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Los Angeles Travel Guide

The city of Los Angeles has a lot more going for it than Woody Allen leads us to believe. Stretching along the Pacific from Malibu to Long Beach, the region offers plenty to see and do in what can only be called a sun-kissed blend of adventure, culture and whimsy.

It all melds stylishly with an anything-goes attitude, and whether you’re kicking back on one of its fabled beaches, grabbing a ride at a world-class amusement park, plunging into glittery shops for the latest Oscar-worthy fashions (you need to practice a regally bored look to fit in better), dining at Tinseltown hot spots or exploring inspiring world-class museums — you’re in for a magic-carpet ride like no other. And in a city dominated by “show business,” prepare for a ride that comes with a good deal of self-indulgent dazzle any time of day, be it a Malibu glamour tan while nonchalantly reading Variety, catching the Pussycat Dolls at the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard or browsing breathtaking works of art at the Getty.

For those who never watch TV or go to the movies, we should tell you that L.A. is a sprawling metropolis (with an atypically high percentage of beautiful people) with no “center” — which means you’ll wind your way through various neighborhoods and independently incorporated communities, keeping your eyes peeled for celebs and clusters of paparazzi everywhere (did you know that the city’s Zagat restaurant guide actually has a “stargazing” category?). And still under the heading of Geography 101, try to think in terms of the major “areas” like Santa Monica and Malibu, the San Fernando Valley (the “valley” to locals), the Westside and Beverly Hills, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Downtown and Pasadena.

Los Angeles Attractions

Don’t even consider visiting Los Angeles without stopping at the Getty Center. This magnificent complex opened in 1997 and houses J. Paul Getty’s enormous collection of art ranging from Impressionist paintings to contemporary photography — as well as Van Gogh’s Irises. The Getty Villa in Malibu is also worth a visit for lovers of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.

You can take a 40-minute trolley tour through Beverly Hills (see BeverlyHills.org) to see some of that area’s best sites, including Rodeo Drive, architectural highlights and celebrity homes. Schedules vary with time of year.

We dare you to pass up one of the bus tours that take you past famous movies stars’ homes, past and present. Consider one with LA City Tours, which includes Downtown, Hollywood and the beaches in its 5.5-hour sojourn, or Starline Tours, which has a specific Movie Stars’ Homes tour through Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Hollywood to see where the likes of Tom Cruise, Halle Berry, Madonna and Lucille Ball hang or hung their hats. Viator offers a variety of movie star tours.

For a look at L.A.’s less glamorous side, try a Hollywood Tragical History Tour (see DearlyDepartedTours.com or Viator). Dedicated to revealing the “delightfully twisted underbelly of Hollywood,” the tour focuses on famous deaths, crimes and scandals around the City of Angels. You’ll see the hotels where Janis Joplin and John Belushi died, and make a potty stop at the public restroom where George Michael was arrested for soliciting a police officer. (Needless to say, this is not a family-friendly tour.)

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, has a permanent collection of American, Asian and European art ranging from ancient times to the 21st century.

We say the coolest is the Hollywood Sign on Mount Lee — which happens to be the tallest peak in L.A. Each letter is 45 feet high, and the whole shebang is 450 feet long. Believe it or not, the sign had nothing to do with show business when it went up in 1923. It was meant as a promotional billboard for a new development back then called Hollywoodland (the LAND section was dropped in the late 40’s). The best view is from Sunset Boulevard and Bronson Avenue, but if you want to get up close, you can take a five-mile hike along the Brush Canyon Trail near the end of Canyon Drive in Griffith Park or drive up Beachwood Drive. Top it off with a slow drive (okay, not too slow) along the Sunset Strip to see the amazing billboards — a phenomenon since 1953, when a famous hotel placed an actual swimming pool atop its sign.

Adjacent to LACMA are the famed La Brea Tar Pits and the Page Museum, one of the few places in the world to see preserved prehistoric artifacts — including dinosaurs! — and watch as archaeologists work in their laboratories.

One of California’s best art museums is the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Inside this world-class museum, you’ll find beloved masterpieces from the likes of Degas, Picasso and Botticelli — as well as sculptures from artists like Moore and Rodin. Leave time for relaxation in the Monet-in-Giverny-inspired garden.

One of the city’s historic districts is on Olvera Street, celebrating its colonial Mexican past. You’ll see 19th-century adobe buildings, listen to strolling mariachi bands and browse stalls selling wonderful handicrafts. It’s also a chance to try some really great Mexican food since most of the restaurants are run by the original families.

You’ll feel like you just stepped into Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard with Gloria Swanson herself when you head through the gates of Paramount Studios in Hollywood. This is where they filmed Hope and Crosby’s “road” pics, and it was also once home to Lucy and Desi’s Desilu Studios. Walking tours offer in-depth looks at so much of what is familiar — even one of the original Forrest Gump benches. For bona-fide star sightings, consider lunch in their Commissary.

Unless you’ve gotten a personal invite from Mr. Hefner, you won’t get inside the gates of the legendary Playboy Mansion — but driving by can still be a hoot. It’s located at 10236 Charing Cross Road between S. Mapleton Drive and Sunset Boulevard in Bel-Air.

Hollywood Boulevard may have lost some of its luster, but with the Walk of Fame‘s 2,000-plus stars, it still twinkles. You’ll find Lucille Ball and Gregory Peck in front of 6100 Hollywood Boulevard, Gene Kelly at No. 6153, Ronald Reagan at No. 6374 and Rudolph Valentino at No. 6164. You’ll find Lassie at No. 6368. The whole thing runs from Gower Street to La Brea Avenue and Vine from Yucca streets to Sunset Boulevard. Stop at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard for a tour or a show.

If you ever watched a movie or television program and wondered how it really got made, then a Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour is just the thing, offering a rather intimate and historical behind-the-scenes view of a working studio. It starts with the Warner Bros. Museum, which houses some of the most interesting film memorabilia such as Best Picture Academy Awards, famous scripts, costumes and props. From there, you’ll set out for the back lots, sound stages and even the craft/production shops. What’s great is that the routes change from day to day to accommodate production, so no two tours are exactly alike. Several TV shows are filmed at Warner Bros., and if the timing is just right, you get to visit those sound stages while they’re being filmed.

Want an in-front-of-the-scenes, rather than behind-them, experience? Devote a day to the covered tram-driven Universal Studios Tour. One of the original studio tours (the studio is now a theme park), the tour is included in the price of admission into the complex. Some of the most recent sets that the tour offers a look at are Wisteria Lane (from “Desperate Housewives”) and “The War of the Worlds” — though a favorite stop is the clock tower square from “Back to the Future.” Hours vary, depending on season. CityWalk is nearby, so leave time to walk the dining and shopping district that’s home to dozens of restaurants, shops and movie theaters.

It’s fun to spend time at the wild and crazy Venice Beach in Santa Monica, where you’ll see jaw-dropping street performers and tattooed weight lifters vying for your attention. Rent skates, a bike or even a scooter to see it all. Don’t forget to stop by Muscle Beach.

On the north campus at UCLA is one of the best collections of sculpture in the country. Over 70 works by well-known artists such as Calder, Rodin, Matisse and Zuniga reside inside the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden. It’s open year-round.

For an extraordinary point of view, top your to-do list with a trip to Griffith Observatory. Shows run during the day as well as into the evening at the Griffith Observatory Satellite; come after dark for star sightings (the real kind) through one of the largest public telescopes in the world.

Get tickets to The Groundlings, an improv company in Hollywood. Its alumni often hit the big time on “Saturday Night Live,” so it’s not surprising that their skits are hysterically funny.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino is the former home of Henry E. Huntington. The estate is filled with wonderful tapestries, French porcelain and an art collection that includes Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. In the library, you can see a Gutenberg Bible as well as a manuscript of Canterbury Tales. You’ll find the 200 acres in the botanical garden filled with sweeping views, stunning themed gardens and more than 14,000 kinds of plants from all over the world. Check out the many special events, seminars and symposia that are available all year long. We strongly suggest making advance reservations for afternoon tea at the Tea Room, set in the heart of the beautiful gardens.

Architect Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown at the Los Angeles Music Center is a sight to behold. It’s been called the most acoustically sophisticated symphony hall in the world. Run, don’t walk, to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform here.

Just down the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, built in 2002 after the city’s previous cathedral was condemned. Don’t miss the tapestries hanging in the nave; many of the saints are modeled after modern-day people, including family members of the artist, John Nava.

Part of the L.A. Live Complex, the Grammy Museum is a must-visit for music lovers. This interactive museum offers visitors the chance to play a keyboard or guitar in a recording studio, watch videos of great Grammy performances and listen to samples of hundreds of music genres from corrido to klezmer. We dare you to make it through the entire exhibit without tapping your foot or bopping your head.

You could try to talk your way through the main gate to the rich and famous of Malibu Colony (folks like Streisand and DiCaprio call it home) — but if that doesn’t work, find the Zonker Harris Accessway on the 22700 block of Pacific Coast Highway to reach the Colony’s beachfront. All beaches in Los Angeles County are public, but to avoid the wrath of the rich and famous, walk on “wet sand.” (Homeowner deeds cede rights to the waterline.)

For hikers and trekkers, we recommend Monrovia Canyon Park to see the falls. Flowing throughout the year, this Los Angeles rarity is very cool (no pun intended), and it’s just 10 miles east of Pasadena. Walk under a canopy of sycamore, coastal live oaks, white alders and big leaf maples along the easy-to-walk Bill Cull Trail to reach it. The round trip is barely 3.5 miles. Guided hikes are available. If you don’t want to travel that far, you can follow the trails in Griffith Park or in the Santa Monica mountains if you’re staying closer to the beach. Beware though; mountain lions have been known to frighten (and occasionally harm) joggers and hikers who are alone, especially at sunrise and dusk.

Shake the sand out of your flip-flops and check out the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The museum is the West Coast outpost of the New York museum and offers nearly 150,000 TV and radio programs and ads to mull over and view.

It’s a treat to take Pasadena’s Bungalow Heaven tour (offered every April) and see more than 800 Craftsman bungalows built between 1900 and 1930. While you’re in the area, stop at Pasadena’s Gamble House — a jewel box of iridescent glass, inlaid furniture and custom light fixtures.

One foolproof way to see your favorite stars is by taking in a TV taping. Program tapings are free and open to the public, so all you need is information on how to get tickets. Keep in mind that it can take up to four hours to tape a half-hour show, but count on the actors chatting up the audience up between takes. Tickets go fast, so plan ahead. One good “go-to” source for tickets is TVtickets.com.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) hosts visiting exhibitions and displays noteworthy artwork from 1940 onward at its three locations around the city.

Los Angeles Restaurants

Celebrity chefs and cuisine from around the world are on the menu in Los Angeles. Asian food is a particular strength here; you won’t have to look far for great sushi or Pad Thai. And while there are plenty of upscale gourmet offerings, you needn’t pay a fortune to eat well. There are plenty of delightful little delis, hot dog stands and dim sum joints where you can dine on a dime.

Musso and Frank Grill is the oldest restaurant in Hollywood and it’s still wonderful. If you love martinis, this is the place. It’s clubby and dark, and the menu features seafood, steaks, sandwiches and the restaurant’s own “flannel cakes” (described as “lighter and sweeter than a pancake yet not as delicate as a crepe”).

Acapulco (with a few area locations) offers big, bold and better-than-you’d-think Mexican cuisine at really good prices. The Fajitas Gigante are not just gigantic when it comes to portion size — this dish is a sizzling extravaganza of shrimp, chicken and steak with plenty of sauteed onion, guacamole and peppers — and it’s less than $20!

KOI, located in West Hollywood, is a hey-isn’t-that-Ben-and-Angelina-over-there kind of place; the food’s Asian and the scene is white hot. Reservations are recommended.

L’Opera Ristorante in Long Beach offers fantastic Italian dishes like veal piccata and homemade pasta with jumbo lump crab and truffle peelings.

More than a handful of New Yorkers would tell you that there is no true deli in L.A. — but Nate ‘n Al actually is a really good one, Beverly Hills-style. It’s a favorite among long-time famous locals; don’t be surprised if you see one slurping up the very delicious chicken soup. The pastrami is as good as it gets — even by New York standards — and if you love short ribs, this is the place.

Smack-dab between Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and the Pier, The Lobster offers everything lobstery from butter-poached American lobster to a refreshingly outstanding cold lobster and avocado salad. No disappointments here.

Some say Pink’s is an acquired taste, but not only are the fluorescent-orange chili dogs the best you’ll ever have — you’ll also probably spot loyalists like Leno, Willis and Pitt lining up at this iconic outdoor stand (near the chi-chi Beverly Center shopping mall) with the rest of the crowd at this beloved L.A. institution. Even Ruth Reichl, the famous food critic, said she once dug through their trash to find out what kind of chili they used (it’s a family recipe).

Nosh on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tapas at Cleo in Hollywood — like grilled octopus, dolmades and and brussels sprouts with capers. The delicious flavors and eclectic crowd draw rave reviews.

Nobu Malibu is yet another outpost of chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s well-known family of restaurants, this time at the beach. Try the ceviche — it’s divine.

For light, fresh Vietnamese dishes like green papaya salad and tilapia steamed in banana leaves, head to Gingergrass in Silver Lake. It’s a great option for vegetarians and those looking for affordable, casual Asian fare.

Shopping in Los Angeles

Peripatetic strolls along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills are a must; the sidewalks are generously dusted with the most elegant and exclusive shops in the world. Note: Beverly Hills cops will fine you big-time for crossing the city streets except at designated crosswalks.

Don’t miss the chance to meander through the shops and stalls of the Farmers Market on Fairfax Avenue and West Third Street. You may even catch a glimpse of a few movie stars or studio execs grabbing a quick power breakfast. Legend has it that Walt Disney used to sit at a table for breakfast while he designed Disneyland. Sure, it tends to fill up with tourists by the busload, but it’s still a fun place to check out.

For hip, eclectic finds like vintage clothing and local art, head to Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice.

Melrose Avenue is the place to find avant-garde fashions, kitschy gifts, home accessories and pop art. Try Wasteland for second-hand vintage and designer clothes, or Thanks for the Memories for art deco design pieces. For breezy, upscale affluence, head to Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue. Unique boutiques and galleries brim with designer fashions and home furnishings; when you’re ready for a break, you can take a yoga class or visit the spa.

–written by Jana Jones; updated by Sarah Schlichter

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