Los Angeles is far too sprawling a metropolis to visit like a traditional city. Park yourself seaside in Santa Monica and you’ll spend hours cursing the ocean of traffic separating you from the Laker game or the museums of Pasadena. Crash for a week in Hollywood and too many sunset cocktails in Malibu might make you crash in Westwood.
Instead, consider Los Angeles not as a hub with a dozen spokes, but as a road trip of one-night stands. As Michelle Shocked noted, you can travel 500 miles “and never leave L.A.” Here’s how.
Pedestrian-friendly streets and clean air (ocean breezes push the smog to the east) make the beach cities of Santa Monica and Venice L.A’s most walkable neighbourhoods. Stroll Venice’s charming namesake canals, then cruise the oceanfront boardwalk, where skate punks, wannabe-rappers, rollerbladers, and musclemen stream past starving artists and shops hawking Mexican hoodie ponchos, ice cream cones, and piercings.
Abbot Kinney Blvd. is Venice’s trendiest shopping street, and claims to be the birthplace of the food truck revolution. A soupcon of rolling kitchens assemble here most evenings, and a moveable feast of trucks compete for space the first Friday of each month, when brick and mortar boutiques and restaurants stay open late to capture the overflow. If the NomNom Truck is there, make it your first stop for Vietnamese lemongrass chicken tacos or succulent banh mi sandwiches.
Santa Monica, an independent, progressive city, is a little more precious than its neighbour to the south, with groomed beaches, manicured lawns, and nary a tattoo parlour. Commercial activity along its waterfront is largely confined to the Santa Monica Pier, whose small amusement park is still outsized enough for a rollicking roller coaster and a solar-powered (naturally) Ferris Wheel with knockout views of the surrounding bay. Come Wednesday or Saturday for a treat: the Arizona Ave. farmer’s market, where you might rub elbows with celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck.
CLIFFS AND MORE
Head north on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) into Malibu. The Big Sur coastline has nothing on this stretch of PCH. The view turns bold and rugged, as the palisades of the Santa Monica Mountains dead-end at the ocean.
Stop at the Getty Villa, to bone up on Greek and Roman antiquities. Or sift through the broad, golden sands at Zuma Beach (where PCH makes a sharp right turn), Malibu’s most popular strand.
A few miles farther north, gorgeous giant rock formations make hidden gems like El Matador or El Pescador worth seeking out. At the quiet, unassuming 21-room Casa Malibu Inn you can spend the night on Billionaire’s Beach for considerably less than what Larry Ellison and David Geffen paid for homes here.
Buckle up for the ride up Kanan-Dume Road, a steep, curvaceous artery, framed by boulders precariously perched on hilltops, not to mention some truly intrepid houses. Be glad it never snows here—and don’t do this drive in the rain. Four miles up, you’ll pass a parking lot on the left, from which the Backbone Trail, the spine of the Santa Monicas, extends for 30 miles in either direction.
For an invigorating short hike (1.5 miles roundtrip), head downhill from the parking lot and turn around at lovely, shady Newton Canyon Falls.
Another five miles up Kanan-Dume and suddenly you’re in the Old West. Horse X-ing signs and paddocks remind you this is equestrian terrain, but it’s also superb wine country where you can sample vintages from one of the local vineyards on a sunny patio.
Turn right at Troutdale Drive and left at Mulholland Highway. Go 14.4 miles, then dart right on Mulholland Drive, and left on Topanga Canyon Blvd. into the San Fernando Valley.
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The Valley has little to recommend for tourists, so skid east seven miles along Ventura Blvd. and turn right on Hayvenhurst Ave. Turn left on Calneva Dr and left again at Mulholland Drive. This portion of Mulholland is the knife-edge ridge cleaving the Valley from the L.A. basin, and delivers magnificent views of both sides.
Cross over the 405 freeway, and 2.5 miles later, turn right at Benedict Canyon Drive for the descent into Beverly Hills. Be sure to detour onto one of the twisting, folding side roads and imagine living in one of these palaces on stilts. Or worse, needing a cup of milk at 10pm.
From the base of Benedict Canyon, Beverly Hills’ priciest boutiques beckon just a mile down legendary Rodeo Drive. But if you turn left instead, you can cruise Sunset Strip past the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Viper Room nightclub. Three blocks beyond House of Blues, where Sunset takes a hard right, look to your left for Chateau Marmont, the Hollywood hotel as famous as any of the countless celebrities it has hosted.
Motor down Hollywood Blvd. for a parade down Tinseltown’s main drag. Despite tourist attractions like Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Walk of Fame, much of Hollywood had turned seedy over the years. But boutique hotels like the W and the Redbury launched a renaissance that brought notable restaurants like Wood & Vine.
The very first Oscars were held across the way at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. With comfy couches and alluring fire pits, the hotel’s Tropicana Bar (surrounding the David Hockney-designed pool) wins the award for best lounging spot, day or night.
TOWN TO TOWN
From Hollywood, head south on Western Ave., where L.A.’s geographic variation yields to an amazing cultural diversity, tempest-tost along a mundane grid of flat city streets. This once-Mexican barrio is now the heart of Koreatown, but it percolates with signs for Thai, Vietnamese and Armenian businesses as well.
Head east on Wilshire and drive right through MacArthur Park into downtown. Yes, Los Angeles does have a centre, one you can walk through to boot. Continue on foot from Frank Gehry’s unmistakable Disney Concert Hall south for 1.5 miles to L.A. Live, a glorified outdoor mall that sees street life primarily when there are events at the adjacent venues (Laker games at Staples Center or shows at Nokia Theatre).
RUN TO THE ROSES
More prosaically known as the 110 freeway, Arroyo Seco Parkway dates from the era when folks drove motorcars for pleasure, with short on- and off-ramps and thrilling turns to test your driving skills.
It ends in Pasadena, a formerly sleepy bedroom community that now hums with activity along Colorado Boulevard, the main attraction of its meticulously restored old town. Old Pasadena is no Colonial Williamsburg, however. Among its American bistros, Irish pubs, Italian trattorias, and Brazilian churrascarias, also thriving Himalayan restaurants.
In addition to hosting the Rose Bowl and Tournament of Roses Parade each January, Pasadena is home to the Norton Simon Museum’s treasure trove of European paintings and the ever-growing collection of cacti and other succulents at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. Pasadena is also a good starting gate for visiting Santa Anita Park, home of Seabiscuit and one of horseracing’s prettiest tracks.