you In Los Angeles, need a plan. Always.
Los Angeles isn’t just celebrities, paparazzi and Hollywood. You know it, I know it. The locals definitely know it. But what is ‘real’ LA? There are as many answers as there are cars on Wilshire Boulevard. To some, it’s the yoga-mat-and-surfboard lifestyle of Santa Monica and Malibu; for others, it’s the gritty faded beauty of downtown. Many argue that the further east you go, the realer it gets: in Eastside neighbourhoods like Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park, the only swarms of photographers you’ll encounter are Instagrammers angling for shots of a hip new café or effortlessly cool designer store. Then there are the ethnic enclaves – Little Armenia, Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Thai Town and more – living proof that this is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in America. As the writer Quentin Crisp once said, “Los Angeles is just New York lying down”. LA may lack the soaring towerblocks and skyscrapers of its east coast rival, but that doesn’t mean it’s not just as culturally, artistically and ethnically diverse.
The point is, there’s so much more to Los Angeles than theme parks and Hollywood, if you know where to look. And that last part is key. With its low-rise skyline
THERE’S SO MUCH MORE TO LOS ANGELES THAN THEME PARKS AND HOLLYWOOD, IF YOU KNOW
WHERE TO LOOK
and its endless, car-clogged roads, LA can be an overwhelming and confusing city to get to grips with. And it’s true that, unlike in New York or San Francisco, you can rarely just leave your hotel and walk, leaving your day to serendipity. No, in Los Angeles, you need a plan. Always. That’s why, before my most recent trip there, I sketched out a loose schedule. My rules: no tourist traps, no theme parks, no celebrity spotting or Hollywood kitsch. Just authentic experiences, in areas Angelenos themselves love to spend time in.
Day one – Downtown
I’m a fan of cities; the bigger the better. Having recently returned home to New Zealand after a year in New York, I’ve been pining for the kind of urban energy that only comes from a lot of people crammed into a too-small space. But that’s not something laidback, spread-out Los Angeles provides – except in downtown, otherwise known as ‘DTLA’. Los Angeles’ civic core is centred around Broadway, once Los Angeles’ main commercial street and today the epitome of decayed glamour. At 10am on a Saturday morning, I join one of the regular Broadway walking tours run by the Los Angeles Conservancy, which does heroic work preserving the city’s architectural treasures.
In Jan, a sprightly 82-year-old who looks at least a decade younger, we have the ideal guide for a tour of the movie theatres that line Broadway. As we walk, the 40-year veteran of Walt Disney Studios tells us how in the early days of cinema, rival magnates competed to build the most jaw-droppingly opulent movie palace. By the early 1930s, this handful of blocks offered seating for 15,000 patrons and could claim the highest concentration of cinemas in the world.
These days many of the theatres remain, though none show movies full-time. Some are used for church services or flea markets and some have been simply boarded up and left to rot. But a lucky few are getting a new lease on life, such as the cathedral-like United Artists Theater, once co-owned by Charlie Chaplin and now part of the supercool Ace Hotel. It’s a stunning theatre, more like a gaudy gothic cathedral than an auditorium, but my favourite stop on the tour has to be the over-the-top Los Angeles Theater, complete with children’s nursery, barber shop and a periscope system so patrons in the basement lounge can watch the movie upstairs.
After all that walking, time for lunch. We head straight to Grand Central Market, a food court and produce market located a few blocks from the end of the tour. For a century now, local workers have flocked to this market in search of cheap produce or a quick lunch. These days the old-school vendors – taco stands, noodle shops, and stalls selling Mexican spices and chillis – share space with everything from craft beer, to gourmet cheese, to high-end ice cream. With the newcomers have come the crowds – if you want to try one of the amazing sandwiches from the Eggslut food stand, for example, get there before 10am or be prepared for a half-hour wait. No thanks. At Wexler’s Deli, the queue isn’t so bad, thank goodness. We even find a perch
at the counter to wolf down our sandwiches stuffed with apple-wood smoked pastrami and homemade pickles. A taste of New York in the middle of LA.
Day 2 – Koreatown
My base for the trip is The Line, a former 1960s Hyatt transformed into a quirky 388-room boutique hotel. The big draw here – apart from the rooftop restaurant inside a glasshouse and the effortlessly stylish décor – are the rooms’ floor-to-ceiling windows, which give you the feeling you’re floating high above the city (vertigo sufferers, watch out). The Line is located in Koreatown, a large central neighbourhood that, as the arrival of hotels like this suggest, is becoming increasingly trendy. But the Korean community that built this district still thrives; their influence can be seen everywhere, from amazing barbecue restaurants to incredibly good value spas (I’m talking ‘$20 for a day pass to the Natura Spa on Wilshire Boulevard’ good value). Don’t forget to hit up the beauty stores, stocked with all manner of Korean cult favourites that are unavailable here in New Zealand. It sounds disgusting, I know, but the Mizon Snail Cream (containing, yes, snail mucus) has been hailed as a lifesaver moisturiser for acne-prone skin. Or try the Su:m 37 Miracle Rose Stick Cleanser, which packs all the gentle, deepcleaning power of an oil cleanser into a super-portable solid stick.
One of the more wonderful things about Koreatown’s beauty supply stores is they often share space with dessert bars, making for a near-perfect retail experience, at least if you’re me. After you’ve stocked up on unguents at The Face Shop, for example, stroll across the room to the oddly-named Chocolate Chair, and order a serving of Dragon’s Breath – candy-coloured cereal puffs snap-frozen in liquid nitrogen. Pop one in your mouth, bite down and breathe out through your nose – voilà, you’re a dragon for a moment.
Day three Venice and beyond
Nestled as it is between LA’s vast concrete jungle and the vaster still Pacific Ocean, it’s easy to see why Santa Monica draws thousands of locals and tourists each day – an easier trip than ever, since the light rail line between downtown and Santa Monica opened last year. But having been to the beach, and done the shopping mall on previous trips, I decide to give it a miss this time. Instead I head south to Venice, home to Muscle Beach and the famously weirdo-friendly boardwalk. A few blocks back from the oceanfront is one of the best LA shopping strips: Abbot Kinney Boulevard. This is the sort of LA neighborhood where the coffee shops are crammed with smart young screenwriters working on spec scripts and everywhere you turn you see beautiful people with perfect tans. The shopping here is phenomenal: check out Scotch & Soda for fun, affordable pieces and Bazar for small-batch products and vintage finds. Eat at the gorgeously rustic restaurant Gjelina, or grab a sandwich from its sister café Gjusta down the road; I can attest to the deliciousness of their Banh Mi Americano. For dessert, stop at Salt & Straw, where the ice cream flavours run the gamut from classic to the out-there, like black olive brittle and goat’s cheese.
After lunch, we drive north, through Santa Monica to a hillside on the outskirts of Malibu. Our destination: the Getty Villa, a free museum specialising in Roman and Greek antiquities – some 40,000 of them, housed in a replica of a Roman villa. It’s a lovely place for adults to wander, and does a good job of catering to kids too, with a Family Forum gallery offering the chance to decorate life-sized Greek vases. But the highlight is the gardens, lushly planted with ancient species and peppered with mosaics, pergolas and reflecting pools. I find a seat by a babbling fountain and look out at the ocean beyond. Yes, I think, I am still in Los Angeles. But also very, very far away.
THEIR INFLUENCE CAN BE SEEN EVERYWHERE, FROM BARBECUE RESTAURANTS TO GOOD VALUE SPAS
Top row, from left: Santa Monica Pier is a popular touristy hotspot; the Hollywood sign seen from the palm tree-lined streets of Beverly Hills. Middle row: Koreatown is a vibrant and trendy neighbourhood;
the iconic Rodeo Drive; lifeguard towers dot the beaches around LA. Bottom row: Getty Villa in Malibu;
the boardwalk at Venice Beach.