Escape to Los Angeles: 5 fun things to do in Southern California

By: Kristin Finan
May, 2021

I first visited California as a high-schooler on a college scouting trip with my mom. After several days in the San Francisco area, where we had been blindsided by the Bay Area’s harsh March chill, we landed in L.A. to sunshine and cool breezes. Instantly, I fell in love.

L.A. would become the frequent site of weekend getaways during my brief post-college stint in San Diego and a place I always start to crave when I’ve been away too long.

During my most recent visit in March, this time with three of my daughters, we followed California’s guidelines and stuck primarily to open, outdoor spaces. If you’re planning a trip to Los Angeles, whether it’s your first trip or your fifteenth, here are some ideas.

Go Hollywood

One must-do for Los Angeles tourists – especially those of us with kids – is to find a place to snap photos with the famous Hollywood sign. Our favorite sign-friendly stop, and one of the easiest in terms of access, is the Griffith Observatory, a popular and longtime free-admission attraction filled with science- and space-related displays and outdoor telescopes ideal for spying California stars. Thanks to its location on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, it’s easy to visit the observatory, then take one of several short hikes in Griffith Park to pose with the Hollywood sign. You can even view the sign from certain parts of the observatory’s parking lot.

Info: https://griffithobservatory.org/

Get amused

Somewhere over the past year, Harry Potter took over our household, offering a pandemic distraction for myself and my 12-year-old daughter for which I will forever be grateful. Tearing through the famous series for the first time, we were permitted a welcome admission into the world of wizards, hippogriffs and house elves, and both of us were instantly and forever captivated.

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Universal Studios Hollywood and its Wizarding World of Harry Potter was closed during our March visit – it has since opened with limited attendance and only for California residents – but we were still able to get our fill of butterbeer and chocolate frogs at the adjacent shopping and dining district, CityWalk, thanks to its Wizarding World of Harry Potter Sweets & Treats pop-up shop. Disneyland, which is always popular and is surprisingly doable in a day, has also reopened to California residents by reservation.

Info: https://www.universalstudioshollywood.com; https://disneyland.disney.go.com

Turn a new page

If you’re a book lover who prefers her fiction a little more, er, adult, here’s a Culver City bookstore you might appreciate: The Ripped Bodice, run by sisters Bea and Leah Koch and dedicated entirely to romance titles.

Considered the first exclusively romance bookstore in the country, The Ripped Bodice opened in 2016 after Bea and Leah launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $91,000.

To browse the store – which is currently open with limited hours – is to discover hundreds of titles ranging from bestsellers like Casey McQuiston’s “Red, White & Royal Blue” to Rebekah Weatherspoon’s “A Cowboy to Remember.” The store also sells gift items such as jewelry and cards.

Info: https://www.therippedbodicela.com

In the Grove

Years ago, I spent an afternoon at the Grove LA, where a friend advised that if we looked for people wearing sunglasses and baseball hats inside, we were likely to spot a celebrity. Not five minutes later, we saw Nathan Lane, and my fascination with L.A.’s favorite open-air mall began.

During our latest visit, we didn’t spot any celebrities and we mainly window shopped due to COVID, but my daughters and I were once again captivated by the L.A. hotspot brimming with shops, restaurants and interesting people. Perhaps our favorite part was the Bellagio-style fountain in the courtyard, followed closely by a free ride on the electric trolley that travels along First Street and was built on a historic undercarriage from a 1950s Boston streetcar.

Don’t miss the nearby Farmers Market L.A., either, a local staple since 1934 featuring more than 100 gourmet grocers.

Info: https://thegrovela.com

Ventura out

Located about an hour from downtown, Ventura is like L.A.’s spunky little sister, brimming with fun restaurants and cafes and rife with skateboarders and surfers who flock to the 100,000-person town’s sparkling coastline. A major attraction is Channel Islands National Park, which encompasses five islands teeming with wildlife, earning it the nickname “the Galapagos of North America.” Visitors must reserve transportation via Ventura Harbor through Island Packers, the official boat concessionaire of the islands. Be aware that boat transport is dependent on weather, though, and trips are sometimes canceled on the morning of.

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If you decide to stay a night in Ventura as we did, book a room at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach, which is located on the water right next to the popular pier. For dinner, don’t miss Peirano’s, an Italian market where the menu features everything from a loaded meatball sandwich to braised short ribs to gluten-free penne. If you’re into craft beer, head to Fluid State Beer Garden, a one-stop-shop for pizza and a pint. Craving something sweet? Check out the adorable and highly Instagrammable Sugar Lab Bake Shop; grab a chocolate-covered strawberry cupcake or lavender macaron and coffee to enjoy while strolling past the boats that bob in the harbor.

Info: https://visitventuraca.com/

If You Go

Getting there:

Multiple airlines including Southwest, JetBlue and American, offer nonstop service from Austin to Los Angeles’ LAX airport.

Stay:

Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach offers affordable lodging right on the beach, http://cpventura.com. Terranea Resort is an upscale property convenient to both LAX and Disneyland, https://www.terranea.com.

Eat:

If you’re traveling with anyone with special dietary needs, don’t miss Erin McKenna’s Bakery LA, where everything you see is gluten-free and vegan, http://www.erinmckennasbakery.com.

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