(If you would like a printed version of this walking tour, you can purchase a lovely guide from us on our Etsy page! The printed version is beautifully organized with a full-color map and photographs, and small enough to fit in your pocket!)
In 1925, the Southern Branch of the University of California (to be renamed the University of California at Los Angeles a couple years later) was outgrowing its small campus on Vermont Avenue in East Hollywood. That year, they announced that they had selected a large tract of undeveloped land just west of Beverly Hills for their new campus. Construction began on a complex of Italian Romanesque buildings perched on the top of a grassy hill overlooking a reservoir, looming over the countryside like some great castle of learning. Four years later, the first classes in the new Westwood campus were held, and the old East Hollywood campus was turned over to the newly formed Los Angeles City College.
Looking at early photographs of the UCLA campus is incredibly surreal if you’re familiar with the campus today. The first structure built on campus was actually a massive bridge. The original four buildings, centered around what is now Royce Hall and Powell Library, were separated from the eastern edge of campus by a gully. So a bridge, styled after a Roman aqueduct, was built as the main entrance to the campus from Hilgard Avenue. After WWII, the gully was filled in to provide more room for campus expansion and the bridge was buried—but technically still stands, its true nature hidden to those who cross over it today.
And when the UCLA campus was new, there were very few trees on the hill. Compared to the leafy campus of today, the hill was remarkably bare, which gave the buildings an exaggerated sense of scale. A great visualization of this is a photograph which graced the cover of the November 1930 issue of Pacific Electric Magazine, the employee newsletter of the former streetcar company. It shows a 1920s double-decker bus climbing the hill behind Royce Hall, which stands gleaming and totally exposed atop the hill.
The development of UCLA catalyzed the rapid development of Westwood, which has its own surreal historic photographs. Westwood Village was hurriedly laid out in the late ’20s as a master-planned commercial center for the Westside, serving both UCLA students and the residents of the surrounding upscale neighborhoods on what just a few years prior had been agricultural land. Landmarks like the Fox Theater, with its distinctive pinnacle, once towered over literal fields.
Westwood Village was one of the first of its kind: a neighborhood built entirely to cater to shoppers arriving by automobile, with uniform architecture throughout and careful placement of landmarks for maximum aesthetic effect. But its innovations at its birth are lost on us today, as such shopping centers have become commonplace in the American landscape. Now it feels more or less like any other themed outdoor mall, albeit with a shocking amount of vacant storefronts for what should be prime real estate.
Nevertheless, Westwood is a rather charming neighborhood to stroll through, with a lot of great draws like one of the city’s best art museums, arguably the most scenic college campus in Los Angeles, and a surprisingly understated cemetery that’s home to a few of Hollywood’s most iconic figures.
A lot of frequent bus routes serve Westwood. Metro #20/720 run east-west along Wilshire, while #761 runs north-south, with both stopping at the intersection of Wilshire/Westwood Blvd. #761 heads south down Westwood to the Expo Line station at Expo/Sepulveda, and north around the UCLA campus (via Hilgard and Sunset) before heading up the Sepulveda Pass to the Getty Center and the San Fernando Valley. There are also a lot of Big Blue Bus routes that serve Westwood, with the #1 to Santa Monica/Venice and the #12 to the Westwood/Rancho Park Expo Line station being the most frequent. On the weekdays, Westwood is also covered by Metro Micro, Metro’s on-demand rideshare service, with a zone that extends south to three different Expo Line stations.
The UCLA campus lends itself to exploration, with lots of gardens and interesting buildings that might peek your interest. This itinerary just covers the most notable attractions, starting from the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards.
About a block and a half east of Wilshire and Westwood is Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park (open Monday-Friday 9am-5pm), a tiny but very prestigious cemetery that’s home to some of the most iconic figures in Hollywood history. The most surprising thing about the cemetery is how hidden it is, especially for how famous its clientele is. The whole thing is the size of maybe only half a block, and it’s wedged between office buildings and condominium towers. In fact, reaching it requires walking along the back alley of an office building.
To get there, walk to the intersection of Wilshire and Glendon (a block east of Westwood), walk down the east side of Glendon, and after the first office building you’ll see a sign for the cemetery pointing down the alley (there’s a little sidewalk separated by some planters, for you to avoid the delivery trucks). At the end of the alley and on your right, you’ll see the ivy-colored wall and wrought iron gate that marks the entrance to the cemetery.
Once you’re inside, you really don’t have to look hard to start finding celebrities. The driveway makes a simple loop around a shady lawn filled with gravestones, and a series of crypts line the northeastern corner of the cemetery while the southern edge has more elaborate graves. The most famous grave in the cemetery is Marilyn Monroe’s crypt, which is always adorned with flowers and kiss marks. The more elaborate graves on the southern side are full of famous names, including Merv Griffin (“I will not be right back after this message”), Rodney Dangerfield (“There goes the neighborhood”), Billy Wilder (“I’m a writer, but then nobody’s perfect”), Jack Lemmon, Farrah Fawcett, and Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury.
Outside of an Academy Awards ceremony, there’s probably no denser concentration of Hollywood royalty anywhere on Earth. The cemetery is so small that you could explore the whole thing in under half an hour, and you’re sure to find a name you recognize very quickly.
Back on the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood is the Hammer Museum (open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-6pm), which is, I would argue, the art museum best suited to Los Angeles. For one, out of all the art museums in the city, this is the one that does the most to take advantage of the climate: all of the galleries surround a spacious and shady courtyard, where you can try sitting in one of the silly spinning top chairs or grab a drink at the museum’s bar. It’s also the city’s most accessible museum: rather than being designed like a bunker (MOCA) or a fortress (The Broad) or a castle atop a hill (The Getty), the Hammer is housed in a normal, modest building. Since the museum is free, you can just pop right in and be standing in that courtyard in a matter of seconds. Even if you don’t like art, it’s a nice place to relax or head upstairs to the family room and play ping-pong with a nice view over the street.
But even more than the physical design of the building, the art displayed at the Hammer is the most connected to LA’s art scene of any of the city’s major art museums. The permanent collection is limited to one small gallery of European masters collected by Armand Hammer, with a handful of works by names like Van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt, and Toulouse-Lautrec. But every other exhibition in the museum is temporary, and the art tends towards the avant-garde and very contemporary, with an emphasis on artists with local connections. You’re far more likely to see some SoCal representation here than at LA’s more famous art museums.
Continuing north up Westwood Boulevard, you’ll enter Westwood Village proper. A block up from the Hammer, where Westwood Blvd swings to the right, Broxton Avenue splits away and continues straight ahead. Broxton is a nice, tree-lined street with wide sidewalks, passing a lot of the cutesy Mediterranean-style architecture that Westwood Village is known for. Broxton is also closed to cars each Thursday afternoon for the Westwood Village Farmers Market, with the typical assortment of fruit and honey vendors and food stands you’ll find at any local farmers market.
Continuing up Broxton, you’ll spot the gorgeous Art Deco spire of the Fox Theater sitting up at the end of the street. Directly across the street is another historic Art Deco theater, the Bruin Theater, which in addition to showing movies has also been frequently seen in movies. Both theaters have also been often used for movie premieres, and you might even stumble upon one walking through the neighborhood. This corner of Westwood Village also has many of the most popular eateries in the district, including a rather spacious location of In-N-Out just a block to the northwest.
A block further up, at Le Conte Avenue, you’ll reach the southern edge of the UCLA campus. Westwood Boulevard serves as the main entrance into campus, although it’s not a very glamorous entrance, passing between the excessively dull concrete towers of the hospital on one side and the health sciences campus on the other. At the end of the street you’ll reach Bruin Plaza, which serves as the student center of campus, where you’ll find most of the student services, the UCLA store, and a statue of UCLA’s mascot, the Bruin (a brown bear). Along the walkway heading uphill east from here, you’ll see lots of student groups tabling here and the frequent protest or student event taking place.
Just a little further on, you’ll come across the large green square of Wilson Plaza, at the base of Janss Steps, which lead up to the central quad. As you ascend the steps, you’ll get a good view over the west side of the campus, where the athletic fields and stadiums are located, over to the dormitories on the opposite hill. But before you climb the steps, be sure to check out the Fowler Museum (open Wednesday-Sunday 12-5pm, admission free), UCLA’s anthropology museum, on the north side of the Janss Steps. Inside, you’ll find a lot of remarkable art from around the world, with some really beautiful objects from East Asian, Pacific, African, and Indigenous American cultures, as well as a gallery of gleaming silver vessels from the collection of the museum’s namesake. The Fowler also holds a lot of excellent changing exhibitions and really good programming—be sure to check out the website to see what’s on display.
At the top of Janss Steps is Dickson Court, the central quad and the historic center of the campus. This is the most picturesque part of campus, with the oldest (and prettiest) buildings. On the north side is Royce Hall, the most iconic UCLA building, with its red brick and twin Italianate towers modeled after the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, Italy. When it opened, it served as the main classroom building of the university, but was later converted into its current use as a performing arts and concert hall with a grand auditorium.
Directly across the quad from Royce is Powell Library, the main library on campus. It’s also modeled after the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, with a distinctive “lantern” tower rising out of the center. Inside are numerous mosaics and a soaring reading room, which you can admire by entering and heading up to the second floor.
Past the original cluster of campus buildings, you’ll reach a flag pole in the center of the quad, in the middle of a small roundabout. Directly in front of you, this portion of street is the buried bridge from the start of the post, faintly recognizable from the short brick wall along the sidewalk that separates the road from the lawn.
From the flag pole, if you make a left and head due north, up the street and through the passageway that passes underneath the next building, you’ll enter the Franklin Murphy Sculpture Garden. This spacious and shady lawn is home to a very prestigious collection of modern sculpture, with dozens of works by some of the most famous sculptural artists of the 20th century. There’s a lot of variety, with both figurative and abstract art represented, as well as a lot of different art movements. On the northwest corner of the garden, in front of the art center, you can enter the curving mass of a Richard Serra sculpture (basically a smaller version of the one they have at LACMA).
Returning to the flag pole, if we continue due south instead, down the street and then the walkway past the music school, you’ll reach a little plaza centered around the Inverted Fountain, a really cool feature on campus. Due to a wind tunnel effect created by the surrounding buildings, which would have sprayed water over passersby if a traditional fountain had been built, the campus designers opted for a water feature that would mimic a mountain stream. Water burbles over rocks toward the center of the fountain, where a circular waterfall collects the water and recirculates it back to the circumference. On hot days, you might even see students wading in the fountain to cool off.
South of the Inverted Fountain is the expansive sciences campus, with each building devoted to a specific field, centered around the Court of Sciences. From the fountain, head west down the walkway and turn left once you pass Franz Hall, and you’ll shortly enter the court. The topography of this part of the campus creates some weird and confusing layouts; you might enter a building on one side and find the floor you entered on to be buried or two stories in the air on the other side. The Court of Sciences itself slopes down a full story from its northern to its southern end, although the change is mostly hidden by a café in the center of the court with a rooftop garden.
On the northeast corner of the Court of Sciences is the Geology Building, which has the most unique attraction of the sciences campus. On the 3rd floor of the building (which is actually the one you enter from the Court of Sciences; the topography slopes down toward the eastern end of the building, where floors 1 and 2 are) is a fossil collection and the Meteorite Gallery. The Meteorite Gallery (open Monday-Friday 9am-4pm) is in Room 3697 down the hall, where you can view a collection of meteorites with very detailed explanations about where they come from and how they’re formed.
If you continue down the hall a little ways and check around the corners, you’ll also easily be able to find the small fossil collection sitting down a side hallway, with dinosaur skulls and other prehistoric creatures. Even just walking down the hallway, you’ll see plenty of cases of minerals and gems. It’s all very academic, with lots of wordy descriptions and very minimal flair, but also charming in its casual presentation.
The last stop on our tour will be the most serene spot on campus, the Mildred Mathias Botanical Garden (open weekdays 8am-5pm, weekends 9am-5pm; closes at 4pm November-January, admission free). From the Court of Sciences, head to the very southern edge of the court, make a left turn, head through the curving gap between the buildings, and when you reach the crosswalk, the garden will be directly across the street. A sloping ramp leads downhill past the garden’s pavilion, a curving structure of steel beams protruding from under the canopy.
The garden serves as both a quiet spot on campus and a research garden for UCLA’s botany program, with a huge variety of unique plants from around the world. Public tours and talks are often hosted at the garden (see website for upcoming events, as well as a self-guided audio tour).
The garden is broken up into distinct zones, representing different climates around the world. The whole thing slopes down to a stream in the very middle of the garden, with lots of curving paths winding along the stream and down the hillsides from the garden pavilion. The western slope is mostly covered in tropical and subtropical plants, with lots of lilies, Hawaiian native plants and subtropical trees, while the eastern slope represents drier climates like desert and Mediterranean zones, with a section for California native plants. And along the stream in the center of the garden, where you’ll find turtles and koi fish, are the tropical zones with lots of ferns, palms, and bamboo. The whole garden is really pleasant, and you’ll see plenty of students relaxing and reading in any quiet spot they can find. You might also catch the unusual warning signs that look like wet floor signs, except they’ll be warning you of falling banana fronds (so keep an eye upwards!).
At the southern end of the garden, there’s an exit onto the intersection of Hilgard and Le Conte, at the very southeastern corner of campus. You can return to Westwood Village along Le Conte, or walk down Hilgard as it swings back around to behind the Hammer Museum.