There are plenty of free and cheap things to do in Los Angeles. As a traveler, the issue is getting to them. From Los Angeles International Airport, rental cars recently priced out around $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 isn’t unusual.
But there is a bargain alternative: the subway, a steal at $1.75 for a ride, $5 for a day pass or $18 for a week.
In Los Angeles, land of traffic jams, the go-to vehicle is the car. But for decades, Los Angeles County’s public transit authority, Metro, has been trying to wean Angelenos from their autos, 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 downtown 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 link to Los Angeles International Airport, one among nine future stations set to open before the city hosts the 2028 Summer Olympics.
The system’s utility to residents varies by 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 a Metro route.”
Nothing makes me feel more familiar with a destination than successfully navigating it. In my view, going places isn’t knowing places unless I can find my way using local modes of transport. When I told friends I was heading to Los Angeles to see the city by subway, one joked that it would be “a very short story.” An Angeleno who admitted she had never taken the train advised I pack pepper spray.
But three days of riding the rails proved them mostly wrong. Not only is the subway well connected to popular sites — from Santa Monica beaches to downtown museums — its trains run frequently. Though my experience was not threatening, the system has struggled with an evident influx of homeless people riding the trains. On several occasions, I rode with Metro ambassadors, employees who travel the system to educate the public and help ensure safety.
In a county that covers more than 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 transit. Bus lines and ride services can fill the gaps, but with one notable exception — the FlyAway Bus, which runs roughly every half-hour between the airport and Union Station downtown ($9.75) — I stuck to the trains as a test of their utility. Here’s what I found.
All lines lead downtown
The FlyAway Bus dropped me at Union Station, a 1939 Mission Moderne gem that serves not just as a hub for Amtrak trains and regional Metrolink service in Los Angeles County and five surrounding counties, but also as the nexus of three Metro lines, the A, B and D.
These subway lines make several stops throughout downtown, an area filled with cultural attractions — including the original Mexican settlement on Olvera Street opposite Union Station — and many hotels, such as the Freehand Los Angeles.
About four blocks from the closest 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 macramé wall hangings and eclectic art reminiscent of thrift shops (I paid $150 a night).
The next morning, I recognized fellow budget guests — a French family in town to see Lakers games, a pair of Danish backpackers and an Irish student group — in the nearby subway stop.
“Guests will ask for schedules and the nearest stops, and it’s a little funny because we drive everywhere,” said Rich Oken, the general manager of the hotel, referring to the staff.
Between the subway and walking, I found downtown easy to navigate and rich to explore, starting at the Broad museum (free), an impressive home for the collectors Eli and Edythe Broad’s contemporary art collection filled with works by Basquiat, Lichtenstein and Warhol. On the next block, I took a break in the quiet gardens behind the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a swooping steel landmark by the architect Frank Gehry.
Nearby, I rode Los Angeles’s shortest railway, Angels Flight, a 1901 funicular that summits 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. Surfacing at the Hollywood/Highland station was like emerging in a low-rise, sunny Times Square. Actors dressed as Spider-Man and Michael Jackson were posing with tourists for tips. Touts were hawking TMZ bus tours of celebrity hangouts. I immediately crossed paths with Groucho Marx’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
The starry route passed the 1927 Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now known as TCL Chinese Theater) where I sized up my footprint with Robert De Niro’s among the many celebrity salutes cemented in pavement before its entrance.
The B Line offers access to less frenzied neighborhoods too, including Koreatown, where I backtracked to enjoy salmon slicked in umami oil from the conveyor belt sushi spot Kura ($3.65 a plate).
The route also offers a ready solution for reaching 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 LADOT DASH bus to the Griffith Park Observatory, popular for its rooftop views, and watched a stirring star show in the planetarium ($10).
Train to the beach
First-time visitors are often surprised at the size of metro Los Angeles, which encompasses Long Beach in the south, Malibu in the west and the San Gabriel Mountains in 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 L.A., and it’s a long 12 miles, whether you’re driving or taking public transportation,” said Mr. Oken, the Freehand manager.
On a Wednesday at 8:30 a.m., Google Maps put the train ride on the E Line from downtown at just over an hour, the same as the drive, excluding the hunt for parking.
Running mostly above ground, the E Line provided a ride-by tour past the University of Southern California campus to Culver City and finally Santa Monica. Recorded announcements identified the attractions near each stop, such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and Exposition Park at the Expo Park/USC stop.
The E Line ends a few blocks from the popular Santa Monica Pier, filled with amusement park rides and restaurants, which were mostly closed in the morning, as a guitarist played the lonely Latino standard “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” to walkers enjoying tranquil views.
Renting a beach cruiser bike from Blazing Saddles ($13 for one hour) on the pier, I pedaled south about three miles to the oceanfront neighborhood of Venice, where quad roller skaters performing pirouettes drew gawkers.
With its manicured boutique hotels and trendy restaurants, Santa Monica felt exclusive, an impression corrected by the colorful Jamaican shack Cha Cha Chicken, just a block from the beach, serving plates of spicy jerk chicken (from $11.95) on a shaded patio amid paintings of Bob Marley.
“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 in each station.
“Art is a component of an introduction to the system,” said Maya Emsden, who oversees Metro’s public art programs, including the commissioning of art for each of the seven current K Line stations. “It’s an eye-opener.”
On my final 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 to SoFi Stadium, where the N.F.L.’s Rams and Chargers play.
In Crenshaw, some of the most intriguing art on the route has yet to be unveiled. The economic development organization Destination Crenshaw is commissioning works by more than 100 Black artists to be installed in a centerpiece park and along 1.3 miles of Crenshaw Boulevard beside the grade-level train tracks. The project will represent “the talent and creativity and passion we have for the community,” said Jason Foster, the organization’s president and chief operating officer, over coffee at Hot & Cool 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 a second story. Set to open next February, the park, part of the $100 million project, will showcase a sculpture from Mr. Wiley’s “Rumors of War” series and “Car Culture,” a work by the artist Charles Dickson, based in Compton, Calif., that features African figures crowned by cars.
“When the airport connection is done, this will be the first thing people see in L.A.,” Mr. Foster said, adding his hopes that the park will become a neighborhood attraction along the lines of Little Tokyo or Mariachi Plaza, both accessible by train.
In three days, I never did get to the Hollywood sign. But wherever I went, I saved money, emissions and incalculable, gridlock-induced stress.
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