Alright, I get it, everyone loves to hate on Hollywood. And I can’t say that I blame them. You’ve got a bunch of superhero look-alikes (that aren’t that look-alike), there’s tons of traffic, no parking, crappy star home tours, and mediocre food. Let’s just call a spade a spade. However, some of the best and coolest things are in Hollywood. No, seriously. Did you know that Hollywood is part of a network of 400+ hidden stairs that connected Los Angeles in the 1900s? Or that you can see a $5 improv show on the same stage that the likes of Jon Favreau, Jason Sudeikis, and Tina Fey studied and performed on? The fact is that there a ton of not so Hollywood things to do in Hollywood. So without further ado, see my recommendations for the top 40 non-touristy things to do in Hollywood.
1. Climb the secret stairs of Los Angeles. This is hands down one of my favorite mysteries of Los Angeles. Back in the day (1920s), Los Angeles was a city connected by a robust public transportation system (crazy, right?). So to connect homes in many of the steep communities, like Hollywood, staircases were built linking residential communities to public transportation, schools, and grocery stores. Today, you can still climb many of the 400+ staircases, some of which, like the Hollywood Bowl and Hightower Loop (starts around Highland and Camrose), offer great panoramic views of Los Angeles.
2. Step back into time at Good Times at Davey Wayne’s. Davey Wayne’s is basically like walking into an episode of That ’70s Show (retro sofas, TVs, and all), but better, because it has cocktails, and more importantly, boozy sno-cones (for real!). To find it, look for the place on El Centro Avenue (off Hollywood Boulevard) that looks like a garage sale. You’ll have to walk through the refrigerator to enter—yes, seriously.
3. Take a picnic and see a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. There’s no secret here with the Hollywood Bowl. It’s one of the most iconic places in all of Southern California, and if you’re a musician playing here, then you’ve made it. Get the bleacher seats, bring a picnic and wine (as long as it’s not one of the handful of annual lease events), and enjoy the show to the backdrop of the Hollywood Hills and Hollywood Sign.
4. Take a hike. Take a hike, literally. You can actually walk from Hollywood Boulevard, to a trailhead, such as Runyon Canyon, located on the border of Hollywood and West Hollywood. Runyon Canyon, however, is significantly busier then a lot of the other Los Angeles hikes, such as Griffith Park, which has more than 50 miles of hiking trails with great panoramic views of L.A.
5. Peruse the Hollywood Farmers Market. Yes, L.A. has farmers. We may be in a drought, but we have damn good farmers markets in Los Angeles, and the Hollywood location is no exception. Happening every Saturday, the Hollywood Farmers Market is one of the first farmers markets of its kind in Southern California, and features nearly 100 local vendors.
6. Experience the weird side of Hollywood at the California Institute of Abnormalarts. It feels appropriate that if there’s an abnormal arts institute, that it would be in Hollywood. “But Spencer,” you may be asking yourself, “Isn’t art already abnormal?” Well, the California Institute of Abnormalarts (no, that’s not a misspelling), or CIA as it’s dubbed, is next level abnormal. I mean it’s home to mummified clowns and animals. The CIA is where L.A.’s freak shows, underground movies, and trippy art installments live on. There’s even scaryaoke (yes, evidently that’s a thing).
7. See a concert at the Greek Theatre. Between the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theatre, it’s hard to top Hollywood as one of the best neighborhoods for live music in the world. Situated in a canyon within Griffith Park, “The Greek,” as it’s often called, is known for its great acoustics and excellent line-up every summer. It’s a toss-up between the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theatre for my favorite music venue in Los Angeles.
8. See a classic movie at Cinespia Outdoor Cinema Movies. I’m just going to come out and say that Cinespia’s cemetery movie nights at Hollywood Forever Cemetery is one of my favorite things to do in Los Angeles. Classic movies to the backdrop of Hollywood at one of the most famous landmarks in L.A. What’s better? What’s better is that you can bring in all your own food and booze. Just make sure you arrive early and bring plenty of blankets.
9. Go to a murder mystery show at a speakeasy. Sure, it seems like every big city has their fair share of speakeasy bars now, but when was the last time you went to a speakeasy bar that had its own murder mystery dinner show like Next Door Lounge has? Bonus points that they make damn good cocktails. Even better, their happy hour runs from 5-8 p.m. on weekdays, with cocktails as little as $6. But like the speakeasies of old, you’ll need a password.
10. Go for a sunset/night hike at Griffith Observatory. Few things compare to L.A. lit up at night and few places offer a better view then Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park. One of my favorite activities in Los Angeles is doing a sunset hike from the trailheads near Griffith Observatory and then overlooking the city from the observatory once night has fallen. Free public telescopes, too, are available every evening that the skies are clear until 9:45 p.m.
11. Have fried chicken and waffles at Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles. Look no further than Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles, if like me, you love southern comfort food. This Los Angeles restaurant is an institution, dating back to 1975, and having entertained many a special guests, including President Barack Obama, who has one of their specialties named after him. Get the fried chicken and waffles with a side of gravy and treat yo’ self.
12. Go crazy at the Wacko Soap Plant. If you’re assuming that the Wacko Soap Plant is wacky, then you’re absolutely right. It’s kind of the retail version of the California Institute of Abnormalarts. It is the curiosity shop, with items like sparkly unicorn floor mats, samurai umbrellas, bacon air freshner, French fry lip balm, and Obamamints (yes, those are all real things). If any place lives up to its name, Wacko Soap Plant does.
13. Hike the Hollywood Sign. Speaking of the Hollywood Sign, you can in fact hike up to it, or rather almost right up to it, as a fence (lined with security camera) keeps visitors from getting close enough to touch it. There are a number of different hikes, such as the Hollyridge Trail (3.5 miles round-trip), which brings you behind the Hollywood Sign, with panoramic views of Los Angeles, and on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean.
14. Watch a show at Pantages Theatre. Pantages Theatre is in the heart of Hollywood’s tourist district, yet exudes culture and history like few things on Hollywood Boulevard, putting on renowned shows for 85 years. This is L.A.’s Broadway, with upcoming shows that include The Phantom of the Opera, Annie, Mamma Mia, and Once.
15. Get an NYC slice of pizza at Vito’s Pizza. Finding good NYC pizza in Los Angeles is like finding a needle in a barn full of haystacks. If you want a classic NYC slice, this is about as close as you’ll get in Los Angeles. Vito’s also has some of the best (and biggest) calzones in L.A. And yes, Vito is a Jersey boy himself.
16. Grab a cuppa joe at Coffee Commissary. L.A. is no Seattle when it comes to coffee. However, if you want a good cup of coffee in Los Angeles, that place is Coffee Commissary, which has several coffee shops, including one in West Hollywood and one in Hollywood. While I don’t drink straight coffee, their chai latte is one of my favorites in the city.
17. Enjoy craft cocktails and live music at Sassafras Saloon. Walking into Sassafras Saloon is like walking into a Mumford & Sons music video. From the high-back antique chairs to the parlor-like sitting area to the jazz band playing on the balcony, Sassafras exudes New Orleans. That’s without mentioning the drink menu, which too, well represents New Orleans, with drinks that include their take on the Sazerac, Vieux Carre, Pimm’s Cup, and Hurricane. They even have their own Sarsaparilla.
18. Skip the beach and head for Lake Hollywood. That’s right, Hollywood has a lake. Located just north of Hollywood amidst the Hollywood Hills, Lake Hollywood is less lake and more reservoir. However, it feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Take a bike or a good pair of walking shoes for the flat 3.5-mile paved path that circles the lake, just below the Hollywood Sign.
19. Visit independent bookstore, Book Soup. Book Soup is a beacon of light in a time when independent bookstores are few and far between. One of the largest independent bookstores in L.A., Book Soup is known for its daily events, which often brings celebrity authors for appearances.
20. Enjoy craft beer at the Surly Goat. The Surly Goat is my neighborhood Los Angeles bar. It has one of the best selections of craft beer in Los Angeles, with new beers that are rotating in and out frequently. Go for happy hour during the week from 6-8 p.m. when draft beers are $4. During the warm months (which is like all year), West Hollywood’s Surly Goat is great for enjoying a pint on one of a couple of their patios. Afterward, head across the street to the 24-hour taco shop, appropriately named Los Tacos.
21. Stretch it out with free yoga at Runyon Canyon. This is L.A. after all. While Runyon Canyon is one of the more popular (and busier) hiking trails in Los Angeles, it also features donation-based yoga classes daily. The schedule is posted daily on Runyon Canyon Yoga’s Facebook page.
22. Enjoy a few glasses of wine at the Barnsdall Friday Night Wine Tastings. Move over Northern California, we have great wine tasting in Southern California too! The Barnsdall Friday Night Wine Tasting event is one of my favorite summer things to do in Los Angeles. Drink wine at sunset beside Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Hollyhock House with a view of downtown Los Angeles, the Hollywood Sign, and Griffith Park Observatory? Yes, please. Ticket prices went up from $25 to $30 this year, but you do get to bring in your own food and sample several wines from around the world.
23. Eat a sandwich at Greenblatt’s. You may do a double-take when you walk into Greenblatt’s Deli, since it exudes all the senses of a New York City deli (yes, it even has matzo ball soup). However, I dare you to find a better Reuben or pastrami sandwich in L.A. I’m a frequenter of Greenblatt’s, in part because they have a great craft spirits selection.
24. Ride a mechanical bull at Saddle Ranch Chop House. Is there anything that could be less “Hollywood” then riding a mechanical bull? You can search far and wide for a place to ride a mechanical bull in L.A., but Saddle Ranch Chop House is the only place you’ll find it. It’s not just anywhere you can ride a mechanical bull while waiting for your steak.
25. Escape the hustle and bustle at Ferndell Nature Center. Yes, as a matter of fact, there is nature in Hollywood. Not only that, but there’s lush, natural shade, which is hard to come by in L.A. You can find all of that at Ferndell Nature Center, located at the Western Canyon entrance of Griffith Park, and under the canopy of California sycamores and a number of other plants and trees (and yes, ferns). This is a good spot for kids and dogs without the hills of some of the other nearby hiking trails in L.A.
26. See a show or movie at El Capitan. Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre is a historic icon amidst the touristy core of Hollywood Boulevard. However, it’s not every day you can see a show at a theatre that’s nearly 100 years old! Who says L.A. has no history? This isn’t your typical moviegoer experience with its historic Spanish Colonial exterior, lavish Indian interior, preshow entertainment, and prop and costume exhibits. Go for the movie, but stay for the experience.
27. Buy contemporary pieces of art at Hamilton Selway Fine Art. Well it’s no contemporary art museum, yet Hamilton Selway Fine Art bills itself as one of the “largest purveyors of Pop and Contemporary Art on the West Coast.” It’s a small gallery yet has featured some of the biggest names in art, such as Andy Warhol and Picasso.
28. Go wine tasting at V Wine Room. You don’t have to travel to Napa to try the best of California’s wine. V Wine Room in West Hollywood brings it to you. V Wine Room sources wines from limited production wineries around California and makes it available in their Los Angeles tasting room. Even better, they feature numerous limited release beers, including one of my favorites, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company, from Santa Barbara.
29. Have a California burrito at Cactus. It should be a law that you can’t visit L.A. without ordering a taco or burrito from a taco stand. And if there’s one taco stand you have to go to, it’s Cactus, with several locations around L.A. Of course, #1, in Hollywood, is the best. And while you can find a taco just about anywhere, you can’t find a California burrito just anywhere. And what is a California burrito? No, it’s not a burrito served in California, but better, a burrito stuffed with fries and sour cream.
30. Browse art exhibits at MOCA Pacific Design Center. Compared to your modern-day art museum, MOCA Pacific Design Center is small, just with two stories of exhibits. However, it’s free, and has a variety of rotating exhibits, as well as permanent pieces of American and European art from the last 75 years.
31. Eat some of your favorite childhood foods at Barton G. I have three words for you: Lobster pop-tarts! Barton G. is one of the most unique experiences you’ll ever have, from the lobster pop-tarts that come out in a toaster to the Marie Antoinette head dessert, which is a mannequin bust of Marie Antoinette topped with cotton candy.
32. Visit a Pan Am-themed cocktail bar at Now Boarding. If you love travel, and even more so, aviation, then you’ll love Now Boarding, which is the bar for aviation geeks. Map of the world, check. Lavish airline lounge booths, check. Travel-themed cocktails, check. Complimentary bag of peanuts (yes, really), check.
33. Get a scoop of ice cream at Mashti Malone’s Ice Cream. Don’t let its location in a gritty strip mall on Sunset Boulevard scare you off. Mashti Malone’s is some of the best ice cream in all of Los Angeles, largely because it features ingredients and ice cream you’ll find nowhere else, like orange blossom with pistachios and rose sorbet with sour cherry. If nothing else, go for the “peanut butter cup mashti,” peanut butter cup ice cream sandwiched between two waffles. You’re welcome.
34. Watch an improve show at iO West. This is quite possibly the cheapest and funniest entertainment you’ll get in Hollywood (save for people-watching on Hollywood Boulevard and that doesn’t fit the “non-touristy” Hollywood requirements). Each night iO West draws a number of improv shows, most of which are just $5. You can also take classes here, and follow in the footsteps of many celebrities before you, such as Jon Favreau, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey, all of whom have studied and performed at the iO Theater (which also has a Chicago location).
35. Go to a show at the UCB Theatre. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) is a landmark in entertainment. The fact that it was founded by troupe members like, Amy Poehler says it all. While beginning in New York City, the Los Angeles theatre has been hosting improv, sketch and stand-up comedy shows nightly for 10 years. Even better, you won’t pay more than $10 for a show.
36. Grab a doughnuts (or 6) at Kettle Glazed Doughnuts. A theme seems to be emerging here with food (maybe you should take all of those hikes I mentioned after trying my food recommendations). I’m going to just come out and say that Kettle Glazed Doughnuts has the best doughnuts in Los Angeles. You can go just about anywhere for a glazed doughnut, but you can’t just go anywhere for a s’mores, maple bacon, white chocolate raspberry, or pistachio doughnuts. Did that just blow your mind?
37. Visit the Travel Town Museum. Calling all train enthusiast kids (and adults). This is a unique museum that even many locals don’t know about, celebrating the history of train travel on the west coast. The Travel Town Museum features a collection of trains that includes a variety of locomotives, freight cars, cabooses, passenger cars, trolleys, cable cars, and motorcars. The museum is free, but you can pay a nominal fee for the mini train rides (most suited for kids).
38. See a concert at the Troubadour. Among the smaller music venues in Los Angeles, there are none more legendary than the Troubadour. Dating back to 1957, it only has a capacity for a few hundred, but has been the stage for some of the world’s best musicians, such as Elton John, James Taylor, the Eagles, Van Morrison, Jackson Browne, and Rod Stewart. You get the picture.
39. Learn about Los Angeles architecture at the Schindler House. Tucked away in West Hollywood is one of the many great examples of modern architecture in Los Angeles, in part because it was so far ahead of its time. Constructed in 1922, the Schindler House was built without a conventional living room, dining room, or bedrooms, but rather meant as a live/work space for a couple young families. Visiting hours are during the afternoons from Wednesday through Sunday, with tours available on weekends.
40. Have tropical cocktails at Tiki Ti. Last, but certainly not least, is Tiki Ti (on the edge of Hollywood/Los Feliz), which gives any tiki bar in America a run for its money. It’s small and may not look like much, but that’s part of the appeal, as it oozes with history, dating back to 1961, and is the best tiki bar in Los Angeles. Come early, and on weekdays, for your best chances of grabbing a spot at the bar.
Header photo by Nancy Dushkin.