There are many free and cheap things to do in Los Angeles. As a traveler, the matter reaches them. From Los Angeles International Airport, rental cars recently cost about $75 a day before tax and gas. Taxis and app-based rides between the airport and downtown cost $40 to $70, depending on the time of day. Then there’s overnight parking – $50 to $60 is not unusual.
But there’s a cheap alternative: the subway, a steal at $1.75 a ride, $5 a day. to pass or $18 per week.
In Los Angeles, land of traffic jams, the vehicle is the car. But for decades, the Los Angeles public transportation authority, Metro, has tried to wean Angelenos off their cars, building more than 100 train stops on seven lines since 1990, including the new K Line, which opened in October, running through South Los Angeles. In June, the Regional Connector Transit Project consolidated city connections, making it possible to ride east-west between East Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and north-south between Azusa and Long Beach without transferring. Another extension, due in 2024, will connect to Los Angeles International Airportone of nine future stations set to open before the city hosts the 2028 Summer Olympics.
The usefulness of the system to residents varies depending on where they live in the sprawling city. But, said Michael Juliano, the Los Angeles editor of Time Out Media, who has written about the system, “As a tourist, quite a few places you want to go are on the Metro.”
Nothing makes me feel more familiar with a destination than successfully navigating it. In my opinion, going places is not knowing places unless I can find my way around using local modes of transportation. When I told friends I was going to Los Angeles to see the city by subway, they joked that it would be “very short story”. An Angeleno who admitted she had never taken the train advised me to pack pepper spray.
But three days of riding the rails proved them mostly wrong. Not only is the subway well connected to popular spots—from Santa Monica beaches to downtown museums—its trains run frequently. Although my experience was not threatening, the system was struggled with an obvious influx of homeless people riding trains. Several times, I rode with Metro ambassadors, employees who travel the system to educate the public and help ensure safety.
In a county that spans over 4,000 square miles and 88 cities, there were places I couldn’t get to by subway. One tour company that offers guided hikes to the iconic Hollywood sign told me their starting point was nowhere near public transportation. Bus lines and ride services can fill the gaps, but with one notable exception – the FlyAway Buswhich runs approximately every half hour between the airport and Union Station downtown ($9.75) — I stuck to the trains as a test of their usefulness. This is what I found.
All lines lead to the city center
The FlyAway Bus dropped me off at Union Station, a 1939 Mission Moderne gem that serves not only as a hub for Amtrak trains and regionals. Metrolink service in Los Angeles County and five surrounding counties, but also as the entanglement of three Metro lines, the A, B and D.
These subway lines make several stops throughout the city center, an area full of cultural attractions – including the original Mexican settlement on Street Olvera opposite Union Station — and many hotels, such as the Freehand Los Angeles.
About four blocks from the nearest subway stop downtown, the retro hotel occupies the 1924 Commercial Exchange Building, offering hostel-style rooms with multiple beds popular with students as well as private rooms like mine with macrame wall hangings and eclectic art reminiscent of thrift stores (I paid $150 a night).
The next morning, I recognized fellow budget guests – a French family in town to see Lakers games, a couple of Danish backpackers and an Irish student group – at the nearby subway stop.
“Guests will ask for schedules and the nearest stops, and it’s kind of fun because we drive everywhere,” said Rich Oken, the hotel’s general manager, referring to the staff.
Between the subway and walking, I found downtown easy to navigate and rich to explore, starting from the Width museum (free), an impressive home for the collectors of Eli and Edythe Broad’s contemporary art collection full of works by Basquiat, Lichtenstein and Warhol. On the next block, I took a break in the quiet gardens behind the Walt Disney Concert Halla swaying steel landmark by architect Frank Gehry.
Nearby, I rode the shortest railroad from Los Angeles, Angels Flighta 1901 cable car that crests a one-block hill for 50 cents if you have a Metro card ($1 if you don’t).
Next stop: Hollywood
From downtown, the B Line runs northwest to the heart of Hollywood. Emerging at the Hollywood/Highland station was like emerging in low, sunny Times Square. Actors dressed as Spider-Man and Michael Jackson posed with tourists for tips. Boomers hawked TMZ celebrity bus tours. I immediately crossed paths with Groucho Marx’s star on the Walk of fame in Hollywoodwith Tom Cruise sharing the pavement with Weird Al Yankovic and fans taking selfies at Snoop Dogg’s plaque.
The star trail passed the 1927 Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now known as TCL Chinese Theatre) where I embraced my footprint with that of Robert De Niro among the many celebrity salutes cemented into pavement in front of its entrance.
The B Line also offers access to less crazy neighborhoods, including Koreatown, where I backtracked to enjoy salmon slathered in umami oil from the conveyor belt sushi place. running ($3.65 per plate).
The route also offers a ready solution to reach Griffith Park, the lush Santa Monica Mountains preserve, with panoramic views over the city and scores of walking trails. From the B line stop at Vermont/Sunset, I caught a free one LADOT DASH bus to the Griffith Park Observatorypopular for its rooftop views, and watched a thrilling star show in the planetarium ($10).
Train to the beach
First-time visitors are often surprised by the size of metro Los Angeles, which encompasses Long Beach to the south, Malibu to the west and the San Gabriel Mountains to the east.
“People come to California and want to go to the beach, but they don’t realize that Santa Monica is about 12 miles from downtown LA, and it’s a long 12 miles whether you drive or take public transportation,” said Mr. . Oken, the Freehand manager.
On Wednesday at 8:30 am, Google Maps put the train on the E Line from the city center in just over an hour, the same as the drive, excluding the hunt for parking.
Running mostly above ground, the E-Line provided a ride past the University of Southern California campus to Culver City and ultimately Santa Monica. Recorded announcements identified the attractions near each stop, such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and Exhibition Park at the Expo Park/USC stop.
The E-Line ends a few blocks from the popular Santa Monica Pierfilled with amusement park rides and restaurants that were mostly closed in the morning as a guitarist played the lonely Latin American standard “Quiz, Quiz, Quiz” to walkers enjoying peaceful views.
Beach cruiser charter from Blazing Saddles ($13 for an hour) on the pier, I pedaled south about three miles to Venice’s oceanfront neighborhood, where foursome roller skaters doing pirouettes enticed gawkers.
With its manicured boutique hotels and trendy restaurants, Santa Monica felt exclusive, an impression corrected by the colorful Jamaican lodge. Cha Cha Chickenjust a block from the beach, serving plates of spicy jerk chicken (from $11.95) on a shaded patio amid Bob Marley paintings.
“Connect to Creativity”
Metro markets the new K line with posters throughout the system encouraging riders to “Connect to Creativity,” a reference to South Los Angeles communities that have nurtured the likes of the artist Kehinde Wiley and actress Issa Rae and to the public art at each station.
“Art is an introduction component to the system,” said Maya Emsden, who oversees Metro’s public art programs, including the commissioning of art for each of the current seven K Line stations. “It’s striking.”
On my last afternoon, I rode the K, departing from its northernmost stop at Expo/Crenshaw, where it meets the E Line, through the communities of Crenshaw and Inglewood, home of SoFi Stadiumwhere the Rams and Chargers of the NFL play.
In Crenshaw, some of the most interesting art on the route has yet to be revealed. The Economic Development Organization Target Crenshaw commissions works by more than 100 Black artists to be installed in main park and along 1.3 miles of Crenshaw Boulevard next to the grade-level train tracks. The project will represent “the talent and creativity and passion that we have for the community,” said Jason Foster, the organization’s president and chief operating officer, over coffee at Hot and Cold Cafe near the Leimert Park stop.
From the cafe, we walked a few blocks to the site of the future Sankofa Park, a wedge-shaped block with gardens and a pedestrian ramp to the second floor. Inaugurated next February, the park, part of the $100 million project, will display a sculpture by Mr. Wiley.Rumors of War“series and”Car culture,” a work by Compton, California-based artist Charles Dickson, which features African figures crowned by cars.
“When the airport connection is done, this will be the first thing people see in LA,” Mr. Foster said, adding that he hopes the park will become a neighborhood attraction along the lines of Little Tokyo or Mariachi Plazaboth accessible by train.
In three days, I never made it to the Hollywood sign. But everywhere I went, I saved money, emissions and incalculable, grid-induced stress.
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