A Local’s Look at Hidden Gems in Los Angeles

Mimi Slawoff Avatar

hidden gems in los angeles
The Annenberg Community Beach House has a rich Hollywood history. Photo courtesy of the Annenberg Community Beach House

Los Angeles has many popular tourists attractions. You know them. Universal Studios, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Hollywood Sign. But there’s something thrilling about hunting down the hidden gems of Los Angeles. In fact, some are downright quirky, making for great Instagram photos.

As a native Angeleno, I’ve stumbled across many hidden gems in the City of Angels. Some more hidden than others. Here’s a mix of “popular” hidden gems and those that are lesser known. In most cases, you’ll need to get off the beaten path to find hidden gems throughout Los Angeles County. As you explore, keep in mind that Los Angeles is composed of 88 incorporated cities situated in valleys, beaches and mountains. It’s the largest city in Southern California. So have a plan before you go.

Ready? Let’s start in Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) and work our way to outlying areas.

The Biddy Mason Memorial Park pays tribute to a former slave and is one of the hidden gems in Los Angeles
The Biddy Mason Memorial Park near the Bradbury Building in DTLA. Photo courtesy: Don Barrett/Flickr Creative Commons

Find the Biddy Mason Memorial Park

Sometimes hidden gems are hiding next to popular tourist attractions. You may have seen or heard of the historic Bradbury Building. But there’s a hidden gem tucked into a narrow space next to the Bradbury Building. It’s so hidden, it’s easy to miss.

The park pays tribute to a former slave who came to California and fought for her freedom in 1856. An 80-foot wall depicts her life with words and pictures on her former homestead. 333 S. Spring St.

More Downtown Hidden Gems

From the Bradbury Building, it’s about a five minute walk to The Last Bookstore. Situated in a 22,000-square-foot facility, The Last Bookstore boasts it is the largest used and new bookstore – and record store – in California.

Next, stop by for a drink at the Varnish Speakeasy. Talk about hidden. The Varnish is a speakeasy in the back of Cole’s, a historic pub in DTLA. The pub (also known for its yummy French dipped sandwiches) opens in the afternoon, but the Varnish opens at 7 p.m. The Varnish is accessible via a door at the back of the pub.

Beauty Calibration Machine inside the Hollywood Museum, one of the hidden gems in Los Angeles
The Beauty Calibration Machine is among many unique items at The Hollywood Museum. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Visit the Hollywood Museum

Think Hollywood is overrated? Maybe, but it’s also got some cool off the beaten path attractions. One of my favorites is the four-story Hollywood Museum. Find it inside the historic Max Factor building near the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Factor was Hollywood’s make-up king and invented tube lipstick, pancake powder and color harmony. He also invented the Beauty Calibration machine. This scary-looking device enabled Hollywood make-up artists to pinpoint where facial corrections need to be made.

When you first enter the museum, you’ll see the glamorous lobby and dressing rooms for Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and other famous beauties. In addition, the museum contains props, costumes, photos and many other Hollywood memorabilia.

Abandoned section of the LA Zoo, an off the beaten path attraction in Los Angles
It’s free to explore the abandoned zoo’s old cages and structures. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Explore the Abandoned Zoo

The original Los Angeles Zoo was founded in 1912 in Griffith Park. When the new zoo opened nearby in the 1960s, the old zoo was not demolished. Instead, the zoo was converted into a picnic area near the old animal cages and stone structures. After you park, a short paved path leads to the picnic area and abandoned zoo. It’s a cool place to visit but the excessive graffiti detracts from the historic site (in my opinion). 4801 Griffith Park Drive.

To get there, take the Golden State Freeway (5) to the Los Feliz Boulevard exit. Continue west on Los Feliz to the first light and turn north on Crystal Springs Road. (You’ll pass another fun stop – pony and horse back riding facilities.) After 1.5 miles, turn left on Griffith Park Drive. Drive about a quarter mile and turn left into a parking area.

More Hidden Gems in Griffith Park

The Fern Dell Nature Area is a cozy woodsy area in Burbank with a seasonal brook, footbridges, a children’s play area and picnic tables. A quarter-mile walk leads to a small cafe. You can also hike the 2.6-mile roundtrip trail to the Griffith Observatory. 5375 Red Oak Drive, L.A.

Travel Town Museum

I love Travel Town. It contains a collection of 40-plus full-sized locomotives, freight cars, cabooses, passenger trains, motorcars and interurbans. In addition, you can ride a 16″ gauge miniature train and climb aboard historic locomotives in a train yard. Created to preserve the railroad heritage of the western United States, Travel Town shows how the railroads aided Southern California’s development.

Exterior of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in Los Angeles
Visit at night to participate in grunion runs. Photo courtesy of Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

Observe Grunions at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

The educational and research facility has numerous aquariums, touch tanks, an aquatic nursery and exhibits about local marine life. But what makes the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium unique are the grunion runs. Grunions are small sardine-size fish. They’re among the few species of fish that come ashore to lay their eggs on sandy beaches from Southern California to Baja California. See the grunions after the high tide around the new moon and full moon.

Korean Bell of Friendship

A short walk from the aquarium, Angel’s Gate Park is home to the Korean Bell of Friendship. It was presented to the U.S. by the South Korean government in 1975 to commemorate the United States bicentennial and as a token of friendship. Also in the park: the Point Fermin Lighthouse and the Fort MacArthur Museum.

Venice Canals are a quirky attraction in Los Angeles
Stroll the Venice Canals in a scenic neighborhood of Venice Beach. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Stroll Along the Venice Canals

The scenic Venice Canals are secluded from bustling Venice Beach. In fact, they’re almost easy to miss if you don’t know about them. Developer Abbot Kinney designed and built the neighborhood to replicate Venice, Italy, in 1905.

The neighborhood consists of houses lining four canals about a quarter-mile long each with rowboats, kayaks and canoes moored in front of these multi-million dollar houses. For better views, park the car and walk along the sidewalks and bridges.

Swim at the Annenberg Community Beach House, Santa Monica

Enjoy the Pacific Ocean from this public beach house that was built by William Randolph Hearst for actress Marion Davies in the 1920s. The property features the Marion Davies Guest Beach House, a historic swimming pool with marble decking, volleyball courts and more.

Two swans swimming in the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake in Los Angeles
Enjoy peace and quiet at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine. CAHairyBear/FlickrCreativeCommons

Meditate at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, Pacific Palisades

Relax in meditation gardens and attend a service at the Lake Shrine Temple overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There’s also a lake with duck, swans, fish and turtles. In addition, the Gandhi World Peace Memorial contains a portion of Gandhi’s ashes sent from India. Free admission is free and mandatory reservation.

Wine bottles and glasses on top of barrel with Malibu view in the background
Visit a secluded vineyard in Malibu. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Sip Wine and Feed Animals on a Malibu Wine Tour

Tucked in the Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu Wine Tours visit the vineyard and onsite animals. You can tour the property on a guided hike or via jeep or bus. Along the way you’ll meet Stanley, the celebrity giraffe, llamas, and other animals. Then on to the best part – wine tasting in the vineyards!

Walk Through a Japanese Garden, San Fernando Valley

Don’t overlook “The Valley”. You’ll find many hidden gems here. For example, the 6.5-acre Japanese Garden at Woodley Park in Van Nuys is a valley treasure. The urban oasis has three gardens – a dry Zen meditation garden, a “wet-strolling” garden and a tea garden. The unique Japanese Garden uses reclaimed water.

San Dimas Natural Area landscape, one of the hidden gems in Los Angeles
San Dimas Natural Area has open spaces and a nature center. Photo courtesy of Jason Sandoval

Explore the San Dimas Canyon Nature Center, San Gabriel Valley

The Greater Los Angeles Area has many natural areas. Located about 28 miles from Downtown L.A., the 128-acre San Dimas Canyon Nature Center is in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Visit the nature center and explore. There’s a one-mile self-guided trail loop that meanders through an oak woodland, a pine grove and chaparral covered foothills.

Bison and dog in Hart Park Los Angeles
Maya meets bison in Hart Park. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

See Bison in the Santa Clarita Valley

William S. Hart Park is among the hidden gems in Newhall, a western-style town in the Santa Clarita Valley. We enjoy walking our dog Maya along the one-mile roundtrip Bison Road. From there, we can see a herd of bison originally donated by Walt Disney. They’re free to roam, but there is a fence separating them from the trail.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Mornings are best to see the bison close up. 

Bunny Museum, Altadena

Open to the public since 1998, the Bunny Museum has over 43,134 rabbit-related items. Co-owners Steve Lubanski and Candace Frazee see their museum as art, which is understandable. Especially if you love rabbits. The museum collection includes ceramic rabbits, stuffed rabbits, cookie-jar rabbits and more.

Mosaic Tile House, Venice Beach

You’ll know when you’ve spotted the unique Mosaic Tile House, a type of art gallery in itself. The first thing you’ll notice is the exterior fence. Inside and out, the entire 1940s house and property are covered with colored tile, splintered glass mosaics and various materials. Guided tours are available by reservation only.

Museum of Jurassic Technology, Culver City

The museum’s unique exhibits feature artistic, scientific and historical artifacts. For example, Lives of Perfect Creatures: Dogs of the Soviet Space Program is an exhibit that tells the stories of live creatures that traveled to space. Meanwhile Garden of Eden on Wheels features Los Angeles Area Mobile Home Parks. Note that the use of cell phones and photography are not allowed in the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Mimi Slawoff Avatar
Native Angeleno and seasoned travel journalist Mimi Slawoff writes for numerous print and digital publications. She is also the author of Oldest Los Angeles (Reedy Press, 2022). A lifelong world traveler, Mimi is an award-winning journalist who writes about outdoor adventures, cruises, Europe and cultural activities. Mimi has three grown kids and lives with her husband and their dog, Maya, in Los Angeles.
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