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L.A. on the cheap: You can fit California into your budget, even with high gas prices

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 9:32 p.m. MDT

A young visitor to Los Angeles' Petersen Car Museum enjoys the museum's Hot Wheels exhibit. (Greg Kratz) A young visitor to Los Angeles' Petersen Car Museum enjoys the museum's Hot Wheels exhibit. (Greg Kratz)

As Utah heads into what promises to be the summer of high gas prices, a vacation seems a luxury many families can't afford.

True, Utah itself is full of fabulous places to spend a few days, from its cool northern mountains to its fiery and fabulous south.

But if you're looking further afield, consider Los Angeles. The City of Angels is a huge metropolis one long day's drive away, and despite its expensive reputation, it's full of cheap vacation fun for families. From lodging to eats to fun things to do, you can structure a Los Angeles vacation in which those horrible gas prices are by far your biggest expense. Here's how.

What to do

For starters, let's not say the D word. Forget, temporarily, that there is such a place as Anaheim. While a trip to the Mouse House is, indeed, wonderful, it's also expensive. And besides, there is so much more to Los Angeles than making sure your kids get a ride on the teacups, the Matterhorn and California Screamin'.

A plate of steaming shrimp potstickers awaits a young customer at Empress Pavilion, a famous dim sum restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown district. (Stacey Kratz) A plate of steaming shrimp potstickers awaits a young customer at Empress Pavilion, a famous dim sum restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown district. (Stacey Kratz)

Instead, consider some of these lesser-known, radically lower-priced, but no less fun, options.

Petersen Car Museum

Situated in the mid-Wilshire/Museum District neighborhood, this museum is a kids' paradise with plenty of interest for adults — and its location in a city known for its longtime love-hate relationship with cars makes it a great Los Angeles stop.

Visitors enter the museum through a streetscape that tells the story of the evolution of the automobile in the 20th century and how the car helped make modern Los Angeles what it is today.

But what they will really love are the acres of classic hot rods, custom and performance cars, historic motorcycles and race cars and the "Hollywood Gallery" featuring famous cars from movies, television shows and celebrities — like the Batmobile and Batcycle, for starters.

A quickly-diminishing plate of Chinese broccoli drizzled with dark, savory sauce is one of the delights available at Los Angeles' Empress Pavilion, a famous Chinatown dim sum spot. (Stacey Kratz) A quickly-diminishing plate of Chinese broccoli drizzled with dark, savory sauce is one of the delights available at Los Angeles' Empress Pavilion, a famous Chinatown dim sum spot. (Stacey Kratz)

Kids — particularly any little boys in the group — will adore the Hot Wheels Hall of Fame, a gallery entered through a giant, glowing Hot Wheels tire studded with die-cast cars. The little boy in our group (and, frankly, the former little boy who is his father) loved this gallery so much that, even after spending hours in the museum and having a late lunch, he wanted to go back.

Petersen Car Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd. at Fairfax. Admission $10 adults, $5 students and military with ID, $8 seniors, $3 children 5-12. Free for children under 5. Closed Monday except for certain holidays; otherwise open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. www.petersen.org

Fun fact: In the Petersen Car Museum's May Family Dicovery Center, kids can ride in a Model T, pretend to race an Indy Car and become the spark plugs in a giant combustion engine.

Visitors enjoy a weekend walk through Los Angeles' Chinatown, one of the city's many ethnic neighborhoods. (Left to right: Cassie Palmer, Kate Kratz, Emma Kratz) (Stacey Kratz) Visitors enjoy a weekend walk through Los Angeles' Chinatown, one of the city's many ethnic neighborhoods. (Left to right: Cassie Palmer, Kate Kratz, Emma Kratz) (Stacey Kratz)

La Brea Tar Pits

This classic L.A. attraction is often forgotten these days in favor of amusement parks and beaches. But its timeless appeal is better than ever and has been updated with museums, garden spots and plenty of activities for families.

Located just down the road from the Petersen Car Museum, the facility — the site of a huge natural asphalt pond used by humans for centuries — now includes multiple still-active excavation sites; the George C. Page Museum housing some of the tar pits' best finds; the Fishbowl, a glass-walled paleontological laboratory where visitors can watch scientists clean, sort and classify fossils; and several gardens.

One is the Atrium, an uncovered, 9,000-square-foot courtyard in the center of the museum. Kids will like the koi fish swimming through the garden's waters and the weird ginkgo trees whose branches embrace multiple benches.

Sincere Imports, in L.A.'s Chinatown district, offers inexpensive souvenirs to the city's visitors. (Stacey Kratz) Sincere Imports, in L.A.'s Chinatown district, offers inexpensive souvenirs to the city's visitors. (Stacey Kratz)

The tar pits' other green spot is the outdoor Pliestocene Garden, which features the pine trees, sage bushes and grass species that grew in that spot when the animals whose remains fill the tar pits were alive.

La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum, 5801 Wilshire Blvd. Open daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission $11 adults, $8 seniors and students, $5 kids 5-12, free for kids 4 and under. www.tarpits.org

Fun fact: There are no dinosaurs at the La Brea Tar Pits. Dinosaurs had been extinct for 65 million years by the time the tar pits oozed up out of the ground. Instead, look for fossils of wooly mammoths, bison, condors, ancient wolves and bears and, of course, saber-toothed tigers.

The Dragon Gate guards an entrance to Los Angeles' historic Chinatown area. (Stacey Kratz) The Dragon Gate guards an entrance to Los Angeles' historic Chinatown area. (Stacey Kratz)

Griffith Observatory

Up a winding road from Griffith Park, through some of Los Angeles' most pricey real estate, is one of the city's true treasures. And it's free!

If you've seen "Rebel Without a Cause" or "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," you will recognize this beautiful, three-domed building, which opened in the 1930s as a true observatory of the people: visitors are welcome to use the telescopes.

Recently, the observatory underwent a multi-year renovation and expansion that has made it one of the best planetariums in the nation. From the "hall of the eye" and "hall of the sky" exhibits on the main floor to the "edge of space" and "depths of space" areas in the new lower level, the observatory encourages visitors to raise and widen their focus to a more expansive view.

And views there most certainly are: do not miss The Big Picture. At 152 feet long and 20 feet high, it is the largest astronomical image ever made — and still only covers an area of the night sky about as big as your thumb held a foot from your face.

Soups, mango lassi, and small plates of complex, spicy finger food are on the menu at Surati Farsan Mart in L.A.'s Little India neighborhood. (Stacey Kratz) Soups, mango lassi, and small plates of complex, spicy finger food are on the menu at Surati Farsan Mart in L.A.'s Little India neighborhood. (Stacey Kratz)

But the very best view of all is from the observatory's graceful terraces and promenades. You will see the whole of Los Angeles, in all its hilly, smoggy, palm-spangled glory, spread out before you, from the ocean in the distance to the misty hills, one with the Hollywood sign, receding behind. And besides a hike up the hill from your parking spot, it costs nothing. Even in L.A., the best things in life are often free.

Griffith Observatory, 2800 E. Observatory Road. Open Wednesday-Friday noon-10 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Open Tuesdays in summer. Admission and parking free; planetarium tickets $7 adults, $5 seniors and students, $3 children 5-12. Kids 5 and under admitted only to the day's first show. www.GriffithObservatory.org

Fun fact: Griffith Observatory is named for Griffith J. Griffith, a local businessman originally from Wales, who gave more than 4,300 acres of land to the city. That area, Griffith Park, now houses numerous recreational areas, the L.A. Zoo, golf courses, the observatory and miles of pleasantly woody, untamed-looking parkland.

Two young visitors to L.A.'s Petersen Car Museum take a "ride" in a vintage automobile in one of the museum's many kid-friendly exhibits. (Greg Kratz) Two young visitors to L.A.'s Petersen Car Museum take a "ride" in a vintage automobile in one of the museum's many kid-friendly exhibits. (Greg Kratz)

Where to shop, eat

Los Angeles is one of America's restaurant capitals, with among the most fabulous and expensive shopping in the world.

But long before it earned that reputation, the city was a mÉlange of more ethnic neighborhoods than a visitor could see in weeks of traveling — Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Little Armenia, historic Jewish districts, even a Byzantium neighborhood. Whichever one you visit will offer inexpensive dining as well as some fun shopping finds. Here are just a few: one well-known classic, and a couple of less famous spots.

Chinatown

L.A.'s Chinatown, bounded by Hill Street and Sunset Boulevard, doesn't get a lot of respect these days. Most of the city's Chinese residents don't live here, after all, and it's not very big.

Customer wait to dig into mango, pistachio, rose and "mawa" ice creams at Saffron Spot, a unique creamery in Los Angeles' Little India neighborhood. (Stacey Kratz) Customer wait to dig into mango, pistachio, rose and "mawa" ice creams at Saffron Spot, a unique creamery in Los Angeles' Little India neighborhood. (Stacey Kratz)

But this compact spot makes up for that in character and history. Strolling through picturesque Central Plaza on a Saturday or Sunday morning, expect to encounter old men sitting on courtyard benches playing Chinese chess; crowds of all ethnicities tossing coins into a fountain promising riches or love; and shopkeepers offering all manner of cheap (sometimes in every sense of the word) souvenirs, plus the occasional fortune-telling.

Kids love the Dragon Gate looming over Broadway Street and the stores, but keep them in control; many shops are crowded, and it's easy to dislodge the merchandise. Parking in the area is also cheap.

Where to eat

Empress Pavilion (www.empresspavilion.com) — This grande dame of Los Angeles dim sum restaurants offers all the atmosphere a visitor could possibly want: in the heart of Chinatown, with a staff of regal older women and busily rushing young men offering dozens of selections from steaming carts. Each order (about $2.50-$6) has four portions, and you're charged a la carte. There are numerous kid-friendly options, particularly the golden-brown baked or snow-white steamed barbecue pork buns. Figure out how much you want to spend and enjoy! Recommended: super-savory, crisp-tender-crusted potstickers filled with veggies and tiny, perfect shrimp; seasoned sticky rice cooked with several kinds of meat while wrapped in bamboo leaves; and Chinese broccoli, steamed and drizzled with dark, savory sauce.

The exterior of Cottage Art, a popular shopping spot in Los Angeles' Little India neighborhood. (Stacey Kratz) The exterior of Cottage Art, a popular shopping spot in Los Angeles' Little India neighborhood. (Stacey Kratz)

Phillipe the Original (www.phillipes.com) — This restaurant, opened in 1908 a few blocks from Chinatown, is where the "french dip" sandwich was invented, and they still do it better than just about anyone else. Walk in past a rank of vintage phone booths and rows of long communal tables and line up at a carving station, where you can order a beef, pork, lamb, turkey or ham sandwich on a crusty roll, single-dipped, double-dipped or "wet" with Phillipe's amazing gravy-like jus. The sandwiches, about $6-$8, are big enough for two kids to share, and there are lots of bargain sides, from a bowl of canned peaches to potato salad. Don't miss the super-crunchy pickles and the house specialty, bright fuchsia pickled eggs that taste pre-deviled and cost just a dollar. They have breakfast and cold sandwiches, too, but just stick to "the original." You won't regret it.

Where to shop

Many Chinatown shops offer the same selection of shoes, tchochkes, pottery, bamboo items and toys; some offer stone character stamps or waving lucky cat figurines or a larger clothing selection, most at very low prices. Browse around to find which one suits you the best. One favorite of ours, possibly because of its excellent name wrought in vintage neon, is Sincere Imports, a tiny store jammed full of merchandise, with great prices, decent quality overall and a stern but civil shopkeeper.

A Philippe the Original double-dipped pork sandwich is ready to eat along with several of the L.A. restaurant's signature side dishes. (Stacey Kratz) A Philippe the Original double-dipped pork sandwich is ready to eat along with several of the L.A. restaurant's signature side dishes. (Stacey Kratz)

Flock Shop (www.flockshopla.com) — This store, dedicated to showcasing the work of local artists and designers, doesn't seem to belong in Chinatown, but there it is, and somehow, it's right. Small, colorful and unique modern paintings can be had for as low as $18; numbered prints for as low as $10; jewelry — from hand-tatted lace earrings to acrylic rings resembling tiny turntables — start at around $10. Warning: a few items feature family-unfriendly language and imagery.

Little India

This neighborhood, centered around Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, is less quaintly ethnic than Chinatown. Instead, modern banks catering to Indian customers stand proudly alongside markets, clothing shops and restaurants distinctive mostly for the wonderful smells issuing from their doorways and the flashes of intense color coming from plate windows crowded with Indian textiles.

Two young patrons of Philippe the Original, the legendary Los Angeles purveyor of French dipped sandwiches, savor the restaurant's specialty, pickled hard-boiled eggs. (Stacey Kratz) Two young patrons of Philippe the Original, the legendary Los Angeles purveyor of French dipped sandwiches, savor the restaurant's specialty, pickled hard-boiled eggs. (Stacey Kratz)

Though inexpensive food options abound, shoppers must be more selective. Browse stores for bargains rather than buying at the first place you see. Besides saris, scarves and other clothing, look for spice mixes you can take home and grind fresh yourself; or maybe a "tiffin" box, cylindrical metal lunchboxes featuring two, three or four nesting dishes clamped together with a carrying handle on top, offered for as little as $10.

Where to eat

Surati Farsan Mart (www.suratifarsan.com) — This lively, popular business has an eat-in menu offering soups or small plates of finger foods like samosas, the crepe-like bread called dosa and, most wonderfully, dahipuri, tiny crisp pastry puffs filled with beans, potatoes and chutney and topped with yogurt sauce and sev, crunchy little shreds of deep-fried vermicelli. They're warm and cool, soft and crisp, spicy and milky and total heaven. And they cost $3.99 for five, right in line with the very reasonable prices at Surati. If you want a tasty souvenir, Surati sells tons of snacks and pastries by the pound. A couple of can't-miss options are the spicy masala kaju (cashews) and chevdo, a sweet-spicy mixture of fried rice puffs, peanuts, raisins and seasoning.

Patrons line up at carving stations and eat at the communal tables at Philippe the Original, a legendary Los Angeles purveyor of French dipped sandwiches that's also a bargain for a family meal. (Stacey Kratz) Patrons line up at carving stations and eat at the communal tables at Philippe the Original, a legendary Los Angeles purveyor of French dipped sandwiches that's also a bargain for a family meal. (Stacey Kratz)

Saffron Spot (www.saffronspot.com) — Ice cream is one of the most delicious ways to enjoy the flavors of Indian culture, and this strip-mall creamery delivers big time. If you don't mind sharing, order three scoops in a dish for $6. Flavors include chocolate and vanilla but also jackfruit, rose (with rose petals!), fig walnut and rajbhog, flavored with saffron, pistachios, cashews, almonds and cardamom. And absolutely order a separate (because it costs more) dish of decadent mawa ice cream, made with cream, evaporated milk, condensed milk, almonds and cardamom. If you're adventurous, try a falooda, a sort of Indian shake consisting of ice cream of your choice on a bed of slippery vermicelli noodles, with rose syrup and takmaria (sweet basil seeds). Drinking a falooda through a straw is an experience not to be missed.

Where to shop

A young visitor to Chinatown enjoys a "kiddie" ride as shoppers stroll past the district's many inexpensively priced shops. (Stacey Kratz) A young visitor to Chinatown enjoys a "kiddie" ride as shoppers stroll past the district's many inexpensively priced shops. (Stacey Kratz)

Cottage Art, 18619 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. This shop is probably not the cheapest place to shop for Indian textiles, clothing, furniture, accessories and jewelry. But it's beautiful, and it's the best, and there definitely are bargains to be had. Feel free to take your time browsing; the staff is friendly, kind and welcoming, and if you want their input, they will steer you in some lovely directions. If you're very, very lucky, you'll arrive when they've just put out a basket of deeply discounted items (embroidered silk skirt, originally $99, now $5!) that never last long.

Little Ethiopia

Tucked into a neighborhood centered on Fairfax and Whitworth streets in L.A.'s Miracle Mile district, Little Ethiopia is a more recently established spot than some of the city's other ethnic areas, but it has become a true gathering place for the city's sizeable population of Ethiopians.

Visitors enjoy the vast Los Angeles skyline from an observation terrace at Griffith Observatory, one of the city's many inexpensive entertainment options. (Stacey Kratz) Visitors enjoy the vast Los Angeles skyline from an observation terrace at Griffith Observatory, one of the city's many inexpensive entertainment options. (Stacey Kratz)

The area's most distinctive feature is its many restaurants, which offer a highly family-friendly meal: a huge, tray-sized piece of injera, spongy-sour Ethiopian flatbread, covered with various types of stewed vegetables, beans and (if you choose) meat. To eat, tear off a piece of injera from an accompanying dish of them, use it to scoop up whatever looks good to you in whatever combination you like, and dig in. Think of it as Ethiopian tacos or gyros: a filling, satisfying meal eaten with your hands communal style, authentic to the family-centered culture of Ethiopia.

Where to eat

Messob (www.messob.com) — Perhaps Little Ethiopia's most well-known restaurant, Messob offers a full menu of meatless (even vegan) or meaty entrÉes and several combinations (including the "super Messob exclusive" of 10 items served on injera).

Meals by Genet (www.mealsbygenet.com) — While Messob offers a more homey decoration style, Meals by Genet is elegant and modern but comfortable. This small restaurant has a growing reputation for "fine Ethiopian cuisine," but its prices are still good, especially as this type of food really lends itself to sharing. However, its more upscale vibe is less kid-friendly, and reservations are recommended.

A detail of the obelisk outside Griffith Observatory, which portrays six famous astronomers of the past and is just one of the unique attractions at the observatory, a true — and free! — Los Angeles treasure. (Stacey Kratz) A detail of the obelisk outside Griffith Observatory, which portrays six famous astronomers of the past and is just one of the unique attractions at the observatory, a true — and free! — Los Angeles treasure. (Stacey Kratz)

Where to shop

Several stores offering Ethiopian clothing, textiles and accessories dot the Little Ethiopia neighborhood, along with decidedly non-Ethiopian but still fun vintage and retro stores. Even if you don't have room in your car to take home a zebra-printed wing chair with fuchsia cushions, it's still fun to see it. And the architecture of the houses in the surrounding neighborhood is quintessentially Los Angeles, and worth a stroll.

Where to stay

Here are a few places to stay in the Los Angeles area that won't break your bank:

Holiday Inn Express (hiexpress.com) — This chain has begun offering "kid suites" in many of its hotels. These rooms — priced anywhere from $120 a night to above $200, depending on location — typically include a regular bed plus a set of bunk beds enclosed in a ceiling-less, but still fairly private, "fort" that also has a separate TV, a desk area and, sometimes, video-game systems. Some rooms in newer hotels also have sitting areas with pull-out couches for extra sleep space. In-room kitchens — or at least fridges and microwaves — help cut food costs, and free breakfast is included.

A young visitor to Los Angeles' Petersen Car Museum enjoys the museum's Hot Wheels exhibit. (Greg Kratz) A young visitor to Los Angeles' Petersen Car Museum enjoys the museum's Hot Wheels exhibit. (Greg Kratz)

Vagabond Inn (vagabondinn.com) — With a half-dozen locations in Los Angeles, this small chain offers very reasonable prices and decent amenities. The Pasadena property, for example, was fully renovated just a few years ago, is comfortable and convenient to many L.A. attractions and costs about $100 a night for a room with two queen-sized beds. Continental breakfast is included and parking is free.

Rent a house — Websites like homeaway.com and vacationrentals.com offer homes and apartments, some for less than $100 a night and some for much, much more, all over L.A. Early booking is essential, and some homes don't rent for less than a week. Others do, however, and sleeping in a home can cut the costs of parking and dining substantially. If you don't mind sleeping in someone else's house and you're up for a little more adventure than a hotel usually offers, this might be the option for you.

A plate of steaming shrimp potstickers awaits a young customer at Empress Pavilion, a famous dim sum restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown district. (Stacey Kratz) A plate of steaming shrimp potstickers awaits a young customer at Empress Pavilion, a famous dim sum restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown district. (Stacey Kratz)

Swap a house — If you're extra adventurous, consider a home swap. You stay in someone's house or apartment or even boat, and that someone comes and stays in your house at some agreed-upon time. You can do a home exchange, where you stay in a vacant house, or a hospitality exchange, where you host someone in your home and they host you in theirs. Try websites like homeexchange.com, a subscription service that costs $9.95 a month or $15.95 for three months to let you list your home and contact other listers. It can take time to find the right swap partners, so be patient.

Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Midvale, Utah.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company