Los Angeles or San Francisco: which should you visit first?

Keith Drew

written by
Keith Drew

updated 19.02.2019

They’re two of the biggest cities in the United States. They’re two of the most famous cities in the world. Los Angeles and San Francisco have been written about, sung about, and eulogised a thousand times on the silver screen.

But which of these West Coast heavyweights should be first on your travel list? Here’s our lowdown on what they have to offer.

Which city has the most intoxicating views?

Let’s face it, both US cities have some seriously memorable views.

San Francisco is a much easier city to get a handle on, and you can start putting everything into place from the top of Alamo Hill in the Western Addition. The view across Alamo Square is a postcard seller’s dream, the Painted Ladies (a row of colourful Victorian houses) providing the scenic foreground to a cityscape that stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge.

Given Los Angeles’ rambling sprawl, it’s harder to find one defining vista of this city, but the lookout from the Griffith Observatory in Hollywood comes closest. You’ll probably recognise its distinctive facade from Rebel Without a Cause and La La Land, and if you head up here just before dusk, the views are just as stellar, with the lights of Downtown’s skyscrapers twinkling into life in the valley below.

The Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles


Which city is home to the trendiest neighbourhoods?

Historically, Downtown LA has been the city’s forgotten central suburb, easily outshone by the sparkle of Hollywood. But in recent years, the district has undergone a renaissance. Skid Row – the area with the largest concentration of homeless people in America – is a reminder that there’s unfortunately still a long way to go, but elsewhere DTLA is on the up.

The grand old buildings and movie palaces of Broadway have been restored, Frank Gehry’s futuristic-looking Walt Disney Concert Hall has added some heavyweight cultural panache, and Koreatown and the Arts District are awash with trendy restaurants and bars and cutting-edge galleries such as Hauser & Wirth.

It’s fair to say that Mission district in San Francisco has been on visitors’ radars a tad longer. The city was officially founded here in 1776, around the iconic Mission Dolores, the old Spanish mission that still dominates 16th Street and gives the district its name.

Despite being San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhood, the Mission has constantly reinvented itself to remain its hippest one as well. Here a strong Latino culture runs alongside cool boutiques, vintage clothes shops, edgy galleries and, on and around Balmy Alley, the city’s largest concentration of murals.

Find out more about trendiest neighbourhoods with our in-depth guide to the best places to stay in San Francisco or check our guide on the most hyped areas to stay in LA to get the full picture.

What about the big sights?

Well, they don’t come much bigger than the Golden Gate Bridge, which spans the channel between San Francisco and Marin County in Northern California. Once the longest bridge in the world, it’s best appreciated by walking or cycling over, so you can properly take in the immense scale of it all.

Out in the Bay sits Alcatraz – San Francisco’s other legendary landmark – the high-security prison once home to Al Capone and other notorious names, which you can now explore on an atmospheric audio tour.

The sight that most encapsulates Los Angeles has got to be Hollywood Boulevard. This is where it all began, the first Hollywood premiere taking place at the Egyptian Theatre (which you can poke around on monthly guided tours), and where the biggest names in showbiz are written in stars along the pavement on the so-called Walk of Fame.

The Oscars are still held in the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland, and just down from here is the TCL Chinese Theatre, famous for the celebrity handprints and footprints enshrined in the concrete outside.

Hollywood Boulevard


Where can I find the best food?

California has its own style of cooking, a health-conscious fusion cuisine that revolves around locally sourced ingredients. It was born in Berkeley, the city just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, but is arguably best appreciated in Los Angeles. Try Spago, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s Beverly Hills restaurant that helped put California cuisine on the map, or Off Vine, for comfort cooking in a Craftsman’s bungalow in Hollywood.

While there might be a taqueria on virtually every street corner in LA, undoubtedly one of the best places for Mexican food is San Francisco’s Mission district. The super burrito, a huge tortilla filled with far more ingredients than you’ll find in its Southern California counterpart, was invented in the city and is packed to perfection at La Taqueria on Mission Street.



Which is the best base for a day-trip?

A world away from foggy San Francisco Bay but little more than an hour’s drive up Highway 101, the sun-drenched Wine Country is a popular day-trip or weekend break for San Franciscans. Follow them up to busy Napa Valley or pretty Sonoma and spend your time tasting Chardonays and Cabernet Sauvignons at dozens of attractive wineries. Outdoorsy types can also take advantage of the hiking opportunities in the Mayacamas mountains.

In LA’s warmer climes, do what Angelenos do and escape the city for the seaside. LA has nearly 75 miles of coastline, so you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing the perfect beach. Head to Santa Monica for wide swathes of golden sand and the funfair pier, or nearby Venice Beach for street artists and an alternative vibe. Or hire a board and ride the waves at Malibu or Huntington Beach, aka Surf City USA.

Vineyards in The Wine Country, California.

Alexandra Latypova/Shutterstock

So, what’s the verdict?

Well, it depends on what you’re after. For glitz and glamour and some cutting-edge culture in the SoCal sunshine, it’s got to be LA. But for a smaller-town feel with big-name sights, you’re best off in San Francisco. Better still, rent a car, drive the spectacular coastal highway that connects the two, and take in both cities on one trip.

Discover more of California with The Rough Guide to California. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

Norwegian now fly up to five times a week from London Gatwick to Oakland, a short BART ride from San Francisco, and daily from London Gatwick to Los Angeles.

Loews Regency San Francisco is located in the heart of the city’s central Financial District, with smart rooms, a spa and the 40th-floor Sky Deck. Its sister LA property, Loews Hollywood, is just yards from Hollywood Boulevard, with stylish rooms and a heated rooftop pool.

Keith Drew

written by
Keith Drew

updated 19.02.2019

A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website Lijoma.com. Follow him @keithdrewtravel on Twitter and @BigTrips4LittleTravellers on Instagram.

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