Glamorous, cosmopolitan and surprisingly cultured, the City of Angels is anything but superficial says Nick Boulos
Many stereotypes surround LA – but many are wholly unjust. It may be a glam-n-glossy metropolis of palm-lined boulevards – and proudly so – but vacuous and superficial it’s not. This is a city that has style and substance, one that lives in the fast lane but takes time to enjoy its many blessings: the year-round sunshine, the stretches of perfect beaches, the nearby mountains and gorges laced with hiking trails.
The second-largest city in the US, LA is a collection of neighbourhoods sandwiched among valleys and canyons. Backed by the Santa Monica Mountains and lapped by the Pacific, many of its sights are spread out, with Hollywood north-west of Downtown, Santa Monica to the south-west and Beverly Hills in between. Given LA’s sprawling geography, getting around requires careful thought. Renting a car offers the greatest convenience but everyone in LA drives, causing bad jams. Public transport is not as comprehensive as it ought to be for such a world city but it has greatly improved over recent years and there are plans for further development of the Metro system.
International flights land at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), located on the city’s western shores. It’s one of the busiest hubs in the US, and clearing immigration and customs can take time. Proof of an onward flight is sometimes requested. The busy Arrivals hall has several coffee shops, ATMs and foreign exchange booths though no tourist info stand. The most convenient branch is located across town at the Hollywood & Highland Center.
Travelling by taxi offers the easiest and most comfortable journey into the city. Traffic in LA is notorious and journey times of 90 minutes are not uncommon; arriving late or in the middle of the day will minimise travelling time. The average cost of a cab to Hollywood is US$80 (£53); to Santa Monica costs US$40 (£26). Shuttlebuses offer a cheaper alternative. A one-way fare to Hollywood with SuperShuttle costs US$26 (£17). Public transport is trickier. ‘C’ shuttlebuses run from outside Arrivals to the nearby Metro Bus Station, for other services across the city. The LAX FlyAway bus runs to Union Station in Downtown LA for US$7 (£5); note, cash is not accepted onboard.
There are five airports in the LA area. Many domestic flights arrive at Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport, in the north; others service Long Beach, to the south. Those arriving by long-distance train will pull in at Union Station, where ATMs and taxis are available. The terminus is well connected to the rest of the city by the underground LA Metro. Catch the Red Line to reach Hollywood; the Purple for Mid-Wilshire. A one-way fare costs US$1.50 (99p).
Although the city is largely safe, some places remain off-limits. Certain parts of South LA, Compton and North Hollywood should be given a wide berth after dark.
Sleep in style and explore among the stars, before delving further into California
Start with a horseride though the sandy, cacti-studded trails of Griffith Park with Sunset Ranch; you get up-close views of the Hollywood sign. Celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2013, the sign – which originally read ‘Hollywoodland’ – was placed on the hill as a real estate ad.
Next, head into central Hollywood to compare palms with Cary Grant, Arnie Schwarzenegger and the other stars whose handprints dent Hollywood Boulevard, outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Stroll along the Walk of Fame to the not-to-be-missed Hollywood Museum, which charts the transformation of Tinseltown in Max Factor’s beautifully restored Art Deco building.
Along the way, look out for the striking murals on the sidestreets and the historic Egyptian Theatre – a grand landmark that shaped celeb culture by hosting the world’s first premieres in the 1920s. From there, head west for a drive through the leafy, manicured streets of Beverly Hills and Bel Air – who knows who you might spot taking their rubbish out. Then spend a cultural afternoon at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; built in 1965, it houses an impressive collection by international artists.
Finish the day on the beach, watching the sun set over the Pacific from Santa Monica’s lively pier.
Top end: The Spanish Colonial-style Hollywood Roosevelt is LA’s most iconic hotel. Located opposite Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, it was here that the first ever Oscars banquet was held in 1929 – though the place has undergone extensive refurbishment since. Keep your eyes peeled for Marilyn Monroe, who’s said to haunt the hotel. Doubles from US$289 (£191), room only.
Mid range: The Garden Cottage is a cosy four-room B&B on the very fringes of Beverly Hills. Family-run, it’s perfect for those seeking a more personalised touch. Doubles from US$155 (£103), including breakfast.
Budget: Rooms at the Hollywood Downtowner Inn are basic but clean and comfortable. Best of all, it’s within walking distance of many of the main attractions. Doubles from US$79 (£52), including breakfast.
Do both. Contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles is not a city from which you should rush away too hastily. Take time to see the sights and discover the overlooked corners, such as the galleries, theatres and museums in the new and improved Downtown district. While you’re at it, splurge on Rodeo Drive and go behind the scenes of the movies by taking the Warner Bros Studio Tour. Meanwhile, kids big and small won’t be able to resist a visit to Disneyland.
Recuperate on the beaches (Manhattan and Hermosa are popular) before looking further afield. Head north up the winding Pacific Coast Highway – often described as one of the world’s best drives. Perhaps hop to the beaches, wineries and oak forests of Malibu on the back of a vintage Harley with Eagle Rider.
From there, it’s more than a little tempting to continue on to Santa Barbara, Big Surf and San Francisco. Alternatively, head inland from LA for the dramatic landscapes and mysterious ‘sailing stones’ of Death Valley, near the Nevada border.
Population: 3.8 million
Timezone: GMT8 (Mar-Nov GMT7)
International dialling code: +1
Visas: UK nationals require an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). Apply at least 72 hours before travel; ESTAs cost US$14.
Currency: US dollar (US$), currently around US$1.50 to the UK£.
Highest viewpoint: The best city views are from the hilltop Griffith Observatory.
Health issues: No major problems, but the California sun can be strong.
Recommended guidebook: Los Angeles & Southern California (Rough Guides, 2011); Los Angeles (Frommers, 2011)
Web resources: The LA Tourism Board’s website has useful info; the Los Angeles Times newspaper is unbeatable for local news.
iPhone app: Time Out Los Angeles (free) is a comprehensive guide to eating, drinking and exploring LA.
Climate: LA enjoys mild temperatures year round; spring and autumn can be particularly nice thanks to clear, crisp skies. Rainfall is lowest in summer; desert winds are strongest October-November.
Volunteers offer guided walking tours of LA’s historic El Pueblo district, detailing the city’s indigenous past and stories of the early settlers. They’re fascinating – and free! Tours run Tuesday-Saturday; elpueblo.lacity.org