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. Yet first-time visitors should expect some surprises, beginning with the vast size of the place, hard to absorb until you actually get here, which can make picking where to stay decidedly difficult. LA is only America’s second biggest city in terms of population, but stitched together by an intricate network of freeways crossing a thousand square miles of widely varying architecture, social strata and cultures. Beyond the skyscrapers, downtown LA actually has an historic Mexican heart and is a traffic-clogged sixteen miles from the hip ocean enclaves of Santa Monica and Venice Beach – and thanks to high crime and gangster rap, South Central LA and Compton have become bywords for violence and gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods. West from downtown, Hollywood has streets imbued with movie myths and legends – and adjoining West LA is home to the city’s newest money, shown off in Beverly Hills and along the Sunset Strip.
Suburban Orange County, to the southeast, holds little of interest apart from Disneyland, a few museums and a handful of libertine beach towns. On the far side of the northern hills lie the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, or simply “the Valley”, where tract homes and strip malls are enlivened by occasional sights of interest, many of them in genteel Pasadena.
LA is so big that the area in which you stay will have a big impact on your travel plans. Downtown, the historic heart of the city, has both chic hotels and basic dives, but getting to the coast from here can be a hassle; Hollywood, West LA and West Hollywood are safe, relatively central options for seeing the whole city, while Santa Monica, Venice and Malibu are predominantly mid-to-upper-range territory, perfect for soaking up the beach culture but a long way from the cultural attractions inland. It’s only worth staying in Orange County, thirty miles southeast of Downtown, if you’re aiming for Disneyland or are travelling along the coast.
Motels and the bottom-end hotels start at about $75 for a double, but many are situated in seedy or out-of-the-way areas; any decent motel or hotel will cost at least $90. B&Bs are still uncommon in central LA, and tend to be quite expensive, often fully booked, and sited in out-of-the-way places. A handful of hostels are dotted all over the city, many in good locations, though at some stays are limited to a few nights and at others a nonstop party atmosphere prevails.
Beverly Hills is one of the world’s wealthiest residential areas, patrolled by more cops per capita than anywhere else in the USA. Glorified by the elite shops of Rodeo Drive, squeaky-clean streets and ostentatious displays of wealth, the city is undoubtedly the height of LA pretension. Luckily, there are a number of decent and unassuming spots for visitors interested in things other than commodities. The Paley Center for Media, 465 N Beverly Drive, is one such place, vividly chronicling eighty years of our media-saturated age, and best for its voluminous library of shows, where you can take in everything from I Love Lucy to The Simpsons. For an overview of Beverly Hills’ shopping and the area’s art and architecture, take a trip on the Beverly Hills Trolley, departing hourly from the corner of Rodeo and Dayton Way.
South from the Plaza, across the Santa Ana Freeway, the municipal-government core of the Civic Center offers three of the city’s most notable buildings. City Hall, 200 N Spring St is an iconic, classically styled tower that’s been visible in films from Dragnet to Superman. You can get a good look at the inside of the building for free, including its 28th-storey 360-degree observation deck. To the west, Walt Disney Concert Hall, First Street at Grand Avenue, is Frank Gehry’s grand spectacle of modern architecture, a 2300-seat acoustic showpiece with a curvaceous, stainless-steel exterior and an interior with rich, warm acoustics and a mammoth, intricate pipe organ. Self-guided audio tours (1hr; narrated by actor John Lithgow) are the easiest way to explore the hall and are offered most days from 10am to 2pm for free; days vary for the free one-hour guided tours, which run at noon and 1pm. Visit Wmusiccenter.org for the latest schedule. Note that no tours include the actual auditorium – for that you’ll have to see a show.
The pop-culture colossus of Disneyland is one of America’s most iconic sights, as well as one of its most expensive – most of the park’s hotels are ridiculously overpriced and there’s little quality cuisine in the area. The park is 45 minutes by car from downtown LA on the Santa Ana Freeway. Arrive early, as traffic and rides quickly become nightmarishly busy, especially in summer.
Disneyland’s best rides are in New Orleans Square and adjacent Adventureland: the Indiana Jones Adventure, an interactive archeological dig and 1930s-style newsreel show leading up to a giddy journey along 2500ft of skull-encrusted corridors; the Pirates of the Caribbean, a boat trip through underground caverns full of singing rogues; and the Haunted Mansion, a riotous “doom buggy” tour in the company of the house spooks. Other themed areas include Frontierland, with mainly lower-end Wild West attractions; Fantasyland, with low-tech fairy-tale rides, notably the treacly It’s a Small World; and Toontown, a cartoonish zone aimed at the kindergarten set.
It’s more worthwhile to zip right through to Tomorrowland, Disney’s vision of the future, where the Space Mountain roller coaster plunges through the darkness of outer space and the late Michael Jackson is celebrated in the Captain EO Tribute, a seventeen-minute 3-D film juiced up with special effects.
As you’d expect, LA’s bars reflect their locality: a clash of artists, grizzled old-timers, and financial whiz kids Downtown; serious hedonists and leather-clad rockers in Hollywood; movie-star wannabes and self-proclaimed producers in West LA; a mix of tourists, locals and British expats in Santa Monica; and a more oddball selection in Venice. A few hard-bitten bars are open the legal maximum hours (from 6am until 2am daily), though the busiest hours are between 9pm and midnight. During happy hour, usually from 5 to 7pm or 4 to 6pm, drinks are cheap and sometimes half-price.
Nightlife in LA can be among the best in the country, with many options for serious drinking, partying and debauchery. Weekend nights are the busiest, but during the week things are often cheaper. Where they exist, cover charges range widely, depending on the night and the establishment (often $5–20). Except at all-ages, alcohol-free clubs, the minimum age is 21, and it’s normal for ID to be checked, so bring photo ID. LA also has an overwhelming choice of live music venues, offering everything from punk to salsa.
Given its glamorous associations, it’s no surprise that LA is one of America’s culinary hotspots when it comes to gourmet dining, though on a street level it’s true that Mexican food is the closest thing to an indigenous LA cuisine with a tacquería on every other block, while purveyors of East Asian food and gourmet street carts have also boomed in recent years. Many of the city’s higher-end restaurants serve California cuisine, the signature style of top-notch LA eating, blending French-styled food with fresh local ingredients in an eclectic, harmonious brew.
LA was born at El Pueblo de Los Angeles, an historic district centred on the old plaza just across Alameda Street from Union Station. The Plaza was roughly the site of the city’s original 1781 settlement, and the plaza church La Placita, 535 N Main St, is the city’s oldest, a small adobe structure with a gabled roof dating back to 1822. Olvera Street, which runs north from the plaza, contrived in part as a pseudo-Mexican village market, offers a cheery collection of food and craft stalls. Among the historic structures here is Avila Adobe (daily 9am–4pm; free), technically the city’s oldest building (from 1818), although it was almost entirely rebuilt out of reinforced concrete following the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. The house is furnished as it might have appeared in the late 1840s, and the courtyard outside contains the visitor centre.
The greenery and mountain slopes that make up Griffith Park, northeast of Hollywood, offer lush gardens, splendid views and many miles of fine trails – though hillside wildfires regularly menace the park in summer. Otherwise, it’s a great place for a long stroll, hike or bike ride. The one major sight here, the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens, 5333 Zoo Drive, pales in comparison to its San Diego counterpart.
The landmark Art Deco Griffith Observatory has a twelve-inch Zeiss refracting telescope, solar telescopes for viewing sunspots and solar storms, and modern exhibits covering the history of astronomy and human observation. The observatory has been used as a backdrop in innumerable Hollywood films, most famously Rebel Without a Cause, and the site offers great views over the LA basin and out to sea (provided the smog isn’t too thick).
One quick and easy way to see LA is on a guided tour. The mainstream tours carry large busloads of visitors to the major tourist sights; specialist tours usually carry smaller groups and are often quirkier and better value; and media studio tours are available on day-trips by most of the mainstream operators, though you’ll save money by turning up on your own.
One type of trek to avoid are the uninspired bus tours that focus on the homes of the stars (ie, their ivy-covered security gates), and advertise their overpriced services around central Hollywood. For some insight into how a film or TV show is made, or just to admire the special effects, there are guided studio tours at Warner Bros, NBC, Sony, Paramount and Universal, all near Burbank except for Sony, in Culver City, and Paramount, in Hollywood.
LA Conservancy offer walking tours ($10) for various sections and buildings in Downtown LA, which concentrate on the city’s architecture, history and culture.
Neon Cruises offer three-hour-long, eye-popping evening tours (June–Sept Sat 7.30pm; $55) of LA’s best remaining neon art, on Saturdays through the summer, sponsored by the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale.
The southwest corner of downtown LA is dominated by the Staples Center arena and retail behemoth LA Live, a $2.5-billion shopping and entertainment complex that features cinemas, sports facilities and broadcast studios, upper-end hotels, a central plaza, a bowling alley and numerous arcades, restaurants and clubs. It also contains the absorbing Grammy Museum, not just devoted to the Grammy Awards (America’s most prestigious music awards), but recorded music in general, with interactive displays over four floors including the Songwriters Hall of Fame, stage outfits and exhibits on Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, personal artefacts from Elvis Presley, Miles Davis and Neil Diamond, and a real recording studio.
East of Bunker Hill, Little Tokyo is an appealing collection of historic sites, restaurants and galleries, centred around the Japanese Village Plaza, a touristy outdoor mall at 335 E 2nd St and Central Avenue. Nearby, the comprehensive Japanese American National Museum, 100 N Central Ave, houses exhibits on everything from origami to traditional furniture and folk craftwork to the story of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Just north and set in a former police garage renovated by Frank Gehry, the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N Central Ave, is used for the edgier temporary shows of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Twenty miles north of Santa Monica, Malibu is synonymous with luxurious celebrity isolation, along with hillside wildfires, which routinely smoke those same celebrities out of their gilded confines. Malibu’s Surfrider Beach was the surfing capital of the world in the 1950s and early 1960s, and is still a big attraction (the surf is best in late summer; check the surfing report at Wsurfrider.org). The beach is part of Malibu Lagoon State Park, a nature reserve and bird refuge, and nearby is the Adamson House, 23200 PCH, a stunning, historic Spanish Colonial-style home built in 1929, featuring opulent decor and colourful tilework. The adjoining Malibu Lagoon Museum, formerly the Adamsons’ five-car garage, chronicles the history of the area from the days of Chumash people to the “gentlemen” ranchers and the birth of modern surfing.
Though Polynesians and especially Hawaiians have been surfing for hundreds of years (legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku popularizing the sport in California in the 1920s), modern surf culture really went mainstream on LA beaches and especially Malibu in the late 1950s. Movies such as Gidget (1959), filmed on Malibu’s Surfrider Beach and Leo Carrillo State Park (see above), sparked a flood of interest and instigated the genre known as beach party films (1963’s Beach Party was also filmed in Malibu), as well as the surf music of Dick Dale, the Beach Boys (formed in nearby Hawthorne, LA, in 1961) and others. It wasn’t all fun though; environmentalism has always been a key aspect of surf culture, and the Surfrider Foundation was formed in Malibu in 1984 by surfers to protest threats to their local breaks – it’s now a global activist movement.
The LA Dodgers play at Dodger Stadium, 1000 Elysian Park Ave, near downtown; the LA Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium of Anaheim at 2000 Gene Autry Way, Anaheim in Orange County; seats for both $15–150.
The Lakers (tickets $25–260, Clippers ($20–250), and women’s team Sparks ($10–55) all play at the Staples Center, 1111 S Figueroa St in Downtown LA.
The Kings are based at Staples Center ($25–135), and Orange County’s Anaheim Ducks play at Honda Center, 2695 East Katella Ave, Anaheim ($20–175; t714 704 2500, wducks.nhl.com).
The Galaxy ($20–125) and CD Chivas USA ($15–100) both play at the StubHub Center, 18400 Avalon Blvd, in the South Bay city of Carson.
Friendly and liberal, Santa Monica is 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).
Santa Monica reaches nearly three miles inland, but most spots of interest are within a few blocks of the Pacific Ocean, notably Palisades Park, the pleasant, cypress-tree-lined strip along the top of the bluffs that makes for striking views of the surf below. Two blocks east of Ocean Avenue, the Third Street Promenade, a pedestrianized stretch between Wilshire Boulevard and Broadway with street vendors, buskers and itinerant evangelists, is the closest LA comes to having a dynamic urban energy, and by far the best place to come for alfresco dining, beer-drinking and people-watching, especially after dark. Further south, another good stretch is Main Street, where the visitor centre is located (see p.841), and which boasts a serviceable array of fine restaurants, bars, shops and a few galleries.
South LA comprises such notable neighbourhoods as Watts, Compton and Inglewood, but beyond the USC campus and Exposition Park hardly ranks on the tourist circuit – especially since it burst onto the world’s TV screens as the focal point of the April 1992 riots. It’s better known as South Central, but LA City Council voted to change the name in 2003 in the hopes of disassociating the area with connotations of gang violence and economic depression. It’s generally a place to visit with caution or with someone who knows the area, though it’s safe enough in daytime around the main drags.
The neighbourhood of Watts provides a compelling reason to delve deeper into South LA: the fabulous, Gaudí-esque Watts Towers. Constructed from iron, stainless steel, old bedsteads and cement, and decorated with fragments of bottles and around seventy thousand crushed seashells, these seventeen striking pieces of street art were built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, who had no artistic training but laboured over the towers’ construction from 1921 to 1954. Once finished, he left the area, refused to talk about the towers and faded into obscurity, dying in 1965. Entry is by guided tour only, but you can still see the towers through the fence if you visit when it’s closed.
Until a century ago the area south of the Civic Center, Bunker Hill, was LA’s most elegant neighbourhood, but after a half-century of decay, 1960s urban renewal transformed it into the imperious Financial District, with colossal new towers. At the base of the towering Wells Fargo Center at 333 S Grand Ave sits the Wells Fargo History Museum charting the history of Wells Fargo & Co, the banking colossus that was founded in Gold Rush California, with old mining equipment, antiques, photographs, a two-pound chunk of gold, a re-created assay office from the nineteenth century and a simulated stagecoach journey from St Louis to San Francisco. Two blocks south at 633 W 5th St, the US Bank Tower (1018ft), completed in 1989, is still the tallest building on the West Coast.
Towering over the surrounding area, the Getty Center is Richard Meier’s Modernist temple to high art, clad in acres of travertine, its various buildings devoted to conservation, acquisition and other philanthropic tasks, and its surrounding gardens arranged with geometric precision.
The quality of the exhibits is extraordinary. In the rooms devoted to decorative arts, you can see a formidable array of ornate French furniture from the reign of Louis XIV, with clocks, chandeliers, tapestries and gilt-edged commodes filling several overwhelmingly opulent chambers. The painting collection features all the major names from the thirteenth century on, including Van Gogh’s Irises and a trio of evocative Rembrandts: Daniel and Cyrus before the Idol Bel, in which the Persian king tries foolishly to feed the bronze statue he worships; An Old Man in Military Costume, the exhausted, uncertain face of an old soldier; and Saint Bartholomew, showing the martyred saint as a quiet, thoughtful Dutchman – the knife that will soon kill him visible in the corner of the frame. Elsewhere in the museum, photography is well represented by Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy and other notables, and there’s also a rich assortment of classical, Renaissance and Baroque sculpture – highlighted by Bernini’s Boy with a Dragon, depicting a plump, possibly angelic toddler bending back the jaw of a dragon with surprising ease.
Immediately south of Santa Monica via Main Street or the boardwalk, Venice is the eccentric, loopy version of Los Angeles, home to outlandish skaters, brazen bodybuilders, panhandlers, streetballers, buskers and street-side comedians. It’s been this way since the 1950s and 1960s, when the Beats and then bands like the Doors bummed around the beach, and though gentrification has definitely had an impact in recent years, Venice retains an edgy feel in parts, with a gang culture that has never really been eradicated.
It wasn’t always like this. Venice was laid out in the marshlands of Ballona Creek in 1905 by developer Abbot Kinney as a romantic replica of the northern Italian city. His twenty-mile network of canals and waterfront homes never really caught on, although a later remodelling into a low-grade version of Coney Island postponed its demise for a few decades. Windward Avenue is Venice’s main artery, running from the beach into what was the Grand Circle of the canal system – now paved over – and the original Romanesque arcade, around the intersection with Pacific Avenue, is alive with health-food shops, trinket stores and rollerblade rental stands.
Nowhere else does LA parade itself quite so openly as along the wide pathway of Venice Boardwalk, packed year-round at weekends and every day in summer with musicians, street performers, trinket vendors and many others; it’s lively and fun during the day, but strictly to be avoided after dark, when shades of the creepy old Venice appear. South of Windward is Muscle Beach, a legendary outdoor weightlifting centre where serious-looking dudes (and a few muscular women) pump serious iron and budding basketballers hold court on the concrete.