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For many people, the city of Los Angeles means endless skyscrapers, Beverly Hills, movie sets, and the Hollywood sign. With a population of almost 4 million people, L.A. can definitely feel like an overcrowded metropolis.

But L.A. is also full of pleasant surprises. Hidden throughout this large and sprawling city are dozens of spots to enjoy nature, appreciate art and architecture, and relax in beautiful, manicured gardens. Whether visitors want to take on a physical challenge or just enjoy a peaceful stroll, there are many places in the City of Angels to do just that while feeling as if the urban expanse has been left behind.

Kayakers on the Los Angeles River.

Kayak The Los Angeles River

The Los Angeles River has not always been a point of pride in the city. For much of the city’s history, this cement-covered waterway had no visible connection to nature. But thanks to the work of the Friends of the LA River, small sections have gradually been restored. And fortunately, plans are in place to restore many more miles of this waterway.

To help the city’s residents reacquaint themselves with this watershed, kayak tours along the revitalized stretches of the river were launched in 2013. Today two companies, LA River Kayak Safari and LA River Expeditions offer tours while LA River Kayaks offers rentals. One of the great advantages of Los Angeles is the weather, and both tours and rentals are available year-round. However, the tours are quite popular with locals and visitors, so advanced reservations are recommended.

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Wendy Lee

Explore The Getty Art And Gardens

A visit to Los Angeles without exploring The Getty would be a darn shame. According to Fodor’s, The Getty is one of 21 must-see art museums in the United States.

Due to its large campus, open design, and lovely gardens, visitors are dispersed throughout the property, minimizing lines and offering everyone plenty of opportunities to appreciate beauty -- both natural and man-made -- up close.

Four pavilions -- North, South, East, and West -- house large collections of European and American art including painting, sculpture, and photography. Outside, contemporary and modern sculptures can be found. The J. Paul Getty Collection is vast, so rotating exhibits are regularly offered.

What makes The Getty especially unique are the five gardens presented as works of art that change with each season. Pictured frequently is the Central Garden, designed to be explored on a circular, downward path.

The Getty Campus is designed for relaxation. Ample benches and tables can be found everywhere, both inside and out, and the gardens offer plenty of shade. This is not a museum to rush through as part of a busy day, but instead a place to enjoy leisurely.

If time permits, free architecture and garden tours are offered throughout the day in addition to audio tours available for check-out in the Museum Entrance Hall.

The Huntington Library in Los Angeles.

Sip Tea At The Huntington

Located in the city of San Marino, less than 30 minutes outside of L.A., is The Huntington Library, which in addition to its literary holdings, also offers an impressive art collection and botanical gardens. Originally a private home and estate, The Huntington is now open to the public and offers a lovely and peaceful respite.

With 16 themed gardens spread amongst 120 acres, it is certainly possible to spend an entire day outdoors at The Huntington. Stroll the paths through the Rose Garden and into the Japanese and Chinese Gardens, then wander amongst the cacti of the desert garden. While the gardens are lovely to view, part of this organization’s mission is to study and preserve plant life, so the biodiversity here is impressive.

To truly experience this place, be sure to allow time to explore both the art and library collections. The art collection boasts 36,000 pieces while the library is home to a staggering 9 million items. Most are not available for public viewing, but both the art and library collections that can be seen are fascinating.

The art galleries open to the public include American sculpture, paintings, sketches, and decorative arts like furniture, ceramics, and textiles. Highlights in the library exhibits include medieval English manuscripts and historic maps dating back centuries.

After a full day of appreciating art and gardens, it’s time for tea. The Huntington has long been known for its Rose Garden Tea Room, which serves traditional English tea complete with scones and finger sandwiches. Advanced reservations for tea are highly recommended.

The Sepulveda Adobe in California.
Sepulveda Adobe / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hike With Ocean Views In Malibu

Malibu is recognized by many as the home of celebrities, but what isn’t as well known are the challenging and scenic hiking trails in this region.

Malibu Creek State Park offers 15 miles of waterside hiking and the opportunity to see the site where the television show MAS*H was filmed. In addition, there are historic sites from the 19th century, most notably the Sepulveda Adobe. You’ll find it hard to believe that downtown Los Angeles is just 30 minutes away.

For ocean-view hiking, head to the aptly named Ocean View Trail in Zuma Canyon. This trail has a 750-foot elevation gain, so it’s a good workout, but the views of Zuma Beach make it worth the effort.

The coast at Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Explore The Sea Caves Near Palos Verdes Peninsula

Just west of Los Angeles is the wealthy, oceanfront community of Palos Verdes Peninsula. Unknown to most visitors, this area offers spectacular ocean views and the opportunity to hike, swim, and explore sea caves and tide pools.

One of the best spots to experience this part of the coast is Abalone Cove Ecological Reserve. After parking, it’s possible to walk down to the beach and simply relax. But for those looking for more challenge, continue hiking along the beach past Sacred Cove, and eventually arrive at the sea caves and tide pools. Caution is needed here since the rising tides can cause swimmers to become trapped. Also be aware that the rocks can be slippery.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Visit The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels

Located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles is one of the most innovative and impressive cathedrals in the United States, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The drive here will feel just like any other city experience, but enter this place of worship and be transported to a realm of peace and awe.

Completed in 2002, this cathedral is unlike any other in the U.S. or Europe. As a modern house of worship located on the West Coast, the architect, Moneo, wanted it to reflect the region and therefore the 11-story concrete building is the color of sun-baked adobe.

Inside the cathedral is an impressive art collection. Artist John Nava was commissioned to design 25 tapestries representing 135 Catholic saints. The subtle colors of the tapestries blend well with the building materials selected by the architect.

Self-guided tours are available whenever the cathedral is open and docent-led tours are offered Monday through Friday.

The Hollywood Bowl in California.

Listen To Great Music At The Hollywood Bowl

In the heart of one of L.A.’s most densely populated neighborhoods is one of its best music venues, the Hollywood Bowl. Opened in 1922, this outdoor landmark theater offers a wide range of summer performances, from classical and pops to jazz and world music. The acoustics here are excellent and despite being in the middle of a metropolis, all visitors will see are the surrounding Hollywood Hills.

It’s long been the tradition to take plenty of time on concert nights to soak in the whole experience, so many Angelenos arrive early to enjoy a picnic dinner. For out-of-town guests, pre-packaged picnics can be purchased, or meals can be enjoyed at several different restaurants on the property. There is also a Hollywood Bowl Museum on site that is free for concert-goers.

The canals in Venice Beach, Califorina.

Stroll The Canals In Venice Beach

In 1905, developer and conservationist Abbot Kinney set out to replicate Venice, Italy, and selected a section of Los Angeles to build a series of canals. After his death, the area went through tremendous changes and most of these waterways were filled in and paved. However, several of the original canals still exist and are now on the National Historic Register.

A visit to Venice Beach should be part of any L.A. itinerary, but much of it won’t be quiet or relaxing. Fortunately, a stroll through the canals provides a nice reprieve from the rest of the area. Along the waterways are lovely homes, often brightly colored with charming gardens. In the water are kayaks, canoes, and even a few boats shaped like animals. Sporadically situated bridges allow strollers to cross back and forth over the canals, and no two bridges are alike.

For those interested in more of the history of the canals, several companies offer walking tours.

Peace In The City Of Angels

It’s true that L.A. is a large, sprawling, and often congested city. But it’s also a place full of surprises that offers endless opportunities to experience the great outdoors and appreciate art and music in lovely settings. A visit to the City of Angels should include a mix of the busy and iconic sights along with the lesser-known and more peaceful.

L.A. bound? Don’t miss these eight delightful hidden gems in Los Angeles.

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