10 Under-the-Radar Activities in Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California/Oyster

Los Angeles is filled with over-the-top parties and paparazzi-driven gossip. Underneath the klieg lights, though, it’s also a place of secrets. Beyond the handshake deals and knowing winks, there are plenty of cool and interesting activities that most tourists rarely partake in, like the cave in Griffith Park that once doubled as Batman’s lair. With that in mind, we pulled together a list of some of the best under-the-radar things to do in Tinseltown.

1. Stop by The Museum of Jurassic Technology.

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You could call The Museum of Jurassic Technology a cabinet of curiosities, but that misses the point. The space, which includes permanent exhibits like a survey of pre-scientific medical cures and decaying antique dice once owned by illusionist Ricky Jay, is a spoof on private museums that were commonplace in past centuries. Are the showcases real or serious? That’s up for debate. The book “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, And Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology” attempts to reveal some of the mystery through extensive interviews with museum co-creator David Hildebrand Wilson. But of course, Wilson’s answers wind up making things even more obtuse. And, if you’ve never seen this museum Instagrammed or tweeted about, there’s a good reason: No cell phones are allowed.

2. See live music on Monday nights.

Dragging yourself out to see a band on a Monday may seem like an exhausting proposition, but if you’re in L.A. (and on vacation), the reward could be well worth the effort. Clubs like The Echo and Bootleg Theater book up-and-coming bands to play residencies -- every Monday night for a month. Typically, the musicians must agree to play only at the residency club during that month and get paid in drink tickets. So, why bother? Because a residency can be a big step up in L.A.’s crowded music scene. Such bookings helped Fitz and the Tantrums and the Silverpun Pickups build their followings. The Like even got a record deal. So, if you’re willing to get out on a Monday, you may be rewarded by seeing the next big thing. Another bonus: Residency nights are usually cheap.

3. Watch movies at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

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Los Angelenos will go just about anywhere to enjoy a good movie, including a graveyard filled with the bones of former Hollywood stars. When John Wyatt pitched the idea of hoisting a silver screen in front of the tombstones at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 2002, the staff was a bit skeptical. But the grounds were also in need of repair and a cash infusion would go a long way (Rudolph Valentino and Judy Garland are both buried here). These days, screenings of classic movies like “Yellow Submarine” and “Saturday Night Fever” occur regularly between May and September. Special events, like a showing of the “Breaking Bad” finale, are also on the calendar. So, pack up a picnic blanket, lawn chairs, and some vino for an unforgettable evening at the movies. 

4. Check out Barnsdall Art Park.

Griffith Park may have the observatory and visual references to “Rebel Without a Cause,” but it’s not the only notable patch of grass in East L.A. Just a five-minute drive away is Barnsdall Art Park, an area with a well-preserved Frank Lloyd Wright house, an art gallery, and an outstanding view of Los Angeles. Developed by Aline Barnsdall, the heiress to an oil fortune who also had a love for experimental theater, the park was intended to be 36-acre stretch where a theater troupe could live and rehearse. Barnsdall hired Wright for the project after meeting him in Chicago and falling for his designs. While the Barnsdall space didn’t quite live up to its promise, Aline gifted the grounds to the city with the stipulation that they preserve the buildings. The Wright architecture has been recently restored, and the park not only hosts art shows, but also wine tastings and a farmer’s market. Be sure to check when everything is open, as the times can be a bit unusual.

5. Order secret menu items.

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Perhaps you’ve heard about the secret menu at In-N-Out Burger, which offers specialities like four patties stacked high on one bun and French fries covered in sauce and cheese. L.A.’s favorite drive-through isn’t the only joint in town with top-secret food items, though. For example, Birdies makes a breakfast donut sandwich with plenty of greasy goodness. Kettle Black has a pizza with meatballs, pork salumi, and pancetta only available for in-the-know visitors. And Disney’s California Adventure offers a mac and cheese bread bowl at the Pacific Wharf Cafe. Of course, since the secret menu items constantly change, you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled and ears open for updates.

6. Drink up at Greenbar.

For most of the 20th century, Los Angeles had no homegrown distillery. Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew, who were engaged at the time, started making liquor infusions as a hobby. Their bottles were so popular with friends that they had to stay up late to finish all the orders. After sniffing out a liquor market filled with options that tasted like paint thinner, they decided to open their own distillery. Today, Greenbar has grown into one of California’s most popular small-batch brands, as well as a destination for distillery tours and cocktail-making classes. You can even consult with a mixologist in Greenbar’s Arts District warehouse to create a personalized drink.

7. Sail to Santa Catalina Island.

Alkan Boudewijn de Beaumont Chaglar/Flickr

You may think the days of Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth sunning and sipping drinks by the ocean are now only found on newsreels. Sail out to Santa Catalina Island, located 22 miles off the coast of California, and you may just be able to uncover some of those brilliant rays and glitzy nights you thought were lost to history. From San Pedro, the trip in an express boat is about an hour and 15 minutes. In the small and stylish waterfront city of Avalon, you can tour the Catalina Casino, an entertainment hall that once hosted legendary musicians like Harry James and Jimmy Dorsey. The Descanso Beach Club rents luxury cabanas stocked with rum drinks for those who want to live like a movie star, if only for a day. Folks can also go hiking and swimming on Santa Catalina. If you’re too tuckered out to explore the paths and hillsides, you can take it all in on a zip-line ride. 

8. Laugh it up at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

Hollywood is jam-packed with actors and comedians -- many of whom drop by small clubs to perform improv or stand-up. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is a big beneficiary of these cameo appearances. It’s not unusual to see Jack Black, Adam Conover (of “Adam Ruins Everything”), or UCB founding member Amy Poehler make guest appearances alongside talent only known locally. There are two UCB theaters in L.A. -- the more intimate location is on Franklin Avenue, and the bigger, glitzier stage is on Sunset Boulevard. However, be warned: Not every show is a winner (that’s part of the charm of improv), so choose wisely.

9. Visit Descanso Gardens.

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Often overshadowed by L.A.’s Huntington Gardens, Descanso Gardens deserves a visit, too. Originally part of a deed given by California’s first governor to Corporal Jose Maria Verdugo for his service, the land was passed down through the Verdugo family from the late 1700s to 1869. Newspaper magnate Elias Manchester Boddy purchased the land in 1937 and built a 22-room mansion on the property. The gardens were more than just a getaway for Boddy, who built up a large collection of camellias, roses, and lilacs on the grounds, making them a source for the cut flower industry. In 1953, Boddy sold the property to Los Angeles County. Today, the grounds are home to a Japanese garden, oak forest, California native plants, and more. Plus, numerous animals can be found among the trees and plants -- great horned owls, bobcats, and deer, to name a few. And the mansion now houses galleries with exhibits about science and local history.

10. Head to the Bronson Caves.

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Don’t want to trek all the way to the Hollywood sign, a nearly six-and-a-half-mile hike starting in Griffith Park? Consider a much simpler hike to a smaller, but almost as beloved, Hollywood icon -- the Bronson Caves. These caves have appeared in numerous TV shows and films, including “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” and “The Sword and the Sorcerer,” but they most famously starred as the Batcave in the Batman series. To get there, you’ll only need to hike about two-thirds of a mile. Upon arriving, you’ll realize that the Batcave is a lot smaller than you imagined. But that doesn’t mean you can’t pose for a goofy picture in front of it. As a bonus, you can look up and see the Hollywood sign on the way back. 

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