Los Angeles: The Beginner's Guide to the City of Angels
After landing at Los Angeles International on Friday night, three of us jumped into Uber-driver-turned-city-guide Carlos’ burgundy Toyota Camry, while the other half of our group piled into another Uber driver’s vehicle behind us.
Carlos, a nutrition enthusiast who had once tried his hand at acting, was quick to give us a rundown on things we might want to do while we were in the city. He mentioned the nightlife in Santa Monica, Griffith Park in the heart of LA, and Venice Beach along the coast, not too far from the airport.
Twenty-some minutes later we pulled up to the Airbnb apartment I’d found in the neighborhood of South LA, very near Inglewood.
Sunny, our appropriately Californian-named host, was unable to greet us in person, but we had no problem settling in. We unpacked, then immediately set off down Slauson Avenue to find dinner.
The City of Angels is just about everything I imagined it would be — a lively, sprawling mass of palm trees and expressways full of endless possibilities. While the others I was with spent Saturday afternoon reclined on the beach in Santa Monica, a friend and I made our way back to the apartment to meet the woman whose car we would be renting for the next seven days.
Sunny had recommended turo.com, the Airbnb of rental cars, and at about 5 o’clock, Julissa pulled up in the shiny, black 2013 Nissan Altima that I had found through the website.
You don’t need a car to visit LA, but I have to say it sure was more cost effective than paying non-stop Uber fares — especially when late-night weekend surges go off the charts. Plus, there is perhaps no drive in the continental U.S. more beautiful than the Pacific Coast Highway.
On Tuesday, we followed the winding seaside highway to Malibu to see one of America’s most iconic beaches. As for the traffic, driving around LA was surprisingly not the anxiety-inducing nightmare I thought it would be. It just takes at least 20 minutes to get anywhere worth going because of all the jokesters on the road.
As for the places worth going, I had more than a few in mind. I came to LA with a checklist and a plan of attack — well, at least a loosely formed one. I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to see; it was just about going out and doing it.
One of the first things on the list was the Santa Monica Pier, the miniature amusement park that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. The whole Pier is lit up at night and retains a hint of that magic which, I imagine, can only be fully experienced as a child, when things are grand and large and fantastical, and the most pressing kind of problem you’re faced with is waiting in line for the roller coaster.
The Pier’s Ferris Wheel, like the bear sauntering across the state flag, is a symbol of California.
Universal Studios Hollywood was the next stop on my list. If nothing else, be sure to take the proper Studio tour, hosted by none other than Jimmy Fallon himself — digitally, of course. The 3-D aspects of the ride are phenomenal, whisking you away to King Kong’s Skull Island, then strapping you into a race car for a high-speed chase with the cast of the Fast & Furious franchise.
I could not tear my eyes away when we passed the original Bates Motel (personal thank you's to Alfred Hitchcock, Freddie Highmore, Vera Farmiga, and others are in order) and was equally enchanted by the set of Amityville Island from Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).
Another can’t-miss attraction is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which officially opened on April 7, 2016. You’ll spend a pretty penny at Universal, so it’s best to get your money’s worth.
That's not to say that Los Angeles is all theme parks and nightlife. For the culturally-inclined, I suggest a visit to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The museum’s “lamp posts” sculpture is famous worldwide.
If you’d like to spend more time in the sand, the wide selection of beaches — Zuma, Venice, Santa Monica, Dock Weiler — all have a distinct character and their own casts of beach-going characters.
For something off the beaten path, try a night in LA’s historic Koreatown, with its ramen and karaoke bars. And of course, if you fancy a brush with celebrity, there’s always the star-studded Hollywood Walk of Fame.
LA nightlife, as one might imagine, was in no way lacking. Our first nighttime escapade saw us to a Victorian-home-turned-party-spot near downtown Santa Monica, fittingly named “The Victorian."
"...towering skyscrapers...highways lined with glowing red tail lights...the magnificence of the Pacific Ocean..."
The lower level of the former residence houses the Basement Tavern, where fine alcoholic beverages and a darkened, old-fashioned atmosphere converge to provide a proper location to party until 2 AM. Upstairs were flashing lights, loud music, and a dance floor ready for the taking. It was partying in style, and only a few feet from the sandy Santa Monica shoreline.
Before the night was through, we also stopped in at The Pink Elephant Bar down the street, which boasts a wide range of music and strong libations.
On one of our final nights in LA, we headed for the club scene in Hollywood. Some places had cover charges upwards of $55, but we found a place called Avalon on Hollywood and Vine that let us in for a relatively-reasonable $25.
The Avalon was a truly impressive space with a massive dance floor, spotlights shining every which way, and seating areas for those wishing to rest their legs or sit down for a drink. To my amazement, Avalon stays open quite late — until 8 AM on the night we were there. I imagine only the true party animals last that long.
We ate at so many different places in LA that I will limit my recommendations to one for each of the traditional mealtimes. For breakfast, or brunch if you prefer, head over to Rae’s Restaurant on Pico Boulevard. It’s an old-fashioned diner that will satisfy your pancake-scarfing needs without emptying your wallet.
Lunch will be served at Venice Whaler in Venice Beach; I highly recommend the fish and chips or fish tacos, and try to grab one of the few seats out on the second floor patio if you can.
For dinner, allow yourself to splurge and head to downtown LA. There you’ll find the BonaVista Lounge on the 34th floor of The Westin Bonaventure Hotel, a rotating restaurant offering 360-degree views. Just be prepared to spend some money.
My LA Prime Burger and single Tom Collins came out to $42 with tip, but the fabulousness of it all — the atmosphere, the view, the important-looking people — made it well worth the money.
LA is a playground among the palm trees where people take it easy, slow down a bit, and have time to enjoy themselves. At no point is this felt more strongly than when taking in the West Coast sunset from the Griffith Observatory, which overlooks all of downtown from its perch in the Hollywood Hills. (Plus, there's a bust of James Dean!)
There are towering skyscrapers, prepared to stand as beacons in the night; highways lined with glowing red tail lights that you’d secretly, happily be a part of; and the magnificence of the Pacific Ocean as the sun kisses its horizon. Sunset from the Griffith is bittersweet but beautiful — I'd highly recommend it.
There’s no need to be sad once the sun's gone down though. It’s a “goodnight," sure, but also a “see you in the morning.” Everyone knows it never rains in LA.
*This piece was first published in a slightly altered form in SHEI Magazine. Find that here.