Is it snowing/sleeting/freezing where you are? Are you reading this while wearing 17 sweaters? Me, too.
This is our friendly reminder that LAX is the second biggest airport in the U.S., with jillions of cheap flights in and out every day. Today, LA local Mandy Sutton is telling us about beach camping for $35 a night, $2 tacos, and $8 double features at iconic movie theaters!
Los Angeles means so many different things to different people. It is the land of Hollywood glamour, but areas of the city struggle with poverty. It is a place where you can ski and surf in the same day.
It is one of America’s most diverse cities, as nearly 40% of the population is born outside the USA. While at first glance LA may seem similar to what you’ve seen in the movies, explore for a little while, and you’ll find that there is a ton below the surface.
I moved to LA from my small hometown to go to college in 2003. Over the next 10 years, LA was my home and playground. As someone working in public higher education, I wasn’t rolling in money, and I quickly found how to enjoy myself on a shoestring budget. Luckily, LA has tons of free attractions and very cheap eats.
Here are a few of my favorite cheap recommendations for anyone stopping by the City of Angels.
A couple quick notes –
LA is huge and, as I’m sure you’ve heard, the traffic is bad. Plan your daily itinerary based on geography.
Don’t try to drive back and forth from the beach to Downtown LA twice in a day, for example. You’ll just end up sitting on the highway and cursing your existence. This is a true, local LA experience, but one that I’d like to spare you.
Also, LA is known as a car city. There is a public transportation system with many buses and even a few subway lines, but it’s easier to get around on your own time if you can rent a car. I have rented a car from major companies for as low as $17/day.
Cheap Lodging in Los Angeles
There are a few different types of cheap lodging around the LA area. If you want to be surrounded by nature and you don’t mind being a little out of town, you can camp in the mountains of Angeles National Forest for $12/night (beware of snow closures!) or on the beach at Doheny State Beach near Dana Point for $35/night.
If you’d rather stay in the city, Banana Bungalow Hostel is $27/night for a bed in the dorm. It’s in a great, super central location, surrounded by a very walkable part of West Hollywood.
There is always the AirBnB option too. You can find private studios and rooms all over the city for less than $50/night. There’s even an impeccably decorated urban farm cabin! If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking!
Cheap Food in Los Angeles
Cactus Taco – $2 for tacos
Almost all Los Angelenos have a favorite quickie taco stand, and this one is mine. They’re open late, which is great since very few things in the world taste as good as a cheap carne asada taco at 2 am.
All types of Chinese Dumplings in the San Gabriel Valley – Prices vary but usually under $8 for 4-8 dumplings
Although the San Gabriel Valley is about an hour drive out of central Los Angeles, the trip is well worth it to try all the different types of Chinese/Taiwanese dumplings there. Going for a tour of a few restaurants that serve different types may be the most delicious way to spend your time in LA. Xiao Long Bao, or dumplings filled with hot, fatty soup, are my favorite!
Hollywood Farmers Market – $3 pupusas
Hollywood hosts a large farmers market every Sunday morning with both delicious fresh produce, and great prepared foods. There is food from all over the world: Korean, Thai, even Danish! My favorite though are the freshly made El Salvadorean pupusas. Pupusas are basically savory pancakes with fillings in the batter. Add in a fresh juice, and I’m in heaven!
Cha Cha Chicken – $9 for ¼ jerk chicken + two sides
Want to eat some great Caribbean food on a hut right by the beach? Cha Cha Chicken has you covered. You can get a full ¼ of a jerked chicken, plus two sides (oh man, those plantains!) for just $9, and you can even BYOB!
Coles – $5 for half a French dip sandwich and french fries
The French Dip sandwich was invented in LA…but no one is quite sure where. Both Cole’s and Philippe’s have claimed it. While both restaurants are good, Cole’s gets the edge on having the best happy hour deal.
Get a half sandwich plus fries for $5 before 7 pm on all weeknights. The ambiance is great too. It has hardly changed since 1960; it’s so authentic Mad Men filmed here. And after you’ve saved money on food, go to The Varnish, the very cool speakeasy located through a door in the back of the restaurant, for an expensive cocktail.
Scoops – $3.50 for two scoops of gelato
I scream, you scream…we all scream for Scoops! Everyday, Scoops makes interesting, unique fresh gelato. From brown bread to horchata oreo to strawberry basil, there is a flavor for everyone. And you don’t even need to choose one flavor! For $3.50, you get two scoops!
Bacon Wrapped Hot Dogs – Prices vary, but no more than $4 per dog
Ridiculously good bacon wrapped hot dogs (aka dirty dogs or danger dogs…don’t let the name scare you!) are LA’s ultimate drunk food. Cooked on little grills on the street outside bars, you can smell the roasting onions, meat and peppers from blocks away. Sure – it’s sinful food on sinful food, but what else would you want to eat after leaving a bar?
Cheap Activities in Los Angeles
Spend some time hiking in the more than 4000 acres of a very wild park. You can hike to the Hollywood Sign for a great view of the city (free), spend some time looking at space from the Griffith Observatory (free), or, if you want to be really adventurous, scramble around the ruins of a deserted zoo!
You want to see some crazy muscle builders? How about getting your tarot cards read while skateboarders do all sorts of tricks a few feet away? Or you just want to walk along the beach? The Boardwalk is a great place to people watch on a beautiful day.
The New Beverly Cinema
LA has a whole lot of great movie theaters, but my favorite is the New Bev. For $8, you can go to a double feature put together by fantastic film curators. When the historic theater almost went out of business, Quentin Tarantino bought it. Often, the films shown there are from his own personal collection.
Downtown Flower Market
The Flower Market in Downtown LA has been selling flowers to all the florists in town for more than a century. For $2 admission on weekdays and $1 on Saturdays (closed on Sundays), you can enter a warehouse just stuffed to bursting with flowers and plants. Bring a cup of coffee (it opens at 2 AM!) for a unique, gorgeous morning.
Annenberg Space for Photography
This little gallery packs a big punch! If you’re into photography at all, you’ll appreciate the gorgeous exhibits that are changed frequently. Some of the exhibits I have enjoyed have focused on beauty culture and sports photography. Entry is free.
The Getty Center
The Getty sits on a hill looking over West LA and the Pacific Ocean. Surrounded by gorgeous lawns and gardens, the museum has a great collection of European art, photography, manuscripts and more. Entry is free, but parking is $15 per car. There is frequent Metro bus service there, in case you don’t want to mess around with parking.
Drive along Mulholland Drive and Look at the View
Mulholland Drive winds along the top of the Hollywood Hills, giving you gorgeous views both of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. It’s a wonderful drive to take on a clear day, or, if you want something more romantic, go at night so you can see the lights.
Self-Guided Walking Tours of LA
The LA Conservancy does some great walking tours for $10 per person, but you can do it for free using their walking guides. Check out the filming locations of (500) Days of Summer or learn more about the history of the downtown Arts District. They even have some self-guided walking tours aimed at kids if you are traveling with little ones in tow.
LA’s a huge place, so I know I missed some great cheap places! Leave your favorite spots in the comments!
P.S. Did you know I have an entire Pinterest board devoted to budget travel? There’s tons of great tips for saving money, cheap destinations, and finding awesome, affordable lodging!