Join me as we head off to the glamorous city of Los Angeles, home of movies, film and TV stars.
I’ve been to Los Angeles many times, both for work and for pleasure, and I have a love/hate relationship with the city. Those of you who’ve been there probably understand that. Sometimes when I go, I get it and I love the city. Other times I just find it busy, sprawling, beige and uninteresting.
So, in this review, I’m going to give as balanced view about Los Angeles as I can – as it’s one of the cities that most people want to go to at some point in their life because of its fame and link with movies and glamour.
In my mind, I think of Los Angeles as being incredibly glamorous, beautiful, wonderful and magical. But, when you fly into Los Angeles, you look down and see a flat, sprawling, concrete, beige-looking place. It doesn’t have mountains. It doesn’t have beautiful scenery. Your first impression is that it just seems a little bland – and vast.
A challenge for every first-time visitor to Los Angeles is the lack of an obvious centre. Most cities have a focal point, and everything radiates out from there. Los Angeles, in my experience, is different. It’s more of a grouping of different areas, each with their own core.
My Way of Making sense of Los Angeles
So how do you figure out where should you go, what should you see, and where do you stay?
I see Los Angeles grouped around six big themes:
- Movies and television: If you’re going to Los Angeles, one thing that you will want to tap into is the movie and TV world, because that is what it is so well known for.
- Style, glamour and wealth: A lot of very wealthy people who live glamorous lives inhabit the city. It’s showy and flash with conspicuous consumption the norm.
- Beaches: As it’s on the coast, there are many beautiful beaches.
- Commerce: I don’t think of Los Angeles as being a big commercial centre beyond movies and TV, but there is a big commercial centre.
- Interest groups: Los Angeles caters very well for different interest groups including kids.
- Arts and culture: I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about arts and culture in this review because I want to focus on the things that are more linked to Los Angeles, and because I believe there are other locations in the world which are more impressive. I am not saying that there aren’t some impressive museums in Los Angeles, because there are, but it is not the focus.
Getting around Los Angeles is not easy. It’s sprawling and very big. So the best thing to do is to hire a car to get around.
The city has complex and extensive motorway systems with five or six lanes on either side. There’s a lot of traffic, and it can be quite frustratingly slow to navigate the city. But it’s still the best way to get around, especially as there isn’t a comprehensive public transport system that can get you around efficiently.
Having a satellite navigation system is essential as it’s hard to find your way around and multiple similarly names exits on the motorways. So either take a satellite navigation with you, and buy USA maps before going, or book one with the hire company in advance.
When driving around, stick to places that you’ve heard of because there are parts that are more risky, like in any city.
You can use cabs. They are not too expensive, considering the amount of distances, but because of traffic, you can often find a trip that may take you 20 minutes one day could take you an hour and 20 minutes the next day – with the variance in cost that comes with that.
If you do not want to drive and are considering using cabs, consider booking fixed-price pickup or transfer services instead.
There are, of course, tours that you can go on including hop-on, hop-off bus tours which tend to focus on specific parts of the city.
Where to stay
This depends a lot on your interests and what you finally decide to do when there. Before planning on where to stay, figure out where you want to spend most of your time based on my tips and then find a hotel close to where you will be most of the time. This will reduce time and cost of navigating around this vast city.
Best time to go
Los Angeles has amazing weather pretty much all year round. It’s normally bright and warm, even in winter. It was the climate that attracted movie makers here drawn by the perfect light and good reliable weather all year round.
Tips for Travellers on must-do things to do and must-see attractions
Movies and TV
The following are the movie-related activities I think you should do:
Hollywood. This is not the most exciting area of Los Angeles, but it is one of the most important ones. In this area you can visit the iconic Chinese Museum with stars’ names and handprints set in the pavement around it. It’s a very commercial and slightly tacky district, but it provides an essential trophy shot of your visit to Los Angeles/
Hollywood Sign. A lot of people are eager to visit the famous Hollywood sign up on the hills. It is hard to do so and actively discouraged by the authorities and local residents. It originally was put up saying “Hollywood Land” by a property developer who’d bought land up on the Hollywood Hills and was going to develop it. He went bankrupt and the sign became decrepit and the “Land” part fell down. It has become a symbol of the city and been refreshed and maintained by the City Council. You can’t get to the sign anymore because of issues with vandalism, suicide attempts and general shenanigans going on around it. I wouldn’t recommend you make the effort to go to the sign, and instead try and get pictures of it from the valley looking upwards as you tour around the city.
Studio Tours. I strongly recommend doing one of the studio tours. The best are Paramount and Warner Bros. Both are working studios, although most filming no longer takes place in Los Angeles as tax breaks in other cities and countries have drawn this away from the city. You tour around the studios in groups of between eight or ten people escorted by knowledgeable and passionate young people who are usually trying to break into the business. They point out where famous films or TV shows were shot, take you onto sets and show you how they are made. You also explore the back lots that create cities like New York. If you go during the week, when shows are being shot, you may bump into the actors working. You have to book the tour in advance.
Universal Studios. This is a massive, sprawling theme park and working studio with extensive back lots, where you get to see things like the original “Psycho” house and the collection of houses used for Wisteria Lane in the “Desperate Housewives” series. Then, of course, there are thrill rides. It’s relatively expensive to get in. If you’re going particularly at peak times consider buying the Fast Track pass which allow you to skip the long lines for rides.
Stars’ Houses. There are many tours that drive you around Beverly Hills point out stars’ or famous people’s homes. They are always entertaining and interesting to hear the stories and see where your heroes reside.
Celebrity Spotting. Theoretically, it’s quite easy to see celebrities if you hang around the parts of town where they’re likely to like the restaurants in Beverly Hills. Though keep alert as you can spot them all over the city as they go about their day-to-day activities.
Glamour and Style
If you want to get a sense of the glamour, style and wealth in the city, head to Beverly Hills and tour Rodeo Drive. Rodeo Drive is the famous and expensive shopping road. The whole Beverly Hills area is quite something as it’s beautifully manicured and reeks of wealth and opulence.
At the end of Rodeo Drive is a large Four Seasons Hotel where people park their expensive cars to be admired and ogled at by tourists.
The three recommendations I have for beaches are:
Santa Monica. This town is to the north of Los Angeles and has wide and long beaches. It’s where “Baywatch” was filmed. There are upmarket hotels, stunning shopping arcades, malls and a popular pedestrian area.
Manhattan Beach. On the other side of Los Angeles, to the south of the airport, is Manhattan Beach. This is trendy and a little bit bohemian area with nice beaches and a long pier. It is very popular, particularly with surfers.
Venice Beach. This is not one of my favourites. You can cycle or walk from Santa Monica to Venice Beach. It’s much more touristy and has a more grubby feel about it. It is renown for Muscle Beach, an outside gym where Arnold Schwarzenegger used to work out years ago. It is a vibrant and busy area. As it is so well known many tourists feel they need to go and see it.
Downtown is the commercial area. There is not a lot for tourists here, but is where all the skyscrapers are.
Kids: If you are in Los Angeles with kids, there’s Universal I spoke above previously but more important is the original Disney Park, which is out at Anaheim. There are two parks out there, the Disney Park and the California Park. Depending where you are staying in Los Angeles, it is at least an hour drive away. Both are quite small and compact places as Walt Disney never thought it was going to quite take off to the degree it has done, so he never bought enough land.
It does make it more manageable than some of the other parks around the world. All the classic attractions are there like the Castle, Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World. The kids will love it. The California Park across the road has more adventurous thrill rides.
Cruise fans: If you’re a cruise fan, head down to Long Beach where the original Queen Mary is docked and operates as a hotel and museum. The ship was built in the 1930s and retired here in 1967.
Gay and Lesbian: The community is centred around the West Hollywood area. It’s a focal point for the whole gay and lesbian community with bars, shops and restaurants.
These are my Tips for Travellers for Los Angeles. It’s big, sprawling and busy. It’s the centre of the movie and TV world and make sure you embrace this and explore it with that in mind.