Nearly 140 years ago, the area’s original 44 settlers christened it El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula (Town of our Lady the Queen of Angels of the River Porciúncula). Today, that number’s grown to some four million Angelenos – packed into nearly 1 295km2, few of whom know every inch of the city, LA.
Sure, everyone thinks they know Los Angeles: the sun-kissed beaches full of six-pack-boasting hunks and bikini beauties, every bartender or server an actress, musician, model or writer a whisker away from fame, and the possibility of seeing a movie star at every coffee shop.
But that’s just one side of the city. I’ve lived here for nearly 15 years and I’m constantly discovering – and re-discovering – new places to explore.
Of course, you can’t beat the weather. In summer, it can be hot late into the evening and in winter it tends to get chilly at night, but there really isn’t a bad time to visit. As for getting around, the jokes you’ve heard about Los Angeles traffic are – sadly – true.
The best option is to rent a car, though some locals have given theirs up in favour of Uber and Lyft. As a rule, it’s better to allow for more travel time than the GPS suggests. A mere 10km trip across town in rush hour could take an hour (or more), and parking can be hard to find and expensive.
If you’re on a flexible schedule, give public transport a try. Buses (even though they can be infrequent), go almost everywhere and while the Metro Red Line stops at many popular places, all the subway lines end up at the stunning Union Station. Many stations have bikeshares outside too.
A guide to LA really must start in Hollywood. A stay at the Roosevelt Hotel – location of the first Oscars ceremonies – puts you right in the middle of the action, although there are many other more affordable hotels in the area. Walking the surprisingly long Walk of Fame costs nothing, and it’s a good idea to visit: walkoffame.com to find out if a star is being unveiled during your trip as there are around 20-30 ceremonies a year.
Many people don’t realise that the Chinese Theatre, the forecourt of which is mosaiced with the foot and handprints of stars (mainly from yesteryear) has always been a working cinema. It’s a gorgeous, old-style palace with an IMAX screen and no bad seats. Plus, it has a great behind-the-scenes tour.
For something different, give the obvious bus tours a miss and book a spot with Dearly Departed Tours, whose fun and knowledgeable guides take you to the darker side of Tinsel Town, visiting the homes and landmarks where names such as Charles Manson, Monroe, Morrison and many others became famous (or infamous).
Steak and martinis at Musso & Frank is an old-school, classic, must-do, and while The Snow White Café seems like a regular joint, it’s worth a visit, because its paintings of characters from the movie were done by the Snow White animators when they used to come here for lunch back in the 1930s. It’s definitely worth a visit.
Alternatively, you can take a picnic to the 95-year-old Hollywood Bowl to see the world-class Los Angeles Philharmonic. Even long-time Angelenos are amazed to learn that tickets start at just $1. I’ve spent many evenings under the stars here.
If you’re looking to flex your credit card, then go west via buzzing Sunset Boulevard towards Beverly Hills. Rodeo Drive and its surrounding streets are home to luxury stores like Prada, Gucci, Armani, Cartier, Jimmy Choo and more, and just window-shopping is eye-poppingly exciting.
Canon Drive is home to restaurants like The Palm, which is decorated with caricatures of their famous diners and is famous for deal-making lunches, or you can grab a New York slice at Mulberry Street Pizza. Always busy, it’s owned by actress Cathy Moriarty (Oscar-nominated for her role in Raging Bull) and her ex-boyfriend Richie Palmer, who was once married to Raquel Welch.
Not much comes cheap in this part of town, but it costs nothing to stroll the 6,4ha gardens of the Greystone Mansion. Once the most expensive home in California, this 55-room, Tudor-style building has been seen in dozens of movies, and has its own real murder mystery for you to discover.
Whether you splash out for a room at the pink Beverly Hills Hotel or not, make sure you have a cocktail in their Polo Lounge and imagine the days when Bogart, Dietrich, Monroe and the Rat Pack whooped it up here. The hotel’s also home to one of my best discoveries, the Fountain Coffee Room. A long, winding counter lined with stools, it offers breakfast all day and whether you have pancakes, a BLT or a slice of pie, simply sitting here, enjoying the hotel’s iconic jungle wallpaper is a treat.
Once you’ve had your fill, continue towards the ocean until you reach Venice Beach, where you’re going to get sand between your toes (but please remember the sunscreen!). Few people know that there are canals here; they’re the reason developer Abbott Kinney called the area “Venice.” His Italian dream was short-lived, but over a century later you can take the two-mile route along their pathways and bridges and admire the architecture and curated gardens, before exploring Abbott Kinney Boulevard, a hip stretch packed with art, fashion and food.
The boardwalk at Venice Beach is a fun, chaotic place and probably offers more entertainment per square foot than anywhere else in LA. It’s just 2,4km long, but you can spend hours there, watching the musicians, jugglers, animals and other entertainers, or browsing the souvenirs and artworks on sale.
You can also have your fortune told, get a temporary (or permanent) tattoo, or simply watch the rollerskaters, skateboarders, Segway riders and bohemian eccentrics. The bodybuilders at Muscle Beach put on a show, too.
Gjelina is a popular, but pricey spot for New American cuisine, though people with sandy feet might prefer The Firehouse, a red beacon on Rose Avenue serving American diner classics.
Stay at Shutters on the Beach in adjoining Santa Monica and you’ll be able to visit the pier with its LED-let Ferris wheel and historic carousel, then join the sea salts at Chez Jay, a marine-themed dive bar with stiff drinks, surprisingly good seafood and long history of famous drinkers.
Finally, head downtown. In the last decade, it’s mushroomed from a zone of government buildings and banks that were dead at night, to a centre packed with boutique hotels, converted apartments, restaurants, bars and art galleries. Many of the gorgeous buildings are from the art deco era, and guided walks by the LA Conservancy explain how the area’s changed since Victorian times.
Whether you’re staying at the new NoMad, fashioned out of the cavernous former Bank of Italy, or at the glittering 95-year-old Biltmore Hotel, a myriad entertainment options are just a few blocks away. Dinner can be enjoyed way up in the sky at Spire73, or there’s a panoramic view of LA to be enjoyed from the rotating lounge atop the space-age Bonaventure Hotel.
Movie fans will want to travel on Angels Flight, the orange funicular railway that featured in Oscar-winning La La Land. It takes you on a minute-long, clanging ride down to Grand Central Market (GCM) where locals buy fruit, vegetables and spices, and you can snack on everything from BBQ and burritos to pupusas and oysters.
On the other side of the GCM is the Bradbury Building, a unique iron structure with incredible skylights, seen in 1982’s Blade Runner and the more recent The Artist. A few blocks further, you’ll find the two-storey-high The Last Bookstore on the busy corner of Spring and 5th. It’s impossible to visit without buying something to read, or to take a picture of their old bank vaults and book tunnels.
The Pantry is open day and night, and a fast and furious, non-stop stream of affordable dishes are served from a huge grill that’s stacked with pancakes, eggs and steaks, the chefs working in fine-tuned harmony and the servers passing by in a blur.
On screens big and small, Los Angeles has been destroyed by aliens, earthquakes and volcanos, inhabited by femme fatales and villains, and is home to countless celebrities and reality stars – but that’s only half the story.
Hopefully this guide will inspire you to explore what’s really behind the silver screen city in the City of Angels!
by James Bartlett