Flying into Los Angeles and looking down on the vast, sprawling city, it becomes obvious that this is not a place to be taken lightly. The world knows that L.A. is one BIG place, with snarled traffic to match, but did you know it actually encompasses 472 square miles? And that's just the city; Los Angeles County covers more than 4,000 square miles! So what's a tourist to do, when visiting the place where Hollywood was born, surfing is king and Mars explorations originate (at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena)?
Make a driving plan before you begin, for many of the city's top sightseeing attractions are – obviously – some distance apart. So visit Hollywood and the movie studios on one day, Venice Beach and Beverly Hills another. Plan to spend most of a day downtown, where the city first began way back in 1781. Downtown L.A. is in the midst of a Renaissance revival as well, as iconic structures like the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the Staples Center are joined by numerous new galleries, shops and condominiums, as Angelenos rediscover the joys of living in an action-packed part of town. And once you've checked off all of these top sightseeing spots, plan to do ten more – places like Malibu, the Museum Miracle Mile and Manhattan Beach – for this city is too vast to be held at just ten!
Rodeo Drive needs no description, as it is certainly the most famous shopping street in the world, thanks to Hollywood. So many movies have filmed scenes here it is too hard to count; but as the ultra-luxe shops come and go, one thing remains the same: this is the Beverly Hills spot where money rules. Bring plenty of it when you enter Tiffany's, Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari or Cartier to buy jewels; you'll need deep pockets at Chanel, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli or Prada, too. If the street's shops are too pricey for your budget, never fear; for the people watching here and in all of Beverly Hills is worth a visit. And you never know when a famous star will stroll past.
Since 1935, the Griffith Observatory has been wowing kids and adults with fantastic views of the city outside and engrossing programs inside. The Samuel Oschin Planetarium offers $7 tickets to three exciting shows that take viewers into the solar system and around the world – Centered in the Universe, Water is Life and Light of the Valkyries. Be on the lookout for special events and shows at the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon presentation theater, which presents "The Once and Future Griffith Observatory" film every day. Be sure to check out the Solar System Lawn Model, get a look through one of the telescopes (expect to line up a chance at those) and enjoy the displays in the Wilder and Ahmanson exhibit halls. (213-473-0800)
Universal Studios is the real thing, a working movie studio that also happens to have a theme park attached to it. Which means visitors get the chance to go right onto the lot to see where some of their favorite movies and television shows are made – think the "Psycho" house, the "Desperate Housewives" neighborhood, the "Back to the Future" town square and much more. Take the Studio Tour for real insights into how Hollywood really works. Stay for the rest of the rides there too, including the newest, Fast and Furious – Supercharged, opening in June 2015; or move on to do special VIP tours Warner Bros. studio and Paramount Pictures as well. (818-622-3036)
El Pueblo Historical Monument
El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument is near the site of the early Los Angeles pueblo (town) where forty-four settlers of Native American, African and European heritage arrived after a journey of more than 1,000 miles across the desert from present-day northern Mexico. They established a farming community in September 1781. The 44-acre El Pueblo area in downtown L.A. is now a living museum that continues to fulfill its unique role as the historic and symbolic heart of the city, reflecting the diverse cultures – Native American, African American, Spanish, Anglo, Mexican, Chinese, Italian and French – that all contributed to the early history of Los Angeles. Visit the museums and other sites to immerse yourself in a long-past, yet still fascinating, world. (213-485-6855)
For a look at what's happening in downtown Los Angeles, there's no better place to visit than L.A. Live. It's the center of the action, with the Staples Center across the street, the Nokia Theatre right on the central plaza, the Grammy Museum on the east end and plenty of restaurants, clubs and movie theaters in between. It's the place where tourists will often run into an over-the-top movie premiere (think everything from the "Twilight" films to "Justin Bieber's Believe," as well as red carpets for the Grammy, Emmy and People's Choice awards. There's always something happening at L.A. Live! (213-763-LIVE )
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is a relatively new addition to the landscape of downtown Los Angeles. Completed in 2002, the modern structure designed by Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo is built with architectural concrete designed to mimic adobe – and to last for 500 years. The massive bronze doors that welcome worshippers and visitors were created by sculptor Robert Graham, who also cast the statue of Our Lady of the Angels who watches over from above. Inside, alabaster windows provide natural lighting and a massive alabaster cross sits high above the altar. In the Crypt Mausoleum downstairs, visitors discover the brilliant stained-glass windows from St. Vibiana Cathedral, the city's previous cathedral, built in 1876 and irreparably damaged in the 1994 earthquake. (213-680-5200)
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Designed by famed architect Frank Gehry and completed in 2003, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is a stainless-steel marvel with transcendent acoustics in the grand, vineyard-seating designed auditorium. Created to evoke a ship at sail, the hall features a impressive curved, wooden pipe organ that Gehry also designed. The home of the L.A. Philharmonic, which performs classical music throughout its annual season, the hall also offers many different musical events throughout the year, including performances by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the American Youth Symphony. Self-guided audio tours are offered daily, but in order to see the main auditorium, you must purchase a ticket to one of the shows. (213-972-7211)
There's nothing quite like seeing the Hollywood Sign to let you know you've arrived in L.A. Built in 1923 as a real-estate advertisement, the sign originally read "Hollywoodland," but the last four letters were dropped in 1945. In 1978, the sign received much-needed repairs, and today it stands as one of the movie capital's best-known calling cards. Located on Mount Lee in Griffith Park, the sign is now closely protected, so do not expect to get very close. Hike up to the fenced-in area behind the sign via trails in Griffith Park; or just go to the observatory for a great view. Or go to 7036 Mulholland Drive, where the Hollywood Bowl Scenic Overlook gives you a wonderful view of the sign, as well as that beautiful outdoor concert hall.
Hollywood Walk of Fame
Located along Hollywood Boulevard from Gower to La Brea and on Vine Street from Yucca to Sunset, the Hollywood Walk of Fame began in 1958 when the first eight honorees (including Burt Lancaster, Joanne Woodward and Preston Sturges) got sidewalk stars placed at the corner of Hollywood and Highland. Since then, more than 2,500 people have been honored with one of the terrazzo and brass stars. Each star indicates the individual's area of specialty with one of five symbols: a motion-picture camera, a radio microphone, a television set, a record or a theatrical mask. Look for many near the Chinese Theatre, the Egyptian Theatre and El Capitan Theatre, three of the iconic sightseeing spots to also check out along Hollywood Boulevard. (213-469-8311)
Venice Beach isn't quite sure what it is, but it sure is interesting. The boardwalk stretches from Venice Boulevard north to Navy Street, with Muscle Beach, the basketball courts and skate park to the south and many of the head shops, surfboard rental places, boutiques and restaurants scattered along the way. You'll see guys juggling running chainsaws, people gathered in drum circles, even Hari Krishna followers parading with elephants now and then. It's a sea of people on the weekends, so be prepared for a crowd; wander off the beach toward Abbot Kinney Boulevard where chic art galleries, shops and top-notch restaurants await. Keep going north on the beach and you'll find Santa Monica's pier, where you can find the famous Ferris wheel, an amusement park and restaurants. Or just grab a towel and take a swim, but be prepared: the Pacific Ocean is never really warm here. (310-305-9505)
About Jenny Peters
Jenny Peters – aka Jet Set Jen – is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, editor and party columnist specializing in travel, entertainment, film, food, wine, fashion and the other good things in life. She is a founding/voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, who present the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards every January. Her favorite places to be are on the beach in Southern California playing volleyball, scuba diving with the sharks in warm tropical waters or strolling the streets and soaking in the atmosphere of one of the world's great cities (New Orleans and Florence are her favorites).
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