The early morning flight from Memphis to Los Angeles is perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever taken. Make sure you get a window seat.
You take off before dawn. The terminator—the line between day and night—is moving west at 1,300 mph while you’re cruising along in the same direction at 485 mph. That means the morning lasts a long, long time, as you slowly lose a race with the sun. You can see mists rising above Arkansas lakes and, a few hours later, peaks in the Arizona desert illuminated by golden morning light. The landscape isn’t fully illuminated until you’re making the long, slow descent into the multicolored Southern California sprawl.
The awakening city thrums with activity and promise. During final approach, you see it on the right: a sign on a distant hill, just big enough to be legible: HOLLYWOOD. Los Angeles is a fairyland built out of the desert and dreams. It’s hard to imagine a more awesome place.
Then you’re dumped into L.A.’s Monday morning rush hour traffic.
According to NOAA, the weather in Los Angeles is sunny 73 percent of the time. Without the changing weather to discuss, small talk in L.A. inevitably turns to traffic. Like Memphis weather, it’s highly variable and occasionally life threatening. Getting around this sprawling tangle of a metropolis quickly and efficiently requires both years of practice and a willingness to improvise.
GPS helps, and some old L.A. hands will tell you that the widespread use of Google Maps’ real-time traffic information feature has actually smoothed the flow of travel a little bit. But the bottom line is this: It’s challenging for a newbie to get around. Take time to research your routes, and schedule ample time to get where you’re going. Taxis and ridesharing apps such as Uber or Lyft are the tourist’s friend.
The good news? There’s so much to see and do in L.A, you’re going to be close to something fun no matter where you’re staying.
Sixty one years after it opened, Disneyland remains one of L.A.’s marquee-level attractions. But Universal Studios is busy challenging the House of Mouse’s dominance. Giving the public a peek at a working movie-production house has been a tradition at Universal since the studio was founded, with the modern tram tours dating from 1965. The Bates Motel and Bruce, the mechanical shark from Jaws, remain the star attractions, but they are joined every year by new filmic landmarks, such as an unnervingly realistic crashed airplane set from Stephen Spielberg’s version of War of The Worlds.
In the Universal theme park, the life-sized recreation of Springfield from The Simpsons has been a big hit. But it’s the newly opened “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” that could prove to be a game-changer. The generation of kids whose imaginations grew up in Hogwarts can now visit the magic school, zoom through a quiddich match with their hero, get their own wand at Ollivanders, and feast on shephard’s pie and butterbeer at the The Three Broomsticks. The Wizarding World has been hopping since it opened earlier this spring, so be sure you get your tickets in advance.
The city abounds with movie landmarks, big and small. The Hollywood Walk of Fame at Hollywood and Vine is the cliche L.A. tourist destination, but it’s definitely something worth experiencing at least once in your life. I got chills examining the handprints and footprints outside the TCL Chinese Theatre. Known for decades as Grauman’s (a name by which it is still informally referred in many circles), it was the go-to site for prestige film premieres ever since Cecil B. DeMille showed his epic King of Kings there in 1927. Its most famous modern premiere was in May 1977, when Star Wars made its debut to an enraptured crowd. Today, the sidewalk out front contains handprints from both Humphrey Bogart and C-3PO.
If you’ve got time while you’re on Hollywood Boulevard, and you want to see what the state of the art in movie theaters looks like, catch a flick at the constantly evolving Dolby Theatre. Or if you’re hungry, have lunch at the famous Musso and Frank Grill, which has been a staple since 1919. And don’t forget to visit Larry Edmund’s Bookshop, where you will find a dizzying array of tomes about filmmaking and Hollywood history.
One of the city’s crown jewels is the Griffith Observatory, once a cutting-edge astronomical facility, now a historic landmark dedicated to science education. Its planentarium show was the setting for a pivotal scene in James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause, and the show’s modern incarnation is just as impressive as it was 50 years ago. And, if you’re feeling frisky, there’s a hiking trail from the Observatory parking lot to the nearby Hollywood sign. The 3.3-mile trail offers the best views of Los Angeles, hands down.
Eat, Shop, Repeat
If you’re looking for some nightlife, you can start on the legendary Sunset Strip. In the early days of Hollywood, this stretch of Sunset Boulevard was the preferred hangout for the glamorous. Still kicking from those days is the Chateau Marmont, the hotel with legendarily thick walls where Hollywood royalty hid out to misbehave. It’s hard to get a reservation in the hotel’s terrace restaurant, but you might have better luck popping into Bar Marmont for a champagne cocktail.
Later, as the Strip’s glamour gave way to seediness, it would become ground zero for the Los Angeles music scene. Today, musical landmarks like the Whiskey A Go-Go, where bands from The Doors to Motley Crüe launched their careers, and the Rainbow Room, which combines a traditional Italian restaurant with a hard rock attitude, remain in cleaned-up form.
When you wake up after a night on the town, you’re going to need some food. One unexpected discovery I made about L.A. is that it’s a breakfast town. The oldest restaurant in the city, the no-nonsense diner Du-Par’s, claims to have the best pancakes in America, and after tasting them, I don’t doubt it. You can fuel up there for a day of shopping at the supremely funky Los Angeles Farmer’s Market and the adjoining mall, The Grove.
To me, it’s this area that really represents a cross section of L.A. On the one hand, it’s a century-old collection of small shops offering groceries and food from dozens of different cultures (I recommend the Singapore’s Banana Leaf. I ate there three times in one week.) Right next door is The Grove, a Hollywood shopping mecca with a two-story Apple Store, a Nordstroms, a flagship Nike store, and even a Tascen book store. Nothing else better sums up Los Angeles’ fusion of past, present, and future.
The breakfast obsession extends to restaurants with more haute-cuisine leanings, such as BLD, which features a vegan benedict so delicious that many meat eaters go for it over more conventional morning starters. But where L.A. cuisine really excels is in the more out-of-the-way places — the dives and greasy spoons. Everybody’s got their favorite, such as the famous Sunset Grill, a cozy deli seemingly that has been immortalized by its fans in song and on-screen.
Then, of course, there’s the Mexican food. The food-truck craze started in Los Angeles, with people chasing around their favorite mobile taco outlets. Angelenos will make a distinction between Tex Mex, the style of food which is most familiar to Americans, and the “real” Mexican cuisine which can be found all over this heavily Hispanic city. My visit to Guisados, a humble little restaurant with a big following, was enough to convince me that West Coast tacos are simply next-level.
Reach the Beach
It’s the warm ocean breezes that give L.A. its Mediterranean climate, and the beach has been an inextricable part of the city’s culture since the beginning. There are no shortage of awesome beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway, but Venice Beach is perhaps the most famous. It was ground zero for a lot of California weirdness in the 1960s, and much of that vibe is still in place. There’s a huge skate park that is always zipping with activity. A stroll along the boardwalk will take you past beach stores selling sunglasses and hats, as well as other, more exotic beach paraphernalia. But there are also small, elegant wine bars where you can sit and grab a sip, and the wide sandy beach and golden sunsets do not disappoint.
Los Angeles may not be the first city you think of as a museum mecca, but the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has a world-class collection and the resources to host a rotating selection of touring exhibits. Among the most striking pieces of the permanent collection is the Rain Room, where motion sensors and computers conspire to allow visitors to walk untouched through an artificial downpour.
But my favorite art piece in all of L.A. is Metropolis II, a giant kinetic sculpture that must be seen to be believed. Some 11,000 toy cars and trucks race along hundreds of feet of tracks winding through whimsical, abstracted cityscapes made from found materials, including half a disco ball. As the cars whirr by going who knows where, you get the sense that the spirit of the Los Angeles has descended on this little corner of the city.
Airfares out of Memphis have been dropping this year, so visiting the City of Angels is more practical than it has been in years. I used Expedia.com to find a very reasonable price on the daily Delta nonstop. Book well in advance for maximum savings. Los Angeles is one of America’s great cities, so there’s so much more to see and do there than can be contained in one column. To dig deeper into the city, you can check out websites such as Los Angeles Magazine (lamag.com), LAist for food and arts news (laist.com), Time Out Los Angeles for a deep take on shows and events (timeout.com/los-angeles), and the always great travel site Lonely Planet (lonelyplanet.com/usa/los-angeles).