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.
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.
The area you decide to stay can have a big impact on your trip, so here’s our guide on where to stay in LA from the latest Rough Guide to California.
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.
For a bargain: Jerry’s Motel. This hip, remodelled motel offers neat, stylish rooms and free parking just outside Downtown.
For sporty types: Los Angeles Athletic Club. The top three floors of this exclusive club make up a hotel with 72 nicely furnished rooms; a real bonus is free use of the club’s gym, plus a whirlpool and sauna.
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.
For a quirky stay: Hollywood Bed & Breakfast. This B&B is set in a 1912 home that looks a little like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It’s close to all the action with four cosy rooms and a small pool.
For modern simplicity: Magic Castle Hotel. Justly popular hotel boasting rooms and suites in a neat, modern style – with heated pool and free soda, candy and cookies 24 hours a day.
What is loosely called the Westside of Los Angeles begins immediately beyond Hollywood in West LA – which contains some of the city’s most expensive neighbourhoods.
Bordered by the Santa Monica Mountains to the north, the Santa Monica Freeway to the south, Hollywood to the east and the beach cities the west, this section of the city best embodies the stylish images that Los Angeles projects to the outside world.
Highlights include the restaurants and boutiques of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and the outstanding Getty Center, positioned high above the LA basin.
For Midwestern kitsch: Farmer’s Daughter. Conveniently located across from (naturally) the Farmers’ Market, this is a handsome boutique property with elements of “country styled” Midwestern kitsch.
For unbridled luxury: Bel-Air. The poshest hotel in LA bar none, built in 1946 and now owned by the Sultan of Brunei, in a lushly overgrown canyon and themed like an Arabian oasis.
Santa Monica, Venice and Malibu
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 is friendly and liberal – a compact, accessible bastion of oceanside charm.
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.
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).
For a bed back from the beach: Ambrose. The best choice for inland Santa Monica, with Arts and Crafts-styled decor and boutique rooms.
For a romantic getaway: Channel Road Inn. The B&B rooms here are nestled in lower Santa Monica Canyon (northwest of the city of Santa Monica), with ocean views, a hot tub and free bike rentals.
The south bay
Head south of LAX 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.
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.
For the height of luxury: The Beach House. Two-room suites with fireplaces, wet bars, balconies, hot tubs, stereos and refrigerators. Many rooms overlook the ocean.
For ocean views: Portofino Hotel & Yacht Club. The best choices at this suite-hotel by the ocean have hot tubs and nice views over the elite playground of King Harbor.
For most visitors Orange County means Disneyland (even though it only exists on roughly one square mile of land, it continues to dominate the area) and you should only look at staying here if you’re heading to the park or travelling along the coast.
For a surfer’s paradise: Huntington Surf Inn. Right on the beach and close to the pier, with nine simple but super cool rooms featuring a pop-art theme based on Southern California beach and surfing culture. Lots of pro surfers really do stay here.
For oceanside luxury: Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. A stunning Ritz-Carlton, this one is perhaps the best in town for its oceanside beauty (on the cliffs overlooking the sea around Dana Point). Rooms and suites are chock-full of luxury.
This feature contains affiliate links; you can find out more about why we’ve partnered with booking.com here. All recommendations are editorially independent and taken from the Rough Guide to California.