The opening scene of La La Land may reinforce Los Angeles’ reputation as one big traffic jam, but the rest of the film is essentially a beautifully crafted love letter to the city. Here’s Los Angeles city guide: What to see and do.
And while the famous landscape showcased in the film remains more or less the same, over the past decade the city itself has changed hugely, with east-side neighbourhoods such as Echo Park and Silver Lake going from places to avoid to places to be seen. Other areas of LA are going through a gentrification process similar to that of San Francisco a decade ago, with tech firms such as Snapchat and youth media company Vice moving in to Venice Beach. Not that this has gone unopposed: last autumn in east LA’s Boyle Heights, locals fiercely fought the arrival of art galleries, which they saw as the first step towards a takeover; and in Downtown, the homeless community of Skid Row is being surrounded by corporate interests.
Los Angeles is a mixed bag. Its extensive sprawl hides places of calm away from the noise of Downtown and the freeways, so it doesn’t have the hectic feel of most other major US cities – and its western city limits is the incredible Pacific coastline. The advent of Uber and Lyft now means that even in a city as car-dependent as LA, visitors don’t need to drive themselves in unforgiving rush hour traffic or try to locate a taxi rank. The extension of the Metro system last year was a boon, too: a trip from Downtown to Santa Monica now takes 45 minutes and costs $1.75. Norwegian started flying direct from Gatwick in 2014, and fares start at £179 one-way, which is cheaper than some New York flights.
Los Angeles city guide: What to see and do
Griffith Park & Observatory at sunset
The light in Los Angeles is one of its most celebrated features. British artist David Hockney, who has two homes here, loves to talk about it, and it plays a major part in some of his best-known works. But I’d argue that the best time to appreciate the light in LA is as it fades and night takes over. And the best place to do this is at the Griffith Park Observatory – made famous by the knife fight scene in Rebel Without A Cause and, more recently, a key location in La La Land. Things can get crowded as the sun goes down but arriving early and checking out the planetarium is a good way to secure a plum spot. Entrance and parking is free (although planetarium show tickets cost $7 for adults). The park also offers some challenging hikes, so another option is to park at the entrance and walk the two miles to the summit, which takes around an hour. Those based on the west side of town might want to dodge the hour or so drive to Griffith Park by heading to the Getty Museum in Bel Air, which also offers spectacular views – as well great art and architecture. Like the observatory, it’s free, although parking costs $15 ($10 after 3pm).
Get thrifty at a flea market
The city’s best-known flea markets are in Pasadena and Long Beach. Both can be fair old drives, and it’s worth setting off early to dodge the traffic and get there in time for some bargains. The Rose Bowl flea market (adult $9, second Sunday of every month) takes place in the shadow of the eponymous stadium (famous for hosting college football games and the 1994 Fifa World Cup Final) and is great just to walk around. Parking is free and the mix of Americana bric-a-brac, mid-century modern furniture and unique clothing is excellent. Long Beach market (entry $6, third Sunday each month) is slightly more down-at-heel, taking place in a car park, but many of the same vendors are there. It’s also a bit cheaper and attracts sellers from further afield. In summer, go early and take plenty of water – it can be brutally hot and exposed.
Catch a ballgame
Dodger Stadium, close to Downtown, is a great place to get to grips with the mysteries of baseball, a sport I couldn’t stand until I watched it live. The atmosphere is relaxed, it’s completely acceptable to strike up a conversation about the intricacies of a game with a stranger, and the team is one of the best in the league. For basketball there’s the choice between the less fashionable Clippers and former golden boys the Lakers, who are an unpredictable prospect at the moment. Both teams play at Staples Center (tickets prices vary enormously) in Downtown.
Watch a film in the open air
Made famous by singer Father John Misty, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Blvd is a great place to watch films in spring and summer – tickets sell out quickly, so move fast. The company behind the screenings also takes over other sites in the city, such as Downtown cinemas which are used only sporadically for much of the year. Other interesting places to see films include the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, and the discerning Downtown Independent. The 1920s New Beverly Cinema on the west side offers some intriguing double bills.
Los Angeles city guide: What to see and do
Venice is one of the coolest areas in the city at the moment: in the wake of the tech startups and media companies setting up here, great restaurants and shops have also opened, mainly on Abbott Kinney Blvd. Halfway up at no 1429 is the popular Gjelina. It’s a 10-minute walk from here to the beachfront, for a people watching experience like no other, with local vendors and street performers mixing with many a chiselled Californian. Muscle Beach is still a mecca for workout enthusiasts, and those who want something a little more relaxed can rent bikes and ride the trail north towards Santa Monica pier.
Thirty minutes’ drive west of Venice is the pristine (and far less touristy) beachfront of Malibu. Another half-hour on, Oxnard has half a dozen beaches to choose from, most with parks close by or directly adjacent. Surfers congregate either at Mandalay or Silver Strand beaches. Oxnard beach, between the two, is popular with families and has picnic and barbecue areas, as well as a playground.
Ten minutes west of Malibu, and more dramatic than Oxnard, is El Matador, with cliffs, coves and rock formations that make it a favourite for photo shoots. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Downtown or Hollywood but feels a world away. The one issue is parking: the beach’s car park only has 20 spaces, so set off early and be prepared to park on the street and obey any signs, as you can get a ticket for even a minor infringement.
Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica Pier is easily reached on the city’s Metro tram-cum-train from Downtown. The station is a five-minute walk from the pier, with its arcades, fast food, musicians and thousands of visitors. For something a bit more relaxed, the beach itself is usually much quieter, with 3½ miles of sand to explore. The Annenberg Community Beach House ($10 adult, $4 child) at the northern end has a children’s play area and pool.