Los Angeles and New York are very much alike in at least one respect – each megalopolis is a collection of distinctive towns.
In New York City, all crammed onto compact Manhattan and spilling over into the boroughs, the neighborhoods are more like a collection of villages. In Los Angeles, the “towns” are bigger because they have more room to sprawl, even though everyone’s hemmed into a basin surrounded by mountain ranges, national forests, and the Pacific Ocean.
When you plan a visit to LA, focus on which areas appeal to you the most, because the other thing to remember is that the city is spread across over 4,000 square miles….bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. There are several major airports, so don’t automatically book airfare to LAX without at least considering Ontario, Burbank, Orange County, or Long Beach airports, depending upon your travel plans.
We did have a rental car for our 3 days in Los Angeles, but I wish I’d arranged our schedule to at least try the Los Angeles Metro rail and bus public transportation system.
Look at a map and calculate driving or public transportation time before you say you’ll “just run over to see….” something, and then find out it’s 50 minutes away in perfect traffic conditions (that probably won’t happen.)
Day One, Morning: Downtown Los Angeles
Start with a look around the core of downtown Los Angeles. Despite wildly uneven levels of revitalization, it’s well worth some exploration; we only scratched the surface, like the quick stop to photograph the swoopy Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry, seen above. I’d love to see an actual performance there.
My teenage son and I landed one morning after an early flight, so for once I wasn’t trying to cram in too much because we were both dragging. First priority was food and coffee, so we found a parking garage (I spent a small fortune on parking fees during this trip – how very LA!) and went into the Grand Central Market, open since 1917.
I love food halls for their variety and the chance to explore local eateries; we had a good pizza and the people-watching was terrific. Eggslut was very popular – the line for their eggy sandwiches was wrapped around their booth the entire time we were there.
Sated with a nice meal, all we had to do was cross the street (3rd and Broadway) to see the first place on my architecture tour wish list.
The 1893 Bradbury Building, featured in the movies Blade Runner, Chinatown, and others, doesn’t look like much from the outside, but you walk into this stunning light-filled atrium of filigreed decorative iron and two elaborate birdcage elevators….
Visitors aren’t allowed past the first floor, but make sure to walk up one of the stair landings to see some of the ironwork up close.
I could have stayed in there for hours admiring that interior, but it was time to go to the library.
The Los Angeles Central Library was built in 1926, with a large extension added in 1993. I’d heard that there were some murals there, but it took us awhile to find the right rotunda where they’re located – we should have signed up for a docent-led Central Library tour.
The space soars 64 feet, with a magical chandelier in the middle, four decorated arches around it, and four 40 foot panels with scenes from California history: Cabrillo’s Discovery of California, the Building of the Missions, Founding of the Pueblo of Los Angeles, and the Americanization of California.
The reading rooms and special collections rooms were also dazzling, with period light fixtures and more murals. I’d love to have a library card for such a learning palace.
Our last downtown stop was a peek inside the historic 1923 Millennium Biltmore Hotel. I had to laugh at their brasserie Bugis (boo-gees) Street, named for the rather infamous food street and night market in Singapore. Maybe the street has cleaned up since I was there last, but that seems like an odd name for a restaurant in a swanky hotel.
I don’t know what the Biltmore’s rooms look like, but the lobby was spectacular.
Day One, Afternoon: Hollywood is Kinda Meh, but Go Anyway
After wandering around downtown, we decided to close the first day with a look around Hollywood.
I got turned around with directions and ended up driving right past the famous thirteen-story Capitol Records Tower that looks like a stack of vinyl albums….which of course made no sense to my son, because he’s never seen a turntable with a spindle for stacking records.
We drove past the equally famous Hollywood and Vine intersection to the Hollywood and Highland entertainment complex, which includes the Dolby Theater (home of the Academy Awards) plus another opportunity to pay parking fees.
Seriously, budget for parking.
If you head up to one of the top floors of the mall complex, it’s fun to see the Hollywood sign through a bizarre neo-Egyptian arch.
At this point we were pretty fried mentally, and neither of us wanted to see a bunch of chain stores in a packed shopping mall, so we agreed to check out the Chinese Theatre and Walk of Fame, then call it a day.
It was worth some time in Hollywood’s Land of Hokey Stuff and Gobs of People for this shot at an instantly-recognizable landmark….
The small plaza in front of the Chinese Theatre is where you’ll find the handprints of various stars – nearby shops sell maps of them – and the wide regular sidewalk going up and down Hollywood Boulevard has the Walk of Fame stars.
It’s hard to stop and do much looking as hundreds of feet pass over them, but I did pause for Glen Campbell’s star, and thought about his beautiful voice and sad struggle with Alzheimer’s.
Day Two: Beach Day
When you pick a Los Angeles hotel, decide how important it is for you to be located close to a beach, because it can take a long time to get from the coast back inland to see things, especially if the traffic gets snarled.
We were using my husband’s generously-donated hotel points, plus we had to be on the far eastern side of LA at the end of the visit to meet someone, so we picked a basic Marriott property with breakfast and free parking in centrally-located Rosemead.
That meant it was about an hour heading west to get to a beach, so I did a lot of Googling to find the right one for us. Discover LA’s guide to Los Angeles beaches was handy – we decided on the “classic stretch of sand” in Santa Monica.
First things first (after, well, you know, paying to park) and that was breakfast. A block off of the beachfront was Jinky’s Cafe Santa Monica, with the generous and delicious combination of protein and carbs that you see here….clearly I’m not going for a movie star figure.
Make sure you stroll across to the beachfront overlook to admire the ocean, the huge stretch of sand, and the Pacific Coast Highway threading up and down the coast beneath you.
The Santa Monica Pier looks so close from up above, so we found a pedestrian walkway that takes you over the highway and onto the beach. After tromping across what felt like 18 miles of hot sand, we put our toes in the Pacific.
Then I insisted that we go under the Pier so I could hum the song “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters, which I was appalled to discover that my son didn’t know – gotta fix that. His face looks like what you’d expect when a parent hums songs and makes you stand under concrete pilings.
Of course, this is also the end of the renowned “Chicago to LA” roadway Route 66; I’d completely forgotten that until I saw the sign.
We explored a few shops, and looked in at the Pier’s historic carousel, where Paul Newman’s character was filmed as a carousel operator in the movie The Sting.
Low on sunscreen and energy, we decided not to rent bikes to take the north-south beach bike path to nearby Venice Beach, but now I kick myself that we didn’t go ahead and power through to do that. Next time, for sure.
Then we made one of the only real mistakes of the trip – deciding to head up to Griffith Observatory in the hilliest part of Griffith Park, to watch the sunset and admire the city from above.
The problem was that it was a Saturday evening, and apparently the entire state of California drives up to the Observatory at that particular time. I didn’t know that while Observatory parking is free, it’s very limited, and you also need to check for events and concerts at the nearby Greek Theatre.
After a lot of time stuck in our vehicle creeping up a hill, going around wall-to-wall parked cars and pedestrians hiking up steep narrow streets without sidewalks, we had to give up and put that experience on the “Next Time” list as well.
Day Three: Dim Sum, Bubble Tea, & Really Old LA
How diverse is Los Angeles?
How about this – their Metro website has buttons at the top for versions of the site in Spanish, Chinese, Armenian, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Russian, Thai, and Cambodian.
So, part of experiencing the city is to explore at least one of the ethnic neighborhoods, or at least pick a place to eat that you won’t find at home.
It was a treat to be able to meet my LA-based friend Christine Lu for traditional dim sum at Ocean Star Restaurant in Monterey Park, east of downtown and not far from our hotel in Rosemead.
“It’s very old school Chinese dim sum, with the carts and everything, but it’s in this strip mall that doesn’t look like much. The best boba tea place in town is downstairs in the same complex, too.”
We walked into a big room with round tables, bathed in fluorescent light and full of chatter. The menu has photos and descriptions, plus since this was my son’s first time to try dim sum, Christine ordered dishes that are her own son’s favorites.
Everything was delicious, but we really liked the walnut honey chicken.
It’s not a big deal to use a fork, either, if your chopsticks skills aren’t on point.
Walking into the Half and Half Tea Express downstairs was actually more intimidating.
The menu board was jam-packed with five kinds of fresh tea, about 25 kinds of milk tea, 20 kinds of flavored teas, a bunch of “osmanthus” options (health teas made from a certain kind of flower,) and lots of different milk smoothies, slushes, various iced coffees, and something called “hot grass jelly.” They’re so proprietary about their methods that they’ve put a wooden screen all around the prep area to conceal it, and your order comes out of a little opening in the screen.
I had no clue what to try, and neither did my son, which is no big deal except that the brisk patrons of the place know exactly what they want, and they aren’t too patient with tourist goobers standing around trying to make heads or tails out of drink menu options.
Christine ordered for us – “Um, sure, sounds great!” – and I don’t even know what we had other than it was some bubble tea variation, but it was delicious.
They come with a big fat straw to suck up the tapioca balls at the bottom of the tea; one end of the straw is sharp so you can spear through the drink lid.
To finish our final day in Los Angeles, it was fitting that we went far back from the glitz of “La La Land” into prehistoric times.
The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum are right on Wilshire Boulevard, just southwest of Hollywood.
Today, it is hard to imagine this part of the city teeming with wildlife, but over 10,000 years ago it was a veritable madhouse of flora and fauna. Hundreds of species were trapped, died, and were preserved in the oily, thick tar goop that still seeps from the ground here and perfumes the air with a strong asphalt-like smell.
Professor William Denton in 1875 was the first to describe fossils that were found in the Tar Pits. Excavations have been going since 1900 through the present day.
Not only can you see what’s already been found, but you can see today’s work in progress, too.
When the LACMA art museum was built next door to La Brea in 2006, they found and excavated 23 crates of items that paleontologists are still working their way through – next to the people working on Box 14 fossils, a sign said that the box contained, among other things, a “lower left mandible fragment from our largest bird, the extinct teratornis merriami.”
Inside the museum, you can watch more scientists analyzing tiny fossil fragments under microscopes that are magnified for visitors.
My son really enjoyed La Brea, and I was happy to finally see it after years of hearing about a fossil dig in the middle of LA.
How would you spend 3 days in Los Angeles? What else should I add to my “Next Time” list?
Let us know down in the comments….
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