The Complete Incomplete Los Angeles Guide

Los Angeles's Downtown Skyline As Seen From Echo Park Lake (Photo by Bill Lascher)

Though I currently live in Portland, Oregon, I don't hide my love for the city of Los Angeles. My family's roots stretch five generations back through Los Angeles history. It's in my blood. I'm a traveler at heart, but my home will always be California, and as you read last week, I often get nostalgic about Los Angeles.

This appreciation of Los Angeles is no secret. Admittedly, I get defensive of the city. Many of its detractors quickly glance at the film and television industry and dismiss this city as a vapid, shallow, image-obsessed mess of sprawl, but I find it one of the least superficial places I've lived. Los Angeles's beauty often lies many layers deep, visible in an unheralded neighborhood off one of the major traffic arteries, tasted in the melange of its countless subcultures' cusines, or heard in the crackle of hundreds of languages spoken throughout the city. Los Angeles is multi-centric, and beauty seeps between the megalopolis's many cores, often found in the transitional spaces between them firmly rooted in neither source nor destination.

Friends often ask what they should see and do in Los Angeles. This is always tough to answer because the city constantly evolves, as do my own tastes, and that doesn't take into account the unique preferences of the asker. Nevertheless, when a family of Austrian friends planned to stop in Los Angeles last summer, I compiled a list of suggestions based on their interests (seeing the beach, experiencing iconic architecture, and viewing landmarks). With a few changes and updates, I thought I'd share it with you.

Do not expect a complete guide to the city -- again, this guide was based on my experience and this family's interests -- but do expect a starting point. Nevertheless, as I did when I last posted a guide like this in 2009  I'm eager to hear in the comments what suggestions you'd add. Notably, this guide is heavily weighted toward Central L.A. and Downtown, where I've spent most of my time. The East Side (the real East side, not Silverlake or Echo Park), South Los Angeles and much of the West Side are under-represented. It's also worth noting that I wrote this for people traveling by car. However, much, if not all of this can be done via mass transit. I should know. Buses and trains were my preferred modality in Los Angeles and the subject of my graduate studies.

Anyhow, here's the guide.

Eating Los Angeles

Cole's. Order the Whiskey Sour. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

Let's start with the food, because you could easily structure any tour of Los Angeles hopping from restaurant to taco joint to food truck. Meanwhile, the safest bet is Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold and his Essential 101. Trust me, just pick something from that list that fits your taste and budget. Gold is a fantastic food writer with a wide range of preferences. I've never been disappointed by anything I've tried from his suggestions, and there's a huge variety of price points from hole-in-the-wall to super-spendy. Be sure to read the fantastic 2009 New Yorker article about Gold before he moved from LA Weekly to the Los Angeles Times.

Downtown and Downtown-Adjacent

Definitely go Downtown and try to get inside building lobbies. If you have time, consider an LA Conservancy walking tour, which has expert, themed tours (and not just for Downtown). Looking at their list of current tours, I'd recommend the Historic Downtown or Downtown Renaissance tours, as well as the Angelino Heights one. Or look at the conservancy's list of self-guided tours. The 1960s architecture one could be a neat way to see town, and Venice Eclectic might be. Here's my own starter list of must-sees Downtown:

The Bradbury Building is a must. It's at 3rd and Broadway. You can go inside on the first floor and up to the first landing, but not higher because it's a private building. Still, that's enough to have you in awe and any trip to Downtown should include time to see it. 

Across Broadway from the Bradbury, Grand Central Market is a large, open-air market that once was full of wonderful wholesale produce vendors, butchers and other grocers with a number of food vendors that made for a great, quick Downtown lunch. I unfortunately have not been for a few years. As I understand it, in recent years the food vendors have turned over as Downtown has gentrified and the place has lost some of its everyday vibe. But I'd still wager it's a pleasant place for a stroll, even if it has suffered the blanding hand of popularity.. 

The Central Branch of the Los ANgeles Public LIbrary (Photo by bill Lascher)

The central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library is a dream, both for book lovers and architecture fans. It's a great library, but the real draw here is its main rotunda and old card catalog room, which is just stunning. The library also often has additional art exhibits near the Flower Street entrance.

Cole's is probably my favorite bar Downtown. It's one of two places that claims to have invented the French Dip sandwich (Cole's original French Dip is fantastic, but my favorite is the lamb with goat cheese). Other people will tell you that Philippe's has better french dips, but I just don't agree. The bar at Cole's also makes amazing pre-prohibition cocktails. On my 29th birthday, I orchestrated a Red Line bar crawl. I still remember the Whiskey Sour I had at Cole's that day (my first made with traditional frothed egg whites). Cole's bartenders are wonderful, and if you're into the celebrity spotting thing, its seems a good place to encounter famous faces in a non-gawker way. It's also a good place for general Los Angeles people-watching. There's also a speakeasy-ish bar (no password, just a hard-to-see door in the back of the main room) called The Varnish in back. 

Hotel Figueroa at 9th and Figueroa features a quiet, often-overlooked bar with a patio by a pool great for a quiet hangout. It lacks all the clubbiness and douchiness of some other popular downtown bars. I'm not always thrilled by the cocktails there, but its relaxed atmosphere makes it a great place to stop for a bottle of beer or a simple mixed drink. To be honest, I'm out of touch with what's new in Downtown's bar scene, and there are others I know I liked and just can't recall right now, but you'll do fine.

The Redwood Bar & Grill on 2nd isn't just a great pirate-themed bar or the place where I happened to witness Barack Obama's historic election. It's also one of the favorite watering holes for Los Angeles Times reporters, who work just around the corner. Also, if you're interested in catching a symphony performance at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall you won't have far to walk from here. Really, though, the best reason to go to the Redwood is the house made potato chips. Mmm. Chips.

I've heard great things about the renovation of the United Artists Theater next to the new Ace Hotel.

Little Tokyo should be self-explanatory. I don't have the best knowledge of restaurants and bars there, but as the heart of the largest Japanese population in North America, it's worth a visit and it's easy to access on foot or transit.

The recently-gentrified Arts District can be nice, but like many places, it can be frustrating to watch prices here skyrocket. Those familiar with Portland's own growing pains may be happy to know the Arts District doesn't have the same sterile, fake-seeming atmosphere as the Pearl District. Like adjacent Little Tokyo, I don't know the Arts District very well, but I did have a tremendous -- but spendy -- meal at Church and State, and wurstküche is tasty.

Across the 6th Street Viaduct from Downtown or a few stops on the Gold Line light rail is Boyle Heights, a heavily Latino neighborhood that used to be a major Jewish community and another of the many Los Angeles districts at the heart of gentrification controversies.

Echo Park (ish)

Seen at the Echo Park Time Travel Mart (photo by Bill Lascher)

Seen at the Echo Park Time Travel Mart (photo by Bill Lascher)

Echo Park, Silverlake, Los Feliz -- combined with a few smaller districts -- form the nucleus of hte most Portland-y, Brooklyn-y, Mission District-y, maybe hipster-but-still-cool, creative-but-almost-fully-gentrified parts of Los Angeles. The area is characterized by many hills, cafes, bars, restaurants and random shops, but it still features countless wonderful houses, hole-in-the-wall surprises and more. Here are a sampling of the places I love:

Located just south of Sunset and east of Echo Park Lake, Angelino Heights was Downtown Los Angeles's first suburb and is very much worth wandering around. Many attractive Victorian-era and otherwise notable homes remain in Angelino heights. Maybe don't make a special trip to go there, but if you're nearby it's worth a brief tour.

Echo Park Lake is lovely for a stroll or picnic, especially on weekend afternoons when the park is full of families having barbecues and vendors selling many kinds of food. It's an easy stroll from the heart of Echo Park and easy to get to from numerous bus lines, including the 704 Express. Plan to visit the lake yesterday when you combine a visit with a stop at The Echo Park Time Travel Mart, your one-stop-shop for time travel supplies and accessories. It's also a product of 826 LA, Dave Egger's literacy project. \

Dodger Stadium. (photo by Bill Lascher)

Dodger Stadium. If you're in town during the Dodgers baseball season, consider a game here. Opened in 1962, Dodger Stadium is now the third-oldest stadium in the Major Leagues. There really isn't a bad seat in the house; the reserve or top-deck levels are fairly inexpensive, for example, and they even offer the added benefit of gorgeous views of the San Gabriel Mountains. If you go to a game, the best place to get a pre- or post-game drink is the Shortstop on Sunset Blvd. Fans usually pack the bar before games, and there's often even a tamale vendor there who will bag up cheese or chicken tamales for you to bring to the game. You can then walk 15 minutes up hill from the Shortstop to the stadium. By the way, don't drive to Dodger stadium, where parking is expensive and takes forever. Instead, you can take transit to Union Station (oh, and I haven't even mentioned what a beautiful place that is) and catch the free Dodger Stadium Express, which even has a Dodger-logo-marked lane exclusive to the shuttle on game days. Bus riders can also take the line 2, 4, or 704 buses to Elysian Park or Douglas, especially if they want to stop at the Shortstop.

Griffith Park Vicinity

The Hollywood Sign as seen from Griffith Park (Photo by Bill Lascher)

You might combine a visit here with Los Feliz, Silverlake, Echo Park or some combination thereof. These neighborhoods are close to one another, but it can get exhausting to try to go to all of them at once.

Los Angeles River Center & Gardens. This is a really pleasant little place to learn more about the LA River, its ecology and recent efforts to restore the waterway. This facility is an old spanish-style complex right by the river with a nice courtyard and a variety of interpretive displays and views of the river.

You've likely seen the view from Griffith Park and Observatory in the movies, but do make a plan to see it for yourself. The park features wonderful hiking trails that show off Southern California's natural landscape and fantastic views of the city simultaneously, and it's all located right in the heart of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the observatory itself offers  tremendous views itself. Admission and parking is free, as are a number of educational events and star parties, while the planetarium has a reasonable fee for its shows. Even though parking is free at the observatory, it can be tight; on the weekends, consider taking the Los Angeles Department of Transportation's DASH shuttle up to the observatory.

The Greek - This outdoor concert venue is one of the best places to see a show in Los Angeles. If there's an act coming that you want to see, I highly recommend doing so. 

Silverlake

The Neutra VDL House at 2300 Silverlake Blvd. is open for tours highlighting Neutra's modernist architecture. It's one of many great architectural tours one can take in Los Angeles.

Probably not too shockingly, the Silverlake Reservoir is the man-made body of water from which this neighborhood derives its name. The reservoir is always a lovely place for a walk and it offers a great opportunity for people (and dog) watching!

Silverlake, Echo Park and other nearby neighborhoods are home to countless semi-secret staircases that offer a unique way to get some exercise and explore these neighborhoods. While the Music Box Steps made famous by Laurel & Hardy are probably the most notable, many of the other staircases offer even more surprising and interesting views. Couple them with a walk around the reservoir, then get a meal on Hyperion, Silver Lake Blvd. or Glendale Blvd. (I like Gingergrass). Alas, you can't follow up with a show at the Spaceland anymore, but now apparently you can go to the Satellite instead.

Need a coffee? LA Mill can verge on coffee snobbery, but it is nevertheless quite tasty with a huge menu. And though it's a scene, it's not the hipper-than-thou seen I seem to stumble into at nearby Intelligentsia.

Oh, The Red Lion, the memories I have of you. Coming up with excuses not to sing karaoke in that tiny room upstairs, squeezing into a corner for trivia, making out in your parking lot the first time I ever went there. This German bar has a huge, busy upstairs patio, a cozy alcove for the aforesaid karaoke and trivia, and a chill piano lounge downstairs. The beer selection is wonderful. Though the weekend crowd at the Red Lion can get annoying, this is still one of my favorite watering holes in this part of town.

Los Feliz/East Hollywood

A wine tasting at the Barnsdall Art Park in August, 2013. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

The Barnsdall Art Park is home to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hollyhock House, which recently reopened after restoration. Located on a large bluff near Sunset and Vermont, the park provides 360 degree views of the city, while the Hollyhock House is as cool as you'd imagine an FLW design can be. But the most fun way to see it is to go one of the park's Friday evening wine tastings, which combine great wine, lovely views, and beautiful people.  You can either bring a picnic or order from one of the food trucks that come up for the event.

Upper Vermont Ave in Los Feliz features a host of small clothing shops and eateries, a movie theater, and the independent Skylight Books, one of the best book stores in Los Angeles. It's also where you'll find the Dresden Room and its five-nights-a-week jazz duo Marty and Elayne. While you're in the neighborhood, be sure to go down Vermont around around to Hollywood Blvd. for a stop at Wacko Soap Plant. It's a huge store packed with graphic novels, coffee table and photography books, nick nacks and a huge selection of the kind of ephemera that your average Spencers Gifts seems to be shooting for, but constantly misses. Nearby Hillhurst Ave. offers a more low-key, local taste of Los Feliz. Don't forget that all of this is an easy walk from the Sunset/Vermont Red Line Station.

Located at Franklin at Tamarind in the tiny but cute stretch known as Franklin Village, the Bourgeois Pig was one of my favorite places to work on my Master's project. Next door to the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Bourgeois pig's real charm isn't its coffee or pool table, it's its back room, which features a fanciful forest scene, or it did when I was last there. It's a great place to get some writing done and yet another good place for people watching.

Upright Citizens Brigade: I haven't been, but the actors who perform in its improv comedy troupe are everywhere and hilarious. I'd trust a show here to be great.

You like ice cream, don't you? Then get yourself to Scoops at Melrose and Heliotrope post-haste!  There are also scoops locations in Palms and Highland Park, but this is where they got their start. What are you waiting for? Have some ice cream now! These guys were making crazy and amazing ice cream flavors before Salt and Straw was even a a food cart. It is unbelievable. Transit-bound? Take the Subway to Santa Monica/Vermont or one of many bus lines traveling on Vermont, Santa Monica, or Melrose.

Mid City/Wilshire Center/Koreatown/Miracle Mile/La Brea/Fairfax/Hollywood

Hancock Park - Big houses on tree-lined streets that aren't quite as gaudy as Beverly Hills. Kinda fun to see if you're going somewhere else.

Larchmont Village - a little yuppified, but some pleasant places to stop for a walk.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery - Santa Monica Blvd behind the Paramount Studies. In the summer they have movie showings and concerts. It's surprisingly not creepy and it's fun.

The weirdest Kentucky Fried Chicken you've ever seen. No, really, it must be seen. Not eaten at, and I'd only stop if you're in the vicinity, but it must be seen. 

Korean BBQ. Check Jonathan Gold's rec's for the best places, but you can rarely go wrong. Also find a cheap place for bibimbap (generally less expensive than the BBQ places, which can get spicy easily).

The Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art. It's a truly great museum with fantastic exhibits, and I think they have a monthly free day.

La Brea Tar Pits. The museum itself might not be worth admission, but there are big tar pits right outside one can walk around. This is right next door to LACMA.

Largo - probably the best place in LA to see comedy. Check out the list of regulars (Tig Notaro, Sarah Silverman, etc.) and you'll see why I say that: . Any show there would be amazing.

Canter's - an excellent 24-hour Jewish deli in the Fairfax district. Really an awesome, hang-out place. The Kibbutz Room next door is a bar. Go here any time, very possibly see someone famous, definitely have a great traditional Jewish deli meal.

Farmer's Market - This is a different big open-air market that has existed for ages. It's more touristy than Grand Central and it's next to an obnoxious mall, but I still enjoy it. When my mother was a little girl, my great-grandmother used to take her to the Farmer's Market, and from all reports it hasn't changed much.  

Little Ethiopia just south of Wilshire on Fairfax should be self-explanatory. And it certainly is tasty.

Hollywood and Highland is like, but not quite as bad, as Times Square. Some people enjoy see the stars of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Chinese Theater, and the costumed superheroes, but this place is so, so touristy and tacky. Proceed with caution. There ARE two subway stops in Hollywood for a quick jaunt from Downtown.

The Hollywood Bowl, on the other hand, is worth every bit of hype it receives. This is a primo, amazing outdoor music venue. The LA Philharmonic plays here all summer, and there are often great popular acts playing with orchestras. I can't begin to describe how beautiful a night here is, but it is certainly pricey and a bit of a pain to get to (but not a bad walk from the Red Line at Hollywood and Highland).

Trains and Automobiles

The Fred Harvey Room at Union Station (Photo by Bill Lascher)

Despite my love of all things mass and active transportation, for short visits, I have to admit that it is easy to get around with a car. And access to a car gives you the chance to drive Mulholland Drive. It's certainly hyped, but worth it. There are beautiful views everywhere, you can see the whole expanse of the city, and there are numerous pullouts from which you can take in the view or do short walks. 

However, one can easily see Los Angeles without a car. Take the Metro Los Angeles Red Line subway between Downtown (from Union Station, itself a gorgeous 1939 example of the great American train station) and North Hollywood, where you can transfer to the Orange Line, a bus rapid transit system operating in an old rail right-of-way that gives you access to the San Fernando Valley, which put the "valley" in "valley girl." Along the Red Line, you can stop in multiple parts of Downtown, MacArthur Park/Westlake, Koreatown, the trendy Los Feliz neighborhood, Thai Town/Little Armenia and Hollywood. One can also take a variety of light rail lines, all but one of which have hubs Downtown. The Gold Line travels to Pasadena, which features a cute downtown, great museums and a number of Craftsman homes; it also passes through Chinatown, the rapidly gentrifying Highland Park and a few other locales in one direction, while the other takes riders through Little Tokyo and on to East L.A.

The new Expo Line goes to USC and nearby Exposition Park, home to many fantastic museums. Most notable among those are the California Science Center (which houses the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the Natural History Museum in particular, as well as a nice rose garden. The Expo Line then continues through South Los Angeles to Culver City, a pleasant little town that, among other features, claims the ABSOLUTE MUST SEE stop that is the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I won't say more about that museum because it's really too insanely weird and it's worth every bit of surprise you'll have there. Next year, the Expo Line will be able to take you all the way to Santa Monica.

The Blue Line, meanwhile, will take you through South Los Angeles to Long Beach, while the Green Line, the only line that doesn't connect to Downtown, travels between the Beach Cities and El Segundo.

Beaches

A woman walsk her iguana on Venice Beach. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

Speaking of beaches. Most of the beaches right by the actual city of Los Angeles are rather crowded, but may be worth a one-time visit for the experience. Still, the adjacent community of Hermosa Beach has a very nice beachside walkway called The Strand, with the ocean on one side and expensive houses on the other. Manhattan Beach offers a similar promenade. Nearby Redondo Beach is a little shabbier, but not much. Personally, I find each of these communities less interesting than the rest of Los Angeles, but they still have certain lazy charms. The nearby Palos Verdes Peninsula may merit a drive around for expansive views of the ocean, but it's otherwise quite quiet. However, it's worth mentioning that the peninsula holds the remaining wreckage of the ship once known as the SS Melville Jacoby, which was named after the subject of my upcoming book. Later renamed the Dominator, the Jacoby shipwrecked on the north side of the peninsula in 1962. Though its pieces are slowly vanishing, It's a pretty impressive sight to see.

Back in the city proper, Venice Beach received its name from a network of lazy canals that weave behind multi-million-dollar homes. This community also features a trendy and expensive shopping street called Abbot Kinney. Despite its skyrocketing prices, something could be said for a stroll on Abbot Kinney, though it's not without many often valid critiques. On summertime Fridays, the street plays host to many of Los Angeles's iconic food trucks, but as bustling as the district becomes on these nights it also gets mobbed with diners and revelers. But the feature for which Venice Beach is most known is its boardwalk, which is as funky as you've probably heard and worth seeing once. It's certainly touristy, but not in a completely off-putting way. Here you'll find a crazy mix of peddlers, street performers, scam artists, weirdos, bodybuilders, tourists, and any other character you can imagine.

Nearby Santa Monica has great views and a touristy pier. The open-air 3rd Street Promenade is lined mostly by chain stores, but for a shopping street it is nicely-designed. Other districts in the town are far more enjoyable, such as Ocean Beach and Main Street. The beach in Santa Monica certainly has room for lounging, and the city is a nice enough town, but even though I've been through a gazillion times I don't have much to say about it. What I do know is this, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy just north of town is unbelievably gorgeous. There you can find miles and miles of coastal mountains and sagebrush hills to hike, some with ocean views.

Further up Pacific Coast Highway is fabled Malibu, a long stretch of highway with expensive but precariously located homes. It's probably not worth a special visit, but if you're driving north you might consider taking PCH instead of going inland on the 101 or the 5. If you're looking for a great beach, many of the hidden coves and beaches in Malibu and beyond are the region's best. Ones I've heard of or know are good include El Matador and Leo Carrillo, but these are far from the only beaches worth trying. Look for signs that say "beach access," and don't get too discouraged by the gigantic homes. A huge fight has been between waged homeowners and the public about beach access. There's plenty of reading to be done about the conflict, but know that it's your right to visit many of these, so don't let the no-trespassing signs fool you.

Miscellaneous

A Bicyclist Rides Along the Beach North of Santa Monica. (Photo by Bill lascher)

The Huntington Gardens features a beautiful library and an even more beautiful garden in Pasadena, which is worth a visit itself.

I think this blog post put together by Elizabeth Laime of the wonderful (and lamentably just-ended) podcast Totally Laime has a lot of great ideas. While you're checking that post out out, give a listen to old episodes of Totally Laime or subscribe to their other shows: Totally Married, Totally Mommy and Totally Beverages and Sometimes Hot Sauce (which is about exactly what it sounds like, and is, well, totally rad).

KCRW - great music every morning, night, and weekend, and a wonderful source for current events during the day (notably with its To the Point and Which Way L.A. shows). It's also a good place to listen for local events/happenings/etc. Find it on the air at 89.9 FM.

Where KCRW is the place to turn for new music in the Los Angeles area, KPCC at 89.3/Southern California Public Radio has fairly robust coverage of Los Angeles and Southern California on the radio and online. Even commercial radio in Los Angeles claims quality journalism, from KNX's seemingly ubiquitous Claudia Peschiutta (and the station's earworm of a traffic update alert) to Wendy Carillo's Knowledge is Power show on Power 106.5.

While it has seen troubles at the highest levels of management, the Los Angeles Times remains a tremendous source of journalism, and many of its individual reporters and columnists are among the best in the business.

Nathan Masters's L.A. as Subject blog is a consistently educational and entertaining read about the history of Los Angeles.

The Militant Angeleno, an L.A. native, may or may not provide far better tours of the hidden corners of Los Angeles than I'm attempting here.

Three times a year, major Los Angeles streets are closed for CicLAvia, which gives bicycle riders, pedestrians, skaters and such access to these streets and a fun opportunity to see Los Angeles from a perspective usually only afforded to cars. It is truly a blast to participate in.

I've just realized I've forgotten the Getty Center. Many people are more impressed by this museum's grounds than its collection. For good reasons. This free museum sports some of the best views of Los Angeles. 

There are many, many, many other places I've failed to mention or describe in any worthwhile detail. Likewise, I have neglected areas as varied as Leimart Park, Westwood, the San Fernando Valley, West Hollywood, Atwater Village, Marina Del Rey, the Port of Los Angeles, Crenshaw, Westlake and Laurel Canyon , but I hope this can be a start for your experience of Los Angeles and for my own thoughts about it. Again, I'm eager for your suggestions.