Esotouric (read our Best of L.A. feature here) is the best tour company for putting L.A. history into context and highlighting the significance of preservation and the need for transparency when it comes to who makes decisions that might affect the future of L.A.'s urban landscape. But for those looking for a different tour focus — from freaky to frivolous — we recommended the following.
Best L.A. Tour Guide
His famous Disneyland-style field trip tours of downtown L.A. highlight the whimsical cool that many of us take for granted, framing city sites (Olvera Street, Clifton's Cafeteria, Bob Baker's Marionette Theatre) as theme park amusements to be treasured and visited often. His found-slideshow presentations are as enlightening as they are hilarious, reflecting how American pop culture, and the local landmarks and attractions Angelenos grew up with, inform how we look at our surroundings, or should. And his books are guides to the wacky, weird and wonderful best that Los Angeles has to offer. Which all makes Charles Phoenix the best person we can think of to represent the real L.A. in all its wacky charm and retro glory. Phoenix has been doing his thing in other places (Las Vegas, Palm Springs) but there's no place like home. His next local exploration will celebrate the best of the San Fernando Valley with slides, a book signing and snack time featuring a famously over-the-top desert from the C.P. test kitchen, at the Valley Relics Museum, another perfect backdrop for his giddy glimpses at vintage L.A. charlesphoenix.com.
Best Celebri-Tea Spilling Tour
For those who don't know, TMZ stands for “30-mile zone,” and on this branded TMZ Celebrity Tour, you will indeed roll throughout the area known for celeb sightings and popular film locations centered in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, but you get to go a bit beyond, too. There is a good chance you may even see an actor or two, or at the very least a B- or C-list reality star or social media “influencer.” Mostly you'll see out-of-towners looking for the above, though you will be entertained by the hired guides, who tell stories in the vivacious fashion of the TMZ TV show and blog, which means they are often pretty funny even as they glorify and degrade their very reason for existence. Lawyer turned media mogul Harvey Levin pops up now and again to surprise fans in this immersive tour, complete with custom-designed buses with state-of-the-art audio/video and phone chargers at every seat, so you're guaranteed your phone won't die before you get the perfect Hollywood selfie! tmztour.com.
Best Tour for the Starstruck
All the obvious tourist traps and haps are covered by Starline Tours, which is probably the best-known tour company in L.A. Its ubiquitous open-air double-decker buses offer different themes for their guided rides around town, and even if you're a native, it's a fun thing to try at least once. The Celebrity Homes tour (offered since 1935) takes fans through Bel-Air, Beverly Hills and Hollywood, looking at the decadent domiciles of movie stars past and present. Even if you're not a big star-monger, the architecture and luxe lifestyle on display is fun to look at. The two-day tour features a day at Universal Studios, sightseeing at Los Angeles attractions and a Madame Tussaud's ticket (perfect for those visiting out-of-town relatives who want to see everything in one fell swoop), while Starline's Haunted Hollywood tour takes you to Tinseltown's oldest and most spirited buildings and venues (including the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and the Viper Room), which seem to take on an eerie new guise even if you've been to them before. Take this tour if you appreciate supernatural lore and nostalgia and want to be with others who do, too. starlinetours.com.
Best “Walking in L.A.” Tour
For their private tours, the people at Downtown L.A. Walking Tours can customize and tailor adventures for parties, groups and corporate or social events, with rates set per hour. Often these tours explore a certain part of town and expand upon the company's public tours of regions such as L.A.'s Fashion District and Flower District or “neighborhood discoveries” in areas such as Koreatown, Culver City or Echo Park. Movie sites and filming locales, “L.A.'s Beginnings” and “Haunted Tales” are some of the more popular group outings, and all are as informative as they active. Wear comfortable shoes, shades and a hat and get ready to become one with the city. dtlawalkingtours.com.
Best Deathly Drives
Focusing on everything dead and deathly in Hollywood, Dearly Departed Tours takes you to the resting places of Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and Farrah Fawcett, to name a few, but also includes a multimedia component with crime-scene photographs and audio clips (911 calls and all) to flesh out the experience. There's also a museum featuring stuff like Rock Hudson's deathbed, a piece of the fireplace from Sharon Tate's home and Jayne Mansfield's “Death car.” Founder Scott Michaels is the authority on the subject of murder and untimely demise, so expect to hear all the gory details on Dearly Departed's various package tours, themed and inspired by Charles Manson, Karen Carpenter, James Dean, Jean Harlow and The Doors, to name a few. Legendary local rock band manager Vicky Hamilton just got her own tour, inspired by her book Appetite for Dysfunction, which chronicles “the jungle” aka pivotal places that played a part in the success of rock icons Guns N' Roses, all thankfully not departed, no thanks to their debauched lifestyles. dearlydepartedtours.com.