As you all know, I was lucky enough to win a trip to Los Angeles CA with the lovely Air New Zealand UK about a month ago now. Even though we had flights and accommodation expenses paid, as broke students, my boyfriend and I had a slight panic over the costs of being in such a luxurious city. We spent a lot of time digging through various tourist information to try and find the best way of seeing the sights of LA on a shoe-string, without missing out on any of the amazing opportunities it has to offer. Here are a few gems that we found to be super budget friendly for the travellers out there who want to save themselves some $$$.
All of the places mentioned in this post are very easily accessible with the use of a TAP Card, which you can pick up at any Metro Underground station. The card works on both the local bus system, and the underground railway system. You can use cash, but the TAP card is much cheaper – and bus drivers do not carry any change. The initial card only costs an impressive $1.00, and most trips are $1.75.
This $1.75 covers any transfers to other Metro Lines (if you need to switch lines to get to your destination) for 2 hours, allowing you to get to your destination as a one way trip. Unfortunately, the Express buses are slightly more expensive as they have more direct routes, so avoid these if you want to save some money on travel. You can also get great deals on 7/30 Day Passes too, so you can plan your journeys without worrying about the overall cost!
I would definitely plan journeys in advance if possible, as the bus routes and times can get a little confusing. But we kept stopping at Starbucks (which are on like, every corner) to cheekily get some free wifi to check when the next buses were, and where they stopped. If in doubt, ask someone – everyone is talkative and friendly.
This was, by far, my favourite experience in Los Angeles. Like many big western cities, L.A. has quite an impressive mini Eastern-inspired village, full of all things Kawaii. The downtown location is perfectly located, and is easily accessible via a quick trip on the Metro. After making your way down a block of city buildings, there are some very obvious signs that you are approaching Little Toyko. The Japanese Village Plaza can been seen from the street, as big asian-inspired pillars welcome you in.
It’s totally free to enter the plaza, and there are plenty of little shops and markets to explore. This little adventure could take you the best part of day, seriously. Oh, and with the wide variety of Japanese food to choose from, you won’t have any problem finding somewhere to grab a matcha (green) tea and some yummy sushi to nom on.
My boyfriend and I seriously geeked out when we found the gaming/anime side of the plaza (tucked at the very back, in a separate mall). If you were ever a big fan of the card games Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh, there’s also a card gaming shop. They have a whole wall of all of the original cards, and tables were you can sit and duel each friends. Seriously, there were teenagers in there playing both old and new card games, which was something very special to witness in this electronic age. This is the sort of thing I dreamed of as a kid, and I was quite overwhelmed with the nostalgic vibes.
After walking few blocks away from the Little Toyko plaza, you are plunged back into the city-feel of Downtown. However, if you know where to look, there’s a little slice of paradise hidden away in plain sight. The Japanese American Cultural & Community Center is located on busy street, full of office buildings. Whilst it looks rather unremarkable, it holds a very extraordinary secret.
Pop over to the desk as your walk in, and you’ll be greeted by friendly faces and a sign in sheet. Note down your personal scribble and take the elevator down to the basement floor. After meandering through some pretty confusing hallways, all becomes clear.
The James Irvine Japanese Garden is a heavenly Japanese-style botanical garden, right in the heart of the city. It’s a great place to relax, and take a moment to reflect in the busy L.A. lifestyle. Not only this, but it is absolutely stunning. The meandering pathways and serene waterfalls are definitely something to behold. The garden is quite small and intimate, but I believe that this is the garden’s unique edge in the heart of downtown.
Did I mention that it’s also completely free to enter?
Just don’t bring food or drinks outside! The building does pride itself on the beautiful gardens, so help to keep them clean.
TIP – It’s not open during weekends, so visit when everyone’s at work for a really quiet garden experience. We visited at about 3pm, and were the only ones in the garden.
Considering that we were staying in the heart of Hollywood, it only took as about 1.5 hours and 2 bus journeys to get to the coast. Therefore, if you’re travelling to the beach from inland, I would say leave as early as possible! We grabbed some waffles for brekkie and headed to the bus stop for about 8.30am, arriving in Santa Monica at approx. 10am. If you do take the local bus system, the main buses generally drop you off on Ocean Avenue, which is about 5 minutes walk away from the beach itself.
It was already getting quite busy, which was quite a surprise on a Thursday at 10am, so without a second to spare we headed straight for the beach. I was instantly taken aback by the sights of the sea (you can tell I’m a London gal) as although the route to the beach is above a freeway, it is so scenic.
If you’re a beach gal like me, you could easily spend a whole day laying about on Santa Monica’s golden sand, soaking up the sun. But if you’re more active (like my boyfriend) you could opt for stroll down Santa Monica Pier. There are plenty of fairground-esque attractions at Pacific Park at the end of the pier for adrenaline junkies, including a ferris wheel ride overlooking the ocean. The Pier also marks the end of the infamous Route 66, from Chicago to Cali, and also has an aquarium (access is below the pier itself). The actual pier is free to enter, however rides etc. do have added costs.
If you’re into your grub, like myself, please prepare to hold yourself back because there is so much to choose from. From fresh US corn dogs, to marvelous ice cream concoctions. If you’re a Forrest Gump fan, be prepared to totally freak out at the sight of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. – however, we opted out of dining there as it was quite pricey.
You can definitely do this on the cheap by buying bottles water for the beach, and having a few treats on the pier – whilst opting out of the more expensive rides and restaurants.
I ended up stumbling upon this mall as I was in desperate need of a wee as we headed back into the main hub of Santa Monica to grab a bite to eat. Located conveniently close to Ocean Avenue, you don’t have stray very far away from the beach for some high end shopping – because who doesn’t need a shopping break after lying on the beach all day, right?
This mall is unlike anything that I’ve personally ever seen before. It looks like a regular Los Angeles mall, very stylish and spacious, until you get to the top floor of the building. They have a variety of food stalls in the Food Court, all of which are exceptionally well priced. We opted for a slice (or two – cheeky) from Sbarro‘s before walking out to the open-air restaurant seating area. Nomming down on a slice of pizza whilst looking out onto the sea was definitely a highlight of my trip.
Venice beach is by far the coolest place that I’ve ever been. At just a 20 minute bus journey from Ocean Avenue, it’s super easily accessible but has a completely different vibe to that of Santa Monica beach, just a bit further up the coast. Whilst Santa Monica beach boasts very relaxed and chilled vibes, Venice beach is full of life.
The entrance to the beach is via the boardwalk, which has lots of different independant attractions from skaters to street performers, whilst guys with boomboxes on their shoulders dominate the music scene. The boardwalk is known for the infamous Muscle Beach and the Venice Skate Park, whilst there are also free use of Basketball Courts open to the public.
I just loved having a stroll up the boardwalk, whilst stopping to look at ballers shooting hoops, and skaters doing tricks that made my heart jump out of my chest. It’s worth noting that everyone is so friendly, and we ended up chatting to a few locals who were (from a British perspective) ridiculously welcoming.
Apart from street food, there isn’t much going on here in terms of actual restaurants and coffee shops on the actual boardwalk – but when you’re trying to keep costs down, living like a local can definitely save you some dollar. With plenty of fast food stalls around, grabbing a burger on the go can definitely be a plus in this seriously busy area.
We headed to Venice beach at around 3/4pm in the afternoon, when it wasn’t too warm, and the boardwalk was still really lively yet not too crowded.
TIP – If you’re easily queasy, use the toilet before you get to the beach as the public toilets are beyond gross.
Would you save or splurge the $$$ on a trip to the US?