You may come from a big city. You may come from a small town. But no matter where you’re from, it’s guaranteed to feel like a cute little hamlet compared to the immense, freeway-laced and hill-draped sprawl of beautiful, weird, heart-stealing Los Angeles. You could visit this behemoth dozens of times without even repeating a major highway — so how do you plan a visit? Our advice: start with (very) specific destinations and work outward. We will look at four of the most “LA” of LA destinations: Anaheim, Malibu, Santa Monica and Laguna Beach, each of which you can use as a starting point for a customized foray into the wonderful madness of greater Los Angeles.

Anaheim

If you want to begin your trip to Los Angeles with dancing animals and exciting roller coasters, aka Disneyland, book a flight to John Wayne Airport (SNA) and rent a car. Generally speaking, driving anywhere in Los Angeles can frustrate even the most patient among us, so spend the few extra dollars to land as close to your destination as you can. Once in Anaheim, though, don’t bother spending extra on a hotel—chances are, with such wonderful parks abounding, you won’t be spending much time in your room! That said, there are a multitude of hotels, from boutique to big-name, that can suit the bill, no matter your budget.

If you’re traveling with children younger than 12, plan on spending at least three days at Disneyland. Knott’s Berry Farm impresses older kids with fewer songs and more thrills, so substitute days there according to your particular family’s interests. Entire books could be written about experiencing both of these parks efficiently, but good general rules include: buy tickets in packages and bring a big pen. (Costumed characters can’t sign autographs with a small pen very well.)

Of course, Anaheim has more than just amusement parks. Be sure to visit Angel Stadium – no matter where you sit, you’ll have a great view of the park, so pack up the kids and head to a game! Another great non-park attraction, the K1 Speed Track, offers the most exhilarating go-cart racing of your life. (You must be 4 feet tall, though.)

Malibu

“Affluent” is the polite word for it. No matter how large your travel budget is, there will be something in this town you can’t afford — but that’s OK. Half the fun is in simply being around those who belong in an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. In addition to being able to tell your friends you’re “staying in Malibu,” you can wake up next door to a Missoni or James Perse boutique. Maybe you won’t buy anything, but who cares? Maybe you can gawk at Ashley Tisdale or some other celebrity buying something there, instead. High-end shops abound throughout town, but the Malibu Country Mart on Cross Creek Road brings around 60 of them together in one place for optimal window shopping.

Not everything in Malibu breaks the bank, though. The Getty Villa, an art museum whose architecture re-creates an ancient Roman country house, charges precisely nothing for admission. (Open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. every day except Tuesday — parking, however, costs $15.) Likewise, Zuma Beach has more than just a fun name, offering some of the whitest sands and best surf in Southern California for free. Again, though, parking costs $8.

Santa Monica

A half-hour drive to the south, the beach city of Santa Monica glitters with the most popular (meaning crowded) beaches in Southern California and has an artistic nightlife worthy of any 20-something’s envy. The 105-year-old Santa Monica Pier has its own carnival from May to September called Pacific Park, which the kids will love. (And even if you’re not traveling with children, you should still plan to take a nighttime ride on the Ferris wheel.)

For grownups, Santa Monica boasts a great variety of bars and clubs that will keep you busy all night long. Most of these sit along Santa Monica Boulevard within a few blocks of the Pier. The Bungalow Lounge, for instance, has a cool summer camp vibe (including ping-pong), while the Father’s Office offers a terrific beer selection and a more adult, dark-wooded atmosphere.

Laguna Beach

Just like a topographical lagoon, Laguna Beach lies peacefully on the other side of a small barrier from the churning lifestyle of LA. Unless you’re already in southern Orange County, driving to Laguna Beach can take a while, even if you splurge on the $6 toll road on Route 73. Once you’re there, though, you can finally relax – you’ve reached LA’s peaceful oasis. Laguna Beach feels like the Mayberry of the West Coast, with quaint small-town traditions like “Pageant of the Masters,” in which live actors reenact famous paintings. (See it yourself any day from July 9 to August 20 at 8:30 p.m., tickets from $15.)

Meanwhile, the aforementioned “barrier” is Crystal Cove State Park, a gem in its own right. Get to it by bus from the PCH in Laguna for just a dollar to avoid the stress of parking, and enjoy a day of climbing hills and strolling its unpopulated beach. Or if you prefer a more developed beach closer to restaurants (even if it means more crowds), Heisler Park impresses with many stone statues and a year-round abundance of flowers and succulents. Whichever beach you choose, head back to town for a dinner at Mare, a “culinary lounge” on the PCH near Cleo Street, with an imaginative menu and relaxed atmosphere.

Thanks to the convergence of dozens of already-large cities, most of what we call “Los Angeles” actually isn’t — but that doesn’t matter. As far as the locals are concerned, Anaheim and Santa Monica are just as much “LA” as Malibu and Laguna Beach, and whichever you choose to visit will provide an authentic, exhilarating experience.