I always laugh when a friend seems surprised to learn how much I love L.A.
“But I thought you were a New York girl?” someone once said when I was rambling on about the virtues of the city of sprawl.
I’m not sure where it’s written that you have to be one or the other, but many folks hold firm to this belief.
Sure, in many ways, the two cities are polar opposites. But, they also share similarities.
In particular, the ability to make you feel like you’re in a totally different city as you move from one neighborhood to another.
I’ve had the good fortune through work and play to spend a fair amount of time in many of LA’s micro-cities. I’ve stayed in cool ‘hoods like West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Silver Lake and spent time in others like Los Feliz and Koreatown, but there are a sweet few that top my list of favorites.
My suggestion for getting the most out of a visit to the City of Angels, is combining one of the “check list” neighborhoods with a few days in another area.
Below is a quick summary of my two favorites: Downtown and Venice
But first, let’s talk: Transportation
Getting around LA can be daunting for visitors and locals alike. A few weeks ago, I would have suggested that you not even consider a car and simply Uber around. That is what I’ve done for the last two years when visiting. Sadly for me and many others, the recent accusations about a cutthroat and sexist attitude at the top level of the company leaves many of us truly carless in LA.
Lfyt seems to be a viable alternative but I’ve yet to try it. (stay tuned.)
So for now, I recommend getting even more creative by choosing the neighborhood you want to see carefully, then planning to take buses (yes, people actually take buses in L.A.,) renting a bike, and building taxi fares in as part of your trip budget. There’s always the car rental route for those who just can’t imagine anything better than sitting behind the wheel in bumper to bumper traffic on I5 to arrive at your destination and drive in circles looking for a parking place, then getting back to your hotel or guest house and shelling out $25+ to park. Have fun with that!
For more on this topic, check out my friend Katie’s documentary Carless In L.A.
Now, on to the fun stuff!
For those pioneers out there who want to feel an area transforming in their midst – and I mean this literally. During the week+ I stayed downtown at least two new restaurants and a gallery opened around me.
Hipster hotels are not usually my thing, but I have to admit spending a week at The Standard in Downtown L.A. sure was fun. It’s hard not to like it, actually. There’s a great rooftop bar and swimming pool, spacious well-equipped gym, cool restaurant with delicious and surprisingly affordable food, and the location can’t be beat.
People I traveled with didn’t love the glass-only separated bathroom and sleeping area or the minimualist décor, but I loved it.
The restaurant and bakery occupies one of the most beautiful spaces in downtown. I’m heard it’s a “see and be seen” place, but over a lunch, a dinner, and a pop-in for pastries, I never got that feel. The quiche and salads are delicious and so is the pizza!
This is a must-visit kind of place for the décor and vibe. The historic electrical plant turned 104 this year and the place has an air of invention and discovery that’s oh-so steam punk and dreamy. Having a finely crafted cocktail, like the Mistress or the Black Magic, while seated next to a once-pumping engine makes you feel…well, lit up.
Cana Rum Bar
In a night of bar hopping, this was the perfect last stop of the night. We’d heard it was a private club, but had no problem breezing past the doorman into a dark and moody series of rooms with great music and decor.
Fun place for a drink and snack with a great balcony and views of the city. I have a crazy fear of elevators, especially those packed with people (that’s a lie really, I’m afraid of empty elevators too.) People gather on the main floor waiting for a ride to the top and when the doors open it’s a mad rush in. So there you find yourself elbow-to-belly with complete strangers for the ride up. Thank goodness, the panoramic views and sophisticated atmosphere soon erase the feelings of claustrophobia. It’s a fun spot and worth the effort.
Right outside of The Standard, this is a great neighborhood place for beers and amped up bar food. It has become the happy hour spot for locals getting off work and heading to their new downtown lofts or waiting for traffic to ease before making the commute.
Grand Central Market
I was out for a run when I came upon the beautiful old gate to this market. It was such a surprise because I hadn’t heard anyone mention a downtown market. I kept going but decided it would be the perfect ending spot for a quick post-run lunch. When I returned, I found crowds of people enjoying a diversity of restaurants, produce vendors, and craft makers in this beautifully open and historic space. You’ll hear some people say it’s a dump, others proclaim it’s too she-she and I say, whatever. For me, it became a great place to meet up with friends and watch the day go by.
It’s amazing how many people, even in L.A., have never heard of REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre.) But, those in the know, love this haven for cutting-edge music, theatre, and film offerings. Full disclosure, I was in L.A. to work on a project with REDCAT, but during the time, I was able to see a few other works opening or in process and was thoroughly impressed with what’s happening here. It’s a true arts incubator and well worth planning a visit downtown to experience a show or installation. There’s a cute little bar area too for pre-show cocktails or coffee.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
A highlight of visiting downtown is for sure seeing a concert in this Frank Gehry-designed, undulating metal, wedding cake performance space – or if you can’t get tickets to a show, settle for a tour. Seeing the concert hall is impressive, but roaming the grounds, especially the gardens and nooks near the top of the structure is where the real wow factor exists.
For a long time, this was my favorite area of L.A. It’s now becoming almost unbearably trendy, but if you dig deep you can still find the neighborhood’s wonderfully eccentric beauty and style.
This is one of the best places to stroll in all of L.A. The historic canals, built in the early 1900s by developer Abbot Kinney, are hidden within the near beachside community and lined by distinctive homes. It’s an especially fun walk during holidays, like Halloween and Christmas, when people go all out on decorations and spectacle.
It’s amazing how much this street has transformed over the last few years. Some would say that AK, with it’s trendy restaurants, hot-spot bars, and galleries, has been the catalyst for the hipstering of Venice and they’re probably right but you can’t deny that it’s a cool street for strolling and dipping into one cool space after another.
Delicious food that you order by mood. With menu items like ELATED, SERENE, and SATISFIED you can truly announce to the world – or at least the restaurant – how you’re feeling. It’s always fun and the food is tasty.
Love this spot on Abbot Kinney for sharing small plates and vino.
All Things Fabulous
Locally designed funky fabulous clothing. It’s one of AK’s most fun stores.
Boardwalk & Beach
Always colorful, a walk or run along the boardwalk is nothing if not entertaining. You’ll see buskers and jewelry makers, peddlers and bums mixed in with some cool graffiti art. Go in the afternoon just once to see what it’s like to be in the thick of things, then plan your runs for the morning when it’s relatively quiet and clean. I’d avoid walking the boardwalk at night, unless your really brave or looking for a fix.
Thankfully there are only a few hotels and guest houses in the neighborhood, for now. There are some great options on AirBnb though. Including this one where I considered staying. In the end, I stayed with friends so I can’t comment on a night spent here, but I did engage the hosts Lisa and Joe about the potential dates and they were wonderful. They seemed interested in making sure I had a good visit to their ‘hood and their place looks great and is reasonably priced for the area. I will definitely seek out this place for my next visit.
These two neighborhoods are not far behind Downtown and Venice for great home bases, so here are a few suggestions:
A beautifully situated boutique hotel with about 35 rooms a few blocks from the beach. The historic landmark building has lush grounds and a beautiful back garden, grand and eclectic lobby, and rooms that make you feel like you’re staying in the home of a long-lost eccentric cousin (of wealth.) I felt very special staying here.
Santa Monica Pier
A visit to the iconic pier in Santa Monica is a great way to spend an afternoon. From the amusement park with ferris wheel and rollercoaster to the Trapeze School and, of course, the beach, it’s touristy fun. Just don’t take it all too seriously, grab a ice, and watch tourists (and some locals) sailing through the air. For a little more depth, try a free historical walking tours offered every Sat & Sun.
Casa Del Mar
Every time I visit L.A., regardless of my neighborhood, I have a tradition…champagne at sunset at Casa del Mar. Beautiful views as the sun goes down over the beach, live music, and a friendly staff makes this place hit the spot every time.
PLAYA DEL REY
Here are the words I have to describe Playa del Rey: “wide open space,” at least by L.A. standards. You’ll find it hard to believe that you’re just 15 miles from Hollywood in this lovely beach community
This restaurant and brunch spot has become the go-to place for the neighborhood. Good sandwiches, salads, and soups with a cool interior and small outside setting area.
I love this simple, old lunch school lunch spot. It’s location in a strip mall-ish shopping center complete with a nail place, post office, and dry cleaner, may not be appealing to many but that is part of its charm to me. Definitely try the homemade butternut squash soup.
Special experiences outside the above neighborhoods:
Once you’ve knocked the tourist magnets of Graumans (now known as the TCL Chinese Theatre,) Rodeo Drive, Paramount, and Hollywood Blvd off your list, here are a few suggestions for digging deeper.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a true gem with solid permanent installations and surprising visiting exhibits. Spend the morning roaming the galleries, then indulge in a delicious lunch in the cute little cafe.
Wherever you are in L.A., do plan on reserving a few hours for a hike or stroll through Griffith Park. (Preferably around Day 3 of your visit when you are craving fresh air.) With over 4,210 acres, Griffith Park boasts being the largest municipal park with urban wilderness area in the United States. You won’t have the place to yourself, there are always tons of locals getting in a run and tourists hiking to the observatory, but seeing people enjoying the beauty of nature in a city not known for such delights is part of the fun.