The United States’ second biggest city has got it all. Beaches, boulevards, baseball and Beverly Hills. Vince Robbins guides us through the iconic American metropolis.
People relish in passing judgement on Los Angeles; maybe they think they’ve seen it all on the screen. “It’s superficial, everyone is plastic, and besides – there is too much traffic”. That’s like avoiding London because “it’s always raining,” or missing out on Tokyo because “it’s crowded.” As Mark Twain so succinctly put it, “all generalizations are false, including this one.”
Drop your preconceptions about Los Angeles and explore a sprawling heap of dozens of mini cities coexisting (or struggling to coexist) in a oddly charming bazaar of cultural and physical diversity. It’s a city with an eclectic history, bearing the relics and scars to prove it, that has amounted to something of a dysfunctional United Nations after party. Beautiful beaches, great weather, lots going on, and a place for every kind of person to enjoy it all. Sunset Boulevard alone sets corporate skyscrapers next to artsy villages, with cultural marketplaces just a few miles from upscale shopping. An unlikely collection of people lay claim to Los Angeles, and she tries to find a place for them all. Maybe Los Angeles herself is quite the opposite of superficial.
Okay, fine – there is too much traffic.
Best of the Beaten Track
Like any big city, there are plenty of touristy attractions in Los Angeles to spend/waste your time and money on. Hollywood Boulevard is cheesy, but you’re going to feel slightly foolish telling your friends about LA and admitting you didn’t see the stars on the sidewalk or take a picture in front of the Hollywood Sign. So do it. Then head up north on Cahuenga Boulevard and hike into the hills to check out the Hollywood Reservoir; it’s a bit of a walk (or short drive) but it’s a surprisingly deserted spot with a beautiful lake and view of the Hollywood Sign (no swimming, sorry).
Assuming it’s a nice day, trek up to the Griffith Observatory in the hills of Los Feliz. The observatory & museum are newly restored and the views are the best in the city. If you’ve got a car, head across town to another great hillside spot, The Getty Villa in Malibu. Possibly the most beautiful public space in Los Angeles, The Getty Villa is gorgeous both architecturally and botanically. Enjoy some delicious food and wine overlooking the Pacific Ocean and finally understand why people come to LA and never leave.
You should also see the more historic district of downtown and visit LA’s oldest street, Olvera Street (or Placita Olvera). Although its history is somewhat skewed, it’s a surprisingly authentic Mexican alleyway-turned-marketplace crammed with cheap souvenirs and tasty food. Los Angeles was once part of Mexico after all, but even us Angelinos often fail to fully embrace the beautiful culture that remains. Then you can easily head across the street to Union Station, a handsome trace of downtown’s 20th century “glory days.”
Of course Los Angeles is known for its uniquely gorgeous stretch of beaches, each with its own discernible identity. Starting with the stunning scenery in Malibu, snake down Pacific Coast Highway to check out 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and maybe even ride the Ferris wheel on the pier (if you’ve got a date… or you’re just into that). Definitely head further south to to experience the boardwalk/art gallery/freak show/marketplace that is Venice Beach. If cities were bars, Venice Beach would be a strange, but fun karaoke bar where everyone is dangerously out of key but it doesn’t really matter because everybody is singing along.
Los Angeles has its fair share of hipster havens – you’ll notice the moustaches and bike messengers – but nonetheless these areas offer some of the most genuine and welcoming places to hang out. Where Sunset Boulevard cuts through Silver Lake / Echo Park there are loads of artsy cafes, bars, restaurants, unique shops, and an awesome specialty spice & tea store – Spice Station. It’s definitely worth spending an afternoon walking around this part of Sunset, and ending up at the lake in Echo Park; bring a blanket to sit on and steal some of the Angelinos’ sunshine. 1642 Temple is a quaint little jazz bar close to the park with fantastic live music on Wednesday nights.
On the other side of town, The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a dusty oddity of Los Angeles that pulls rave reviews from its random collection of visitors. The museum recreates the early 20th century with an eccentric display of antiquated mechanical machines, unlikely creatures and strange magical exhibits.
On an upswing from a pretty bleak period, Downtown LA has turned into an increasingly hip spot over the last decade. An interesting manifestation of this is The Downtown LA Art Walk, a free monthly event that’s pretty trendy but nonetheless a great time. Food trucks, art galleries, live music, and lots of energetic young people… Can’t go wrong.
Experience & Events
You wouldn’t think that right in the heart of Hollywood you could find an open-air marketplace with some California’s freshest, most delicious fruits, vegetables, and unique ethnic foods. Hollywood Farmers Market takes place every Sunday, drawing dozens of local farmers and thousands of city residents into a commune of healthy abundance and live music.
Later in the day head over to Venice beach and feed yourself a little more existentially, with dozens to hundreds of others at the Venice drum circle. A strange bunch of folks gather on the sand, banging drums, tapping bottles, playing flutes, dancing, hoola hooping, and generally enjoying the air they breath (or other things they breath). The energy is insanely contagious and you’ll have a hard time fighting off the dancer within you.
If you’re in town during the spring or summer, catch America’s past time at one of her oldest ballparks: Dodger Stadium. Baseball itself might bore you, but that’s not the point. There’s nothing like that stadium with those palm trees under the setting sun on a clear, warm LA summer night. Have a beer at The Short Stop before the game, and go see for yourself.
If you want to be in the heart of downtown, Hilton Checkers is a boutique location with real character and history in a great location. It’s moderately priced and the service is excellent. The Standard Downtown is a bit more chic and famous for its swanky rooftop pool. More centrally located, The Roosevelt Hotel is ensconced in the historic core of Hollywood and will seduce you with its romantic charm. If you’re looking for a cheaper room, the Orbit Hostel in Hollywood is highly regarded as well. Of course, you might want to be right on the beach, in which case you should look into Venice Beach Hostel, which will set you right in the hectic mix of it all.
From street food to upscale dining, Los Angeles’ cultural diversity almost forces you to vary your diet – which is no bad thing in these parts. Although it sounds strange, Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles is a firm hometown favorite. If you’re a health nut it might not be for you, but if you’re willing to get your fingers greased up and your stomach overly full, stop by Roscoe’s in Hollywood. Down the street on Hollywood Blvd, Musso & Frank is a classic spots where you can brush shoulders with the ghosts of Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Hemingway. If you’re downtown for lunch stop into Bottega Louie for a classy European feel and get some of their bakery goods to take home with you. Finally, stop by family-owned Papa Cristo’s Greek Restaurant & Market on Pico – it won’t disappoint.
Whether you’re into glamorous Hollywood nightclubs or prohibition era speakeasies, Los Angeles is known for it’s top shelf nightlife scene. Get your night started early though, no alcohol is served after 2:00am. Hollywood is a hotbed of nightlife, and you can hit a handful of places in one night by going to Cahuenga and Hollywood Blvds. You’ll find a number of spots like Piano Bar, Velvet Margarita, Burgundy Room, and Dillon’s Irish Pub ($3 Beers!) all within walking distance of each other; see which you like best. Downtown has made a resurgence and is home to some classy, (faux) antiquated watering holes like 7Grand, The Edison, The Must, and The Varnish. If you’re fueled by the ocean air on the west side – and you feel like partying – check out Busby’s West or Q’s, otherwise head down to Main Street in Santa Monica for more of a variety of spots in walking distance to each other.
Getting There & Around
LAX is one of the biggest airports in the world – you shouldn’t have trouble finding it. If you’re coming from San Francisco you can take the Greyhound or drive. Los Angeles is a very, very large city; if you have the means to rent a car, you will find exploring much much easier. If not, don’t be afraid to brave the (underrated) public transport, but it will take you a while to get from place to place. You could even make it part of your adventure, as I did.
Check out the main sites like LA.com, Timeout, Goldstar.com and Hidden Los Angeles. You’ll find some cool stuff and often times discounts on events, restaurants, hotels and more. For a funnier, but still well-informed take on LA check out LostAngeles.
If you want to see some unique, hidden areas of Los Angeles and even get a little exercise, pick up Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. Charles Fleming walks you through some largely unseen areas from the ocean to downtown Los Angeles with interesting anecdotes and historical references. On the fiction end, Raymond Chandler’s old LA noir crime novels are hard to beat; The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely being two of his classics.
The home of Hollywood, the list of great films set in Los Angeles is as long as it is diverse. For some classic LA film noir, watch Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard or LA Confidential. For cult classics White Men Can’t Jump, Point Break and Swingers, apart from being hugely entertaining, showcase some extreme facets of LA life, whilst recent hit 500 Days of Summer shows a softer side of the city.
Soundtrack to the City
Between The Curves – Fight From Above (Cool music video!)
Live and Die in LA – Tupac
Peaceful Easy Feeling – The Eagles
All I Need Is The Girl – Frank Sinatra
Greatest Hits – Sublime
Free Fallin – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
I Love L.A. – Randy Newman