Huntington Beach Pier

Early morning waves roll past the Huntington Beach Pier. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

For most of the last 20 years, it’s been my job to leave Los Angeles and bring home tips on travel elsewhere. But let’s face it: Elsewhere can get expensive. And there’s a lot of elsewhere here already.

So a year ago, I turned my tourism inside-out. Since then, I’ve roamed the cities, beaches, valleys and hills of Los Angeles and Orange counties, assembling more than 120 Southern California itineraries, favoring independent enterprises over national brands. (As will become clear pretty quickly, these tips are one man's opinions, entirely unscientific but informed by firsthand experience. By year's end, I’d sampled more than 115 restaurants and bars; 70 hotels, inns and hostels; 70 arts and entertainment venues; 25 parks, piers, ballparks, arenas and gardens and 25 shopping spots — and those are just the ones that made the cut.

Along the way, I confronted some of the most important questions of our time, touristically speaking. Here are 25 of them, with answers, for anybody headed to Los Angeles from across the planet or across town. Don’t leave home, or stay home, without them.

1. Where can I sleep safely and affordably outside Disneyland? I like the Ramada Maingate, which is about $90-$180 nightly. And here are a few more tips on inland Orange County.

2. By LAX? The Sheraton Gateway LAX (affiliated with Starwood) or the Renaissance Los Angeles Airport Hotel (affiliated with Marriott). The Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel (Starwood again) runs a close third. At all three, weekends are usually cheaper than weekdays. But nobody should ever spend more than one night at a time on charmless Century Boulevard. Consider the nearby South Bay instead.

On the Warner Brothers studio tour, the old "Friends" Central Perk set gets a lot of attention. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

3. Is Universal Studios the best place to learn how TV shows and movies actually get made? No. It's a fine theme park but you’ll see and learn more, while paying less, at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. (And here are a few more San Fernando Valley tips.)

A view of Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

4. My sources tell me that Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant in the Hollywood Hills, has the best city-lights view in Los Angeles. Does it? No, although nice, and its $12 cocktails are tasty. For a wider panorama, absolutely free, with no 600-year-old pagodas to interrupt the vista, head to the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park. But be ready to walk a bit – the parking lot fills up as the sun sinks.

Four riders from Sunset Ranch in the Hollywood Hills. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

5. Is there really a horse stable tucked into the canyon beneath the Hollywood sign, or is that an urban myth, like the big orange that supposedly hovers over Orange County? Yes, there’s a stable — Sunset Ranch. Guided rides are usually $30 an hour. And that hovering orange is no myth. It’s the Great Park Balloon, designed to promote the conversion of an Irvine military base into the Great Park of O.C., local officials offer free rides to promote the park. You stay connected to Earth by a 400-foot tether. Nice view.

The grounds and cliffs at Montage Laguna Beach. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

6. I come from money and I’d like a pleasant hotel on the beach, price no object. Which one? Check out Santa Monica’s Casa del Mar (cool historic building) or its next-door sibling, Shutters on the Beach, which gets a lot of celebrity dining and drinking traffic. Along the O.C. coast, the Montage Laguna Beach has amazing grounds. (Golfers, however, may prefer the Resort at Pelican Hill or the St. Regis Monarch Beach. (Here are more tips on the Orange County coast.) If you’d like to see the Pacific but don’t need a sandy beach, head for the blufftop Terranea Resort on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

7. Nevermind the beach. Where can I sleep in proximity to wealth and fame?  For old-school glitz, go to the Pink Palace, a.k.a. the Beverly Hills Hotel. For 21st century glitz, the Montage Beverly Hills is footsteps from Rodeo Drive. (Here are more of my tips on Beverly Hills and the Westside.) For high-flying nightlife access (and a witty, pseudo-British setting), there’s the London West Hollywood, a short stroll from the Sunset Strip. Or there’s The Redbury, a new place at Hollywood and Vine, just around the corner from the Pantages Theatre.

Hostelling International, Santa Monica. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

8. I am the 99%, under 25 and underemployed. Where can I possibly afford to sleep out there? Look into Hostelling Internationan's 260-bed headquarters on 2nd Street in Santa Monica. Its dorm beds rent for around $30. Private rooms go for $60 but book up fast. Here'a more on Santa Monica and neighboring coastline.

9. I am the 99% too, but I'm over 25 with a decent job. Can I get a presentable hotel near the beach for under $200 a night? In the summer, it’s a challenge. The rest of the year, especially on weeknights, it’s no problem. You'll do well at the Bay Shores Peninsula Hotel in Newport Beach. In Santa Monica, the Georgian Hotel sometimes comes in under $200.  In Venice, try the Hotel Erwin. In Laguna Beach, try the Pacific Edge Hotel or the Inn at Laguna Beach.

Overnight guests at the Los Angeles Athletic Club get access to a pool where many Olympic athletes have trained. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

10. I want to startle a grizzled Angeleno with my local savvy. How? Take her to Shade, a Manhattan Beach luxury boutique hotel that opened in 2005. Or book him into the quirky, historic Los Angeles Athletic Club downtown. Or call the Magic Castle Hotel, a converted Hollywood apartment building whose guests get access to the private restaurant and club in the Magic Castle.