Few monuments are quite as iconic as the Hollywood sign perched in the hills above Los Angeles. The sign, along with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York City, Big Ben in London, is one of the most recognizable structures ever built.
However, unlike these other buildings, which at one time or another served an actual purpose, the Hollywood sign has pretty much always been that: a sign.
Its significance derives not from its architectural beauty but rather from its symbolic meaning. It has come to represent not just a place but also an industry, as well as an entire way of life. After all, everyone knows a “Joe Hollywood.”
All of this means that no trip to Los Angeles can be considered complete without seeing the Hollywood sign and, of course, taking a picture with it in the background. Remember, if it doesn’t go on the ‘gram, it didn’t happen!
Obviously, that’s not true. But while you’re in town, you should definitely find a way to see the sign. Here are some of the best ways to do it.
A Brief History of the Hollywood Sign
The actual best way to see the Hollywood sign is as an informed tourist. Knowing what you’re looking at, and why it’s important, makes for a much better experience, and also helps you better understand the place you’re visiting.
So, while you may know that the Hollywood sign currently serves as a marker for America’s film industry, you might not know how it got to be that way.
Interestingly enough (although perhaps not for Los Angeles), the sign was actually built as a billboard. And also not surprising for L.A., it was a billboard designed to advertise a real estate development, the industry that has and always will dominate Hollywood and L.A.’s economy.
Initially, the sign actually said “Hollywoodland,” as this was going to be the name of the development. It was constructed in 1923.
To catch attention, it was outfitted with lights and set up to blink – first “Holly” would illuminate, then “wood,” and then “land,” with a giant period at the end.
The sign cost $21,000 to build, which is the equivalent of about $330,000 in today’s money. It was meant to stay up for just a year and a half to help advertise the development. But considering it’s still standing today, it seems things may have changed.
This is because, by the 1920s, the United States had fallen in love with film. Booming economic times, plus advancements in technology, brought movies to the big screen regularly, and people were going crazy with it all. Hollywood became a hot spot for film production because of its scenery and good weather. Because of this, and the sensational nature of the sign, the two quickly became linked, and so even when the promotion was over, the sign stayed and became one of Southern California’s, and the world’s, most recognizable landmark.
Restoration in the 1970s
Although the Hollywood sign quickly become an icon, it was not designed for this. Remember, it was designed to be a real estate billboard that would be up for no more than a year and a half.
It’s not surprising, then, that the sign deteriorated significantly over the years. In fact, things got so bad that the “H” actually collapsed, leaving the sign to read just “ollywood.” Later on, someone vandalized the “O,” and someone actually committed suicide by jumping off one of the letters.
All in all, the sign fell on hard times.
Part of the reason for this was that no one was paying for it. But its degradation also matched the changing landscape in Hollywood at the time. After World War II, people began leaving Hollywood and moving to more suburban areas, such as the San Fernando Valley, where real estate was cheaper and more readily available. Movie studios also fled, choosing to relocate to more affordable and less-crowded areas.
In other words, the sign fell apart as Hollywood did too.
Things changed in the 1970s. Hollywood started to make a comeback, and as it did, there was renewed interest in fixing the sign. The only thing that was needed was money and motivation, which both came from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.
Wanting to preserve the sign and also make a statement about Hollywood’s revival, Hefner launched a fundraising campaign to have the sign rebuilt. In total, eight different celebrities, including Gene Autry, Alice Cooper, and Hugh Hefner himself, contributed a total of $250,000 to have the sign remade using steel for the letters and a concrete foundation.
Much later, in 2009, the Trust for Public Land got some money together and bought the 138 acres of land surrounding the sign, for a cool $12.5 million (which was actually a discount). They were motivated into action by the possibility of the land being turned into a real estate development (shocker!), but now it is fully protected, meaning the Hollywood sign will be visible to all for many more years to come.
The Best Ways to See the Hollywood Sign
Now that you know a little bit more about the history of the sign, why it’s important, and how it got to where it is today, you will be able to appreciate it so much more. But now it’s time to see the thing!
There are several different ways you can see the sign, some that are free and some that are a bit more expensive. Below you’ll find the best options, so you can pick the one that works for you and have the experience you were meant to have.
Hike Through Griffith Park and Griffith Observatory
If all you want is to see the sign from relatively close up while also enjoying some views of the city, then head to Griffith Park.
To get there, you can either drive all the way up to the Observatory and pay to park (around $10), and then the sign will be visible off to your right, just a few feet from the parking lot. This is probably the easiest way to see the sign, and it also gives you a nice view of the surrounding mountains.
Avoid paying for parking by leaving the car on Vermont Canyon Road, just up from the Greek Theater, and walking the rest of the way to the Observatory. Or, there’s a three-mile hike that leaves from the same spot and winds through the mountains. It eventually brings you to the top, giving you the same view but with the added bonus of going for a hike.
You can also take the DASH Observatory bus, which connects the Greek Theater and the Observatory for just $0.50 each way.
One of the nice things about seeing the sign in Griffith Park is that there are so many options. You can stay close to the Observatory and see it from there, or you can go on one of the many hikes located throughout the park, all of which will give you a more up close and personal shot of the sign.
Plus, when you do one of these hikes, you stand a better chance of taking a photo with no one else around. Again, if you don’t take a picture, then it didn’t happen.
See it From Hollywood and Highland
For those that want to see the sign but don’t really care about hiking, then head to Hollywood and Highland, a major tourist spot located within Hollywood.
It’s a mall, so don’t expect an intimate setting with a great view. But the Hollywood Sign Trust, the organization in charge of protecting and promoting the sign, claims this is the best view you can get of the sign.
Let’s be honest, though, it’s not. The views from Griffith Park are much better. The only reason they say this is to lure you to the mall and to get you to spend money on the many tourist traps located there.
However, the view of the sign, while from far away, is still good, and it gives you a nice perspective of the entire town.
In reality, this is the best option for those who either don’t want to hike or who don’t have a lot of time in L.A. It’s located right in downtown Hollywood, so you can check out the rest of the sites in the area and then catch a glimpse of the sign. But if you want to get a better view, it’s best you go see the sign from one of the other vantage points we’ve discussed.
Get Up Close and Personal on the Wonder View Trail
With a name like that, who wouldn’t want to hike it? Technically located within Griffith Park, this trail is a recent addition to the area. But what’s different about it is that it brings you to the sign from the back.
In total, the hike takes about two hours, so it’s a pretty mild one. Though if it’s summertime you will likely tire out as there is little shade and the sun can be punishing.
However, the catch with this trail is that you will not actually be able to see the sign the way everyone else does: you’ll instead see it from behind.
We think this is fun, and this is also the closest you can get to the sign without having to pay a bunch of money. Doing this will give you the chance to see for yourself how big the letters are, as well as how sturdy the construction is. But if what you’re after is the iconic photo, then this trail isn’t going to be for you.
To get to the trail, park on Lake Hollywood Drive and then follow Wonder View Road to the end. It will turn into Wonder View Trail, which climbs quickly up towards the sign.
Explore the Area Around the Sign on Horseback
For those who are feeling a bit more adventurous, consider getting a view of the sign on horseback. You can do this by visiting Sunset Ranch, which is the only remaining horse ranch in the Greater Los Angeles area.
For anywhere from $65 (during the week) to $125 (for a sunset ride) per person, you can jump on the back of a horse, explore some of the trails in the Hollywood Hills, soak in views of the city, and, of course, see the Hollywood sign from all sorts of angles.
A little more expensive than the other options (which are either free or at most $10), this is definitely a worthwhile adventure that will not only get you awesome views of the sign but will also leave you with a whole new view of Southern California, and memories that will last a lifetime.
Soak in the Sights from the Sky
Lastly, if budget is not really a concern, consider seeing it from a helicopter. Yes, we said helicopter.
Several tour companies will take you from Long Beach (where there’s a heliport) up into the hills, providing you with unforgettable views of the city as well as some of the best shots of the sign you can possibly get.
Of course, to get all of this, expect to pay $200 per person or more.
In the end, don’t do this just to see the sign. But if you’re up for an adventure and have the cash to spend, seeing it in this way is definitely worth it and will be something you are sure to never forget.
Time to Go Sight Seeing
Now that you’ve got some ideas as to how to see the sign, it’s time to do some sightseeing. Grab your phone, camera, hiking shoes, some sunscreen, and a bottle of water, and make your way to one of the many vantage points from which you can see the sign. And when you get there, make sure to tell all your friends all the interesting information you learned about the sign. It’ll make you look smart, and how could that hurt?!