The first time I visited Los Angeles was with my husband 15 years ago and I hated it. We didn’t have a car, as we were backpacking, so we had to use public transport, which was a little scary and didn’t go everywhere we needed it to. We knew LA was car-centric but hadn’t realized just how much – everything was far more spread out than we were expecting. And Hollywood, where we were staying in a hostel, was more grimy than glitzy. All in all, it was not a great introduction to LA.
So, when we talked about treating the kids to a trip to Disneyland our first Christmas living here we debated whether or not to spend some time in LA itself. We thought that if we’d hated it as adults then it wouldn’t be much fun for our young kids. In the end, we decided it was too long a drive for just a couple of days in Disneyland, so we would stay in Santa Monica for a few days too, and then at least we’d have the beach. But, of course, the week we were there wasn’t beach weather, what else could we do in LA with kids? It turns out, there is quite a lot!
Santa Monica Pier and Downtown
Even if the weather isn’t quite warm enough for lazing on the beach you can still easily spend a whole day in Santa Monica – shopping and eating at 3rd Street Promenade, strolling along the cliff path and enjoying the fairground rides on the Pier. Also at the pier is a small aquarium, the perfect size for little kids, with touch tanks and interactive displays. And if you’re on the pier at sunset have your camera ready for amazing, Instagram-worthy photos.
www.healthebay.org, Age 13+ $5
La Brea Tar Pits
We were very pleasantly surprised by this small museum, with a fascinating excavation site and pretty grounds right in the middle of LA. If your kids are interested in fossils, mammoths and sabre tooth tigers this is a great place to take them. It’s not big, you can easily get around the museum’s Ice Age exhibits in a couple of hours. Outside there’s lots of parkland to run around in and Ice Age sculptures to climb on. A tour of the tar pits is also included in the admission, where you might get to see scientists at work and learn more about the excavations and fossils found right there on the site.
www.tarpits.org, Adult $12, Child 3+ $5
Natural History Museum
We all loved the Natural History Museum and will definitely go back. My 9 year old’s favorite exhibit was the gem and mineral hall, which has a huge collection of, yes, gems and minerals. My 4 year old’s favorite exhibit was the Nature Lab, where we got to meet real live insects and watch some cute (?) rats running around in their home. There’s also a huge dinosaur hall, hands-on Discovery Center and more. Plus, the food was some of the best (and most affordable) I’ve had at a museum café.
www.nhm.org, Adult $12, Child 3+ $5 (not including special exhibits)
Griffith Park and Observatory
Griffith Park is enormous and beautiful – a great place to escape the sprawl of LA and enjoy some unspoilt nature walks and hiking trails. Sat atop the park, with views from the Hollywood sign all the way down to the Pacific, is the Griffith Observatory. We couldn’t believe this place was free! There was so much to see inside, two floors of amazing space exhibits, a public telescope and Planetarium shows (for a small additional fee). Be warned though, on a weekend it is packed and parking is scarce. We didn’t intend to hike up to the Observatory but that’s what we ended up doing as we couldn’t get parking anywhere near it. Go early and bring a packed lunch, the café is very expensive.
If you don’t want to trek around Disneyland but do want a theme park experience try Universal Studios, which is easily done in a day. I don’t think it’s great for kids under five or six, but anyone over that age will love it. Our favorite things were the Studio Tour and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Obviously, Universal Studios isn’t cheap but you can buy a California Neighbor Pass or Costco Annual Pass for not much more than the cost of a day pass, making it much more affordable if you plan to go more than once.
We now love LA. For us, it’s a great family destination that has something for everyone, from its chilled-out beaches and parks, to world-famous shopping, to an over-abundance of museums and attractions (which are so much more affordable than those in the Bay Area!). We enjoyed every attraction we visited and plan to go back to see more! We didn’t get a chance to go to the Zoo, or the Science Center, or LACMA, or the Zimmer Children’s Museum…
If, like us, you thought LA wasn’t child-friendly, think again. And if you’ve been to an amazing kid-friendly attraction there that you’d like to recommend comment below.
*Cost listed correct at time of publication, although subject to change. Please check with each attraction before you go.
I didn’t understand tidepooling when I moved to the Bay Area. I wasn’t totally sure what it was and why you would plan your day around it.