Friday, March 7, 2014

"If most American cities are about the consumption of culture, Los about the production of culture." ~Barbara Kruger

Gabe, a native of LA, describes some of his
favorite cultural aspects of the city.
Following up on the last post, Gabe describes LA’s cultural spots:

One way to judge a major city is by the quality of its artistic culture.  My tastes tend to run towards what we generally call high culture, so I am not an expert on the more local scenes, where to see the best graffiti, and the like.  However, Los Angeles does sport a number of world-class museums that are not to be missed.  On the top of the list are the two Getty Museums: the “New Getty” near Mulholland, or the original Getty Villa in Malibu.  The original Getty now houses the Getty foundation's classical and ancient art collections (an outstanding collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art).  Its location, on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Palisades, can’t be beat.  The newer Getty is a monumental set of structures overlooking the 405 Freeway, UCLA, and Los Angeles in general.  Designed by Richard Meier, it also has lovely gardens, and a variety of rotating exhibits, as well as its permanent collection.  The exhibits it puts on, as well as its stunning photography collections (one of the best in the world), are almost always outstanding.

La Brea Tar Pits
Also worth your time are a visit to the mid-Wilshire district, to go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and The Page Museum at the La Brea Tarpits (next to each other).  LA’s collection of modern art is really quite good.  Though it is no New York MOMA, both the exhibits and permanent collections are top notch.  The Tar Pits, however, are something pretty unique.  Tar has been bubbling up in the area for at least 40,000 years.  And the various animals that have found themselves trapped in there have been excavated on and off from the late 19th century.  Here, you will find dire wolves, saber tooth tigers, deers, mammoths, and a variety of other creatures.  Another family friendly place.

View of UCLA and downtown LA from the Getty Museum
Perhaps, however, you are tired of spending time in West Los Angeles, and want to head out to the Valley, or beyond the Valley.  Pasadena, home to Caltech, also has two not to be missed museums and gardens.  Though you won’t see Leonard or Sheldon, the Norton Simon Museum and The Huntington Library and Gardens are worth the trip, despite that Big Bang disappointment.  The Norton Simon has a really stellar collection of European and Modern Art, an Asian art collection, as well as a great sculpture gardens.  The Huntington Library is one of the great archival sources on the west coast. But it is the Gardens that are the special things.  One of the great botanical gardens in the world, The Huntington is truly amazing.  With over 120 acres of landscaped area, including amazing roses and lovely Japanese gardens, they are a special place.

LA Culture Things:

Grauman's Mann Chinese Theater
So, while I have suggested that LA is more than Hollywood, even that Hollywood is a veneer, that isn’t quite fair.  Hollywood, and the culture it inspires, is very much part of the fabric of Los Angeles.  And if you are going to experience Los Angeles, you really need to do some of the LA things. One should go to Grauman’s Mann Chinese Theater, and see the handprints of Hollywood’s royalty.  You can stop by Universal Studios and take the tour, getting to see a little of the inside of how movies are made, go on the rides, and perhaps eat at some overpriced tourist traps on the Universal Citywalk.  You should go to Hollywood and Vine, near the Chinese Theater, and see the tourist spectacle that is downtown Hollywood.  You might take a trip out to Anaheim, and go to Disneyland (very pricey, just fyi).  You could even find one of the many tour buses that drive around and show you the homes of the rich and famous. One way or another, you should do a Hollywood thing (I recommend one of the first three, especially the ones that are free).  If you want something a little stranger, and more interesting, though, I suggest going to the Hollywood Forever cemetery.  One of the older cemeteries in LA, it is home to many people from the entertainment industry, and important social and political folks from LA’s history (if you want to see Marilyn Monroe’s grave, however, that is in a little cemetery in Westwood, not far from U.C.L.A.).  The cemetery also has music events and summer movie screenings.  It is really great fun.
What's a visit to LA without seeing Beverly Hills?

LA culture isn’t just Hollywood.  The Sunset Strip, for instance, is home to clubs like “The Whiskey A Go Go,” where classic bands such as Doors were brought to national attention.  You should also go downtown, to Olvera Street.  It is the oldest part of downtown LA.  It still has a number of historical buildings from the early days of Los Angeles (19th century, that is).  It is a tourist attraction to be sure, and the picture of Spanish culture is presents is certainly a-historical.  But it has a lively street scene, and interesting vendors, selling pottery, puppets, serapes, and the like.  Which reminds me: shopping.  There is much shopping to be done in LA.  And even if you aren’t going to actually shop, there is much window shopping and people watching to be done.  You can go see the extra-extravagant in Beverly Hills, on Rodeo Drive.  If you are in Santa Monica, you can wander along 3rd Street Promenade, home to many popular chain stores, and some good restaurants.  It is a few blocks of pedestrian only space, very close to the beach.  If you want to see what the hip and hipster folk are wearing these days, you can go to Melrose Avenue, home of fancy boutiques, for clothing or furniture, or foods.

Lastly, I will recommend that you visit a Mission.  And the most likely one is Mission San Fernando Rey de EspaƱa.  Visited by California 4th graders every year, the Missions are a required part of California history.  Originally taught as part of a story of the expansion of the civilizing process, the story now is much more nuanced.  The chain of 21 missions that span the El Camino Real (The Royal Highway), were part of the Spanish expansion and control of California.  They represent the real arrival of the non-Indian peoples to California.  They brought new peoples, new foods, new plants, and new animals, to what would become the 31st state.  They also brought Christianity to the indigenous peoples, with all the complexity that that entailed.  Amerindians were often forced to work the land, and, as it did with all the Columbian interactions, death tolls could be high, especially from disease.  But you cannot understand the history of California without the Missions.  Located at the north end of the San Fernando Valley, right between the 405 and the 5 freeways, it is well worth your time.

Window Shopping on famous Rodeo Drive!
I hope this gives you some ideas of things to do in Los Angeles.  Many of these things can be easily found in guidebooks.  That is, this isn’t exactly hidden LA.  But it is my sense of some of the important things that make LA what it is.  If you are interested in some of the things off the beaten path, I’ll be happy to make an addendum to this post (for instance, a tour of architectural LA is definitely worth doing.  And LA is a great place for foodies, but that is a post all its own).  Los Angeles is a wonderful city – yes, it is messy and complex, and transportation is a disaster.  Like all big cities, the gaps between rich and poor are striking (a visit to the Watts Towers) will highlight this.  But it is also remarkable.  It is culturally vibrant, there are excellent museums and theater, its beaches and mountains are gorgeous, its people range from the everyday nice folks, to the ridiculous, and it has a depth that can come as a surprise.  I hope you get a chance to enjoy it.


  1. This reminds me of that great movie--500 Days of Summer. You really feel like you're there!!

    1. It's always fun to visit places that we've only seen in the movies. Glad you enjoyed the post!