Few regions of the world have been as idealized and mythologized as California – and yet it seldom fails to live up to the hype. The glamour, surf beaches and near-endless sun of the Southern California coast are rightly celebrated, with Los Angeles , the second-most populous city in the US (after New York City ), at their heart. No wonder travellers clamber to stay in Los Angeles.
Thanks to Hollywood, most people on the planet have at least heard of Los Angeles. The City of Angels, Tinseltown or just “La-La Land” is the home of the world’s movie and entertainment industry, the palaces of Beverly Hills, Sunset Strip, the original Disneyland, the Dodgers and the Lakers and a beach culture that inspired California’s modern surfing boom in the 1950s.
The city itself is a frenetic collection of highways, coastline, seedy suburbs, high-gloss neighbourhoods and extreme lifestyles – all hemmed in by sandy beaches and snowcapped mountains rising above 10,000ft. As in our best area to stay in New York City , the area you decide to stay in LA will have a big impact on your trip, so here’s our guide to getting it right in Los Angeles.
Downtown, the historic heart of LA, has experienced something of a renaissance. Graceful old banks and hotels have been turned into apartments. The $2.5-billion shopping and entertainment complex, LA Live, has brought cinemas, upper-end hotels, numerous restaurants and clubs.
It remains a diverse neighbourhood however, with, in the space of a few blocks, adobe buildings and Mexican market stalls, skid row (one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the US), avant-garde art galleries and high-rise corporate towers.
Accommodation here ranges from basic beds to plush hotels. But bear in mind that while Downtown is the hub of the MTA networks and public transport, getting to the beaches isn’t simple.
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Ever since movies and their stars became international symbols of the good life, Hollywood has been a magnet to millions of tourists and an equal number of hopefuls drawn by the prospect of riches and glory.
In reality, this was a densely populated, low-income residential neighbourhood, and movie stars actually spent little time here – leaving as soon as they could afford to for the privacy of the hills or coast.
Things have brightened up in the past few years, with the construction of new tourist plazas and shopping malls. The contrasting qualities of freshly polished nostalgia, corporate hype and deep-set seediness today make Hollywood one of LA’s most diverse areas – and one of its best spots for bar-hopping and clubbing.
Probably the most famous neighbourhood in the world, Beverly Hills is internationally synonymous with free-spending wealth and untrammelled luxury, if not necessarily good taste. The town divides into two distinct halves, separated by Santa Monica Boulevard.
To the south is the flashy Golden Triangle business district, which fills the wedge between Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards, ground zero for windowshopping and gawking at major and minor celebrities. To the north lies the lavish mansions of popular legend.
Highlights include the restaurants and boutiques of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and the outstanding Getty Center, positioned high above the LA basin.
For a complete overview of the shopping scene, including Rodeo Drive and beyond, take a forty-minute trip on the free Beverly Hills Trolley, which offers tourists a glimpse of the town’s highlights. The trolley departs hourly from the corner of Rodeo Drive and Dayton Way.
The heart of Los Angeles’s Jewish community from the 1950s to the 1970s, the Fairfax District lies to the east of Fairfax Avenue, and is still laced with synagogues, yeshivas, kosher butcher shops and delis.
The most enticing attraction in Fairfax District is the long-standing Farmers’ Market, a rabbit warren of restaurants, bakeries and produce stands. Started in 1934 as a little agricultural co-op, the market has since expanded to the point where it’s a social phenomenon in its own right, always buzzing with tourists and locals who come to meet and eat and, increasingly, to shop.
Next door to the Farmer’s Market, The Grove is a three-level, $100-million mall that offers branches of all the major chain stores, a fourteen-screen cinema, dancing fountain (on the hour), the “Spirit of Los Angeles” bronze statue and a free trolley (Mon–Thurs & Sun noon–7.45pm, Fri & Sat 1–8.45pm) that trundles the threequarters of a mile to the market.
For many Angelenos, Santa Monica represents the impossible dream – a low-key, tolerant beachside town with a relaxed air and easy access to the rest of the city. Set along a white-sand beach and home to some of LA’s finest stores, restaurants and galleries, this small community has little of the smog or searing heat that can make the rest of the metropolis unbearable.
Friendly and liberal, Santa Monica is also a great spot to visit, a compact, accessible bastion of oceanside charm that, incidentally, has traditionally attracted a large contingent of British expats (though many have recently left “Little Britain”, as it’s called, in search of cheaper rents).
Lying across Centinela Avenue from West LA, Santa Monica reaches nearly three miles inland, but most of its attractions lie within a few blocks of the beach and Palisades Park, the famous, cypress-tree-lined strip that runs along the top of the bluffs and makes for striking views of the surf below.
Santa Monica splits into three distinct portions. Downtown, holding a fair chunk of Santa Monica’s history and its day-to-day business, is mostly inland but is more interesting closer to the coastal bluffs. Just to the west there’s the famous pier and beach, while Main Street, running south from downtown towards Venice, is a styleconscious quarter, with designer restaurants and fancy shops.
Los Angeles is just one of the beautiful Pacific Coast cities, explore our list of reasons why you should travel to the Pacific Coast and discover the enchanting cities of this destination.
Immediately south lies quirky Venice , where you’ll find an eccentric mix of skaters, street acts, buskers and more. Gentrification has had an impact, but there’s still an edgy feel in some areas.
Most people are drawn to Venice Beach; nowhere else does LA parade itself quite so openly, colourfully and aggressively as it does along the Venice Boardwalk, a wide pathway also known as Ocean Front Walk. Year-round at weekends and every day in summer it’s packed with jugglers, fire-eaters, Hare Krishnas, rasta guitar players and, of course, teeming masses of tourists.
Malibu , to the north, has long been immortalised in surfing movies and is perfect for soaking up beach culture, with its ramshackle surf shops and fast-food stands along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).
South of Venice, the charmless high-rise condos of Marina del Rey and the faded resort town of Playa del Rey offer little to interest visitors. Head south of LAX, however, and you’ll come to an eight-mile strip of enticing beach towns – Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach, part of the region known as the South Bay – which are quieter, smaller and more insular than the Westside beach communities.
Visible all along this stretch of the coast and loosely considered part of South Bay, the large green peninsula of Palos Verdes is a high-end residential area, while the roughhewn working town of San Pedro is sited on LA Harbor, which with its municipal LA and Long Beach sections is the busiest cargo port in the country.
Manhattan Beach is a likeable place with a healthy, well-to-do air. Hermosa Beach retains a lingering bohemian feel of the Sixties and Seventies in certain spots. Redondo Beach is less inviting than its relaxed neighbours with condos and hotels lining the beachfront, and the yacht-lined King’s Harbor off limits to curious visitors.
Although Orange County, a densely populated region that merges into the southeast of Los Angeles, has long been emblematic of conservative white suburbia, the reality is now a bit different. Certain sections of the county have a tolerant, even progressive, bent, especially in the inland part of the region, and Hispanics and Asians increasinglypopulate cities like Anaheim, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Westminster.
For most visitors, however, Orange County means Disneyland; even though it only exists on roughly one square mile of land, it continues to dominate the Anaheim area. On the coast, a string of towns from Long Beach to the borders of San Diego County 35 miles south, swanky condos line the sands and the ambience is easy-going and affluent.
As the names of the main towns suggest – Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach – there are few reasons beyond sea and sand to come here.
Just northwest of Echo Park, Silver Lake is a fashionable district that was once home to some of Hollywood’s first movie studios, since converted into restaurants and galleries, or at least warehouses and storage units. Walt Disney opened his second studio in 1926 at 2719 Hyperion Ave (now demolished), and the Keystone Kops were dreamed up in Mack Sennett’s studio at 1712 Glendale Blvd (now a storage facility).
The district is also known for its LGBTQ bars, quirky dance clubs and leftist bookstores attracting plenty of hipsters and celebrities – singers Katy Perry, Beck and Tom Waits have all been residents. French writer Anaïs Nin (and husband Rupert Pole) lived at 2335 Hidalgo Ave from 1962 until 1977; the house was designed by Eric Lloyd Wright (grandson of Frank), but it’s not open to the public.
Other than soaking up the scene on Sunset Boulevard, students of architecture should check out some of the area’s other Modernist treasures.
To the north of University of California, across Sunset Boulevard, is the exclusive neighborhood of Bel Air. As the tight-knit community is an enclave of old-money estates for such notables as the Reagans, you won’t get to glimpse more than big front gates and lawns. You can, however, get a peek into the good life at Hotel Bel-Air’s & restaurant, lounge, and gardens, where celebs often linger.
Where to stay in Bel Air:
Just west of Beverly Hills, on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood is one of LA’s more user-friendly neighbourhoods, a grouping of low-slung Spanish Revival buildings that went up in the late 1920s under the name Westwood Village. It’s based around Broxton Avenue, along with the nearby campus of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which moved from East Hollywood in 1929.
Because of its ease for pedestrians, the neighbourhood has limited and expensive street parking; for minimum frustration, find a cheap parking lot and dump your vehicle there for a few hours while you explore.
Oil magnate Armand Hammer (see above), was buried in 1990 in a speckled marble tomb sharing the tiny cemetery of Westwood Village Memorial Park with the likes of movie stars Jack Lemmon, Farrah Fawcett, Natalie Wood, Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin, authors Truman Capote and Ray Bradbury, jazz drummer Buddy Rich.
To the left of the entrance in the far northeast corner, Marilyn Monroe, who rests under a lipstick-covered plaque (Playboy Hugh Hefner paid $75,000 for the crypt next to her).
Explore our guide to the most beautiful places in the US to choose your next holiday destination.
Ready for a trip to Los Angeles ? Check out the snapshot The Rough Guide to California or The Rough Guide to the USA . If you travel further in the USA , read more about the best time to go and the best places to visit in the USA. For inspiration use the itineraries from The Rough Guide to USA and our local travel experts . A bit more hands on, learn about getting there , getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
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Top image: Los Angeles skyline with palm trees in the foreground © J Dennis / Shutterstock