The Best Movies & TV Shows Starring Los Angeles

LA is ready for its close-up

Ticket Concourse, Union Station | Photo: Yuri Hasegawa
Ticket Concourse, Union Station | Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

New York has Woody Allen and Chicago had John Hughes. It sometimes seems like Los Angeles has yet to find that director who treats the city as his or her primary muse. While many movies and television shows are set in LA and countless more have filmed here, only a handful of productions focus as much on the city itself as the characters who live here. Read on for LA locations featured in 12 movies and television shows that prominently showcase Los Angeles.

Ticket Concourse, Union Station | Photo: Yuri Hasegawa
Ticket Concourse, Union Station | Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

"Blade Runner" - Union Station

The Los Angeles of 2019 is gloomy, rainy and overrun with genetically engineered replicants – at least according to the sci-fi classic, Blade Runner. Ironically, while the 1982 film was set in the future, it made use of one of LA’s most historic locales, Union Station. In Blade Runner, the 1939 structure was featured as the police station where Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is convinced to come out of retirement.

Union Station is the creation of John Parkinson and Donald B. Parkinson. The father-son architecture team combined Spanish Colonial, Art Deco and Mission Revival styles in their design. Filming for Blade Runner took place in the station’s iconic former ticket concourse. The elegant space features bright terracotta tiling, towering arched windows and intricate wood-beamed ceilings. Despite the bleak future predicted in Blade Runner, Union Station is still as grand as the day it opened more than seven decades ago.

Bridge at Echo Park Lake
Bridge at Echo Park Lake | Photo: Christine H, Yelp

"Chinatown" - Echo Park Lake

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” So says Walsh (Joe Mantell) to J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson) at the end of Chinatown, one of the most quintessentially “LA” movies. Despite its title, little of the 1974 film noir was actually filmed in Chinatown. Instead, locales in Downtown, Brentwood, San Pedro, Pasadena and West Hollywood were utilized. One of the movie’s most picturesque scenes was lensed on the 26 million-gallon, 13-acre Echo Park Lake, when Gittes takes photographs of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) from a rowboat.

The 29-acre Echo Park was originally established in 1892 and emerged from a two-year, $45-million restoration in 2011. It’s still recognizable from its appearance in Chinatown more than four decades ago. While rowboats can no longer be rented on-site, pedal boats are available for fans that wish to recreate the iconic scene.

Johnson Student Center at Occidental College
Johnson Student Center | Photo: Occidental College

"Clueless" - Occidental College

Amy Heckerling wrote and directed Clueless (1995), an updated version of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma. Set in Beverly Hills, Clueless centers around the musings and daily life of Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), the somewhat vapid teen with a heart of gold who rules Bronson Alcott High School. Though the movie showcases many actual sites in LA, B.A.H.S. is totally faux. The picturesque school where filming occurred can’t even be found in Beverly Hills - or Kuwait, for that matter (“as if!”). Filming took place at President Barack Obama’s alma mater, Occidental College in Eagle Rock. The exterior of Oxy’s Johnson Student Center, which was designed by architect Myron Hunt in 1928, appears repeatedly throughout the movie. (That same building plays California University’s Condor’s Nest on Beverly Hills, 90210.) Other areas of the campus were also utilized during filming, including the Central Quad, football fields, tennis courts and the Booth Music and Speech Center, where Tai (Brittany Murphy) famously poses like one of those “Botticelli chicks.”

"Heat" - Bob's Big Boy

Heat portrays the darker side of LA, showcasing the lives and the final heist of a crew of career criminals. The 1995 action hit featured several LA landmarks, including America’s oldest operating Bob’s Big Boy restaurant, located on Riverside Drive in Burbank. The 1949 eatery was designed by Googie-style architect Wayne McAllister, who also designed the Millennium Biltmore’s legendary Biltmore Bowl and the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt. Thanks to a 1993 restoration, the restaurant - notable for its cantilevered roofline and iconic 50s-style signage - still looks much like it did when it opened despite several remodels. Bob’s Big Boy was featured twice in Heat. Early in the movie, parolee Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert) gets a job there after being released from prison. Towards the end of the flick, it pops up again when Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) recruits Donald to be the getaway driver for his crew’s upcoming bank heist. 

This Bob’s Big Boy boasts another claim to fame: The Beatles dined there in the summer of 1965. The event is commemorated with a gold plaque situated above the back booth where the Fab Four were seated.

Formosa Cafe exterior sign
Formosa Café | Instagram by @antodp9

"L.A. Confidential" - Formosa Café

Few movies celebrate 1950s Los Angeles than more than L.A. Confidential. Although it’s thematically dark and gritty, the film portrays the city through a glamourous filter, showcasing a past sophistication, otherworldliness and allure that seem unattainable today. In one of the film’s more lighthearted and comical scenes, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) mistakenly accuses legendary actress Lana Turner of being a prostitute “cut to look like Lana Turner.” The memorable exchange takes place at the historic Formosa Café.

Housed inside a former Red Line trolley car, the Formosa was originally opened by former prizefighter Jim Bernstein as The Red Spot in 1925. In 1932, Bernstein expanded and gave the eatery its current moniker. Thanks to its proximity to the Pickford-Fairbanks Studios (now “The Lot”), the Formosa has long been frequented by A-listers. In its early days, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley were all known to drop in. In more recent years, Britney Spears, Johnny Depp and Shannen Doherty have been spotted there. The walls of the Formosa are literally covered with the autographed headshots of its many famous patrons.

NOTE: the Formosa is currently closed for renovations and will be reopened by 1933 Group in Spring 2019. 

Samesun Venice Beach Hostel
Samesun Venice Beach | Photo: @alla_poliakova, Instagram

"L.A. Story" - Samesun Venice Beach

L.A. Story is Steve Martin’s love letter to the City of Angels, poking fun at many of the sensibilities of both the city and its citizens. The 1991 comedy also beautifully captures the magic that is Los Angeles. L.A. Story is timeless - many of the details of living in Los Angeles that are depicted on screen remain true today. A very young Sarah Jessica Parker plays Martin’s love interest, the bouncy SanDeE* (“Big s, small a, small n, big d, small e, big e, and there’s a little star at the end”), who lives in one of Venice Beach’s most famous buildings, the Samesun Venice Beach. The neo-Italianate, columned property was originally built as the ritzy St. Charles Hotel in 1904 and is now a hostel. “Venice Kinesis,” the bright blue mural that dominates the west side of the building, was painted by artist Rip Cronk in 1989 and later redone in 2010. SanDeE*’s doorway and porch, situated in the middle of the mural in the movie, don’t exist in real life but were part of a façade that was added for the shoot.

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"Pretty Woman" - Beverly Wilshire

If Pretty Woman took place in any city other than LA, it would have been a “big mistake. Big! Huge!” Without the glamour of Rodeo Drive, the then-grittiness of Hollywood Boulevard (“What’s your dream?”), the grandeur of Rex II Ristorante - and don’t forget “Sylvester Stallone’s” house - the romance between Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) and Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) would have lost much of its sparkle. The movie’s most memorable location is easily the luxurious Beverly Wilshire hotel, which played itself. It was there that Edward paid Vivian $3,000 to spend the week with him. Only the exterior of the property was used in the filming. Most interiors, including the lobby, banquet room and elevator (“Close your mouth, dear.”) were shot at the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel. Richard’s extravagant penthouse suite and balcony were part of a set constructed at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. The Beverly Wilshire currently offers a Pretty Woman for a Day package that includes personal shoppers, etiquette classes, and a stay in a 5,500-square-foot Presidential Suite. "Major sucking-up" not included.

The Dresden Dining Room
The Dresden Dining Room  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

"Swingers" - The Dresden Restaurant

The 1996 breakout hit Swingers perfectly encapsulates the life of struggling actors in Los Angeles. It also made use of several real life establishments. One of its more memorable scenes was lensed at a Los Feliz landmark, The Dresden Restaurant. It was there that Mike (Jon Favreau, who also penned the screenplay) hits on a Starbucks barista named Nikki (Brooke Langton). While he successfully gets her “digits,” after returning home he fails to wait the requisite two days to call her and proceeds to leave a ridiculous string of rather desperate messages on her answering machine. Things do not end well for Mike and Nikki. Interesting factoid: Mike’s home was played by the Chateau Marcella at 5870 Franklin Ave in Los Feliz, where Favreau actually lived during filming.

Opened in 1954, The Dresden was remodeled in 1963 and its decor hasn’t been touched since. Walking through the front doors is like stepping into the LA of yesteryear. The Dresden’s longtime house band, Marty and Elayne Roberts (who also make an appearance in Swingers), sing old jazz standards each Tuesday through Saturday, which only adds to the place’s retro charm. Now, that’s "money"!

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Mitch Buchannon's house from "Baywatch" | Photo by Lindsay Blake

"Baywatch" - Mitch Buchannon’s House

After Baywatch premiered in 1989, audiences the world over fell in love with LA beaches and red one-piece bathing suits enjoyed a huge surge in sales. During the first nine seasons of Baywatch, Mitch Buchannon (David Hasselhoff) and his team of beautiful lifeguards helped beachgoers in need at Will Rogers State Beach in the Pacific Palisades. Though many of LA’s beaches were utilized on the series, Will Rogers was featured the most frequently. Mitch didn’t have a very long commute to work. On the show, he and his son Hobie (Jeremy Jackson) lived in a picturesque wood-shingled home on the Venice Canals.

Venice Beach was founded in the early 1900s by real estate developer Abbot Kinney, who wanted to create “The Venice of America” on the shores of sunny Southern California. Kinney purchased coastal land just south of Santa Monica and proceeded to build his dreamland. In the process, he drained 16 miles of marshes and transformed them into a series of saltwater canals, complete with idyllic bridges and singing gondoliers. The canals were beautiful but far too shallow, resulting in poor water circulation. In the late 1920s, they were declared a public health hazard and most of them were filled in and turned into streets. Today, only six small waterways remain and they’re known as the Venice Canals. The picturesque idyll is one LA’s most unique sites, tucked away a few blocks northeast of the Venice Boardwalk but far from its everyday hustle and bustle. What better place for the world’s most iconic fictional lifeguard to live?

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The Walsh house from "Beverly Hills, 90210" | Photo by Lindsay Blake

"Beverly Hills, 90210" - Walsh House

No series in TV history has celebrated the City of Angels more than the explosively popular Beverly Hills, 90210. Centered around Minnesota transplant teens Brandon and Brenda Walsh (Jason Priestley and Shannen Doherty, respectively) and their new life in LA, the series made use of countless SoCal locales. Ironically, very few of them are actually in Beverly Hills. In real life, the Walsh family’s picturesque Spanish abode is located in Altadena, a few miles north of Pasadena. And don’t expect to find the real West Beverly High in the 90210, either - it’s actually Torrance High School, located at 2200 W. Carson St. in Torrance. Beverly Hills, 90210 even inspired its own LA-based spin-off, Melrose Place, which focused on a group of twentysomethings living in a Mediterranean-style courtyard apartment complex. That complex is located at 4616 Greenwood Pl. in Los Feliz, about three miles northeast of the Melrose Avenue shopping district.

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"Entourage" - Urth Caffé

Entourage was to Los Angeles what Sex and the City was to New York. The HBO series showcased actual LA hot spots, venues and restaurants in every episode. One spot that pops up regularly is Urth Caffé in West Hollywood. When Drama (Kevin Dillon) isn’t cooking for the boys at Vinnie’s (Adrian Grenier) opulent Spanish-style mansion (located at 1200 La Collina Dr. in Hollywood Hills West), they’re often filmed grabbing a bite at the breakfast and lunch staple. Just as it’s portrayed onscreen, the organic tea and coffee shop is a favorite of celebrities and Hollywood power players alike. In fact, Entourage creator Doug Ellin and executive producer Steve Levinson can often be found hugging it out there in real life.

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Redondo Coffee & Bait Shop | Photo by Lindsay Blake

"The O.C." - Redondo Coffee & Bait Shop

The O.C. premiered in August 2003 to almost instant success and catapulted the careers of its four young stars. The Fox TV series also made countless adolescents dream of moving to California. The teen drama featured So Cal so prominently that it inspired two LA-centric reality shows, the short-lived Newport Harbor and the insanely popular Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, which in turn inspired the MTV juggernaut, The Hills. Although the show was set in Newport Beach, The O.C. was shot in Los Angeles. One of its most prominent locations was the Redondo Beach Pier, which stands in as the Balboa Pier on the series. Located on the southern end of the pier, Redondo Coffee & Bait Shop popped up on the show almost weekly. Both the interior and the exterior of the small diner were used on The O.C., and despite the passage of time, it looks exactly the same today as it did on screen.