Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Los Angeles is seven suburbs in search of a city." - Alexander Woollcott

Gabe, a native of LA, describes its "nature side" in this post.
All cities are complex. They have tourist spots, and places off the beaten path. They have parts that are easy to get to, and others that are hidden. So I am not saying that Los Angeles is unique when I suggest that it is complex.  However, in some ways it is more complex than most, and for two reasons. The first is more cultural: Hollywood pervades the space of the city, creating a real veneer that is both interesting and frustrating. It is part of the reason why people come, but it also disguises a social and culturally vibrancy that rivals any of the great cities of the world. This isn’t to say that a visitor to LA shouldn’t do Hollywood things, there are wonderfully historical and current things to be seen and experienced, but it does mean that you have to work a little harder, especially on a short trip, to get below the surface. That it is more than Hollywood is clear if you just read its name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula (which translates to The City of our Lady the Queen of Angeles of the Porciuncula River). Though initially settled by the Tongva and Chumash Native American peoples centuries ago, the city itself was founded following the building of the first local mission, the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel around 1781. This is not the place to go into the history and development of Los Angeles. All I want to do is point out that if one were only to see the actors and other “beautiful people,” you would miss not only the fascinating history of the place, but the non-Hollywood things you could be doing.

The second reason for the complexity of Los Angeles is its geography.  Its area is vast. The city itself is 503 square miles, and that doesn’t count the full-incorporated cities of Santa Monica, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Inglewood, Burbank, and the like. To drive from Santa Monica to Pasadena will take you anywhere from 40min to 1.5hrs to traverse the 25 miles of LA freeways. The key word here is drive; one of the hardest parts about being a visitor to Los Angeles is that to really experience its diversity, you have to have access to a car. There is a public transportation network. But it is very limited. My recommendation, then, is that if you want to get the most out of your LA trip, rent a car.

So, now you have your car (a convertible, if you want to be totally cliché). What should you do? Where should you go? What should you look at? What follows will be a few recommendations in each of the following categories: Nature things; Museum things; and LA Culture things. These are by no means the only things to do.  Or even necessarily the best things.  But they will give you a sense of Los Angeles that is more than Baywatch or any other tv show. And they should also be fun and interesting.

Nature Things – Oceans and Mountains

Santa Monica Pier & Beach
Nothing is more iconic about California, and Los Angeles in particular, than its beaches. And no visit to LA would be complete without a visit to the shoreline. Whether you want to go to tide pools, surf, take in the sun, or just people watch, LA is one of the best places in world. Now, there are many beaches to choose from; however, my recommendations are a good place to start, and I will give you three. First is the most iconic: The Santa Monica Pier and Beach. Santa Monica itself is a fascinating a place, a city fenced in by the city of Los Angeles on one side, and the ocean on the other. And its pier is one of the classic LA places. You will get a wonderful view of the water, Catalina on a clear day, and the adjacent beaches are lovely and a scene themselves. In the evenings in the summers there can be jazz and other free concerts. And it is a great place to people watch, though a little on the touristy side. Further south is Venice Beach. If people watching is really your thing, this is place to go. Filled with Muscle Beach, local street life, a great bike path, and of course the beach itself, Venice is a scene unto itself. However, if what interests you is more the natural world, you need to go north up the coast, to Malibu (home of some of the rich and famous), or, preferable up to Zuma, which is one of the prettiest beaches between LA and Santa Barbara.

Though the beaches are fun and stunning, the Santa Monica mountains, which divide West Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley (known in the area as “The Valley”), have a beauty all their own. The ecosystem there is called chaparral. These are not the forested mountains of Northern California, or the higher peaks of the Rockies; rather, these mountains are characterized by scrub oaks, non-deciduous plants in general, and a dense brush, all of which can occasionally erupt into impressive wildfires (which are, in fact, an important part of the ecosystem and biodiversity). It is also home to a wide variety of wildlife, from the smaller lizards and snakes (only the rattlesnake is venomous), red tailed hawks, California Quail (the state bird), to larger mammals like deer, coyotes, mountain lions, and the things they eat, like rabbits, raccoons, possums, and of course, the afore mentioned reptiles. There are a variety of hikes one can do, but two stand out to me. The first, is to go to Dirt Mulholland, and hike up to the Nike Missile Silo. Not only will you get great views of Los Angeles, but you will also see a little bit of its Cold War history. Once upon a time, when the United States was worried that Russia might try to nuke California, missile silos ringed the US, including Los Angeles. Dirt Mulholland leads to one of these Nike missile locations. Another hike option is Runyon Canyon. This hike has the advantage for beginning hikers to get into the Hollywood Hills. The views from the summit will give you views of the LA Basin, the Sunset Strip, and the Hollywood sign. For those who just want a nice lookout point, there is a great on just to the east of Beverly Glen on Mulholland Drive. It will give you a view of both the Valley and Downtown Los Angeles. It is also lovely at night to see the lights of the city (though the little lookout point is a sunrise to sunset location only). There are other hikes to be done, many more rigorous. And if someone is interested, tell your lovely blogger, and I’ll be happy to make some recommendations.

Griffith Observatory
Lastly, there are a variety of wonderful hikes to be done in Griffith Park. One of the largest urban parks in the country, it covers over 4,000 acres. Unlike more manicured parks, Griffith is at least somewhat in its natural state. There is a lot of free parking around, so it is a pretty cost-effective destination. According to the website, there are 53 miles of trails, fire roads, and bridle paths. Besides the number of trails, it is also home to the Griffith Observatory, a really wonderful place to see Hollywood and Burbank. It is also iconic, especially for its appearance in the James Dean classic, Rebel without a Cause. There is a nice hike that goes from the Observatory to Mount Hollywood. There are also other things in close proximity to the Park. The LA Zoo is nearby, as is Traveltown, a home to old trains (this is a particularly fun place for younger children, as you can climb on the trains).  In addition, two of the great concert venues are nearby: The Hollywood Bowl, and The Greek Theatre. Both are excellent, if you want to see some live music of the more expensive kind.

A Collegiate interlude

Though there are more, LA proper is home to two world class universities: The University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.) and the University of Southern California (USC). Both campuses are lovely, have museums and guided tours, and are worth visiting. U.C.L.A., in particular, is quite beautiful. And it has a fabulous sculpture gardens that are worth a visit. There, you can interact with Rodin, Jean Arp, Clader, Matisee, Lipchitz, and more. USC is located in downtown Los Angeles, so you might double that up with your visit to downtown – you could also check out the Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry if you are in the downtown area. U.C.L.A. is in Westwood, in the heart of west LA, an easy stop if you are doing anything from the beaches to mid-Wilshire, or on your way from West LA to the Valley.

Next week’s post will cover LA’s “Museum and Culture” options. A city so vast, it can’t be confined to one post!


  1. Yes, UCLA is beautiful. Another gorgeous college is Pepperdine in Malibu.

  2. Catalina Island is worth ferrying out to! The boat goes to Avalon.