People travel from all over the world to experience Los Angeles. Some want to discover the magic of the movies at Universal Studios Hollywood, others come to shop the boutiques of Beverly Hills, while still more visitors hope to do little more than spend their vacation along the ocean, gazing out at the Pacific from the fabled sands of Santa Monica, Venice, and Malibu.
Alongside its greatest hits, Los Angeles is filled with hidden places that tourists invariably miss and that even many locals have never discovered, from surprising museums to remarkable natural areas. You could spend years exploring the nooks, crannies, mini-malls, and mountains to ferret out the county’s secrets, so here’s a quick look at some of L.A.’s most distinctive finds.
Post & Beam, Baldwin Hills
The Black-owned-and-operated Post & Beam illustrates how Southern California’s vibrant restaurant scene extends well beyond such popular dining districts as West Hollywood and Silver Lake. The Baldwin Hills restaurant blends traditional and contemporary approaches in a menu that brings together soul food and California cuisine. There’s an irresistible pecan pie French toast at the popular weekend brunch, while the dinner menu includes delectable shrimp grits, woodfired pizzas, and buttermilk fried chicken.
Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, Pacific Palisades
There might be more Los Angeles Lakers than actual lakes in Los Angeles, so arriving at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades always feels like a discovery. Opened in 1950, it’s a real-life Garden of Eden that the mystic and guru Paramahansa Yogananda created as a shrine to all religions. Walk along the spring-fed lake (once used as a location for shooting silent movies) and you’ll pass blooming gardens and waterfalls that turn any visit here into a serene and soulful retreat.
Lost Spirits Distillery, Downtown L.A.
An improbable mashup of a Disneyland-style attraction and premium distillery, Lost Spirits Distillery in downtown’s Arts District emerged from the ever-active mind of founder Brian Davis. He’s a onetime ride designer and also developed a revolutionary distilling system that replicates the traditional barrel-aging process at comparative warp speed. Davis has created an immersive, imaginary world and a tour here is like The Pirates of the Caribbean ride for grown-ups—complete with a boat journey and tastings of outstanding rums and whiskeys that would no doubt meet Captain Jack Sparrow’s approval.
Biddy Mason Memorial Park, Downtown L.A.
Tucked into a narrow space across from Grand Central Market and next to the landmark Bradbury Building, Biddy Mason Memorial Park pays tribute to a former slave who fought for her freedom, then came to California where she built a real estate empire in 19th-century Los Angeles. The hidden park sits on the onetime location of Mason’s homestead and features a timeline that tracks the events of this L.A. pioneer’s dramatic life.
Cha Cha Chicken, Santa Monica
Just steps from the Pacific, you can savor the flavors of the Caribbean at colorful Cha Cha Chicken, a no-frills eatery with an ultra-chill vibe. Settle in on the shady, breezy patio for such authentic dishes as jerk chicken and ropa vieja, a slow-cooked shredded skirt steak in a red onion garlic sauce. The entrees come with a side of fried plantains and you can wash it all down with a cooling mango-guava agua fresca.
Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area, Antelope Valley
There’s no shortage of rock stars in Los Angeles, but Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area in the Antelope Valley is the real deal. This high desert formation, a jumble of sandstone slabs and boulders squeezed and tossed around by action along the San Andreas Fault and two of its branches, is the county’s most dramatic geological landmark. An easy one-mile trail descends into the Punchbowl, or take the longer trek to the overlook at Devil’s Chair.
Cilantro Mexican Grill, North Hollywood
Any L.A. foodie will tell you that some of the town’s top eats are found in unlikely locations, from generic mini-malls to taco trucks parked at construction sites. Even so, Cilantro Mexican Grill still comes as a surprise. After all, you just don’t expect the likes of Adolfo Perez, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, to cook outstanding Mexican favorites, including delicious carne asada burritos and shrimp tacos, in a North Hollywood Chevron gas station abutting the 170 Freeway.
Wende Museum, Culver City
Sun-soaked Southern California is about as far as you can get from the drabness of Cold War-era Eastern Europe. But Culver City is home to a remarkable reliquary of art and artifacts from Eastern Bloc countries at the Wende Museum. In a bright and airy 1949 armory building, the museum’s changing exhibits showcase items from vintage radios and televisions to propaganda art produced behind the Iron Curtain. The museum also owns the largest section of the Berlin Wall outside Germany (on display across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, along Wilshire Boulevard).
Fountain Coffee Room, Beverly Hills
If the Polo Lounge is the place to see and be seen at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the basement-level Fountain Coffee Room qualifies as a below-the-radar destination. With 19 bar stools arrayed around a graceful, curving counter, the coffee room possesses a retro Hollywood vibe—barely changed since 1949. Plenty of celebs that frequent the hotel dine here both for a measure of privacy and such tasty classics as the grilled Russian sandwich (on rye with turkey, ham, coleslaw, and, of course, Russian dressing). Now there’s a pop-up al fresco version of it in the Polo Private Gardens that’s open Thursday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pro tip: Whether dining indoors or outside, save room for the banana split.
Eso Won Books, Leimert Park
Eso Won Books is an essential cultural landmark in the Los Angeles African-American community. Founded in the late 1980s by co-owner James Fugate, the store carries a big selection of books by African-American authors and also doubles as a community gathering place, thanks to its busy event lineup. In fact, the likes of Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, and Spike Lee all have made appearances.
San Vicente Mountain Park, Encino
Along the dirt stretch of Mulholland Drive a few miles west of the 405 Freeway in the Santa Monica Mountains, San Vicente Mountain Park delivers what may just be the finest panorama anywhere in Los Angeles. Climb to the top of the tower, a onetime radar facility that was part of an anti-aircraft missile system deployed around L.A., and on most days you’ll get a view that stretches from Catalina to Mount Baldy.
Hollywood Heritage Museum, Hollywood
For all the glamour of Hollywood, the film industry in Southern California was born in a humble stable building. In 1914 legendary director Cecil B. DeMille shot Hollywood’s first feature-length movie at the barn, which now houses the Hollywood Heritage Museum. You won’t find the trams or theme park rides of nearby Universal Studios Hollywood, but the museum is a must for movie buffs thanks to such displays as an exacting recreation of DeMille’s studio office.
Bob’s Big Boy Classic Car Show, Burbank
What could be more L.A. than burgers and hot cars? Every Friday from 4–10 p.m. you can celebrate these two icons of Southern California life at the Bob’s Big Boy Classic Car Show. Held in the parking lot of the landmark streamline coffee shop, the event draws car buffs from around Southern California who pull up in everything from vintage Detroit muscle cars to the latest Ferraris.