Next up in my How to do Los Angeles series: Los Angeles’s best sites to see (and also some to avoid). Stealing a page from Rick Steves’ travel books (although I use stars, not triangles), *** is a must see, ** you should try hard not to miss, * is worth it if you have the time, and items listed without stars are worth knowing about but not necessarily worth doing unless you have a special interest.
*** HOLLYWOOD, the entertainment capital of America and increasingly the entire world. Walk the main strip and you are treated to an assortment of historic movie palaces, old film locations, trendy bars and nightclubs, aspiring musicians and performers, street art, murals, tributes, and tons of glitz, glamour, and decadence. Consider my Hollywood Walk for the best Hollywood experience.
Breaking Hollywood down further, the sights to see are:
*** GRAUMAN’S CHINESE – The mother of all movie palaces. Built in 1927 following the success of the Egyptian, this theater left all others in the dust, primarily due to its celebrity hand and footprints, which are still out front. The Chinese is also front and center for the street performers and aspiring artists (mainly rappers) of Hollywood. Some of the most famous stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are here, including the most photographed of them all (per my observations): Michael Jackson, just west of the entrance to the hand and footprints. The theater itself is very well preserved and recently retrofitted for IMAX, so consider seeing a film here; they play mainstream films so you don’t have to be a cinephile to enjoy it (make sure you screen in the main theater, not the additional screens).
** THE HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME – A tribute to Hollywood’s greatest entertainers, the Hollywood Walk of Fame honors five categories: film, TV, music, radio, and theater. The most recognizable names are outside the Chinese and Egyptian theaters, but film and television buffs will recognize names throughout. Lining the walk are historic locations some one of the most eclectic businesses in Los Angeles. Theaters, clubs, comedy clubs, prop and toy stores, wig shops, sex shops, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, book stores, clothing and lingerie stores, tattoo parlors, drug paraphernalia, and lots of Hollywood history. Explore and have fun.
** THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL – Half a mile north of Hollywood Blvd is the Hollywood Bowl, built into a natural amphitheater in the Santa Monica Mountains. The summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the bowl contains just under 18,000 seats, making it the largest outdoor seated concert arena in the world. You can view the facilities for free during the day (from 10am to noon on classical days, you can even listen to the philharmonic practice), or consider going to a show: Tuesday/Thursday is classical, Wednesday is jazz, and Friday/Saturday/Sunday are special showings. Shows are summers only; fireworks shows are the best.
** THE EGYPTIAN – Built in 1922, the Egyptian was Hollywood’s first movie palace and the site of the world’s first movie premiere. Following the opening of the Chinese, this theater lost popularity and eventually fell into disrepair. In 1998 it was given to the American Cinematheque, who performed a $14 million renovation. Today, it is a haven for cinephiles and film buffs, showing indie, foreign, and historical films almost impossible to see on the big screen elsewhere. The theater also hosts many premieres, advanced screenings, and film festivals. Filmmakers often hold Q&As after their screenings as well.
* EL CAPITAN – Another of Hollywood’s grand movie palaces, the El Capitan was built as a live performance theater in 1926. In 1942 it was bought by Paramount and converted to a movie theater, although Paramount was forced to relinquish control just five years later, when the Supreme Court decided that movie studios could not own theater chains. But by the 1980s movie studios were once again allowed to own theater chains and in 1989 Disney bought the El Capitan. Today, there is no better place to see a Disney film.
* HOLLYWOOD AND HIGHLAND CENTER – Offering touristy shopping and overpriced food, this center is notable for its location, literally the heart of Hollywood, and its tributes to Hollywood, most spectacularly, the entire layout was inspired by DW Griffith’s silent classic Intolerance. The center also contains great views of the Hollywood sign (north end, fourth floor). Attached to the Hollywood and Highland Center is the Dolby Theater (formerly Kodak Theater), the home of Academy Awards. Be sure to check out the walkway from Hollywood Blvd to the theater, where all previous best picture winners are honored.
* ARCLIGHT HOLLYWOOD AND THE CINERAMADOME – With assigned seating, no commercials, super comfortable seats, and 21+ alcohol screenings, the Arclight is the Mercedes Benz of movie theaters. When films are in limited release, playing at only one or two screens across the country, they play here. This is a great place to see more artsy films, Oscar contenders and festival winners in particular. Arclight also operates the Cineramadome, a screen so wide it literally curves around the audience. Popular in the 1960s, there only three still in operation. Note that there are several Arclight locations in Southern California. All are great but Hollywood is the flagship and is the only one with a Cineramadome.
* HIKING TO THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN – One of the main reasons people come to Los Angeles, hiking to the Hollywood Sign (or rather, ~20ft behind it) is difficult and time consuming, but worth it if you have the time. There’re multiple ways to get here, each with its own advantages/disadvantages. They are:
- The quickest route is Mt Lee Drive, a 20 minute paved walk that starts in Hollywoodland, the neighborhood just south of the sign (the sign was built to advertise this neighborhood). The walk is unspectacular, although it does offer great views of the sign itself. Parking is terrible (no parking weekends before 6pm, and temporary no parking whenever the city and locals deem necessary, as of this writing there was temporary no parking weekdays before 4pm).
- Another quick route is the Aileen Getty Ridge Trail, a moderate hike that runs along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains, over the Cahuenga Peak and past the Wisdom Tree. This hike takes and about 45 minutes (one way), and the trail provides great views of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and the Cahuenga pass. Street parking is available from 6am to 9pm on Lake Hollywood Dr near Wonder View Dr.
- There are two trails that come in from the San Fernando Valley, across from Warner Brothers Studios on Forest Lawn Dr. I haven’t hiked these so I can’t tell you about them.
- Hiking through Griffith Park gives you lots of options. Trails consist of access roads, fire roads, horse trails, and hiking trails, and every combination takes significantly longer than the hikes listed above. The most popular Griffith Park route starts in Bronson Canyon (near the Bronson Caves, a popular film location and site of the 1950’s batcave).
OTHER SIGHTS: The Capital Records Building is an architectural landmark. Designed to represent a stack of 45-rpm records, it was the first circular skyscraper ever built. Amoeba Records is the best music store in town and is a sight in its own right, and the The Pantages, originally built as a movie palace, is the premiere playhouse in Los Angeles. For outdoor movie screenings, you can check out the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which screens movies alongside tombstones of some of Hollywood’s greats (every other Saturday, summer only). Finally, located near the Hollywood Bowl is the Ford Amphitheater. Named after a member of the Los Angeles board of supervisors, the Ford Amphitheater is a small outdoor music and performance theater, much more intimate than the nearby Hollywood Bowl.
Hollywood also has several museums, including the Wax Museum, the Hollywood History Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the Guinness World Record’s Museum, the Hollywood Heritage Museum, and Madame Tussades Waxworks. In my opinion, none are worth the time or money. Instead, see a movie at one of the movie palaces; those are the real museums of Hollywood.
All Hollywood is accessible by the Red Line. Parking is difficult, so leave the car at home and use public transportation.
** DOWNTOWN – Downtown Los Angeles has gone through a renaissance the last few years. Filled with towering skyscrapers, beautiful architecture, relaxing parks, and lots of culture, Downtown LA should not be missed. See my Downtown walk for the best Downtown experience.
Breaking Downtown down further, the sights to see are:
** OLVERA STREET – As authentic to Mexico as you’ll get outside the country itself, this marketplace, the birthplace of Los Angeles, offers great shopping and delicious food for incredibly cheap. Consider buying souvenirs here, especially if you are interested in the most significant non-Hollywood culture Los Angeles has to offer. Alongside Olvera Street are Avila Adobe and Sepulveda House, two historical residences preserved as museums, and Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles, also known as Old Plaza Church, an annex to the California mission system built by the Spanards in the 1790s. This church was built specifically to service the burgeoning Pueblo de Los Angeles, but after only thirty years it was replaced by the church that stands today. Notice the Spanish architecture; this style is common throughout Los Angeles. Even Hollywood’s famous Egyptian theater features Spanish style roofing, completely inauthentic and done to save money.
** THE WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL – Home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic when they are not at the Hollywood Bowl, this building, opened in 2003, is an architectural landmark. Check it out from the outside and listen to classical music inside. I’ve never been inside (I go to the Hollywood Bowl instead) but from what I’ve heard, the acoustics are phenomenal.
** DOWNTOWN ARCHITECTURE – Downtown Los Angeles is burgeoning with beautiful works of classical, modern, and post-modern architecture. Already mentioned are the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles. The bright turquoise Art Deco Eastern Columbia Building is considered by many to be the most beautiful exterior in the city, while the Bradbury Building, built in 1893 and made famous in the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, contains the most beautiful interior. Across from the Bradbury Building is Sid Grauman’s first movie theater, the Million Dollar Theater. Built in 1918, it is not as grand as the Egyptian or the Chinese, but it serves as an important milestone in the showman’s career. For Spanish architecture, check out the newly renovated Union Station, built in 1939 and featured in many movies and TV shows. City Hall’s Art Deco design stems from Turkey, specifically the Mausoleum of Mausolus (be sure to check out the observation deck at the top), while the luxurious Millennium Biltmore combines French, Spanish, and Italian designs, and Central Library was inspired by Egyptian and Mediterranean Revival architecture. Central Library was renovated after a 1986 arson fire, with funds raised by selling the airspace above the library. In that airspace now stands the US Bank Tower, which for many years was the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi (the nearby Wilshire Grand Tower is the current west-of-the-Mississippi record-holder). This building is most recognizable as the first building blown up in the film Independence Day. On the futuristic/post-modern end are the Caltrans District 7 Building, winner of the 2005 Pritzker Award, and the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels, the second largest Catholic Church in the United States, built in 2002 after the Northridge earthquake left the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana unfit for services. The Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, built in 1876, has since been restored, and is now a performing arts complex/event venue called Vibiana.
* GRAND PARK – Opened in 2012 as part of the Civic Center revitalization project, Grand park is a three-block long park that connects City Hall to the Music Center/Bunker Hill and also serves most of Los Angeles’s most important government buildings. The park has gorgeous greenery and is a great place to relax in the hectic downtown atmosphere. Also, courtesy of Los Angeles’s great weather and ever abundant sun, Grand Park is always hosting outdoor events, and the park also has a giant fountain that you can play in. It’s lots of fun!
* ANGEL’S FLIGHT – Originally built in 1901, this funicular railway connects Hill and Olive Street in the Bunker Hill district. Closed and dismantled in 1969 but refurbished and reopened in 1996, then closed again in 2001 and re-reopened in 2010, Angels Flight is a convenient, cheap, and unique mode of transportation in Los Angeles.
* THE DISTRICTS – Much of downtown is divided into specialty districts. The Fashion District, specifically Santee Alley, has blocks of great clothing for very low prices. It gets pretty crowded and is great for people-watching. The Flower District, selling every commercially available cut flower in the world, is the largest wholesale flower district in the United States, the Jewelry District is the largest of its kind in the United States, and the Broadway Theater District, with twelve historic movie theaters in one six-block stretch, is the largest concentration of old movie palaces in the United States. The Financial District and Bunker Hill house Los Angeles’s tallest skyscrapers, the Old Bank District features several examples of early twentieth century architecture, and Gallery Row and the Arts District contains much of Los Angeles’s fine arts. Visit during the Artwalk (the second Thursday of the month, evenings), when galleries and amateur and street artists put their work on display. Finally, there’s the Toy District, which sells lots of novelties and electronics, mostly Asian, all for very cheap.
OTHER SITES: Grand Central Market, inhabiting the Homer Laughlin Building, is Los Angeles’s largest open-air market and has operated since 1917 (the building was built in 1905). The Staples Center houses the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings, but isn’t worth visiting unless you’re going to a game. Next to the Staples Center is LA Live, a collection of restaurants, shopping, and nightlife that is fun but also expensive and generic; it’s not worth visiting unless you’re already there for a Staples Center event. Little Tokyo and Chinatown are popular cultural hubs, although San Francisco’s Chinatown is better. The LA River through downtown is completely paved over; it has some unique bridge crossings and is the site of some of Hollywood’s most famous car chase/racing scenes. Skid Row, home to Los Angeles’s homeless community, is much improved compared to twenty years ago, but still isn’t worth visiting.
Between the Red, Purple, Gold, Blue, Silver, and Expo lines, almost all of Downtown is covered by the metro. Parking can be expensive, so leave the car at home and use public transportation.
*** THE BEACHES – After Hollywood, Los Angeles is best known for its beaches. If you spent your entire vacation at the beach, you’d have a great trip. And with all the different beaches LA has to offer, you could go to the beach everyday and still never do the same thing twice. Venture out on your own or check out my Beach Walk, which visits Los Angeles’s two most famous beaches, right next to each other.
Here’s a breakdown of my favorite LA beaches.
*** THE VENICE CANALS, BEACH, AND BOARDWALK – My favorite LA beach. The Canals, inspired by Venice Italy, provide for nice strolls and picturesque photo-opportunities. But the Boardwalk and Athletic Center (including Muscle Beach) are what makes this beach truly special. Artists, dancers, entertainers, activists, hippies, skaters, stoners, athletes, Venice Beach has the best street culture in the city. It has art, clothes, souvenirs, books, tattoos, drug paraphernalia, tchotchkes, jewelry; if it’s fun, you’ll find it here, all for very cheap. As for the beach itself, the sand is amazing and the ocean water is clean enough to go in, but it isn’t great. That and the food are my only gripes here. This beach is a must-see.
** THE SANTA MONICA PIER/THIRD STREET PROMENADE/MAIN STREET – LA’s most popular, most thriving beach community. On the pier, you’ll find beautiful views of the coast, lots of artists and entertainers, and some fun carnival rides (I recommend the Ferris Wheel, very romantic). You’ll probably see people in the ocean, but because of the pier the water is dirty, so I don’t recommend it. The Promenade (an outdoor shopping mall) is very commercialized, but it is a great cultural hotspot, filled with artists and performers. Main Street also has great shopping and eats, and is less commercialized than Third Street.
* MANHATTAN BEACH – If you want to go in the water, this is the beach for you. Bisected by a fishing pier (with a quaint little aquarium at the end) and bordering a buzzing coastal community, this beach has the cleanest water in Los Angeles. It is also far enough south that in summer the water is decently warm. Sizeable waves bring lots of surfers, but they have their own section south of the pier, so you can safely swim on the north side. If that isn’t enough, Manhattan Beach is also a beach volleyball mecca, with over one hundred courts up and down the shores.
There are several other beaches in Los Angeles, each with their own attributes. From north to south, they are:
- Leo Carillo State Beach offers beach camping, although you’ll need to book far in advance.
- El Pescador and El Matador State Beaches are rockier, more scenic and secluded beaches, since you have to walk down a semi-steep trail to get there.
- Zuma Beach, popular amongst San Fernando Valley-ites, has water as clean as Manhattan Beach, although it’s colder here and there’s no coastal community. If you’re lucky, you may see dolphins (and even whales) swimming in the surf.
- The non-Zuma beaches of Malibu attracts smaller crowds because there is nowhere to park. However, Maibu Lagoon, formerly known as Surfrider Beach is considered Los Angeles’s best surf spot; I’m not a surfer so I’ve never been there.
- Will Roger’s State Beach is just like the beach portion of Santa Monica, but without the coastal community.
- Dockweiler State Beach isn’t as pretty as the others, but it has it’s own coastal community and is partially under the LAX flightpath, so you can watch airplanes liftoff over the ocean. Also, bonfires are allowed here.
- Redondo and Hermosa Beach are like Manhattan, but without the endless beach volleyball courts. Hermosa Beach also has its own beachside boardwalk.
- Long Beach’s beaches are also beautiful (and they have a dog beach), although the ocean view is hindered by the port, the breakwater, and the oil refineries (disguised as islands) in the area.
Long Beach’s beaches are a short walk from the Blue line’s southern loop, while the Expo line ends near Venice and Santa Monica. Santa Monica and Venice are walking distance from each other, so consider doing them on the same day. As for the rest of these beaches, you’ll most likely be driving to them. Or you can take the Ballona Creek Bike Path, which connects Dockweiler, Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo beaches to the Expo Line near Culver City. If you do drive, prepare to pay for parking, but at least the beaches themselves are free.
MUSEUMS – Did you know that Los Angeles has more museums per capita than any other city in the world? Several of them are fantastic, well worth checking out.
** THE GETTY – Los Angeles’s grandest museum and one of the most famous art museums and research centers in the world, the Getty was funded by oil tycoon J Paul Getty to a tune of four billion dollars. One billion went to construction and the interest earned on a remaining three billion pays for the museum’s operational expenses; as a result, entry to this museum is free (parking is not, but that goes to the city, not the museum). The collection, all pre 20th century and headlined by Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises, is impressive by American standards but not compared to Europe. However, the main attraction here isn’t the art; it’s architecture, landscaping, and views of the city, all of which should not be missed.
** GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY – Opened in 1935 and made famous by Rebel Without A Cause, this newly renovated structure is a commanding Los Angeles presence. Overlooking the city, with a museum, planetarium, and refracting and solar telescopes, the Observatory offers spectacular views of the stars, as well as exhibits and displays to accompany them. At night, amateur astronomers bring out their telescopes to share with parkgoers. The whole place is super-romantic. Everything but the planetarium is free, including parking.
* THE CALIFORNIA SCIENCE CENTER – Located in Exposition Park (see the park section below), the California Science Center received a huge boost from its latest addition: the Space Shuttle Endeavor. But even before Endeavor, the Science Center was a site to see. The museum has the best collection of aircraft/spacecraft in Los Angeles and lots of other exhibits designed to make science fun. Best is the high wire bicycle, a bike balanced on a guide wire 43 feet above the ground that visitors can ride (if they dare). Admission is free, although the premium exhibits have additional fees and you have to book in advance to see the Endeavor. You can avoid parking fees by taking the Expo Line.
* THE GETTY VILLA – J Paul Getty’s other contribution to Los Angeles’s museum scene, the Getty Villa houses 44,000 Greek, Roman, and Eturian artifacts (~1,200 available for viewing) in the largest replica Roman village in the world. Like the Getty Center, for most the Villa’s architecture and landscaping will be more enticing than its actual collection. Also like the Getty Center, admission is free, but you have to book in advance here, as tickets are limited.
* MUSEUM ROW – On Wilshire, along the block between Fairfax and Curson, are five museums (soon to be six). Most notable is the La Brea Tar Pits and its accompanying Page Museum. Formed more than 10,000 years ago, the tar pits have trapped many animals over the years, with the tar preserving their bones for future discovery. Some of the most notable remains include: a Columbian mammoth, a saber-toothed cat, and the La Brea Woman, a teenage skeleton approximately 9,000 years old. The first two are on display at the Page Museum; unfortunately, the La Brea Woman was removed in 2004. The tar pits are free to view, and on the first Tuesday of each month except June and July, the museum is free as well.
Next to the tar pits is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), a nine building museum with over 100,000 works spanning from ancient times to the present. The art collection is not great compared to European museums or even the Getty, but the museum does have some interesting modern and post-modern works, and the grounds (free to explore) are also worth checking out. Urban Light in particular is amazing, especially at night.
At the far end of LACMA is the under construction Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, scheduled to open in 2017. Across the street, the Peterson Automotive Museum just completed a huge renovation and is one of the largest and most expansive automotive museums in the world. Also on this side of the street are the A+D Architecture and Design Museum and the Craft and Folk Art Museum. Finally, not a museum but interesting nonetheless, across Wilshire from LACMA, in front of the Variety building, is the largest segment of the Berlin Wall outside Germany.
THE REST – If the Getty Center and LACMA aren’t enough, Los Angeles has more art museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the Norton Simon Museum (with the second largest Degas collection in the world), the Broad, and the Hammer Museum. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is an anti-museum you’d only find in LA and Travel Town is an outdoor train museum that kids love. The Museum of Tolerance focuses on racism and prejudice, with the Holocaust as its main exhibit. The Skirball Cultural Center, an educational institute dedicated to sustaining Jewish heritage, hosts regularly changing exhibits, events, and performances. Los Angeles’s Natural History Museum is the largest museum in the western United States, with almost 35 million specimens. Finally, the Huntington Library has its own art collection, striking botanical gardens, and a vast rare book and manuscript collection, including an original Gutenberg Bible.
PARKS – While not known for its greenery, Los Angeles is filled with parks and other recreational areas. Some are for sports, others for hiking, picnicking, sightseeing, relaxing. I’ve highlighted the best parks below.
** GRIFFITH PARK – Los Angeles’s grandest park and the eleventh largest municipal park in the US, Griffith Park was founded under the belief that every great city deserves a great park. This park is filled with hiking and horse trails, all of which lead to great views of the city and/or the San Fernando Valley. Griffith Park also contains several attractions, including: the ** Griffith Observatory, the Greek Theater, Travel Town, the Los Angeles Zoo, the remnants of the Old Los Angeles Zoo, the remnants of an old Bird Sanctuary, a Merry-Go-Round, the Gene Autry Museum, Bronson Caves, two golf courses, and a retired landfill. The Hollywood Sign is here too, and you can hike above it (see the Hollywood section at the beginning of this post), but not to it. Speaking of Hollywood, did you know that Griffith Park is Los Angeles’s most popular film location? It averages almost a production per day.
* EXPOSITION PARK – Located next to USC in the middle of South Los Angeles, this park, although not in the best area, is a gem. The * California Science Center is here, as is the Natural History Museum, the Los Angeles Coliseum and Sports Arena (home to USC football and the 1932, 1984, and 2028 Olympic Games), the Banc of California Stadium (home to the newly formed Los Angeles Football Club), the California African American Museum, and a Rose Garden. A beautiful place to spend the day, and its two best attractions (the Science Center and the Rose Garden) are free. Take the Expo line to avoid parking fees.
THE REST – Elysian Park, home to Dodger Stadium, is another park that offers great views of the Downtown skyline. Runyon Canyon is Los Angeles’s trendiest park; it’s where everyone from Hollywood walks their dogs. Echo Lake is also a popular walking spot and is frequently used as a film location. Paramount Ranch, where Paramount Studios filmed many of their classic westerns, is now a public park, and Vazquez Rocks, with its unique rock formations, is another popular film location, particularly for westerns and science fiction. Stoney Point is great for rock climbers and the LA River is being rejuvenated and is quickly becoming a site worth visiting. The Santa Monica Mountains contains lots of great hiking and secluded parks, the best being either Temescal Canyon for its views of the ocean or the more secluded Malibu Creek State Park, which offers cliff jumping into its creeks and lagoons. The Angeles National Forest is also great for hiking and nature watching. Its best destination, Big Bear Lake, makes for a great weekend getaway. And finally, don’t forget about * Grand Park, already mentioned in the downtown section of this post. Tongva Park, located outside Santa Monica’s City Hall, is really cool too.
OTHER COOL PLACES – Here are some final places to see, places that didn’t fit in any category above. Check them out, some are just as good as the best sights already mentioned.
** SUNSET STRIP – Los Angeles’s premiere nightlife district. With rock venues like the Whisky, Roxy, and House of Blues and clubs like the Viper Room, if you like dressing sexy and going somewhere cool, this is the place for you. Even if you don’t, the restaurants, shopping (check out the Hustler Store), comedy clubs (the Laugh Factory and Comedy Store are here), and people watching are enough to make Sunset Strip worth a visit. Parking is terrible, but unfortunately, being in West Hollywood, there is no metro-rail connection.
* MAGIC MOUNTAIN – A must for roller-coaster enthusiasts, this is one of the premiere roller coaster parks in the world. The park currently holds the record for the most roller coasters in a single park, and it also features numerous roller-coaster firsts, including: first roller coaster with a 360-degree loop (Revolution), first roller coaster to break 100 mph (Superman: Escape From Krypton), and first fourth-dimensional roller coaster (X2). The theming isn’t great and the non-roller coaster rides are only so-so, but you come here for the roller coasters, and they are fun!
* UNIVERSAL STUDIOS/CITY WALK – Here is another Los Angeles theme park, this one based on the movies. Universal’s backlot tour is included in the entry price and they have an almost brand-new Harry Potter land. Attached to Universal Studios is Citywalk, a popular shopping/eating/nightlife area that is very commercialized but fun nonetheless, although the clubs aren’t great. Take the Red line and catch the Universal shuttle to avoid parking fees.
* OLD TOWN PASADENA – Great restaurants, bars, and nightlife. Walk the streets, people watch, dress up and get into a bar/club if you can. In the summer, they have free outdoor movie screenings and on New Years Day, the Rose Parade travels here. The Gold line stops nearby.
OTHER COOL DISTRICTS: Westwood, although commercialized, has lots of good eats (ice cream at Diddy Reese is a must) and some great movie theaters, although they aren’t as impressive as in Hollywood. Nearby UCLA isn’t worth visiting, although I hear the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden is good. USC also isn’t too spectacular, although it might be worth a peek after finishing at Exposition Park (it’s right across the street). One weekend a year, USC hosts the Los Angeles Festival of Books, the largest book festival in the world. It’s worth going if you’re a book fan. Melrose, another popular hangout for Los Angeles’s aspiring artists, is filled with eclectic shops and restaurants. It is also in the middle of a heavy Jewish population, so you’ll see lots of Orthodox Jews walking about. Culver City is gaining popularity; it is simple and classy, like a calm, quiet Santa Monica. Silverlake is another mellow district, although it has a grungier scene and is known for its music.
In the San Fernando Valley, Studio City is a poor man’s West Hollywood: it has good bars and restaurants but isn’t nearly as happening as the other side of the hill. The nearby NoHo Arts District is where most of the city’s starving writers and directors hang out (starving actors tend to be in Studio City or Los Feliz); it has tons of theater and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is here as well. Downtown Burbank has lots of shopping, including the largest IKEA in the world, and some nightlife, but since all the artists are in NoHo, there isn’t much culture here. Both Studio City and NoHo are connected to the Red Line and while Burbank isn’t connected to the Metro, it does have a Metrolink (train) stop.
Finally, the Long Beach Harbor (connected to the Blue Line) offers a fun coastal scene, although it is all corporate chains with no culture. The Aquarium is nice but isn’t as good as San Jose’s and the Queen Mary is here too. The Harbor does boast Sgt. Pepper’s Dueling Piano Bar, much better than the piano bar at CityWalk but not as good as San Diego’s or Seattle’s.
OTHER THEME PARKS: In addition to Universal Studios and Magic Mountain, Los Angeles county has two additional theme parks. The first, right next to Magic Mountain, is Hurricane Harbor, a water park popular with teenagers. Second, is Raging Waters, another water park, located in the San Gabriel Valley. And then there’s neighboring Orange County, which boasts theme parks of its own, including: Knott’s Berry Farm and the *** Disneyland Resort (see day/weekend trips, coming soon!).
THE STUDIOS: If you want to see how movies and television shows are made, or you just want to spend time on a backlot, you have several options. As part of their theme park, Universal Studios offers Backlot Tram Tours, and Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Sony have their own Studio Tours. Another way onto a backlot is to attend a Sitcom or Talk-Show Taping. Tapings are free, but they are very popular and studios overbook them, so you have to (1) sign up early to get tickets and (2) arrive early to get a seat (a ticket does not guarantee one). The more popular the show, the earlier you’ll need to do both these things (the most popular shows book up months in advance, with guests lining up hours early to ensure their seat). If you don’t want to play this game (I wouldn’t), another option is to attend a taping during Pilot Season. Shot in Spring, pilots are the first episodes of new shows, made as a test to see if the show actually works. Most pilots do not get picked up, but some do, and sometimes they even become bonafide hits. If you are interested in a taping (pilot or not), go to tvtickets.com for more information.
FINAL SITES OF NOTE: Watt’s Tower is the largest piece of folk art created by one person and took thirty years (part-time) to build. The Blue Line goes by it (look east), with a stop about a half mile away. Dodger Stadium is worth visiting if you’re a baseball fan, as are the Rose Bowl and LA Coliseum for football fans. Because they are so far out of the way, the San Fernando and San Gabriel Missions are not worth your time; just see the Old Plaza Church instead. LAX’s Theme Building and Light Towers are worth checking out as you enter or exit LAX, but not otherwise. Finally, Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles’s best drive, takes you through ritzy neighborhoods atop the Santa Monica Mountains, with spectacular views of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. For the absolute best views, go at night.
PLACES TO AVOID – When people tell me they didn’t enjoy Los Angeles and then tell me they spent their time at these places, it makes me sad. Some of these places are popular and they may even seem like must sees, but they are not.
MOVIE STAR’S HOMES TOURS – If you go to Hollywood (which you should), you will be inundated with tours of movie star homes. Do not go! You’ll see huge homes, homes that look just like all the others around them, and that’s it. Often times you won’t even see the home, just the entry gate. You won’t see any celebrities, you won’t experience Los Angeles, you won’t do anything other than sit in a bus looking out.
RODEO DRIVE – For that matter, avoid all of Beverly Hills. All this place does is remind you how much money you don’t have. Huge mansions, expensive restaurants, ridiculous shopping, completely unwelcoming with nothing you can afford. If you like to shop, go to Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Hollywood, or Downtown’s Fashion/Jewelry Districts instead.
MALLS – Los Angeles has tons of malls, but only two are worth visiting: the Hollywood/Highland Center and Third Street Promenade. The rest are simply orgies of consumerism, often with no culture at all. Some people might recommend the Americana in Glendale or The Grove near West Hollywood. These are the worst! Manufactured, fake cultures, what tourists think Los Angeles should be, going here is like going to a Vegas Hotel and then claiming to have gone to the actual destination.
GLENDALE, BEL AIR, BRENTWOOD, ORANGE COUNTY, CALABASAS, BEVERLY HILLS – I already mentioned Beverly Hills when discussing Rodeo Drive; avoid these other cities for the same reasons. If you really feel the need to visit a rich neighborhood, then drive Mulholland Drive. At least you’ll get good views out of it.
UNSAFE PLACES – If you are worried about safety, you should know that Los Angeles, like rest of the country, has seen crime fall dramatically in the last twenty years. Crime in Los Angeles is the lowest it’s been in fifty years and, despite a reputation to the contrary, Los Angeles is one of the safer cities in the US. In all but robbery and arson, Los Angeles has lower crime rates than half of US cities with populations over 250,000 people. Los Angeles’s violent crime, rape, assault, and larceny rates are lower than two-thirds of these cities and for property crime and burglary, Los Angeles has crime rates lower than ninety percent of these cities. All this despite having more than four million people spread across almost 500 square miles.
That being said, Los Angeles does have unsafe places. Actually, at night it has unsafe places. If the sun is shining and you’re not stupid, everywhere in Los Angeles is safe. At night, it is a good idea to avoid East LA, South LA, East Hollywood, and Van Nuys. Luckily, other than Exposition Park, USC, and Watts Towers (all in South LA), there isn’t much to see in these areas anyway. See Watts Towers from the Blue Line and leave Exposition Park/USC before nightfall and you’ll have nothing to worry about. If you have to go to USC at night, simply park on campus and then drive home; you’ll be fine.
And that’s everything! Plenty to do, a couple things to avoid, hope you enjoy!
Featured image photography by sam garza. CC- 2.0