Whether you should move to Los Angeles or not is a tricky question. But if you are thinking about moving to LA, or you’re just headed there for a visit, there are some things that you should know to help make the city feel more familiar.
- The first thing you should know is that LA is massive. This is something that almost inevitably takes people by surprise — nobody really expects just how far the city sprawls, but this fact informs nearly all of the advice that follows. The city of LA itself is about half the size of Rhode Island and is home to more than 4 million people. Count all other 87 (yeah, that’s right) cities in LA County, and that number very quickly surpasses the population of many states.
- The second is that LA is characterized by a number of inherent contradictions — you’ll see sidewalk tents next to looming mansions, experience incredible sunshine as well as floods, and be able to visit both 10,000-foot mountains or barren desert in just a couple of hours.
LA’s varied landscapes and personalities mean that there’s something for everyone, but it also means that it can be a hard city to get to know.
Luckily for you, though, we’ve put together this guide to help you become an LA local in just four days. Read on for some very important things you should know about living in LA, as well as some tips on how to make the city your own.
Day 1: Read up about LA’s history
Moving to a new city can be hard, especially an unwieldy, disjointed, sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles.
But familiarizing yourself with the details of a city’s history can help ground you in your new (maybe temporary) home, and make you feel more like you belong.
So, without further ado, here’s a brief timeline of how Los Angeles came to be.
1781: in the beginning, there was…
El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles. Officially founded on September 4, 1781, “The Town of the Queen of Angels” was a settlement that was part of Spain’s colonization of California.
1800s: the birth of rehab culture
The Americanization of Los Angeles began during the second half of the 19th century, when droves of transplants from other parts of the country headed to LA in search of the “California Dream” (a.k.a. getting rich quickly).
Due to its temperate weather (no winter storms here), by the mid-1880s, LA was littered with sanitariums and health resorts, boasting remedies for all sorts of maladies.
And, although these were little more than resorts that offered a little rest and relaxation in the warm sunshine, LA quickly began gaining a reputation as the rehab capital of the world.
Early 1900s: water thievery and Hollywoodland
With more and more people flocking to Los Angeles, it quickly became clear that the town needed infrastructure. The biggest problem? A consistent water supply.
LA leaders, led by the city’s chief water engineer, William Mulholland, devised a plan to “acquire” (read: steal) the water rights to Owens Lake.
But the water from the lake was already being used by ranchers in the Owens Valley. Conveniently ignoring that fact, local leaders began building a massive aqueduct in 1907, which would carry water over 200 miles from the lake to the city.
The ranchers, understandably upset, weren’t taking this lying down. Throughout the construction of the pipeline, they tried to dynamite portions of it, setting off what came to be known as the “water wars.”
Simultaneously, folks in the movie industry — then based in the Northeast — were beset by terrible weather. When scouts began looking for a new home base, LA’s near-perfect weather, wide-open spaces, and variety of landscapes seemed like nothing short of a miracle. Welcome to Hollywood*.
*Fun fact: the original “Hollywood” sign actually read “Hollywoodland,” advertising a new housing development that was being built in the hills above it. It was only in 1949 that the sign was rebuilt by the city to spell “Hollywood” (the district) instead of “Hollywoodland” (the housing development).
1960s: racism and erasure in the land of perpetual summer
Los Angeles exists today because of its food. It became and remained a settlement because it was “good land for planting of all kinds” — where grains thrived, cattle could graze, vegetables grew like weeds, and the winter never came.
But, if abundance and the Southern Californian picnic basket are key images of Los Angeles food history, racism is undoubtedly another.
From the Tongva Indians that lived here long before the Los Angeles basin was “rightfully” claimed and settled, to the Chinese and Japanese immigrants that came for the railroad and stayed to work the groves, to the Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese, Iranian, and Cambodian populations that have fed the city ever since, LA has always had a troubled racial history.
And in the 20th century, black and brown communities in Los Angeles faced two particularly awful, systemic practices.
The first involved “sundown towns,” so called because black people were not allowed to be seen there after the sun went down (and needless to say, they weren’t allowed to live there, either). For many years, neighborhoods like Hawthorne, Palos Verdes, and South Pasadena were considered sundown towns.
The second was a similar practice known as “redlining,” under which areas comprising minority or poorer residents were designated red and yellow on maps, whereas richer (usually whiter) neighborhoods were colored green and blue. This made it difficult for people of color or poor people to secure home loans or move out of their “designated” neighborhoods.
While the Fair Housing Act formally deemed both activities illegal in 1968, the deep-seated scars of elitism, colonialism, and gentrification remain, all rolled into one artisanal, gluten-free tortilla of hurt and injustice.
Day 2: Get to know LA’s neighborhoods
Here’s what I learned from my first few hours of being in LA for the first time: people love getting into heated debates about things like the border that separates Echo Park and Silver Lake, or whether they live on the North, West, or South side of a particular neighborhood.
LA has hundreds of neighborhoods, and defining a neighborhood is pretty much impossible. Boundaries between neighborhoods are fluid, especially since each person seems to slice up the map differently, and each area has its own, very specific identity.
For instance, South Park is contemporary and modern, dotted by high-rises and rooftop bars. Venice is what you might typically think of when you think of LA. North Hollywood, in the San Fernando Valley, is calm and more residential.
But ultimately, it’s up to you how you define the enclave in which you live — whether you’re “right in the middle of Beverly Hills” or “technically in East Hollywood, kind of Thai Town, but not really.”
Day 3: Learn how to get around LA
The first time I visited LA, I spent the entire trip never knowing where I was going or how to get there. Even when I asked for directions, it felt like I was being initiated into a nihilistic cult that insisted on prefacing all their freeways with “the.” What’s up with that, LA?
The primary thing you need to know is that LA’s traffic is no joke, and because of how big the city is, you might find yourself spending hours just getting to the next neighborhood.
But regardless of whether you’re a visitor, a new transplant, or a longtime resident who’s ready to get rid of your car, here are some tips on becoming a public transport pro:
- Download CityMapper: Google Maps is helpful, but it’s not the only option out there. Check out CityMapper for detailed routes that highlight the various public transport options available to you.
- Wear walking shoes: Have we mentioned that LA is huge? No matter whether you end up driving, riding the train, or biking to work, chances are some part of your commute will include walking. Be prepared by always have a pair of comfortable walking shoes handy.
- Know the last stop before you get on the train: If you’re riding the rail (especially if you’re not super familiar with the routes), prepare before you get on board! Remembering the last stop for each train is a good way to figure out which line you need to get on and which direction you’re headed.
- Two wheels are plenty: LA has several solid bike-share options, including scooters and e-bikes — how better to take advantage of perpetual summer than cruising to work? Try a few different means of transportation to figure out what works best for you.
Day 4: Make the city your own
Truly appreciating a city, any city, can take time. Mostly because you might never truly feel at home until you establish a routine, find some favorite spots to frequent, and make friends — all things that can sometimes take time.
Which is all to say, don’t be hasty! In a few short weeks, if you’re open to letting yourself be won over, you’ll soon uncover all the wonderful things that LA has to offer.
But there are some ways to speed up the awkward transition phase from newbie to local. Here are some things you can try:
- Talk to people: The great thing about being new is that everybody expects you to constantly ask questions. Take advantage of this before people start expecting you to know better. Talk to your Lyft driver, the woman next to you on the bus, the checkout guy at the grocery store, and ask them how long they’ve been in LA, if they like where they live, or what their favorite places to eat/drink/hang out are.
- Get lost: No, literally. Let’s say it’s a Saturday afternoon and you’ve been meaning to check out a particular restaurant for dinner. Fight your instinct to just hop in a Lyft, and try to figure out if you can walk or bike there. Trying to navigate yourself (and giving yourself time to take a few detours) is one of the best ways to get a feel for how a city is laid out.
- Just say yes: …to everything. Coworker wants to get a drink? Sure! Heard about a cool event this weekend? You’re there. For the first month or so, push yourself to go out and try new things. It’ll help you figure out what things could become regular events for you, and if not, what have you got to lose?