Four Fun Things to Do in LA If You’re Not a Disney Family

We recently had a few days stopover in Los Angeles, and I noticed that when people learned we’d be there as a family, often the first question asked was, “Oh, so you’re going to Disney?”. The answer? Quite simply, no. I had actually never even considered it, because when I think of all the amazing things that LA has to offer, Disney is just not up on that list. We just aren’t, what I would say, a Disney family.

Not that I don’t think my 5-year old daughter would love that experience. In fact, I’m sure she would. But with only 3 days at our disposal in one of the most vibrant cities in the world, I think it’s important that it’s spent in a way that’s enjoyable for everyone—which, turns out to be really easy in LA.

1. The Venice Canals

things to do in la with kids
Walking the Venice Canals. Photo: Emelie Cheng Pollard

Walk the Venice Canals and ponder the bizarre origins of this district which was built over 100 years ago by developer Abbot Kinney, who had a dream of creating a “ Venice of America”, inspired by the great European city dedicated to the fine arts. Taking this inspiration literally, he actually recreated the famous canals, filling them with gondolas, and even importing gondoliers from Italy, all the way to Southern California. Though the experiment failed and eventually gave way to people’s preference for cars – after a long period of decay and disrepair, thankfully the canals have now been restored and the area has become an iconic, historically protected, and sought-after residential neighborhood – quaint, laid back, and peaceful, but still full of surprises.

things to do in la with kids
No more gondolas, but maybe a swan or 2. Photo: Emelie Cheng Pollard

So it makes for a lovely excursion, but not only because of its fascinating history. The eclectic range of architectural styles of the homes along the canals gives it an almost surreal, theme-park quality – tudor style mansions side by side with big, modernist cube-like homes, nestled against tiny, rustic wooden cottages. Peek into people’s gardens which line the walkways, many of which are beautifully landscaped with orange trees, succulents, and flowering bushes. Since all the walkways are pedestrian only, it’s a safe place to let kids wander, and they’ll love the unorthodox selection of boats moored in front of the houses. In addition to the canoes, kayaks and rowboats – you could easily come across a vessel shaped like a swan, a pink flamingo, or perhaps a giant hippo. Playgrounds can also be found around the neighborhood, as well as colorful wall murals and pedestrian bridges to run across – a really easygoing and pleasant way to spend an hour or two.

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2. Venice Beach Boardwalk

The Venice Beach boardwalk is, in my mind at least, like the Disney of real human life. Stretching for 2.5 km along the Pacific, there are numerous street vendors and performers, where you’re sure to witness everything from mimes to breakdancers, fortune tellers to kid rappers, and everything in between. It’s lively, messy, and colorful, and impossible not to be amused by the sheer diversity and inventive randomness that abounds. The surf shops, skate park, Muscle Beach, roller skaters, juice bars, and boho crafts for sale are so typically west coast, so familiar from everything on TV – and yet with a vibe all its own in real life. There are playgrounds just off the boardwalk for when little ones need to blow off some steam, and of course the palm-tree lined beach itself – the quintessential idyllic Californian landscape.

And when you’ve had enough of the human circus that is Venice Beach, head up to Abbot Kinney Boulevard for a design-savvy antidote. Fashion, housewares, and accessories from all the best labels – both local and international. Believe the hype and eat at Gjelina’s (even the takeout counter has delicious options), and when the kids get tired of shopping, stop at Blue Star Donuts for a well-earned gourmet treat.

3. Griffith Observatory

things to do in la with kids
Spectacular views at the Griffith Observatory. Photo: Emelie Cheng Pollard

Perched at the summit of Griffith Park, the Observatory is no secret as a top attraction in LA, and rightly so. Inside are interactive exhibits on topics like the history of the universe, the edge of space, and astronomical instruments –which are engaging for both kids and adults.

There are live shows at the Planetarium which we didn’t manage to see, but have heard they’re also fantastic. But the main attraction is the beautiful building itself, its public telescopes which are open at night, and of course the iconic, breathtaking 360 degree view over the entire mammoth of a city, including the famous Hollywood sign. Standing above the sprawling grid that stretches out as far as the eye can see, is nothing short of mind blowing. If we had more time, I would have loved to spend time in the park itself –the 2nd largest in California, beautifully rugged and full of hiking trails, picnic areas, canyons, caves, and carousels.

And when it’s time for a sugar break, just a few minutes drive away is Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Los Feliz – a bright, airy, artisan ice cream shop that uses high quality ingredients to create beautifully luscious flavors like roasted strawberry buttermilk, Bangkok peanut, and wildberry lavender. So so good.

4. The Broad

things to do in la with kids
Who can resist Jeff Koons’ giant balloon dog? Photo: Emelie Cheng Pollard

Although I know many hesitate to visit art museums with young kids, I would argue that The Broad is well worth a go. Recently opened in 2015, this museum houses a collection of some of the most prominent contemporary artists from the 1950s to the present. The 2 floors of gallery space are easily navigable in about an hour ¬ – and many of the pieces are accessible and interesting to even the smallest of visitors huge, color field paintings by Elsworth Kelly, for example – or large scale sculptures like Jeff Koons’ balloon dog are instant hits.

things to do in la with kids
A sea of sparkling light in Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room

The building itself, designed by renowned architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro – is also stunningly unconventional, designed to not only showcase the art on display, but also has windows throughout the interior that reveal the inner “vault” of the museum’s storage facilities – which gives a whole new perspective on the museum experience. Kids will love the cave-like walls and passages, and Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room – a spectacular mirrored chamber where you are immersed in a sea of never-ending, twinkling colorful lights. Be sure to sign up in the digital queue as soon as you get into the museum, since admission to this exhibit is limited. And even entrance to the museum is free but limited, so as always, it pays to plan ahead and book tickets online to save yourselves the hassle of having to wait outside.

Afterwards, hop across the street to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The metallic, undulating, Frank Gehry-designed building makes a great urban post-museum play space, where kids can run and even play hide and seek in between the sweeping, shiny exterior walls. So come to think of it….perhaps even non-Disney families might need a bit of a Disney fix to complete their LA experience, after all.

things to do in la with kids

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About Emelie Cheng Pollard

Emelie Cheng PollardEmelie Cheng Pollard is an art director, graphic designer, and travel enthusiast. Born in Canada but raised by expat parents traveling the globe, she is now mother to a 5-year old of her own in Stockholm, Sweden, which she has called home for the last 10 years. Becoming a parent has only fueled her passion for travel even more, with the view that exploring the world is the best education she can possibly provide. Through writing, documenting and sharing travel stories and tips, she hopes to inspire other families to embrace adventure and go abroad without fear. Follow her on Instagram and Pinterest.

Click here to read Emelie's articles

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