Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolitan area with an amazing array of attractions and activities. The area is infamous for its long grids of streets and freeways and until recently it wasn’t very friendly to public transit.
But things are changing for the better. It is now possible to visit many of the iconic places in LA by rail or by express bus. So, get your backpack, phone, and camera ready and follow me on this exploration tour.
But be warned: There is so much to see and do, you will probably need several days to complete this itinerary.
If you are coming to LA by train, then most probably you will have to stop at Union Station. This is the central hub of all trains, metro light rail and busses – even bikes.
The station was built in 1939 as a consolation of several terminals and is considered the largest station in the West. Its main building is registered as National Historic Place.
As you arrive at Union Station, you will disembark from your train and end up in a long hallway connecting the West and East portals. Follow the signs to your next ride. The metro rail lines are underground. The connecting trains are on the upper level.
But before you jump on the next tram, you may want to take a break and have a meal at one of the restaurants or snack shops – located at either East or West portals.
You can also grab a bike from the “Bike Share” program and explore the city at your leisure. Pricing for bike rentals is $3.50/30 minutes but you can get a discount if you buy a monthly or annual pass.
Tip: If you are planning on several trips on the metro system, buy a 1-day or 7-day pass that works for all rail lines and buses.
See a useful station map here.
El Pueblo de Los Angeles
Before you start your adventure on LA’s subway, you should consider a visit to the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. It is a short walk away from Union Station.
Tip: Make sure to exit from the Alameda street exit. The monument and adjacent Olvera street are right across the street from Alameda.
This historic district was first established in 1781 and used to be the center of Los Angeles during the Spanish and Mexican rule. It is home to many historic buildings and statues and home to the famous Olvera Street (Calle Olvera).
At Olvera Street, you can stroll along a narrow street and enjoy shopping at the colorful street vendors or grab a bite of authentic Mexican food. During my visit, I had lunch at El Paseo Inn. I enjoyed some very tasty enchiladas while watching people from their patio overlooking Olvera street. The service was excellent and friendly.
There is a Plaza at the center of this district that hosts many events throughout the year. For a listing of events go here.
On a side alley from Olvera street, you will see a sign for Avila Adobe – the longest-standing structure in LA. Adobe was built in 1818 and is open to the public. The tour is free of charge and takes you through the various rooms in the house and has a well-kept cactus garden in the courtyard.
Tip: Olvera street open at 10 am, so if you arrive early at Union Station, come back to this lively place for lunch or dinner.
Lille Tokyo is another historic district in downtown LA with a large population of Japanese Americans. It is only a 14-minute walk or 7-minute ride on the Gold Metro line from Union Station.
While here, you can just stroll around and enjoy the architecture and statues or you can visit the Japanese American National Museum, James Irvine Japanese Garden, two Buddhist Temples or the Japanese Village Plaza.
The area is also full of Japanese restaurants and shops. The all-you-can-eat buffet at Oiwake Restaurant offers a large variety of Japanese cuisine or you can sample great Sushi and Saki at Tenno Sushi.
You can find some useful information and a directory of businesses at the Little Tokyo Community Council site.
Civic Center / Grand Park
The LA Civic Center / Grand Park is your first stop on the Red and Purple lines from Union Station.
Tip: Red and Purple lines take the same route from Union Station to Wilshire/Vermont station.
From this station, you can walk to places like Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles City Hall, or just spend some time at Grand Park.
The park is an oasis in the center of the city with beautiful fountains, pink-colored benches, and snack shops. During the summer months, free music and events are held here. Kids especially love the interactive splash pads and the new play area. The park welcomes visitors with a sign in almost every world language.
Tip: If you bring your kids to play here, make sure they have a change of clothes. They will definitely get wet.
The park is basically a long promenade that connects The Music Center on one end and the historic LA City Hall building on the other end.
LA city hall was built in 1928 and is still in use by the city government to this day. It was featured in many TV shows and movies like Superman, Dragnet, and V (the series).
You can keep walking from Civic Center station to reach your next destination, but if you prefer to save your energy, just hop back on the Red/Purple Line and go to Pershing Square Station.
As you exit the station, stay on 5th ave and walk to Oue Skyspace observation tower. It is located at the top of the tallest building in LA and offers a breathtaking view of the city and surrounding area.
From this vantage point, you can see the Hollywood sign and the snow-capped mountains behind it. In the opposite direction, you can see all the way to the ocean. And in between, you can gaze down at the other tall buildings and Pershing Square.
The observation tower also has a glass slide that could be thrilling to try, but it is very short. I don’t think it is worth the extra ticket.
Note: The observation deck is permenantly closed as of October 26, 2020. It is now home to Vista Patio restaurant.
There is no time limit to your visit. You can zip through the 360-degree view or you can relax on the lounge chairs strategically located on both levels.
Pershing Square Park itself is worth visiting. It was renovated recently with modern art and fountains. There is always something happening here. In the winter months, an Ice Rink is set up for some winter skating.
A few steps away from the park you will find a very interesting place called “The Last Bookstore”. Even if you are not a book lover, this place is worth a visit. The store has a huge collection of books in every category. The second floor has more books and some art and craft shops. Sofas and benches are available everywhere so can visit with an interesting book.
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is located in the middle between Civic Center and Pershing Square stations, so you can get to it by walking from either station. It is the only museum dedicated to modern art from 1940 and later. Right outside the museum, you can find a big metal sculpture made out of old airplanes.
If you are hungry for breakfast, there is a very nice restaurant right next to MOCA. The Grand Café at the Omni hotel serves a delicious breakfast buffet with a made-to-order omelet station. It is a little pricey, but worth every bite.
FigAt7th, LA Live and Staples Center
You can take the Red Line to 7th street station, or you can just walk to this next destination.
The FigAt7th mall is one of the newest shopping centers in downtown. You can find stores like H&M, Victoria's Secret, or Target. You can also find a food court with dining places like California Pizza Kitchen, George's Greek Grill, and Starbucks.
A few blocks from the station you can find LA Live and the Grammy Museum.
LA Live is an entertainment complex with several live music venues, movie theaters, and restaurants. It is also home to the Grammy Museum. If you like watching the music awards, then you must visit this place to learn about the history and winners of the Grammys.
And while you are here, you can’t miss the Staples Center - home of the Lakers and Clippers – and many touring concerts and events.
7th Street Metro Hub
7th street metro station is also a hub for several rail lines branching in different directions. From here, you can take the Purple like to go to Wilshire Center and Korea Town.
Or you can take the Expo like to connect to USC, The Science Center and other museums, Culver City, and Santa Monica.
The red line continues on to Wet and North Hollywood and Universal Studios.
The blue line heads south towards downtown Long Beach. This line also connects to the green line to take you to Los Angeles Airport.
You can find a very informative map here.
The purple line stops at 3 stations in this business and residential district: Wilshire/Vermont, Wilshire/Normandie, and Wilshire/Western. Shops and restaurants extend through several city blocks, but the center is around 8th and Western. Venture into side streets to discover some interesting gyms.
Koreatown can surprise with it specialty shops and entertainment venues. You can find unique toy shops or restaurant supplies, Karaoke bars, and places of worship.
Some of the must-visit places are:
Sing your heart out at The Shrine Karaoke bar with its Egyptian-themed interior and great-tasting Korean dishes.
Sample L.A.'s best biryani at Bangla Bazar & Restaurant – an out-of-place Little Bangladesh strip mall.
In the market for stationary? Go to Daiso – a Japanese chain store.
Stock up for your projects at Top’s Art Supplies – a family-owned business with interesting displays.
To get your fill of Korean BBQ, try Sun Ha Jang – famous for their BBA duck.
If you love K-pop music and culture, you can find the latest music and trends at the Music Plaza in Koreatown. Lots of CDs, accessories, and posters to choose from.
On the edge of Koreatown (on S. Western Ave), you can catch the latest Hollywood movies or a Korean flick at the CGV Cinemas Theaters. Right next to the theater you enjoy a Japanese meal at the Curry House.
LA Convention Center
From the 7th street station, take the Expo Line and disembark at the Pico station. A short walk takes you to the Convention Center where big shows and conferences are held.
The LA Auto Show is held here every year with a huge display of the latest models from all manufacturers. At this show, many carmakers unveil their concept futuristic cars.
Other shows and conferences include LA Fitness, Classic Auto Show, America's Got Talent Auditions, and US Naturalization Ceremonies.
Exposition Park and Science Center
The next stop on the Expo Line is the Expo/USC station. As you leave the station, you can cross the street to the north to visit the University of Southern California (USC) or go to the south to visit several museums, including the Science Center.
USC is a private research university that was established in 1880. Walking through the mostly pedestrian campus, you can enjoy the largest collection of Romanesque Revival buildings and beautiful gardens and fountains.
To learn more about the campus and various buildings you can take a self-guided tour. See details here.
The California Science Center is a premier science museum with several permanent exhibits and a few touring exhibits.
It is the final resting place for the Shuttle Endeavour. After making several trips to space and then traveling through the streets of LA, the shuttle is on display for all curious minds to gawk at. You can read a full article about the Science Center here.
Tip: if you are entering the Science Center from the Expo/USC station, then you are not going through the main entrance. You should go through Exposition Park, through the gates, through the ground floor and out the other gate to get to the main entrance plaza and the box office.
At the center, you can catch an IMAX film with a scientific twist. Some of the recent IMAX films playing here are Journey to Space 3D, A Beautiful Planet 3D, and Secret Ocean 3D.
Also in Exposition Park, you can find the Museum of Natural History. You can take a trip through 4.5 million years of history told by specimens, fossils, and dioramas. An abundance of interactive exhibits makes this museum fun for kids and adults alike. Read more about it here.
Finally, the park itself is famous for its rose gardens. As you pass through, enjoy the sights and smells of the multicolored roses.
Back at the 7th street hub (or starting from Union Station), take the red line to Hollywood. Existing at Hollywood and Highland station, you will find yourself right in the middle of the action.
The metro station is located right under the shopping center with the same name. The center is also home to the iconic Dolby Theatre and Chinese Theatre. The Oscars are handed out for best films every year at the Dolby theater.
Also at this center, you can find department stores like Forever 21, Guess, Gap, Hot Topic, and fun centers like Dave & Busters and Lucky Strike Live. For lunch or dinner, visit places like Cabo Wabo Cantina, Cho Oishi, Hard Rock Cafe, or Trastevere Ristorante.
Tip: The famous Hollywood sign is very prominent from several locations in this mall. It is a golden opportunity for some amazing photos.
Existing Hollywood and Highland center, you will be on one of the busiest streets in the US. People from across the globe come here to stroll along Hollywood Blvd. to look for their favorite celebrities on the Walk of Fame.
Tip: as you walk around on Hollywood Blvd., you will notice a lot of movie characters walking around or acting up – like Spiderman, Batman, etc.. Be aware that if you ask to pose with them for a photo, you are expected to pay a tip.
A few blocks away you can find entertainment places like Madame Tussauds, Wax Museum, and Guinness World Records Museum.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and La Brea Tar Pits
It is not on any rail line route, but you can’t miss this attraction during your visit to LA.
From the Hollywood and Highland area (or most of Hollywood Blvd.) you can take the 217 bus all the way to the museum at Fairfax / 6th street intersection.
LACMA is the largest art museum in the western USA. It holds more than 150,000 pieces of art filling 9 buildings on the sprawling campus. Go here for a map.
The museum’s collections cover periods from ancient to modern and cultures like South East Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Ancient Egypt.
Next to this museum, you will find the La Brea Tar Pits. Bubbling asphalt has been seeping from the ground for tens of thousands of years. Many unlucky animals got trapped in those tar pits and left their bones for future scientists to study.
To learn more about the Tar Pits, you can visit the museum that was built around them.
The Grove and Farmers Market
Bus route 217 will also take you to this high-end shopping center with stores like Nordstrom, Tommy Bahama, Apple, and Nike.
While visiting, you can catch a movie at Pacific Theaters or dine at one of the fine dining restaurants. Some of the distinguished eateries here are Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill, Maggiano´s Little Italy, and Morels French Steakhouse.
But for a real treat, go to the LA Farmers Market adjacent to the Grove. The market is famous for fresh produce and lots of food vendors. At the food court. You can find all kinds of cuisines like Chinese, Japanese, American Grill, Greek, and Middle Eastern. See all the vendors here.
Tip: It is hard to find an empty table during busy lunch or dinner times - but there is an upper-level seating area that many people miss.
After a day of fun, take the 217 bus back to Hollywood, hop on the Red Line and head back to Union Station. Make sure to get on the one going to Union Station and not to North Hollywood – unless you are planning to venture to Universal Studios.
Tip: From any of the destination mentioned in this article you can get back to Union Station by taking a combination of buses and rail lines. Use Google Maps and select the public transit option to find the fastest route.
You will need at least a full day to explore Universal Studios and the adjacent City Walk. You can get to the studios by riding the Red Line from Union Station or from Downtown LA.
Universal Studios Hollywood is the longest-running still active movie studio in the world. It has many shows and rides based on popular movies. The newest addition to the studios “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” opened recently and provides Harry Potter fans with lots of new attractions.
For a full article about Universal Studios, go here.
The City Walk is right outside the park gates with a 3-block of shopping, dining, and entertainment venues.
Some of the venues here are Wolfgang Puck Bistro, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, Hot Topic, Fossil, Sketchers, and IFLY Indoor Skydiving.
If you have time, you can explore other great destinations in Southern California by rail.
Take the Metrolink Orange County line to Anaheim to visit the Disney Resort with 2 parks, Downtown Disney district, and several hotels. Read more about Disneyland and California Adventure.
You can take the Pacific Surfliner from Union Station to San Diego and visit Seaworld and many other attractions in this beautiful city.
Or you can use the Pacific Surfliner going north to Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, and San Luis Obispo. At Pismo Beach, you can enjoy some 4-wheeling adventures at Oceano Dunes.