cool city to visit. Home to Hollywood, beaches, and a melting pot of different cultures, it is one of the main places that people all over the world think of when they envision America. If you are planning a trip to “The City of Angels”, here are ten great admission-free destinations to check out that I visited on my recent trip.

Chinatown

The backdrop of many movies, Los Angeles’ Chinatown dates back to the early days of Chinese-American settlement in California. Established in 1938, the present-day Chinatown is home to not only lots of restaurants and boutique shops, but also an entire community.

picture of los angeles chinatown
One of the main entrances to LA’s Chinatown.

Comprising about five to six streets north of downtown, I found myself quickly surrounded by various oriental-style buildings and public decor. Add in the aroma of food and the Mandarin voices in the background, and I really felt like I was walking down the streets of Taipei.

picture of los angeles chinatown
picture of los angeles chinatown

Marking the entrance to Chinatown are these gates, which are historic themselves. Plaques all around the area provide you with the history of this unique district.

picture of los angeles chinatown
picture of los angeles chinatown

I spent around an hour exploring, although if you decide to check out the many shops individually and try a restaurant or two, it can easily be a two to three hour excursion.

Los Angeles City Hall

The Los Angeles City Hall isn’t your average city hall. This historic building erected in 1928 is one neat place to visit. Just the exterior alone is pretty grand and unique. It could pass off for a state capitol.

picture of Los Angeles City hall
The Los Angeles City Hall.

Inside, the main attraction is the 27th floor observatory deck located in the Mayor Tom Bradley Room. After passing thru airport-style security and checking in with the LAPD officers at the front desk, make your way to the elevators for a ride up to the top.

picture of Los Angeles City hall elevators
Take the express elevators from the lobby to the 22nd floor, where you’ll transfer to another elevator to the observatory level.

Once up at the 27th floor, head on out to the balcony, where an impressive view of the city greets you.

LA skyline
picture of los angeles traffic

From here, take in a stunning view of the skyline, Chinatown, and even portions of the Hollywood Hills.

picture of Los Angeles City hall
Looking out towards Chinatown.

Also in the Mayor Tom Bradley Room are numerous portraits on the wall, which are the different mayors of Los Angeles thru history.

picture of Los Angeles City hall mayor portraits
The different mayors of Los Angeles.

If you come on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday, you might even get to watch a city council meeting. Partaking in such a meeting wasn’t on my agenda, but as I was exploring the third floor I passed by a sign leading to the council chambers and had to take a look. The chambers are open to the public, and it was pretty cool to witness democracy in action in one of the nation’s largest cities.

Warning – The language used by some of the citizens during the public forum can be pretty vulgar, so just bear that in mind if you are bringing kids.

picture of Los Angeles City Council
The council chambers.
picture of Los Angeles City Council
The Los Angeles City Council in action.

Union Station

The main train hub serving Los Angeles, Union Station is the largest railroad passenger terminal in the Western United States. Inside, there are some neat architecture and murals to look at.

picture of Los Angeles Union Station
Union Station.

If you aren’t catching a train, there isn’t a whole lot that you can explore outside of the grand lobby, but some little shops and food places serve as a break spot of sorts. My complaint is that seating is an issue, as the tables at the Subway didn’t have any chairs. This is presumably done to keep people from lingering around too long.

picture of Los Angeles Union Station
picture of Los Angeles Union Station
picture of Los Angeles Union Station
The historic, closed-off ticketing hall. This area isn’t open to the public but can be booked for film shoots, receptions, etc.

Chinese American Museum

The Chinese American Museum was one stop I had not included in my itinerary, but am glad that I visited. Located just across the street from Union Station, here is where you can learn about the rich history of Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles.

picture of chinese american museum in los angeles
The Chinese American Museum.

Two stories worth of exhibits educates you on the early years of the Chinese immigrating to California, the establishment of the Chinatown district in LA, and the many breakthroughs in race relations.

picture of chinese american museum in los angeles
picture of chinese american museum in los angeles

Through the use of photos, artifacts, and interview excerpts, the story of how a group of people that traveled thousands of miles in order to seek a better life comes alive.

picture of chinese american museum in los angeles

Seeing everything took me around 30 minutes. As someone with Taiwanese heritage, I found the Chinese American Museum to be pretty fascinating and informative. This is a great stop while in the area to learn about the history, contributions, and struggles of this group of Americans. It being admission-free was just icing on the cake!

Hollywood Walk of Fame

One of the most famous attractions in LA is also admission-free. The Hollywood Walk of Fame lines the famous Hollywood Boulevard, and contains over 2,600 stars from different figures in the entertainment industry. When I went on a Tuesday afternoon, the streets were packed with tourists, trying to find the star of their favorite celebrity. I had originally reserved paid parking, but found some free spots a few streets away. (Don’t count on it being available during the weekend, though.)

picture of hollywood walk of fame
picture of hollywood walk of fame

I found Donald Trump’s star – located at the corner of Hollywood and Highland. Two LAPD officers stood nearby, deterring any vandalism.

picture of donald trump's Hollywood star
There’s Trump’s star. It has been smashed, defaced, and vandalized numerous times over the past few years.

Many souvenir shops can be found, selling t-shirts and other memorabilia. Alongside them, there are several TV shows that have their studios here, such as TMZ and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

What also lines this area though, are folks in costume wanting to take pictures with you. Don’t believe for a second that they are free! I learned this the hard way. Two men dressed as Superman and Mickey Mouse came up to me, and offered me a photo op. One of them mentioned that they work on tips. After the photos were taken, they told me that I owed them a minimum of $5 each. They had my phone, telling me it was $10 to get it back. Seeing that there were no police officers nearby and that I didn’t want to spend a night in jail, I begrudgingly paid them the money and walked off. Main takeaway? The Hollywood Walk of Fame area isn’t bad, but do keep your head on a swivel and don’t accept any offers from the street vendors.

Old Los Angeles Zoo

If you like abandoned structures or man-made ruins, make your way over to the old Los Angeles Zoo. Sandwiched inside Griffith Park, this former zoo was built in 1912. Lions, tigers, and many other animals called this place home until it closed down in 1966 when the new zoo was built.

picture of old la zoo cage
An abandoned cage at the old LA zoo.

Fortunately for adventure-seekers, the majority of the animal enclosures remain open to the public, allowing for some great (and legal!) urban exploration opportunities. Parking is free and plentiful, and within minutes you’ll find yourself crawling into a lion habitat.

picture of old la zoo animal habitat

Unfortunately, many of the cages and walls are lined with litter and graffiti, but it still is a great place to see the conditions these animals lived in, and just imagine what it would have been like to visit this zoo back when it was operational.

picture of old la zoo animal enclosure
Back in the day, animals lived in this tight enclosure.

I made my way thru the different cages and habitats. All of these steel doors were locked open, with rust having long taken over the tracks.

picture of abandoned zoo cages
“Taggers” have sprayed layer upon layer of graffiti inside these spaces.

There was even a food trough still left.

picture of abandoned zoo food trough
This rusted food trough hung from the steel bars, awaiting an animal to come eat from it.

Since this former zoo is inside a city park, there is a picnic area with restrooms located right next to these enclosures. This is a nice little spot to relax for a bit after some exploration.

picture of Griffith park picnic area
The picnic area next to the abandoned zoo.

Griffith Observatory

Also located within Griffith Park, the Griffith Observatory is a great place to learn all about our solar system and astronomy. This place atop Mount Hollywood opened in 1935, a project of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration.

picture of the griffith observatory
The Griffith Observatory.

Parking is a challenge – I parked at one of the metered spots about a 10 minute walking distance away and trekked up, along with many other visitors. Once up to the top where the observatory is, the views of the LA Basin are simply amazing.

Picture of Los Angeles basin

Since I opted not to do a hike up to the Hollywood sign, I found the Griffith to be a great place for photos with the sign in the distance.

picture of hollywood sign
Depending on what route you take, hiking all the way to up the sign can take more than an hour each way. Due to time constraints, I chose the super-easy, no-sweat route.

As the name implies, the Griffith Observatory is a working observatory with some very high-powered telescopes. Public viewings are available in the evening hours. Although I wasn’t able to stick around for one, I’m sure it’s worth looking into.

picture of a celestron telescope at the Griffith observatory

The Griffith also is home to a museum where you can learn all about astronomy, the solar system, and other facets of the sky. I enjoyed going thru the many different exhibits and seeing the various interactive displays!

picture of Griffith observatory exhibits
picture of Griffith observatory exhibits

Admission is…you guessed it, free, which includes the museum exhibits and public telescope viewings. However, planetarium shows do require an admission ticket.

University of Southern California

Since I always aim to check out an institution of higher learning in each city I visit, I chose to stop by the University of Southern California. Located close to downtown, USC is a private university that was founded in 1880. It holds a number of distinctions, including being the oldest private research university in California.

picture of university of southern california sign

On campus, stop by to see the Doheny Library, one of the oldest university libraries in the state.

picture of university of southern california library
The Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library.

Inside is some pretty neat architecture. You can also see the resources available to the 47,500 students and over 27,000 staff members. If you like libraries, this place will feel like home to you.

picture of the Doheny Library
picture of the Doheny Library

The other buildings are more or less typical, with some modern style and others more historical and old-fashioned.

picture of USC building
The Viterbi School of Engineering.
picture of USC building
A classroom in the business school. It’ll cost you over $50,000 a year to be able to sit here as a student!

Their student union has a little gift shop, a great place for picking up a t-shirt or other Trojan memorabilia.

picture of university of southern California gift shop

With the temperate California weather, it was a nice two hours spent exploring the campus. All the buildings I went into were open to the public, and maps are available over at their website. Visitor parking is available both on and off-campus. I chose the off-campus option, which is only about a five minute walk and cost me $2 per hour.

House-Seeing in Beverly Hills

The Beverly Hills area are worth a stop for some house-seeing, and driving thru the neighborhood of celebrities. While you can join one of many tours available that will take you to different movie stars’ homes, the information is more or less available online on sites like these.

picture of beverly hills house

Some of the neighborhoods I went to were Bel-Air, Beverly Glen, and of course, Beverly Hills proper. Going up the mountains into Beverly Glen, you can also get a great view of LA from the different scenic overlooks alongside the road.

picture of beverly hills street
Driving thru Beverly Hills.

Depending on how thorough you choose to explore, it could take anywhere from an hour up to even a half day. Most of these well-known celebrities’ homes are gated with lots of dense foliage, so don’t expect to be able to see too much. At least that was the case with the two I checked out, the Playboy Mansion and Kim Kardashian’s home.

Santa Monica State Beach

Next to Hollywood, the beaches of Socal are probably the most famous thing marking Los Angeles. I don’t consider myself a real “beach fan”, but I have to say that my visit to Santa Monica State Beach was my favorite part of this trip.

picture of santa monica state beach
Vacationgoers getting some Vitamin Sea at the Santa Monica State Beach.

Cheap parking can be found in the lots surrounding the coastline off State Route 1(I paid $7). Grab a rental bike, and head for a scenic ride along the coastline’s designated bike path. The view is spectacular, and you’ll get to see a lot of what makes up this beach.

picture of santa monica state beach
This bike path runs along the beach and coastline.

If you enjoy photography like me, there is a lot here to capture, ranging from the Pacific Ocean scenery to various seaside wildlife. The surroundings are truly your backdrop here!

picture of santa monica state beach
picture of santa monica state beach wildlife

What this area is best known for, though, is the Santa Monica Pier – a long pier full of amusement rides, food stops, and live performers.

picture of santa monica pier
The Santa Monica Pier.
picture of santa monica pier

Whether you want to enjoy some seafood at Bubba Gump or just grab a pretzel and take in the ocean view, there is a happy spot here for everyone.

picture of santa monica pier
There were several live performers on the pier, ranging from magicians to singers.

I went the week after Spring Break, so the crowds were not too bad. However, I can easily see the beach being jam-packed during peak seasons and the summertime.

The Santa Monica State Beach is a great place to spend a day(or several days!)

In Conclusion…

There are many different admission-free places you can visit while in the Los Angeles area, so this list is by no means comprehensive. As big of a city as LA is, I could only hit 10 spots on my two-day trip. Although weather in California is generally favorable, fog is something to plan for(especially when visiting the City Hall observatory). Additionally, traffic is something to take into account, especially if your route takes you on any of the freeways. What I like to do is use Google Maps, where you can enter in what time you plan to leave and get an ETA based off historical traffic data. That being said, as long as there is sufficient wiggle room in your schedule, these factors shouldn’t disrupt your plans too much!

Where’s your favorite place to go to in LA? Let me know in the comments!

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