These charming neighborhoods and cities are all within an hour of L.A.
Written by Michael JulianoWednesday August 23 2023
It’s weird what neighborhoods we sometimes consider “walkable” in Los Angeles. A block or two of a single street with at least a couple of restaurants and bars? It might not seem like a pedestrian paradise to out-of-towners, but when so much of this city is laid out with cars in mind, we guess it’ll suffice.
But tucked within L.A. and its neighboring cities, there are a few legitimately walkable downtowns and villages with enough things to do to fill an entire day’s itinerary. We’re not talking about far-flung road trip destinations, either: To keep things within staycation territory, all of the spots below are within an hour of L.A. (and some squarely located inside the city). We also specifically wanted to focus on areas where you can park once and then spend the rest of the day on foot without getting too exhausted (nearly all are reachable by Metro or Metrolink, too). The list below highlights a half-dozen of our favorites, a mix of neighborhoods within L.A., downtowns in adjacent cities and a few spots about an hour away.
In putting this list together, we really wanted to stress the “entire day” part of the theme; Downtown Ventura and San Juan Capistrano really exude walkable day trip vibes, but we’re not sure there’s enough there to hold your attention for more than a few hours, especially given the distance. Similarly, a walkable neighorhood like Larchmont Village is lovely, but a single block doesn’t exactly make for an all-day destination. Also, while we could eat every meal of the day along Main Street in Alhambra or Figueroa Street in Highland Park, we wanted to stock each itinerary with more than merely restaurants and bars. And finally, while Downtown L.A. is packed with activity, the on-foot experience in a dense city center just lacks the same charm as the other spots on this list, hence why it didn’t make the cut.
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Walkable destinations worth spending an entire day
Photograph: The Image Party / Shutterstock.com
Leafy, mature trees provide some scenic shade all over this Pomona Valley city. Located on the very eastern edge of L.A. County, Claremont boasts seven colleges all smooshed together into one contiguous campus. It’s worth walking around here, particularly to encounter James Turrell’s Dividing the Light, a sky-framing installation by the Light and Space artist best viewed around sunrise or sunset.
On the blocks between the colleges and the train station (the Claremont stop on Metrolink), you’ll find a town with a love of folk music and casual, pubby spots (including dual BBQ spots Smoke & Fire and Gus’s). Shop and dine along the Claremont Packing House, or scope out some artwork at the Benton Museum of Art or the small but architecturally impressive Claremont Lewis Museum of Art.
About a mile north of town (and a doable walk if you want to see some beautiful homes along the way), you can stroll through native flora at the California Botanic Garden. Though it’s not in walking distance, we also have to mention the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, just north of the 210—because, seriously, what other high school do you know of that has its own dinosaur museum?
Photograph: Sundry Photography / Shutterstock.com
Thanks to plenty of trees, a half-dozen Metro stops and relatively dense clusters of businesses, Pasadena as a whole is pretty walkable. But Old Pasadena, the San Gabriel Valley city’s historic downtown area, just might be the most pedestrian-friendly spot in the county.
The shops along Colorado Boulevard are largely the same one you’d find in an upscale mall, but they’re certainly more pleasant to peruse when housed inside remarkably well-preserved old buildings, some of which date back to the late 1800s. Even the alleyways and courtyards here—lined in brick or cobblestone and dotted with restaurants and pubs—are worth a detour. On parallel roads, Union Street has become a proper culinary destination in the last few years thanks to spots like Union and Perle, as has Green Street, a tree tunnel of a road home to Agnes and Copa Vida.
You’ll find a bunch of museums on the district’s periphery: the excellent Norton Simon, with its impressive collection of Old Masters and French impressionists; a centuries-spanning mix of traditional and contemporary works at the Pacific Asia Museum; and, about a mile outside of the area, the Arts and Crafts masterpiece Gamble House. Make sure to pass by the Moorish-meets-Victorian Castle Green and walk underneath the massive dome of Pasadena City Hall.
Photograph: Felipe Sanchez / Shutterstock.com
Old Towne Orange
Easily Orange County’s most charming downtown, Old Towne Orange sports a few blocks of Mission and Classical Revival buildings centered around Plaza Park, a tree-filled island at the center of a traffic circle. You’re always within stumbling distance of a gastropub or a breakfast spot here, like the Filling Station Cafe, a cozy diner with nods towards its origin as an old gas station.
The main draw, though—assuming you’re into such things—just might be the dozen or so antique stores along Glassell Street, including the Orange Circle Antique Mall, a jam-packed indoor market (open daily) with more than 125 small vendors.
Elsewhere in town, you can see local works of 20th-century painting at the Hilbert Museum of California Art. And for any Huell Howser fans, you can find a piece of California’s gold at the Chapman University campus, which houses the late travel show host’s archives (accessible on weekdays only). If you don’t feel like driving down the 5, just take Metrolink to the Orange stop on the west side of town.
Photograph: Courtesy Main Street Business Improvement Association/Sean Paul Franjet(@spfstudios)
There’s a reason every tourist wants to visit the Santa Monica Pier: It perfectly fits that postcard-worthy image of the Southern California coast. But even if you remove that tourist-filled landmark from the equation, there’s still enough to do in Santa Monica—mostly all within walking distance—that you could easily fill a full day.
Of course, if you simply want to lounge on the beach that’ll eat up plenty of hours. You don’t need to get your feet sandy to soak in the ocean vibes, though: Walk along the length of the blufftop Palisades Parks or grab a bite at rooftop spot Elephanté for views of the coastline. In that same downtown area, plan a visit on a Wednesday or Saturday morning to shop at the most legendary farmers’ market (and maybe the most compelling reason to venture in the direction of the Third Street Promenade).
Otherwise, we’d actually suggest spending most of your time a few blocks south in Ocean Park, the city’s far more low-key hub of activity. It’s here along Main Street—the road gets particularly pedestrian-friendly past the California Heritage Museum—that you’ll find the majority of Santa Monica’s standout restaurants, like Pasjoli and Crudo e Nudo. And all the while, you’re still only about a block away from the beach.
The notorious traffic headed into and around Santa Monica means that for anybody on the other side of the 405, you’ll basically need to make a day of it to make the drive worth it. Of course, you can bypass all that by taking the E Line into the city, about a block from Santa Monica Place and Tongva Park (consider a pit stop two stations out to check out the art galleries at Bergamot Station).
Photograph: Tim Gray / Shutterstock.com
Of all Newport Beach’s man-made islands, Balboa Island is by far the folksiest. It also happens to feel more like a quaint East Coast harborfront village than the rest of Newport’s distinctly Southern Californian settlements.
Wilma’s Patio is a breakfast time staple, or you can skip straight to dessert and get your hands on a frozen banana (both Sugar N Spice and Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop claim to be the originators of the chocolate-covered treat). Outside of the mom-and-pop shops on Marine Avenue, a 1.6-mile boardwalk traces the small island’s perimeter of vacation homes.
On the southwest side of the island, you’ll find find a handful of operators offering 8-to-12-person Duffy boat rentals to (booze) cruise around Newport Bay—a fantastic way to extend your visit to right around sunset.
If there’s one downside, it’s the traffic getting onto the island. The small bridge at Marine Avenue is the most direct way in, but it routinely backs up on weekends and during the summer. Alternatively, you can take the pint-sized auto ferry from Balboa Peninsula, which might be the preferable option if you plan on riding the Ferris wheel or taking a whale watching tour by the Balboa Fun Zone.
Photograph: Courtesy Big Bar/Eugene Lee
There are pockets of walkable shopping and dining districts scattered across Central L.A., but Los Feliz stands out among them as the neighborhood best experienced on foot. A lot of that comes down to the general vibe along the area’s two main streets: Sidewalk seating at Figaro Bistro turns part of Vermont Avenue into a European facsimile and the brick patio of Alcove and Big Bar makes Hillhurst Avenue feel welcoming at all hours.
But Los Feliz also boasts some truly superlative destinations. Just over the East Hollywood edge of town, you can take a tour of the Hollyhock House (Thu–Sat 11am–4pm), the Mayan-inflected Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. Just down the street from there, you can stock up on indescribable curios at Soap Plant Wacko, or head up Vermont to peruse some novels at the leafy Skylight Books or catch American Cinematheque’s handpicked classics screening at the Los Feliz Theatre.
Of course, the neighborhood also makes for the perfect starting point to head up to Griffith Observatory. You could hike there entirely on foot (the entrance along Fern Dell, past the Trails, is ideal for that though a bit to the west), but for just 35 cents you can board a DASH bus that’ll take you right to the top. If you’re looking to make your entire Los Feliz visit completely car-free, you can start at the Vermont/Sunset stop in the B Line; it isn’t quite in the heart of town, but it’ll get you close enough.
Bonus: Beach Cities
Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo Beach all have a compact downtown area with a pier and plenty of wide beachfront. But if your main goal isn’t sunning yourself on the sand, we don’t think any single one has enough going on to hold your attention for the entire day.
But that changes if you have a bike thanks to the Strand. This 22-mile bicycle path, otherwise known as the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, traces nearly the entire extent of L.A.’s westward-facing coastline, but it’s particularly convenient between these three cities. The easy-to-follow pathway sticks right next to the sand nearly the entire way; for much of it you’ll be pedaling along a dedicated bikeway, with the exception of a stretch in Hermosa where it’s shared with pedestrians and a brief on-foot detour around the harbor in Redondo.
Each South Bay city has its own distinct character: Manhattan Beach has an upscale village vibe, Hermosa Beach is stocked with ocean-adjacent bars while Redondo Beach is kind of split in two between the busy marina at King Harbor and Riviera Village’s tony triangle of shops and restaurants on the edge of Torrance.