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Growing up in Santa Monica, California, I’ve experienced Los Angeles from corner to corner. And not all of it was in search of the next party when I was in high school. From being a kid walking to the beach with friends (station 8!) to living in Hollywood while in college, to rollerblading the Venice Beach boardwalk after work while a young adult living in Marina del Rey to being a mom in the West Valley, I’ve seen and experienced enough to know what a family can’t miss when they visit. Whether you have two days in Los Angeles or a week in LA, use this list of our favorite activities in Los Angeles to entertain kids and parents alike!
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The Santa Monica Pier
One of my favorite places to visit in Santa Monica with my kids is the Santa Monica Pier. Growing up with it wasn’t a treat, though. It used to be neglected and dirty, and the underbelly was a refuge for drug addicts and homeless people. But it wasn’t always this way, and thank goodness it’s not like that today.
History of the Santa Monica Pier
Built in 1909, the pier was once a landing spot for ships and used mainly for municipal purposes. In 1916, the man responsible for building Coney Island in New York, Charles Loof, saw the potential and built a Pleasure Pier adjacent to the utilitarian marine structure. That was when he added the world-famous Hippodrome building that houses a vintage carousel merry-go-round with a Wurlitzer organ. He constructed the Blue Streak Racer roller coaster, a couple of thrilling rides, and a funhouse. The pier took off in popularity, and in 1924 the La Monica Ballroom joined the scene and hosted many national radio shows. At one point, there was even a casino floating in a nearby barge. However, the pier’s appeal waned in the 1930s, and it fell into disuse and disrepair. That’s the version I grew up with. Then in 1988, a series of vicious storms started to eat away at the wooden pier, and parts broke off to float into the ocean. By this point, the pier had a local fan club, and there was already a committee set up to save the pier after the city had made an attempt in the 1970s to tear it down.
The committee mobilized its resources, and the entire structure got a massive infusion of concrete to prevent future storms from demolishing it. Pacific Park opened in 1996 as a full-fledged pier-based amusement park.
Santa Monica Pier Today
Trust me. The Santa Monica Pier is now a must-visit destination for any families visiting the LA area.
I couldn’t wait to bring my boys here once they were able to walk on their own. I actually think the first time we came, Knox was still in a stroller, and Kaleb was running around with me in hot pursuit (as usual) while my mom, who still lives in SM, watched “the baby.” But now they’re both old enough to ride everything. Groupon has deals for all-day wristbands for individually priced rides that could quickly add up.
The Santa Monica Pier has everything a family could ever want in an amusement park; a carousel, grub, shopping, and a video game arcade. There’s an aquarium at the bottom of the stairs that lead from the beach to the pier where school groups visit. When Kaleb was in kindergarten, we took a field trip to the Heal the Bay Aquarium, and I got all weepy (on the inside) sharing this special childhood memory with my boy.
Every time we visit the pier, it’s a different experience. There are live street performers – though I guess they’re technically on a pier and not a street (pier performers?) – there are carnival games with callers trying to entice kids to spend $5 to win a stuffed toy or trinket. Rides range between the ages, and we rode the tame ones when the boys were little, but now we’ll ride the West Coaster. The Pacific Wheel is the only solar-powered Ferris wheel in the world. It rises 130 feet over the wooden pier beams and has 174,000 programmable LED lights making it a marvel at night. Don’t get star-struck but it’s also appeared in over a thousand movies. After spending the day here, take a stroll along Palisades Park to view the spectacle at night. There’s even a playground park on its south side below on the sand with the Pacific Ocean as its backdrop.
Where To Stay In Santa Monica
If you decide to make Santa Monica your home base, and why wouldn’t you, since it’s so gorgeous and convenient, try the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows centrally located on the corner of Ocean Ave. and Wilshire Blvd. with a view of the pier or an ocean view from many of its rooms. The Fairmont Miramar has a great pool secluded by tropical trees and plants obscuring the city beyond. FIG Restaurant has a lovely garden dining option. Readers rejoice! The hotel participates in the Bedside Reading program, where books are left bedside, and guests are free to read and even take the books home with them or onto their next adventure. Also lovely is Shutters On The Beach. Set right off the Strand bike path, steps from the ocean and pier, it’s a treat for the whole family. Plus they have a pool, poolside service, a spa and two oceanfront restaurants.
Venice Beach is another favorite spot for our fam when we’re visiting the coast. I grew up riding my bike or rollerblading along the boardwalk, and the adjacent bike path called the Strand that stretches 22 miles from Torrance (takes a street break) and then picks back up in Marina del Rey, through Venice Beach, Santa Monica, and all the way to Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades. Rent bikes, surreys or rollerblades in shops lining the Strand.
Venice Beach is a perfect place to take kids because it offers a variety of outdoor activities and cultural experiences. Its boardwalk is lined with shops, restaurants, street performers, and street vendors. Watch artists work along the boardwalk as they create original paintings. There are psychics, masseuses, and weed shops. Find unique gifts, eat west coast and ethnic fare, and people-watch until your eyes bug out.
Inland, Venice Beach is famous for its canals that look like they’re straight out of Italy, stretching between modern homes. There are tours available to learn about the history and see the best parts.
The Venice Beach Pier is located at the section of the Strand that splits off into a street bike lane before finding its way back to the sand in Playa del Rey. The pier is the border between Marina del Rey and Venice Beach. a concrete-surfaced, accessible behemoth that extends 1,000 feet into the ocean. It’s a wonderful place to take a stroll or join the many fishermen trying their luck in Santa Monica Bay. Surfers line the ocean on both sides and often shoot through the pylons of the pier.
Where To Stay In Venice Beach
Stay right off the Venice Boardwalk at Hotel Erwin, a hip hotel with a rooftop deck that serves food, drinks and even Sunday brunch! Or try the Venice Breeze Suites, also off the boardwalk, with one bedroom and full kitchens.
Griffith Park boasts some seriously cosmic views of the Hollywood Sign, the city, and beyond from its perch on Mount Hollywood in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles, California. It is the largest urban park in North America, spreading over 4,511 acres with a zoo, an observatory, train museums and rides, golf courses, and pony rides, to name a few of its fantastic possibilities for families. Located in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains, it’s a wonder that this valuable real estate has remained mostly untouched. Families can enjoy more than 70 miles of hiking and equestrian trails with views on clear days that go straight to the ocean.
Griffith Observatory is a popular tourist spot there, attracting a hub of astronomical activity. Constructed in 1935 and designed by the famous architect Richard Nuetra, the Observatory was originally built as a public telescope. However, over time, it has grown and attracted visitors from all over the world. The Observatory is now home to several telescopes, a planetarium, and an astronomy museum, making it a hub of astronomical activity and education.
The Samuel Oschin Planetarium presents narrated shows explaining the evolution of our universe and shares fun facts in a contemporary style to lessen the potential of snoozers. This joint is a marvel to look at with its one-of-a-kind architecture, and it’s also the center of all things astronomical. Plus, the observatory offers free admission, so even large families can afford to have their minds blown!
Through storytelling and projection, children can see for themselves the different planets, stars, and galaxies in the night sky. Griffith Observatory hosts educational programs and interactive exhibits, making it an enjoyable experience for the whole family.
DON’T MISS! 10 Best Museums For Toddlers In LA
Griffith Park is also home to the Los Angeles Zoo, so make a day of seeing the many exhibits the zookeepers thoughtfully erected to keep the animals comfortable (many are rescues). There are events during the holidays that involve millions of lights and seasonal snow.
When we first moved to Los Angeles, when I was about five, our family would often visit Griffith Park to ride the mile-long miniature train of the Southern Railroad that went around the park and through an old Western town and Native American village. Then the highlight for me was riding the ponies around their track. However, the city decided to close the pony rides in December 2022. So sad.
Instead, visit a great attraction for train lovers Travel Town, a train museum with actual cars kids can explore and climb into.
Where To Stay Near Griffith Park
The Cara Hotel is sophisticated (perfect for older kids) with a pool and farm-to-table dining. The Kimpton Everly Hotel has a fun rooftop lounge with views of the Hollywood sign and beautiful spacious rooms.
The La Brea Tar Pits
The La Brea Tar Pits, in Hancock Park near Wishire’s Miracle Mile, is a unique geological site located in the heart of Los Angeles. Part of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, about 30 minutes away, the fenced-off pits are a glimpse into the environment of the Ice Age.
The pits aren’t far from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Grove, and the Children’s Zimmer Museum. They’re also only a few minutes from Beverly Hills and Rodeo drive, so this section of the city could easily be a fun museum-focused Los Angeles day trip that includes some high-end window shopping!
History of the La Brea Tar Pits
The tar pits are the result of the deterioration of marine plankton that lived in the ocean that once covered this part of the Los Angeles basin. The ocean receded (climate change, anyone?), and gravel, sand, and dirt covered the area from nearby hills. The pressure turned the plankton into crude oil, and a petroleum reserve developed under the basin. The petroleum turned into sicky asphalt (the “tar”), which is the crudest form of petroleum, and eventually seeped up to the surface through fissures in the rock. During the Ice Age, over 50,000 years ago, the “tar” trapped millions of animals and plant life, providing scientists a remarkable view into life during the Ice Age.
One of the biggest attractions is the Lake Pit, filled with asphalt, and the representation of a wooly mammoth trapped in the lake while its family laments his fate from the safety of the nearby shore. Here’s a spoiler alert, though this is a fascinating recreation, this lake was formed during the 1800s when the family that owned the land mined it for asphalt. The actual pits during the Ice Age were only inches deep! Still, animals managed to get stuck long enough to become prey for predators, leaving behind their bones or were too little to get out on their own.
Over 35 years of research led to the creation of a garden that could have existed during the Ice Age. Picnic among these rare plants and imagine a saber-tooth cat lurking in chaparral just out of sight as you hurriedly consume your sustenance. Keep an eye out for the famous Southern California condor.
The La Brea Tar Pits is a great place to take kids because it combines history, science, and fun. My boys enjoyed seeing real fossils of extinct animals in the museum and learning about the shifting environmental patterns that sweep through the earth. The interactive exhibits and hands-on activities make it super fun. Their curiosity was piqued watching researchers excavating fossils through the gooey medium, long enough to get them to stop fighting for a couple of hours!
Although the park is free, admission to the museum costs $15 per adult, $12 for seniors and kids that are 12-17, $7 for 2-12 year-olds and kids under 2, and museum members are free. There are free hours for residents of LA County between 3pm-5pm daily.
Where To Stay Near the La Brea Tar Pits
The Short Stories Hotel is close to the pits and within walking distance to the Original Farmer’s Market and the Grove shopping center. It has charming, updated rooms and a fantastic restaurant. The Wilshire Crest Hotel is an affordable hotel with large rooms. It also provides a free kosher breakfast.
The Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden
The Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, AKA The Arboretum, or a slice of paradise in Arcadia! This is one of the best places to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and is only a few minutes away from another staple, the Huntington Library. You can stroll through some seriously beautiful gardens, check out all sorts of flora and fauna, and even learn a thing or two with their educational programs.
We went recently for a Forest Bathing program where naturalists led us through personal meditations around the grounds. It felt magical, and I was super impressed how into it the boys got. We finished with a tea ceremony under an ancient tree.
Get ready to soak in some peace and quiet. Namaste.
Botanical gardens are a great way for the family to spend time together for several reasons:
- Educational value: Botanical gardens are a concrete way for children to learn about the natural world and its diverse plants and animals. They can experience and explore different habitats, from deserts to rainforests, and learn about the different plants, animals, and insects that inhabit each one.
- Fun for all ages: Botanical gardens provide a variety of activities and programming that cater to families with children, such as scavenger hunts, garden tours, and nature-themed crafts. These activities are both fun and educational, making them a great destination for families.
- Relaxing environment: Botanical gardens provide a peaceful and tranquil escape from busy and noisy city life. They’re a way to relax and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors in a calm and peaceful environment. Plus, nature is one of the best ways to calm the kiddos down after an exciting day.
Check the Arboretum calendar to time your visit with fun activities like goat yoga, oil painting and family hikes.
Where To Stay Near The Arboretum
The Méridien Pasadena Arcadia is modern, spacious and LA affordable. It has a pool and is close to everything. Feel like you’re splurging but know that you’re not. The Langham Huntington is spacious with old-world charm. It has an outdoor pool, beautiful grounds and a spa.
Universal Studios Hollywood
From thrilling roller coasters to heart-pounding shows, Universal Studios Hollywood is a great place to get adrenaline pumping and imagination brewing!
The home of an actual working studio, a popular attraction is the Studio Tour which takes visitors on a journey inside an open-air bus to see how movies and TV shows are made. Drive by famous landmarks such as Psycho’s Bates Motel and the clock tower from Back to the Future. For a truly immersive experience, Universal Studios Hollywood features the J.K. Rowling inspired Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where kids can enjoy a Butter Beer in iconic locations like Hogwarts Castle and Diagon Alley and ride the magic of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
We recently reviewed the newly opened Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood, an interactive experience that warps guests through pipes into the vibrant world of Nintendo’s Mario Bros. You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a video game, complete with beloved Nintendo characters, interactive gameplay, themed shops, and plenty of delicious food. Families will recognize locations from their screens and interact with beloved Mario characters.
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Where To Stay Near Universal Studios Hollywood
There are hotels in the area that have special relationships with the theme park and may get early admission and discount tickets. Hilton Los Angeles – Universal City is one. It’s a beautiful hotel less than a mile from the park with a gorgeous glass garden atrium and an outdoor pool. The Sheraton Universal Hotel, about a mile from the entrance, provides a shuttle to the park. It also has an outdoor pool with a bar inside it. Both are also super convenient to enjoy City Walk which is like an amusement park of retail shops and restaurants. In North Hollywood, about 2 miles from Universal, the Garland is a swanky hotel that has family suites and rooms with bunk beds. It also has a pool and a restaurant, and bar.
Lastly, if you need a day to relax after your Universal Studios trip, Catalina Island is only an hour drive away! This is the perfect place for a quick 1 to 2 day trip!
Long Beach, on the southern side of LA County, includes the Aquarium of the Pacific, housing a variety of sea life, and the Long Beach Grand Prix, a world-famous auto race track for the family car enthusiast. Long Beach is home to the historic ship, the Queen Mary, which now operates as a hotel and museum, complete with ghost tours and maritime history.
With a diverse range of attractions and activities, Long Beach is a great place for families with kids. Long Beach is also home to a unique and lesser-known attraction that is perfect for a family outing: the canals. The Naples Canal, located in the Naples neighborhood, features a series of picturesque waterways reminiscent of Venice, Italy. Families can take a gondola ride or rent kayaks and explore the canals at their own pace.
For a more traditional seaside experience, families can head to Shoreline Village. This charming waterfront area is filled with shops, restaurants, and entertainment options. Kids can enjoy carnival rides and arcade games, while parents can shop for souvenirs or take in the stunning views of the harbor. The village is also home to the famous Long Beach Shoreline Marina, where visitors can rent boats and explore the harbor.
Where To Stay In Long Beach
The Belmont Shore Inn is close to the beach, contemporary with rooms that comfortably fit families and very affordable. The Hotel Maya, a Hilton Doubletree Hotel, is also on the sand and just lovely. Close to everything, a private beach and open airy rooms and restaurants make this property a beach vacation treat.
Whether you have two days or a week in LA, use this list of our favorite activities in Los Angeles to entertain the kids and parents alike!
Downtown Los Angeles is a bustling hub of culture, history, and entertainment. Growing up here, it was far from the hip urban area it is today. It was dingy and old, but a city shake-up put fresh restaurants and venues to enjoy. Families with kids will now find plenty of exciting activities to explore in this vibrant area.
One of the must-visit attractions is Exposition Park, an urban park that hosts top-shelf museums, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the Rose Garden. The California Science Center is a top pick for families, featuring fun exhibits that kids can play with and the Space Shuttle Endeavour, where visitors can ogle at its massive size!
Music lovers will enjoy a visit to or concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. This stunning architectural masterpiece is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has tours and performances throughout the year. Families can also burn energy at Grand Park with its beautiful fountains, gardens, and playgrounds.
Downtown Los Angeles is also home to a thriving food scene, with many restaurants offering cuisine from all over the world. From Mexican street food to upscale sushi to hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese favorites, Downtown LA is a nation united by a rainbow of tastes.
Lastly, check out the Most Instagrammable places in LA for some of the best photo spots in the Downtown area.
Where To Stay In Downtown LA
The iconic Hotel Figueroa has an outdoor pool, bars, restaurants and cribs available for families. Plus it’s super affordable. The storied Biltmore Los Angeles has an indoor pool, ornate interior and four on-site restaurants. It’s also very inexpensive for LA.
Whether you’re a movie buff, a beach bum, or a nature lover, LA has some of the best things to do for kids and families. So pack up the car, grab some snacks, and hit the road to create those memories. Trust us, even if the trip doesn’t go exactly as planned (and it probably won’t), you’ll have the pictures to prove you were there, and time will wipe out the rest.
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