Los Angeles Travel Guide

Overview

The nation's second most-populous city (after New York), Los Angeles is a great place to do business or take a vacation. Its marvelous restaurants, Hollywood history, terrific nightlife, expansive green spaces, bustling beaches, diverse ethnic populations, eclectic cultural offerings, amusement parks and easygoing casual vibe converge in a vast Southern California landscape flooded with sunshine, filled with traffic and lined with palm trees.

Still the entertainment capital of the world, television shows and movies are filmed on the city's streets every day and star sightings are commonplace. Beyond the La La Land glamour, there are dozens of museums, sports facilities, shops for every budget, food trucks, world-class concerts, tranquil gardens and parks, ample venues for staying active and myriad experiences waiting to be discovered in the patchwork quilt of communities that make up greater LA.

Visitors should see Los Angeles at least once, though a single visit will hardly be enough to appreciate such a large area jam-packed with attractions and unique characters.

Geography

Situated in a basin, the Greater Los Angeles area is framed by the Pacific Ocean (west and south) and mountains (north and east). It owes its somewhat Mediterranean climate to the desert valleys that spread out across Southern California and end at the coast. Los Angeles is made up of scores of independent communities and more than 80 different neighborhoods, whose often-indistinct boundaries are determined more by culture than geography. An extensive freeway system (some of which dates from the 1940s) connects the disparate parts of the city, covering more than 4,700 sq mi/12,000 sq km.

Downtown Los Angeles encompasses a cluster of skyscrapers about 15 mi/24 km from the ocean. It is home to the convention center, Staples Center, Santee Alley and the LA Fashion District, the jewelry district, the Arts District, Union Station, Broadway's restored Golden Age movie palaces, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Olvera Street, the Music Center, the Disney Concert Hall, the L.A. Live entertainment complex and some major museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and The Broad.

A couple of miles/kilometers from downtown visitors will find the USC campus, Exposition Park and the Coliseum. South and immediately east of downtown are more economically depressed areas: South Central and, across the cement-lined Los Angeles River, East LA.

Radiating out from downtown, you go through the hipster haunts of Los Feliz, Echo Park and Silverlake to the east. Heading north and west, you'll find Hollywood (with its famous sign and literally star-studded streets), West Hollywood (the center of LA's vibrant LGBTQ community), affluent Beverly Hills and Brentwood (with mansions, manicured lawns and infamous murder sites), the quickly gentrifying Baldwin Hills and Culver City, mid-city, Westwood (home to the UCLA campus) and the beach towns of Santa Monica, Malibu, Marina Del Rey, Playa Del Rey and Venice (LA has 75 mi/120 km of coastline).

South of Venice Beach and a bit inland is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Inglewood and the future home for LA's two NFL teams. The 298-acre Los Angeles District Stadium and Entertainment at Hollywood Park is scheduled to open in 2020 and host the Super Bowl in 2022.) .

The San Fernando Valley—known simply as The Valley by locals—lies beneath a ridge of hills to the north and extends west from Burbank to Calabasas. Roughly one-third of LA's residents live there. Northeast of downtown, the San Gabriel Valley (with its inexpensive but delicious Chinese restaurants) extends east from Pasadena to Arcadia and beyond.

History

Long before the rise of this sprawling metropolis, the Los Angeles basin was populated by peaceful Native Americans, attracted to the region by the natural springs that arose in the area because of seismic activity.

In 1781, a group of 44 Mexican settlers established the first non-native settlement of what was to become the most diverse city in the world. Among them were Spaniards, Africans, mestizos and Native Americans. They gave their dusty small town a very large name—El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles sobre el Rio Porciuncula (the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels on the Porciuncula River).

The city came under the control of Mexico in 1821 and was transferred to the U.S. in 1848 with the rest of alta California when the Mexican-American War ended.

By the mid-1880s, a rail line connected Los Angeles to the East Coast. The railroad brought growth and boosted Southern California's agricultural production by introducing seedless navel oranges to the area. With help from an aggressive chamber of commerce, the idea of California as the last frontier and land of opportunity sparked a massive westward movement, and the population of Los Angeles jumped dramatically. In 1880, 11,000 people lived in the city. By the turn of the century, that figure grew to 100,000. Today, 4 million people live in Los Angeles proper and 6.2 million live within the county's 80 borders and 88 incorporated cities.

Among those who relocated to the "other" coast were moviemakers drawn by year-round sunshine and the desire to escape Thomas Edison who held most of the country's film patents. Over the decades, the city has also attracted everyone from dust-bowl migrants to business executives to waves of immigrants from China and Southeast Asia, Mexico and Central America, Europe and the Middle East. The city houses the largest Thai population outside of Asia (and the world's first Thai Town), the largest population of Pacific Islanders in the nation and the world's third-largest Hispanic population.

People from more than 140 countries—speaking 224 different languages and dialects—call Los Angeles home. Together they have forged a city that's the world's multimedia nerve center, an expanding tech bastion known as Silicon Beach, an international aerospace hub, the center of entertainment production, the capital of the Pacific Rim and a multicultural magnet.

Sightseeing

Los Angeles is a city of visual delights. It has more museums than any other U.S. city. It's worth a trip there just to tour the museums built around the impressive collection of controversial business tycoon J. Paul Getty.

In the middle of the city in the Miracle Mile neighborhood, Museum Row (Wilshire Boulevard) is home to many renowned museums. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (the Oscars Museum) is scheduled to open next door to LACMA in late 2019. There are also a handful of more niche and offbeat museums worth looking into all across town.

Downtown, a stroll through Olvera Street, the birthplace of LA, is essential, as is the ascent of Bunker Hill, once the city's most fashionable place to live. The grand Rafael Moneo-designed cathedral, Our Lady of the Angels, is worth a stop if you're in the area.

Of course, the traditional LA icons are still in place. The starstruck will want to cruise the revitalized Hollywood Boulevard (in Hollywood), and a drive down the Sunset Strip is a visual adventure filled with giant billboards, strip clubs, boutique shops and storied hotels.

Some tourists like to visit the stars of yesterday in lush cemeteries such as Forest Lawn, Westwood and Hollywood Forever.

A must for first-time visitors is Universal City, home of Universal Studios, and the adjacent Universal CityWalk north of downtown. You could easily spend a day there.

While you're checking off highlights, take time to savor experiences that don't always make the guidebooks: breathtaking views from a downtown high-rise, rooftop bar or a beachside cafe, street art and murals that tell the story of the city's people, the architecture that reflects dozens of design styles and eras, and interacting with the residents themselves—as friendly, diverse and cosmopolitan a crowd as you're likely to find anywhere.

Nightlife

A variety of nightspots, from dive bar to diva-worthy, throughout the city keep Angelenos hopping till 2 am. Downtown, Santa Monica or Hollywood and the Sunset Strip have a particularly eclectic mix of dance clubs, burlesque shows and bars. Cover charges vary, and some even require memberships.

There are often long lines to get in and at some entrance is based on looks, that night's gender ratio or the whim of the doorman. (Unfair, but true.)

Note that street parking is hard to find on the Strip and in Hollywood, and if you are lucky enough to score a spot street-side, remember to carefully check signs for restrictions and hours. Your best bet is to use valet service or find a flat-rate lot.

The nightlife is as distinct and diverse as the city's residents, so you'll find live music from every corner of the world. An evening at a comedy club can provide a rollicking good time. Los Angeles has embraced the escape room and full-immersion fear experience trends as well.

Generally, dance clubs start hopping around 10 pm, but comedy clubs often open earlier (around 7 pm). Bars stop serving drinks at 2 am, but some after-hours clubs will keep the good times rolling sans alcohol well into the dawn hours. Note that the late-night scene in LA is constantly changing, do your research before committing to a night-out plan.

Dining

LA's dining scene, food truck explosion and homegrown chef talent holds its own. Dining in LA is first and foremost about astonishing variety, much of it a byproduct of the diverse cultures within the boundaries of Los Angeles. You can have huevos rancheros for breakfast, falafel for lunch, sushi for dinner, and a slice of pizza and a craft beer for a late-night snack, all without moving your car from the same parking garage. It's also the type of place where every kind of eater—vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, pescatarian, meat lover, lactose intolerant, keto and so on—can find a seat at the dining table and something on the menu.

A range of Asian restaurants is clustered around the Southland with Chinese options in the San Gabriel Valley to the east, Little Saigon to the South and Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Thai-town and Koreatown in the center of the city. Of course, Latin American flavors abound from traditional Mexican taquerias to local pupuserias turning out made-to-order El Salvadorean goodies. Caribbean cuisine and barbeque joints can be found in South LA, and Little Ethiopia's restaurants serve up injera-lined platters of stewed meats and vegetables.

Whatever cuisine you're craving, you'll have no problem finding it in LA's broad culinary landscape. And if you didn't have enough choices, inventive chefs hybridize culinary traditions to create fusion cuisines such as Cal-French, Korean tacos and Peruvian-Japanese. It is as easy to pig out at a greasy spoon or at one of the many small-batch ice cream shops as it is to find healthy choices.

California is one of the most agriculturally diverse states, which means Los Angeles chefs bring a vast array of fresh, local ingredients to your table no matter the season. With temperate weather year-round, farmers markets operate nonstop, chef's gardens thrive and many restaurants offer alfresco or rooftop dining spaces.

Angelenos tend to eat out often and can be quite particular. Some will think nothing of dropping a whole paycheck or driving an hour on the freeways to satisfy a craving or indulge in the latest food fad. You, too, may find yourself in hot pursuit of handmade tortillas from the best roving taco truck, a locally brewed craft beer or a signature cocktail from the newest celebrity mixologist.

The best thing about the restaurant scene in Los Angeles is the wide range of price points and dining styles. Fast-casual cash-only spots abound, but many of the city's finest establishments have 10-course chef's table experiences that will require dressing up and lingering for hours.

The finer restaurants have traditional dining hours: Lunch is generally 11:30 am-2 or 2:30 pm, and dinner is served 6-10 pm and till 10:30 or 11 pm on weekends. Many places close for a few hours between lunch and dinner. More casual restaurants keep less conventional hours, so call ahead.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one and not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$60; and $$$$ = more than US$60.

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