Hollywood encapsulates the LA dream of glamour, money and overnight success, with millions of tourists arriving on pilgrimages every year. Although many of the big film companies long ago relocated to blander digs in Burbank, and you’re still more likely to see a homeless person than a movie star, recent attempts at renovation have added a bit of the old glitz to the previously shabby streets.
The hub of Central Hollywood is the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, where, amid the flashy neon tourist traps, the modern Hollywood & Highland Center hosts a major hotel and chic restaurants, plus colossal pseudo-film-set architecture and the Dolby Theatre, where the Oscars are held annually (the fun guided theatre tours take in the posh Dolby Lounge and the chance to see a real statuette).
Also incorporated in the Hollywood & Highland Center is the historic TCL Chinese Theatre, which opened in 1927 and has since been expanded into a multiplex, its main auditorium restored to its gloriously kitschy origins. It’s an odd version of a classical Asian temple, replete with dubious Chinese motifs and upturned dragon-tail flanks; the lobby’s Art Deco splendour and the grand chinoiserie of the auditorium certainly make for fascinating viewing. After a guided tour linger in the theatre’s forecourt to see the handprints and footprints left in cement by Hollywood’s big names. You’ll probably encounter plenty of celebrity impersonators in the forecourt – Elvis, Marilyn and Star Wars characters among them – along with low-rent magicians, smiling hawkers and assorted oddballs vying for your amusement and money.
The canyons and slopes of the Hollywood Hills, which run from Hollywood west to the canyons above Beverly Hills, are best seen from the winding concourse of Mulholland Drive, threading the crest of the mountains. With its striking panorama after dark of the illuminated city-grid stretching nearly to the horizon, the road is a prime axis for the LA good life, with mansions so commonplace that only the half-dozen fully blown castles really stand out. For a more up-close look at landmark architecture, take in a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N Highland Ave (Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts July–Sept, the massive concrete bandshell whose summer music offerings tend toward the crowd-pleasing variety.
Throughout Hollywood you can see the Hollywood Sign, erected as a property advertisement in 1923 (it spelled “Hollywoodland”, until 1949) and illuminated with four thousand light bulbs. Nowadays, infrared cameras and radar-activated zoom lenses have been installed to catch graffiti writers. Curious tourists who can’t resist a close look are liable for a steep fine. The best views can be had from the Griffith Observatory (opposite). For a much simpler look, see Whollywoodsign.org.
The famed Hollywood sign began life on the slopes of Mount Lee in 1923 as a billboard for the Hollywoodland real estate development and originally contained its full name; however, in 1949 when a storm knocked down the “H” and damaged the rest of the sign, the “land” part was removed and the rest became the familiar symbol of the area and of the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, the current incarnation has literally lost its radiance: it once featured 4000 light bulbs that beamed the district’s name as far away as LA Harbor, but a lack of maintenance and an abundance of thievery put an end to that practice.
The sign has also gained a reputation as a suicide spot, ever since would-be movie star Peg Entwistle terminated her career and life here in 1932, aged 24 – no mean feat, with the sign being as difficult to reach then as it is now. Less fatal mischief has been practised by students of nearby Caltech, who on one occasion renamed the sign for their school, while other defacers have included USC, UCLA, the US Navy and Fox Television. Because of this sullied history, there’s no public road to the sign (Beachwood Drive comes nearest, but ends at a closed gate) and you’ll incur minor cuts and bruises while scrambling to get anywhere near.
In any case, a razor wire fence, infrared cameras and radar-activated zoom lenses have been installed to catch graffiti writers, and innocent tourists who can’t resist a closer peek are also liable for a steep fine. The best views can be had from the Griffith Park Observatory, and, more distantly, from the junction of Hollywood Blvd and North Highland Ave.
The West Hollywood neighbourhood is synonymous with social tolerance and upmarket trendiness, with a sizeable gay contingent, seen most prominently along the chic blocks of Santa Monica Boulevard, from Doheny Drive to La Cienega Boulevard. Just south, Melrose Avenue is LA’s most fashionable shopping street and one of the unmistakeable symbols of southern California, where neon and flashy signs abound among a fluorescent rash of designer and secondhand boutiques, antique shops and high-end diners. La Brea Avenue runs perpendicular to the east side of the Melrose district, offering more space, fewer tourists, chic clothiers, upscale restaurants and even trendier galleries.