“She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast…”Bob Seger
There are few cities in the world as misunderstood as Los Angeles.
For years I’ve listened to the common refrain from returning Australians, who tell you they don’t like it. They stop there on a trip to somewhere else (usually New York) and complain that the city is touristy, dirty, soul-less, difficult. There’s cars everywhere. You can’t walk anywhere.
I’m gonna beg to differ here because I really love Los Angeles.
I’ve been six times now, book-ending three trips to the States with extended stopovers in the city and had a ball each and every time. I think LA is a really underrated city and one that doesn’t get the respect that it’s due. I still speak to a lot of people who race out of there, either on their way to somewhere else or home, and I reckon it’s such a missed opportunity. The weather is great, it’s packed with good beaches, you can go on some amazing hikes in the middle of the city, it’s so culturally diverse, the shopping is fantastic, there’s an ever increasing number of wonderful museums, it’s close to Disneyland, and – best of all – there’s In-N-Out everywhere.
Seriously, how could anyone not love this place?
LA suffers in a lot of ways because of it’s geography. While I abolutely think it’s a great place to visit, I’ll be honest and say that does come with a caveat: you need a car. Because it’s not New York, a city predominantly on an island that can be walked across in an afternoon. It’s not one of the beautiful old European capitals where all the action happens in a tiny old town quarter. Their public transport sucks. But if you can bring yourself to pull on your big girl pants and get behind the wheel, then suddenly LA is filled with infinite possibilities.
I remember getting off a plane at LAX a couple of years ago, dragging my suitcase into the rental car office, then sliding behind the wheel of a borrowed car. On the left side. Re-adjusting the windows and staring at the road and taking deep breaths until I could convince myself to turn the key and drive off. I get it, when you’re used to driving on the other side of the road then everything feels a bit harder. However I discovered that because LA is a city of cars, it’s actually a hell of a lot easier to drive there than expected because people make allowances for all types of drivers. Even semi-scared Australian ones. A vehicle really does allow you to access the best of the city easily and relatively inexpensively. I wouldn’t spend time in LA without one now.
LA is also a fantastic base for anyone coming from Australia or Asia to start a trip. It’s not just an awesome city in it’s own right, it also gives you really easy access to other wonderful locations like Palm Springs, San Diego, Las Vegas, down to Mexico, or – my favourite – up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. I did the drive over a couple of days a few years back and it remains one of the single best travel experiences of my life.
So what I ask is this: don’t discount Los Angeles. Don’t race off the plane when you get there to get another flight somewhere else. Get a car, drive into town and soak up a city where the weather is almost always fine, the food is incredible, and the people watching is something else indeed.
Where to stay.
The first time I went to LA I stayed in a dive of a hotel on Sunset Boulevard, collapsing in it after a long flight from Melbourne and excitedly eating blueberry pancakes at the IHOP across the road. It was a block down from the touristy grit of Hollywood Boulevard and while it was fun seeing the pavement stars only 100 steps from an In-N-Out, and easy to catch a tour bus to Disneyland, it’s definitely not the nicest (or safest) part of the city. On my last day there I was waiting for an airport shuttle outside the hotel at 5.30am when a guy started talking to me and just wouldn’t leave. I honestly thought I was about to be robbed.
While that’s maybe not the best hotel experience, I will say that Los Angeles tends to err on the expensive side when it comes to decent rooms. When I know I’m going to be there twice during a holiday (I tend to fly in and out of the US via LA), I try and pick two different parts of town so my experience changes each time. I’ve stayed in Culver City or thereabouts twice, both in really dive-ish places – a Super 8 and a place called Sunburst Spa & Suites, which each set me back between AUD $160-180 per night. Both had free parking and the Super 8 was walking distance from Venice. I like this part of LA because even though Culver City is absolutely nothing to write home about, it’s an easy trip to Venice, Santa Monica and Abbot Kinney without getting stuck in trafic for hours. There’s not a huge amount in the immediate area to walk around and see, but then, Los Angeles isn’t really that kind of city.
I’ve also stayed in the West Hollywood area and it’s a little bit sharper, cleaner and more interesting. The Beverly Laurel is my favourite hotel in town for it’s kitschy cool 1950s feel, the awesome diner downstairs, the highly Instagrammable pool, valet parking, and walking distance to The Grove and other good shopping and restaurants. For first time visitors to LA, this is absolutely the hotel I recommend staying at. It’s the most expensive option I’ve tried but it’s just so charming and so utterly Los Angeles. On my last visit I also spent a night at the Lexen Hotel which is a decent almost-budget option at AUD$200 a night. Clean and modern interior, very small rooms (but who is sitting all day in their room?), no frills experience. The driveway to the carpark is an absolute bastard and it’s easy to miss and hard to recover to. But if you’re looking for an easy base from which you can drive around the city or even walk down to Hollywood Boulevard, then this is a good option.
Where to eat.
Of anywhere in the US, I feel like Los Angeles food is the closest to Australian food. Sure, they still overcook the hell out of their bacon and their coffee still tastes mostly like tar (both solid American traits) but in LA you can get a lot more fresh and healthy meals instead of everything being deep fried.
For breakfast you absolutely cannot go past Egg Slut. They have a few venues across the city but I like the Venice one, and be warned – there’s likely to be a line. They make really simple egg and bacon rolls on a brioche bun and they are amazing… plus there’s the edgy Instagrammable branding. There’s only a few seats inside so grab it to go and wander down to the beach. Huckleberry Cafe in Santa Monica and Toast Bakery in West Hollywood are good if you’re craving an Australian cafe-style menu (think smashed avo on toast etc) and while you’re in West Hollywood, Joan’s on Third is one of my favourite places to eat anywhere in America. They have a great salad selection, one of the best toasted cheese sandwiches you’ll ever eat, and a bakery cabinet filled with treats. Highly recommend.
Although I’m not a big coffee drinker, I don’t mind one on occasion, and as a coffee snob Melburnian. It absolutely pains me to drink it in the States. I found the best way around having to choke down another burned cup was to drink cold brew, which America does exceptionally well. Intelligensia in Silverlake does my favourite cold brew in LA – perfectly located after you’ve done the Runyon hike and you can sit and relax in their beautiful terracotta premises with it’s stunning blue and white tiled floors. Decent cakes too.
For dinner if you’re staying in Culver City then you must head to Tito’s Tacos which would have to be one of the city’s best cheap eats. Awesome Mexican food and you can absolutely stuff yourself full for next to nothing. I’ll warn you that I went about 9pm at night and there was still a fairly long line, so beware that this place is super popular (and with good reason). If you’re in West Hollywood and you’ve aken my advice to stay at the Beverly Laurel, then make sure you head to their cool diner for at least one meal. It’s such a chill, laid back atmosphere and they’re open late.
Finally, you can’t really talk about food in Los Angeles without referencing In-N-Out. For me, they are absolutely the best fast food burgers I’ve ever had anywhere in the world and when I’m in town, I make it a priority to go there as much as possible. Their fries are crap. Their pink lemonade is delicious. Forget all the bullshit secret menu stuff and just order yourself a double double (or two) and enjoy.
What to see and do.
The criticism of Los Angeles is that is always favours style over substance, but I’ve always found it (maybe surprisingly) culturally rich. One of my favourite museums in the world is LACMA – otherwise known as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and it should absolutely be on your list of things to do while you visit. It has a really well curated selection of modern pieces in the permanent collection and always seems to have interesting temporary exhibitions on when I visit. Plus it has one of the city’s most popular selfie spots, under the Urban Light exterior art installation which shows 202 restored street lights. Speaking of museums, the Getty Center is another must do. Located in Brentwood, you need to catch a small train to the top where the art os house in a series of modern buildings with spectacular views across LA. Even if art isn’t totally your thing, it’s worth a visit just to check out the amazing vista. Another great museum is the Grammy Museum – I had never heard of it until a couple of women told me about it while I was on one of those giant wheel things in Vegas a few years back. I was heading to LA and they recommended I check it out as they’d just been and loved it. If you’re a music lover it’s absolutely awesome, with a behind the scenes look at a really diverse range of artists and their careers. Or if natural history is more your thing, the La Brea Tar Pits are genuine bubbling pools of volcanic tar in the heart of the city, with a great museum nearby.
Probably my favourite thing to do in Los Angeles is head up to Griffith Observatory and check out the view over the city. It’s free if you aren’t going inside and I highly recommend heading there at sunset to get some amazing photos, though it does tend to get busy. You also get a good look at the Hollywood sign. I like to bookend my trips in LA by heading up there and have been about four times now. If you’re in the area then you may as well do the Runyon Canyon hike. Nestled in the Hollywood Hills, it’s a popular but actually fairly short and easy hike that gives you more great views over Los Angeles. You don’t need to be super fit to do it but wearing a good pair of runners is advised. Oh and there’s a sign near the entrace saying to watch out for rattlesnakes, which shocked the hell out of me when I visited! Luckily I didn’t see any…
LA’s beaches are a must-do – Venice Beach is quirky and filled with skater kids, hippies, muscle men, and all sorts of odd characters. Spend an hour or two strolling down the boardwalk and you’ll see exactly what I mean. If you’re up to it, the walk to Santa Monica is a good one and will take you under an hour at a very easy pace. On my last visit I went to the Santa Monica Pier for the first time and even if you’re not going on the rides, it’s really fun just to wander around. I was there with a couple of mates and we ended up going from there up to the Third Street Promenade which is packed with all kinds of great shops and cafes for a few blocks.
For those visiting the city for the first time, as I’ve already warned it is quite spaced out, so trying to see it all can be tough. I did one of the red bus tourist tours and to be honest, it was fairly helpful in terms of giving me a broad overview of the city. I got to see a lot of things that I wouldn’t have necessarily gone to see myself, like Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, and got a feel for how everything was laid out. I was staying on Sunset Boulevard at the time so I walked up to Hollywood Boulevard and easily caught one from there. I haven’t done any other tours, such as where the stars live, so I can’t really vouch for them. However if that’s your kind of thing then you shouldn’t have much trouble sorting one out. I know it’s super cheesy and touristy (and a bit dirty) but it is worth at least one visit to Hollywood Boulevard to see the the Hollywood Walk of Fame and check out the handprints in the concrete outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I’ve never felt like I needed to go back but seeing it once ticks the box for me.
One thing that has been recommended to me a couple of times but I’ve never found time to do, is a walking tour of Downtown. They’re meant to be excellent with the opportunity to check out some amazing architecture in one of the city’s re-newed neighbourhood.
Lastly, you can’t be in Los Angeles and at least not consider a trip to Disneyland. I went on my first LA holiday and I will admit that I absolutely loved it. A day going on rides and eating crap is pretty much my idea of perfection. From memory I just bought a ticket on a shuttle bus stop on Hollywood Boulevard but given that was eight years ago now, there’s probably a hell of a lot of other options you can pre-plan and book online. I didn’t go to Universal Studios, Knotts Berry Farm or any other parks so I can’t give you any tips there, but I loved Disneyland and being a kid for a day, and am probably due to head back next time I’m in LA. I’d also love to check out some of the other parks on my next visit.
Where to shop.
I love shopping in America though, to be perfectly honest, my tastes run fairly pedestrian. I love J.Crew, Madewell, Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and Zara, which are all easily attainable in most places and not special in any way to LA. I also love Athleta for active wear and bought my all time favourite pair of running tights there.
If you’re looking to do a bit of shopping of that type then you have probably two solid choices in Los Angeles – The Grove in (funnily enough) Beverly Grove or Third Street Promenade down in Santa Monica. The Grove is a mostly outdoors mall with a good range of shops, plus it’s right next door to the LA Farmers Market. Lots of celebs go here, it’s an upmarket and very people-spotting kind of place. Third Street Promenade is a solid couple of pedestrian blocks with shops either side and is good for a wander up and down for a few hours.
If you like smaller boutique shopping, then I’d recomend a stroll around the Abbot Kinney area or West Hollywood, both of which have smaller local stores. I haven’t spent a lot of time there so I can’t really offer any particular recommendations.
Los Angeles: a snapshot.
How long should I stay: For me, LA is a three day city with options to extend if you are looking at having a couple of beach days or heading to one of the theme parks. But if you’re not, three full days will let you hit all the main marks in the city.
Getting around: if you’re flying in then best bet is an airport shuttle. Public transport is fairly ordinary in LA, with buses really your only option. Otherwise resign yourself to catching Ubers, which are plentiful and reasonably well priced when not stuck in traffic. However my solid recommendation would be to hire a car and that way you’ll be a hell of a lot more mobile and able to see everything at your own pace.
When to go: Year round as the weather is almost always consistently good, though obviously hotter in summer.
Key places for first timers: Griffith Observatory, Hollywood Boulevard, LACMA, Getty Center, Venice Beach, Santa Monica Pier, Runyon Canyon. And Disneyland!
Underrated gem: Getty Center. The views across LA are magnificent and the art collections are brilliant. You could easily spend a whole day here.
If you could only eat at one place: In-N-Out. Hands down.
Best photo opportunities: Griffith Observatory, especially at sunset, Getty Center, Runyon Canyon, Santa Monica Pier.