LOS ANGELES – It's been called, sometimes derisively, a collection of 72 suburbs in search of a city.
Still, there's a lot of stuff to see and do inside those 72 suburbs that are said to comprise Los Angeles, a place that at 469 square miles (2,214 square kilometers) is big enough to hold all of New York's five boroughs with enough room left over for San Francisco.
Much of what's here is ridiculously expensive, of course. Think the fancy eateries along La Cienega Boulevard or the trendy bottle-service clubs in Hollywood and elsewhere. But at the same time, there is an impressive array of just really cool things to see and do for absolutely nothing, from Hollywood to the beach.
Here is a modest list of just five:
The intersection of Hollywood and Highland is the crossroads for the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where more than 2,400 terrazzo-and-brass stars containing the biggest names in the entertainment business can be viewed by just walking down the sidewalk. You'll find everyone from Clark Gable to Johnny Depp, Marilyn Monroe to Meryl Streep. You can also gaze upon a lot of people in that neighborhood who are dressed up to look just like some of the stars, especially Marilyn. But if you take their pictures they'll want money, so stop by instead at the courtyard to the famous Chinese Theatre. There you'll find the stars' names, and their hand and footprints, immortalized in concrete. There's everyone from Mary Pickford, who left her prints in 1927, to Robert De Niro, who put his there Feb. 4.
Last stop, appropriately enough, should be the Hollywood Forever cemetery. While some burial grounds frown on tourists wandering around looking for stars' graves, this one, featured in the 2010 film "Valentine's Day," does not. It even has a map on its website telling you just where to find the final resting places for punk-rocker Johnny Ramone, director John Huston and dozens of others. For details, check out www.walkoffame.com , www.tclchinesetheatres.com and www.hollywoodforever.com
This place once defined LA's reputation as a city where there is no there there. But no more. It has undergone a revival in recent years, adding upscale condos, chichi bars and the iconic, Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. The area to visit for the cool free stuff, though, is on the north side of the Hollywood Freeway, home to the historic El Pueblo de Los Angeles, where the city was founded in 1781. There you'll see many of its oldest and most beautiful buildings restored to their previous grandeur. LA's oldest existing house, the Avila Adobe built, in 1818, is located on colorful Olvera Street and offers free tours. A couple blocks away is Union Station, renowned for both its beauty and distinctive fusion of Spanish Colonial and Art Deco architecture when it opened in 1939. With its huge waiting room and landscaped gardens, the place, still a working train station, offers a perfect venue for reading, resting, people watching or taking a lunch break. For more information, www.elpueblo.lacity.org .
With more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) of free hiking trails, many of them winding through chaparral-covered canyons and over hillsides, Griffith Park bills itself as the largest urban wilderness in the United States. While the zoo and some of the park's other attractions charge admission, the world-famous Griffith Observatory does not. Nighttime visitors are free to check out the moon and stars through its powerful telescopes, while those arriving during the day can safely gaze at the sun. Or they can just walk outside to take in some of the city's best views of the iconic Hollywood Sign. Details: www.laparks.org/dos/parks/griffithpk .
Arguably the best free people-watching venue anywhere west of New York's Times Square and with the added bonus that it never gets really cold here. An afternoon stroll down 1½-mile (2.4-kilometer) Ocean Front Walk will take people past one of the most colorful collections of skateboarders, street artists, fortune tellers, jugglers, mimes, acrobats, unicycle riders, actors, dancers, musicians, street preachers and armchair philosophers found anywhere in the United States. Immediately to the west of the walk is a wide expanse of soft, white sand and blue Pacific Ocean. Immediately east, sandwiched between the juice bars, T-shirt shops and takeout food places is an impressive array of medical marijuana dispensaries. Details at www.venicebeach.com .
NETHERCUTT MUSEUM & COLLECTION
One of the city's best kept secrets, even to its residents. This free museum is located in Sylmar, a neighborhood of modest, 1950s-era homes in the farthest northeast corner of the city's San Fernando Valley, where thousands of olive trees once stood. Inside are more than 250 beautifully restored, classic automobiles dating to the 1800s. Outside is a fully restored steam locomotive and 1912 Pullman passenger car that visitors may walk through. The collection also includes antique clocks, watches and musical instruments. If you must visit The Valley, as locals call it, this is likely the best free thing to see there. Visit www.nethercuttcollection.org for details.