Welcome to the bright lights and big-city allure of California’s largest metropolis. Here, A-list celebrities really do walk the sidewalks, triple-shot machiattos in one hand, cell phones in the other. While travelers may bypass much of the city by staying on a network of freeways that crisscross the region, they’re missing L.A.’s hidden gems. Turn off onto side streets to discover inviting neighborhoods, incredible museums, and shopping hot spots. And when the sun sets, L.A. comes to life in a whole new way, with clubs thumping to the beat of the latest indie band, a flock of starlets swaying in the front row. Rooftop restaurants, bars, and pools draw slinky-sexy crowds, while searchlights arc through the night sky, announcing the latest silver-screen premier.
For a must-see look at the creative and business sides of making music, plan a visit to this outstanding, often-overlooked museum, part of downtown’s L.A. Live complex. Ultra-hands-on exhibits make this a great place for families, especially if you’ve got older kids who are into music. The museum lets them make their air-guitar fantasies come true on real instruments, or they can mix their own tunes in sound booths, just like a music producer or sound engineer. Historic recordings and videos let you relive your youth, too (Woodstock, anyone?), learn the roots of dozens of musical genres, or just tune in to some classic Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday. Another enlightening exhibit lets you listen to the same recording produced using different mediums through the years, including gramophones, vinyl records, eight-track tapes (remember those?), and Mp3 players, the norm for today’s music. Also enjoy the huge collection of memorabilia and clothing ranging from Elvis’s personal fan notes to Michael Jackson’s bedazzled gloves and the jacket from his Thriller video.
Nwaka Onwusa, associate curator of the GRAMMY Museum, says that she’s most proud of “the diversity of content that is displayed in the museum…a reflection of revolutionary music and musicians.” Another hidden gem in the museum is the 200-seat, state-of-the-art Clive Davis Theater, which hosts live concerts by top artists, and talks with famous producers and others in the music business. It’s a great way to get insights and see major performers like Taylor Swift, The Cult, and Annie Lennox in an intimate performance space. (Check calendar well in advance as big names sell out fast.)
Hip and historic, downtown Los Angeles (or simply DTLA) offers big-city excitement with restaurants, cultural attractions, and major league sports. An influx of new residents has helped energize the area, and downtown’s re-emergence has also been spurred by such attractions as Grand Park, an urban oasis with views stretching from the Music Center (including Walt Disney Concert Hall) to City Hall.
Start your exploration with a full stomach. The reinvented Grand Central Market, originally opened in 1917, now has artisanal food purveyors selling of-the-moment items (Belcampo grass-fed beef burgers, build-your-own ice cream sandwiches at Mcconnell’s Fine Ice Creams) next to long-time vendors, like Wexler’s Deli. Vintage buildings have also been transformed, including the ornate 1927 United Artists building on Broadway, where the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles offers stylish digs and a restaurant. Crowds flock to the sports and entertainment combo of Staples Center and LA LIVE, where you can also see music artifacts (Elvis’s sheet music, Michael’s glove) at the Grammy Museum and catch concerts at the Nokia Theatre. And Grand Avenue is the city’s cultural hub, thanks to Los Angeles Philharmonic performances at spectacular Walt Disney Concert Hall and the sandstone-clad Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).
Although it’s known as the birthplace of Los Angeles, Olvera Street actually dates to 1930, when it was established to celebrate the city’s Mexican heritage. With its narrow passages and 19th-century buildings housing traditional restaurants and folk art shops, Olvera Street certainly evokes the romance of an authentic mercado. Technically, it’s part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, which includes many of the city’s oldest buildings and an 1815 plaza. Mariachis strum their big guitars, and the aroma of fresh tortillas and hot churros fills the air. On holidays, like Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead” in Spanish, which is much more festive than it sounds) in the fall or Las Posadas’ nine nights of candlelight processions at Christmastime, Olvera Street truly shines. Docents offer tours of the monument, and you can also see a partially restored mural by leading Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros at Olvera Street’s América Tropical Interpretive Center.
In Beverly Hills, ritzy Rodeo Drive is a must (even if it's just for window-shopping), with to-die-for boutiques like Prada, YSL, and Versace. In-the-know shoppers also head to nearby Beverly and Canon Drives, with beautiful shops and some of the best celebrity spotting in California. Head for The Grove nearby, a luxurious outdoor shopping entertainment center, where you can eat, shop, then catch a movie or stroll to the adjacent Original Farmers Market—a great spot for food-oriented shopping.
In the LGBT enclave of West Hollywood, discover trendy boutiques like Balenciaga, Christian Louboutin, and Stella Mccartney, as well as nightclubs and notice-me street-side cafes, all popular with celebrities. Also visit L.A.’s Silver Lake neighbourhood, with appealing shops like Yolk or Hemingway and Pickett). If you’re an adventurous shopper, head for the L.A. Fashion District and Santee Alley, with more than 150 shops and street vendors selling almost everything imaginable—a great place to scour for bargain clothes. L.A.’s Citadel Outlet Mall has deals on big names like Calvin Klein and Michael Kors.
As the megawatt star when it comes to celebrities, L.A. naturally attracts chefs who want to make a big splash too. Household names like Wolfgang Puck—whose legendary Spago in Beverly Hills still attracts A-listers—offer amazing, innovative dishes, often in equally spectacular settings—even rooftops. Market-driven menus, focusing on California’s über-fresh ingredients, are the norm at places like chef Ben Ford’s airy downtown eatery, Ford’s Filling Station, and ultra-fancy Patina, the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s star restaurant, where chef Joachim Splichal creates gastronomic showstoppers, like his signature Seasonal Glazed Vegetable Mosaic.
For all the dress-up options and celebrity chefs dotting the city, the international city of Los Angeles also offers awesome places to get authentic, reasonably priced ethnic food, especially in tucked away neighborhoods. Try incredible do-it-yourself barbecue at Kang Hodong Baekjeong in Koreatown. Dig into perfect ramen at Tsujita in Little Tokyo. Or order the green corn tamales, a local favorite, at El Cholo, an L.A. tradition since 1923.
The sun dipping below the western horizon, a blanket of city lights spread out at your feet, the Hollywood Sign glowing from its hillside perch—these are memorable sights from any vantage point, but there’s nothing quite like taking them in from a rooftop in the middle of Los Angeles. One of the best things about LA is the weather, and sunny days offer an extra bonus: warm evenings and nights. So relaxing outside, perhaps on cushy banquettes around a swimming pool glowing with cool blue light—well, it doesn’t get much sexier than that.
For a sultry, see-and-be-seen experience, head to E.P & L.P. This West Hollywood spot is part swanky Asian restaurant (E.P) and part rooftop club (L.P). Rub shoulders with the stars as you sip an alcoholic boba tea and gaze out at the glimmering Hollywood Hills. Those preferring a lower profile should retreat to the nearby Rooftop at the Palihouse. Lush greenery, stylish chairs and chic lanterns complement 360-degree views and hibiscus cocktails. For a brush with the super exclusive, book a room at WeHo’s Petit Ermitage. Open only to hotel guests, the rooftop is pure magic with its saltwater pool, seasonal cocktails and a butterfly garden so well done that it’s recognised as a sanctuary by the National Wildlife Federation.
Another excellent option is The Roof on Wilshire, above the Hotel Wilshire in the heart of Downtown. Relax on wraparound banquettes to watch the skyline light up, and sip on one of the bar’s signature mule-style drinks until the stars come out. Also in the Downtown area is Upstairs Bar at the Ace Hotel, with tropical drinks and views of the towering San Gabriel Mountains. A new addition to DTLA, The Rooftop at The Nomad serves tiki cocktails and inspired ice-cream sandwiches on its terracotta deck, which is dotted with lemon trees. Just a few streets away is the literal pinnacle of the city’s nightlife: Spire 73, which sits atop the Intercontinental Hotel and is the highest outdoor bar in the Western Hemisphere. If you want a wacky and unforgettable night, try to nab one of the spaceship-like waterbed pods alongside the pool at The Rooftop at The Standard, Downtown LA. Or head to The Fonda Theatre, where rooftop guests can watch a live feed of the night’s performance.
Perched in the hills above West Los Angeles, The Getty Center looks like a modernist city on a hill, a collection of dramatic buildings housing galleries filled with modern masterpieces. To reach this complex designed by renowned architect Richard Meier, ride a tram from the parking lot up to the snow-white Getty campus, with buildings clad in travertine mined from a quarry outside Rome. Inside the galleries, see European masterpieces, decorative art, and photography. And it’s all free—a gift from philanthropist J. Paul Getty. (There is, however, a fee for parking.) For all of its art, the Getty is equally stunning outside. Broad courtyards with fountains, leafy bowers and the grand Central Garden created by Robert Irwin is a living work of art, with outstanding views stretching from Mount Baldy to Santa Catalina Island. Watch the sunset from elegant The Restaurant at The Getty for a memorable splurge. A variety of free self-guided and guided tours enrich your visits, and spirited family programs—like jousting workshops—can turn your kids onto art too.
With its soaring stainless-steel panels, the exterior of Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall has been likened to everything from a clipper ship to a blooming flower to origami. Some people say the experience of hearing a performance in its main hall wrapped by undulating walls and billowing ceilings made of Douglas fir, is like being inside a cello or violin. That means performances by the resident Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as a calendar-ful of other outstanding musicians are sensory feasts for not just the ears but the eyes too, with features including the striking central organ, nicknamed the “French fries.” Outside, take a self-guided or guided tour, including a stop at the third-level garden for city views and the rose-shaped Lillian Disney Fountain, made from crushed Delft porcelain and a meant as a tribute to the woman who made the concert hall possible.
Is that who I think it is? In California, the answer is probably yes. Here, stars and celebrities live, work, and play. Look around on a sunny Socal beach and you might see Matthew Mcconaughey...
The largest municipal park in Los Angeles, Griffith Park protects 4,210 acres/1,704 hectares of mountains and canyons at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a remarkable stretch of rough, hilly wilderness in the heart of such an enormous urban area. Choose from more than 50 miles/80 kilometres of trails lacing the chaparral-studded slopes, including one to the top of 1,625-foot/495-metre Mount Hollywood, the park’s highest point. Unpaved roads also provide access for mountain bikers and trail rides; guided rides out of Sunset Ranch include great views of the Hollywood sign.
Griffith Park has a more refined side, too. Learn about the American West at the Autry National Center. Leading musicians love to play at the open-air Greek Theatre. Kids can get close-up looks at koalas and Komodo dragons at Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens. And high on a slope overlooking Los Angeles, the landmark Art Deco-era Griffith Observatory presents mind-expanding planetarium shows throughout the year, plus films and special events in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater, and hosted telescope parties (check the calendar for details).