$20 in Los Angeles: The 16 Best Ways to Spend It


San Franciscans and New Yorkers love to complain about Angelenos. We're intellectually shallow. We lack culture. We're superficial.

Hilariously, the hate only goes one way. Angelenos don't feel the need to measure Los Angeles against other cities, because we know the truth: Los Angeles is great.

Unlike most world-class cities, Los Angeles is still affordable to mere mortals. It's possible to enjoy a bourgeois lifestyle in L.A. on a shoestring budget.

To prove it, here are 16 quintessentially Los Angeles things to do for under $20. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

1. Watch a Movie

While there are movie houses everywhere, the theaters in Los Angeles are temples to cinema. In addition to splendid architecture, L.A. film studios calibrate the sound and the picture for their features in local movie theaters, so there is nowhere on the planet that provides a more optimal film viewing experience.

While the Mann Chinese and The Cinerama Dome are superstar tourist attractions, there is a reason why they are home to film premiere after film premiere: Their gigantic screens make even the smallest films feel epic.

But access to the best first-run cinema on the biggest screens is only part of what makes Los Angeles the best place in the world to see movies. In terms of film history, film buffs in Los Angeles have the most viewing options. Los Angeles theaters regularly present films that were never transferred to digital format and source foreign films that never got North American distribution.

Don't want to fight tourists who don't know it's only polite to clap during the movie credits? Check out some locals only cinematic experiences:

Last Remaining Seats is the Los Angeles Conservancy's film series that matches classic films with historic theaters in the Broadway Theater District in downtown Los Angeles. In its heyday Broadway had the highest concentration of movie palaces in the world, and today it is the only large collection of movie theaters left in the United States. Just getting the chance to tour these masterpieces of Art Deco, Beaux Arts, Churrigueresque, and Gothic architectural design is worth the $20 ticket price for the films.

The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater is a nonprofit movie theater that operates like a museum. The mission of Cinefamily is to provide a movie-going experience that cannot be found anywhere else in Los Angeles. The Cinefamily is home to unique programming such as Doug Benson's Movie Interruption and the Everything is Festival. Tickets to most movies are $12.

If you have ever looked at a mausoleum and thought, "This would be a great place to screen a movie," well, luckily for you, the cinephiles behind Cinespia had the same great idea. Watch movies and picnic under the starless L.A. night sky at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Tickets range between $14 and $18 depending on the show.

2. I See (Famous) Dead People

Speaking of cemeteries, Los Angeles is a great place to start your celebrity gravestone rubbing collection. In addition to being home to some of the most art directed cemeteries on the planet (Forest Lawn Glendale is so over-the-top that Evelyn Waugh satirized it in The Loved One), L.A. certainly boasts the largest collection of grave marker jokes. Everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Bugsy Siegal to Ray Charles is six feet under in the City of Angels. Sadly for us horror fans, Vincent Price was cremated and his ashes scattered over Point Dume. However, to quote Bauhaus, "Bela Lugosi's dead" (and buried at Holy Cross Cemetery).

3. Shred

Skating (or what your dad refers to as "skateboarding") is the indigenous sport of Los Angeles, so it's only natural that the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, operates 21 skate parks that are free, open to the public, and skated by everyone from the rank beginner to members of the legendary Zephyr team.

4. Buy Vinyl

A new favorite pastime of Angelenos is complaining about the high cost of records.

That because the local market for vinyl has skyrocketed. North East Los Angeles between Echo Park and Highland Park has become a destination for vinyl collectors from Europe and Asia because it is home to no fewer than 10 Record stores. Not CDs. Records. Unlike other cities, Los Angeles hasn't been shopped out, and still has great, hard-to-find music in circulation. Shop now, while you can still afford to.

5. Go on a Taco Rampage

While shopping for records in Highland Park, treat yourself to a taco. Highland Park is ground zero for Los Angeles's food truck scene. The taco trucks, and questionably legal driveway restaurants, just on York Blvd. represent the cuisine of 10 different states of Mexico. Tacos cost between $1 and $2 each. The Taco Blog used to be the place to go for reviews and locations of some of the city's most famous mobile eateries, but the blogger has retired (the info is still relevant, however). Find more taco leads at the LAist's annual roundup of Los Angeles's best tacos.

6. Workout With Richard Simmons

Sweat to the oldies with the Master. Classes with Richard Simmons only cost $12, so you have no excuse. Even if you are a couch potato, isn't the story you can tell your friends worth the expense?

7. Eat the Best Pastrami Sandwich in the Universe

David Sax's book, "Save the Deli," was the shot heard round the kosher meat world when he stated that, "Brace yourself New York, because what I am about to write is definitely go to piss a lot of you off, but it needs to be said: Los Angeles has become America's premier deli city." At the heart of the ensuing kerfuffle was Sax's proclamation that Langer's Deli is home to the finest pastrami sandwich in the universe, much less the country. According to Sax, "Los Angeles is the example to the rest of the nation of how a deli can ultimately stay relevant."

New Yorker foodies, were, of course outraged. Subsequently, everyone from Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold to the James Beard Foundation have weighed in favor of Langer's. Native New Yorker Nora Ephron, who went on record in the pages of The New Yorker that Langer's serves the best pastrami in America, finally did a side-by-side taste-off between Langer's and Katz's, the iconic New York deli to quiet East Coast sore losers. Langer's handily won the re-match.

Suck it New York.

Langer's pastrami sandwiches cost $14 to $15.95 depending on the condiments.

8. Eat Through the History of the Hamburger

Los Angeles did not create the hamburger, but Los Angeles is where America's flagship sandwich was perfected. McDonald's, In-N-Out with its Secret Menu, and trendy upstart Umami Burger, all got their start with Los Angeles burger fans.

If there is one thing that Angelenos will fight over, it's where to get the best burger in the city. Seriously, criticize the Apple Pan and I will cut you.

9. Eat the Original French Dip Sandwich at Philippe's

If Los Angeles can't claim the title "Sandwich Overlord," I don't know what city can. Angelenos are expert sandwich eaters. Rounding out the meat-on-bread trifecta is the Original French Dip sandwich from Philippe's in Chinatown. Why is it called "The Original?" Because in 1918, while making a roast beef sandwich for a police officer, restaurant owner Philippe Mathieu accidentally dropped the bun into a roasting pan still full of hot beef drippings, inadvertently inventing the French Dip Sandwich. The cop returned the next day with friends and requested the "dipped sandwich" and thus, a Los Angeles food tradition was born.

Have you tried the genius that is this sandwich?

French Dip sandwiches cost $6.50. There were almost riots in the streets when Philippe's announced in 2012 that it would be raising the cost of its coffee from 10 cents a cup to an outrageous 50 cents.

While everyone can agree that the longest surviving restaurant in Los Angeles is an institution, almost no one knows how to pronounce the name of the joint. Is it Phil-leeps or Phil-lee-payz?

Win a bet with this little-known piece of L.A. trivia: The Philippe heirs pronounce it Phil-lee-pee.

10. Watch Your Favorite Television Show… Live

Although you have to book your tickets in advance, being a part of the live, studio audience of your favorite show is usually free. Get free tickets for The Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Real Time With Bill Maher, or The Price Is Right via the CBS Television City website.

Order Dr. Phil ticket's online or by telephone (323) 461-PHIL.

Although there are a limited number of standby tickets available to Ellen — call 818.954-5929 before noon on the day of the show — all other ticket requests should be made online. Be aware that proof of age is required to be in Ellen's audience. (Audience members must be at least 14 years old).

11. Find Your Imaginary Rocket Scientist Boyfriend at JPL

Science is sexy. How cute are the guys behind the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Mission? They have such great hair.

What? Oh, right. Ahem.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories has free tours. Tours are booked up to five months in advance, so make your reservation now.

12. Look at Really Public Art

Los Angeles is one of the mural capitals of the world. The city is covered with large-scale legal and illegal street art. The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles is a non-profit, art preservation group dedicated to preserving L.A.'s street art heritage. Both the MCLA and SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) have comprehensive list of murals in every neighborhood.

13. Nobody Walks In LA

Well, that's the rumor anyway. You cannot talk about Los Angeles culture without talking about cars. The history of how the automobile shaped Los Angeles can be experienced at The Streetscape: The Car and the City in Southern California, a gloriously detailed permanent exhibition at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Active Military (with ID) get free admission, but general admission is $34 for adults (which busts the $20 budget, but read on…).

One of Los Angeles's best-kept museum secrets and free activities is the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar. The four story museum houses one of the world's top collections of vintage and antique automobiles, lovingly collected and restored by J.B. Nethercutt, the heir to the Merle Norman Cosmetics fortune, and his wife, Dorothy.

If the car museum experience is too stuffy, the oldest Bob's Big Boy Restaurant in the country hosts a classic car show in its parking lot every Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The car show is free. At this Bob's Big Boy and only this Bob's can you order, by special request only (it's not on the menu), the Go Big or Go Home Combo for $11.99: Two 8 ounce all-beef patties on a sesame seed bun with lettuce, cheese, dressing and relish. Served with fries.

14. Go Hiking

Although Los Angeles is often portrayed as a concrete nightmarescape, one of the city's charms is its easy access to wilderness. Popular hikes include routes to the Hollywood Sign, the Batcave, or Mt. Wilson Observatory.

15. Look at Famous Imaginary Architecture

When I first started driving in Los Angeles I almost caused a major accident. I was so startled to see the Happy Days house (without the Fonz's motorcycle out front) that I slammed on the brakes.

Before moving to Los Angeles, I had never thought about film and television houses existing, in the wild, and owned by actual people, not characters. Los Angeles is still the most filmed location in the world. Although many film locations are private residences (which means no trespassing, just looking), it's still fun to see the building in real life. It's sort of the architectural equivalent of star sighting a favorite celebrity.

That said, horror fans can rent the carriage house that appears, as a location, in the first season of American Horror Story (and is located between the Murder House and Constance's House). The adjacent side portico of the host's home was used as Constance Langdon's front door, and the front lawn of the carriage house was the location of the gazebo/grave.

While there are plenty of expensive "Star Maps" bus tours that depart from Hollywood Blvd., there are many self-guided tours for various neighborhoods all over Los Angeles that are much cheaper and much more detailed. My current favorite free architectural tour is the Los Angeles Conservancy's self-guided walking tour of downtown Los Angeles based on the film 500 Days of Summer.

16. Listen to Live Music at the Hollywood Bowl

The Hollywood Bowl is the largest natural amphitheater in the country and the summer vacation home to both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Playboy Jazz Festival. In its 90-year history the Hollywood Bowl has hosted everyone from the Beatles to Stevie Wonder to John Williams to Aerosmith. While stage-side seating costs a small fortune, the acoustics are no better up close in the box seats than they are in the back row, so even poor students can have a great concert experience, in this small, unique venue.

The Hollywood Bowl is a thrifty, but romantic, date destination for foodies and for music lovers. Bring your own blanket to snuggle under and a picnic dinner to share, or rent a cushion and buy dinner from Hollywood Bowl vendors. The stacked parking is a nightmare, so prepare to walk or take one of the handy $5.00 shuttles.

What's your favorite budget experience in Los Angeles? Please share in comments!

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Guest's picture

Errata: It's TCL Chinese Theater now (which is, coincidentally, a Chinese-owned company.) The theater hasn't been owned by Mann's for a while now.

Max Wong's picture

Thanks Guest for the correction! It is the TCL Chinese Theater.

(Old habits die hard. I think I'm the only person under 80 in Los Angeles who still calls Taix restaurant Les Freres Taix).

Guest's picture

I am bringing my teenage son to Los Angeles in January - this list of awesome budget things to do is PERFECT!

Guest's picture
Mary Ellen

Wow! Great information! I used to live in Los Angeles and I didn't know about most of these! I'm bookmarking this for our next trip there.

Guest's picture

Great to know about the skate and car collection! Handy for when the fam comes to visit! Thanks

Guest's picture

Great article!! Learned a few new budget friendly things about the city I abide in, woohoo!

Guest's picture
Lisa U

awesome article that makes me love Los Angeles again!

Guest's picture
Stephanie Del Principe

I'm looking forward to visiting L.A! Such great and inexpensive ideas. Respectfully disagreeing with your point 7. Maybe the taste off should have been against the Second Avenue Deli and there would have been a different result.

Guest's picture

Great list of ideas!

Guest's picture

What an awesome list! I have done a few of these already but can't wait to do the rest. There is an amazing selection of records (CD's too) at Amoeba records and the taco trucks in LA are wonderful. If you go to Philippes for the French Dip you are close enough to Union Station to pop over and take a look at that gorgeous architecture.

Guest's picture

Thanks for this super-duper guide to LA on the cheap, (I will def use this next time my relatives show up and want to know what to do in town). This is an excellent reminder for us native Angelinos, about all the cool stuff there is to do right here in our own back yard for next to nothing! Thanks for a great article!

Guest's picture

As a former long time Angeleno, I had done some of these thing, but there were quite a few things that are going on my to do list my next trip back. Thanks for good ideas.

Guest's picture

It's amazing how you could do several of these things and still come in under $20. LA is great! Plus (IMHO) a day of shredding and buying vinyl followed by Philippes is as good as it gets.

Guest's picture
Mr. Oz

This makes me miss LA so much! I'm visiting friends this summer and moving back in fall, can't wait. So many good food options...

Guest's picture

When you live in LA it can be easy to forget how lucky we are to have so many great things to do without spending a fortune. Thanks for this!

Guest's picture

What? You can take a fitness class with Richard Simmons?!

I smell a road trip.

Thanks for the great info in this article, very different from what I expected.

Guest's picture

You speak the truth about "sore loser" New Yorkers and their endless bitterness towards LA because we've never seen a four-degree February morning or had to settle for second rate pastrami. I can attest to how great Amoeba is, and I thank you for making me love Nora Ephron again.

Guest's picture

Just came across this article and will be sending it to all my Facebook friends who constantly complain that there's nothing to do on a budget in the summertime in Los Angeles. Thanks Wisebread.