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All eyes are on LA ahead of the Oscars, and the city has more to offer visitors than ever: new bars and attractions in regenerated districts, better transport options, plus views and beaches galore

Tourists walking on footpath by beach during sunset. High angle view of Venice beach during sunset.
And the winner for best beach is … Venice at sunset.

The opening scene of La La Land – which looks set to sweep the board at the Oscars this weekend – may reinforce Los Angeles’ reputation as one big traffic jam, but the rest of the film is essentially a beautifully crafted love letter to the city.

And while the famous landscape showcased in the film remains more or less the same, over the past decade the city itself has changed hugely, with east-side neighbourhoods such as Echo Park and Silver Lake going from places to avoid to places to be seen. Other areas of LA are going through a gentrification process similar to that of San Francisco a decade ago, with tech firms such as Snapchat and youth media company Vice moving in to Venice Beach. Not that this has gone unopposed: last autumn in east LA’s Boyle Heights, locals fiercely fought the arrival of art galleries, which they saw as the first step towards a takeover; and in Downtown, the homeless community of Skid Row is being surrounded by corporate interests.

Los Angeles is a mixed bag. Its extensive sprawl hides places of calm away from the noise of Downtown and the freeways, so it doesn’t have the hectic feel of most other major US cities – and its western city limits is the incredible Pacific coastline. The advent of Uber and Lyft now means that even in a city as car-dependent as LA, visitors don’t need to drive themselves in unforgiving rush hour traffic or try to locate a taxi rank. The extension of the Metro system last year was a boon, too: a trip from Downtown to Santa Monica now takes 45 minutes and costs $1.75. Norwegian started flying direct from Gatwick in 2014, and fares start at £179 one-way, which is cheaper than some New York flights.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

Griffith Park & Observatory at sunset

Griffith Observatory, Mount Hollywood, Los Angeles, CA - aerial view

The light in Los Angeles is one of its most celebrated features. British artist David Hockney, who has two homes here, loves to talk about it, and it plays a major part in some of his best-known works. But I’d argue that the best time to appreciate the light in LA is as it fades and night takes over. And the best place to do this is at the Griffith Park Observatory – made famous by the knife fight scene in Rebel Without A Cause and, more recently, a key location in La La Land. Things can get crowded as the sun goes down but arriving early and checking out the planetarium is a good way to secure a plum spot. Entrance and parking is free (although planetarium show tickets cost $7 for adults). The park also offers some challenging hikes, so another option is to park at the entrance and walk the two miles to the summit, which takes around an hour. Those based on the west side of town might want to dodge the hour or so drive to Griffith Park by heading to the Getty Museum in Bel Air, which also offers spectacular views – as well great art and architecture. Like the observatory, it’s free, although parking costs $15 ($10 after 3pm).

Get thrifty at a flea market

Rose Bowl flea market
The Rose Bowl flea market.

The city’s best-known flea markets are in Pasadena and Long Beach. Both can be fair old drives, and it’s worth setting off early to dodge the traffic and get there in time for some bargains. The Rose Bowl flea market (adult $9, second Sunday of every month) takes place in the shadow of the eponymous stadium (famous for hosting college football games and the 1994 Fifa World Cup Final) and is great just to walk around. Parking is free and the mix of Americana bric-a-brac, mid-century modern furniture and unique clothing is excellent. Long Beach market (entry $6, third Sunday each month) is slightly more down-at-heel, taking place in a car park, but many of the same vendors are there. It’s also a bit cheaper and attracts sellers from further afield. In summer, go early and take plenty of water – it can be brutally hot and exposed.

Catch a ballgame

Fans at Dodger Stadium.
Baseball fans at Dodger Stadium.

Dodger Stadium, close to Downtown, is a great place to get to grips with the mysteries of baseball, a sport I couldn’t stand until I watched it live. The atmosphere is relaxed, it’s completely acceptable to strike up a conversation about the intricacies of a game with a stranger, and the team is one of the best in the league. For basketball there’s the choice between the less fashionable Clippers and former golden boys the Lakers, who are an unpredictable prospect at the moment. Both teams play at Staples Center (tickets prices vary enormously) in Downtown.

Watch a film in the open air

A screening at Hollywood Forever cemetery.
A screening at Hollywood Forever cemetery.

Made famous by singer Father John Misty, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Blvd is a great place to watch films in spring and summer – tickets sell out quickly, so move fast. The company behind the screenings also takes over other sites in the city, such as Downtown cinemas which are used only sporadically for much of the year. Other interesting places to see films include the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, and the discerning Downtown Independent. The 1920s New Beverly Cinema on the west side offers some intriguing double bills.

BEACHES

Venice

Venice beach in Los AngelesLifeguard hut at Venice beach by sunset

Venice is one of the coolest areas in the city at the moment: in the wake of the tech startups and media companies setting up here, great restaurants and shops have also opened, mainly on Abbott Kinney Blvd. Halfway up at no 1429 is the popular Gjelina. It’s a 10-minute walk from here to the beachfront, for a people watching experience like no other, with local vendors and street performers mixing with many a chiselled Californian. Muscle Beach is still a mecca for workout enthusiasts, and those who want something a little more relaxed can rent bikes and ride the trail north towards Santa Monica pier.

Oxnard

Oxnard Beach

Thirty minutes’ drive west of Venice is the pristine (and far less touristy) beachfront of Malibu. Another half-hour on, Oxnard has half a dozen beaches to choose from, most with parks close by or directly adjacent. Surfers congregate either at Mandalay or Silver Strand beaches. Oxnard beach, between the two, is popular with families and has picnic and barbecue areas, as well as a playground.

El Matador

El Matador beach Malibu

Ten minutes west of Malibu, and more dramatic than Oxnard, is El Matador, with cliffs, coves and rock formations that make it a favourite for photo shoots. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Downtown or Hollywood but feels a world away. The one issue is parking: the beach’s car park only has 20 spaces, so set off early and be prepared to park on the street and obey any signs, as you can get a ticket for even a minor infringement.

Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica pier at sunset

Santa Monica Pier is easily reached on the city’s Metro tram-cum-train from Downtown. The station is a five-minute walk from the pier, with its arcades, fast food, musicians and thousands of visitors. For something a bit more relaxed, the beach itself is usually much quieter, with 3½ miles of sand to explore. The Annenberg Community Beach House ($10 adult, $4 child) at the northern end has a children’s play area and pool.

WHERE TO EAT

Tacos at Guisados

Guisados

Coming to LA and not trying the city’s Mexican food is a sin. Chancing your arm at the taco trucks dotted around LA isn’t a bad idea – though if you want to better your odds head straight for Taco Zone in Echo Park. Those who want slow rather than fast food should head to Guelaguetza in Koreatown, which deals in authentic Oaxacan cuisine; but my favourite is Guisado’s, a small family-run chain (five locations across the city) where each taco is a small culinary invention. There’s more than the standard al pastor, carnitas and pollo options here; for me the holy trinity of chuleta (pork chop), bistec (steak) and chicharrón (scratchings) is the way to go, but a sampler plate – great value at $7 – includes a bit of everything.

Cole’s french dip sandwiches, Downtown

Cole’s, Los Angeles

Apparently the french dip (a meat sandwich with gravy on the side) is making a comeback. It has been Cole’s stock in trade for almost 100 years and they’ve got it down to a fine art. This is a great place to pop in for a sandwich and an ice-cream float after doing the art galleries of Downtown or the fashion district. A full sandwich costs from $9.87 and is only for very “healthy” appetites – half-dip combos are available. Rumour has it there’s a speakeasy in the back too, but you didn’t hear that from me.
118 East 6th Street, 213hospitality.com/project/coles

Ramen at Daikokuya, Little Tokyo

Daikokuya

This Little Tokyo institution often has a queue out of the door but it’s worth waiting with the eager mix of locals and tourists. Its huge bowls of ramen (from $11) are some of the best outside of Roppongi. For American grub, the Nickel Diner up the road offers steaks, burgers, salads and more for under $10.
Original at 327 E 1st Street but now in five locations, dkramen.com

Thai street food at Night + Market, Silver Lake

Night + Market Song in Silver Lake, Los Angeles

Kris Yenbamroong, chef-owner of Night + Market, is one of the rising stars of the LA food scene. His staple is reasonably priced, incredible tasty Thai street food made in the epicentre of LA cool, Silver Lake. There’s another location now in West Hollywood, and both offer larb (meat salads, from $9), khao soi (curry noodles, $14) and gaeng (curries from $9).
3322 W Sunset Blvd, +1 310 275 9724, nightmarketsong.com

WHERE TO DRINK

Cafe Stella, Silver Lake

Cafe Stella

For chic cocktails and a moderately famous clientele, Cafe Stella is the place. When I arrived in LA, someone told me it’s where all the British people go but I’ve yet to see a Brit there. The cocktails are excellent, the ambience is really fun and it does food too. On a Friday or Saturday this is the place to start an evening before moving on to one of Silver Lake’s late-night spots. Beers cost around $7-8, cocktails closer to $15.
3932 W Sunset Blvd, cafestella.com

The Prince, Koreatown

The Prince Restaurant, Los Angeles

This famous bar stood in for several of the bars John Hamm’s character Don Draper rolled out of in Mad Men (though it was based in New York, most of it was filmed in Los Angeles), and it has the same kind of mid-century feel as the series. But while the aesthetic is Americana, the food is strictly Korean. The drinks menu is organised by size (short and long drinks) and decade: the 1980s has Long Island Ice Teas ($15) and Blue Hawaiians ($10), ordered by pressing buzzers on the tables. Also in Koreatown is The Normandie Club, which has the Walker Inn, “a hidden Japanese-style” cocktail bar (reservations advisable) within its walls.
3198 1/2 W 7th Street, theprincela.com

The Friend, Silver Lake

The Friend, Los Angeles

Opened by Swedish graffiti artist André Saraiva, this new spot has a bright-pink exterior and an equally head-turning interior, with a pink ceiling and disco ball alongside bits of out-there art from the likes of Kenny Scharf. The cocktails are excellent and cost around $14. Just down the road, Tenants of the Trees offers the chance to dance around close to ridiculously beautiful people, while drinking rather more pricy cocktails.
2611 Hyperion Ave, thefriendbar.com

Tiki Ti, Hollywood

Tiki-Ti

A gaggle of Hawaiian shirted men serving cocktails of questionable quality while singing songs to accompany the preparation of each drink isn’t for everyone. Tiki Ti is also right next door to the Scientology Media Production centre, so strangeness all round. More upmarket and just up the road, Good Luck Bar is a beautiful Chinese-themed bar with booths and a horseshoe serving area that feels a little like The Prince (above).
4427 Sunset Blvd, tiki-ti.com

WHERE TO STAY

The Line, Koreatown

The Line Hotel, Los Angeles

Handy for exploring Koreatown and the east of the city, The Line has a modern industrial feel straight out of slow lifestyle magazine Kinfolk, mixed with Korean simplicity and bright colours. There are plenty of nightspots within a mile’s radius, or the on-site Commissary restaurant offers brilliant Thai-inspired fare from about $10 a dish.
Doubles from $240, thelinehotel.com

Mama Shelter, Hollywood

Mama Shelter, Los Angeles

This French chain of boutique hostels prides itself on attention to detail and its Los Angeles branch, opened in 2016 just off Sunset Blvd, has 70 rooms that all look like something from a Hockney painting, with glorious pastel colours and immaculate mid-century modern furniture. Its owners said they wanted to create an atmosphere where you might find “Jay Z and Beyoncé sitting next to a kid having a $9 pizza”. You’re more likely to just be sitting next to a kid having $9 pizza, but it’ll probably be the most stylish surroundings you ever eat a margherita in.
Doubles from $159, mamashelter.com

Orange Drive Hostel, Hollywood

Orange Drive Hostel, Los Angeles

A short stroll from Hollywood Boulevard, this remodeled 1920s house offers an all-you-can-make breakfast from 7am to 10am and significant reductions for those who stay for seven days or more.
Dorm beds from $40, twins from $86, orangedrivehostel.com

HI Los Angeles, Santa Monica

HI Los Angeles Santa Monica

This great value hostel is adjacent to Venice and the famed Pacific beaches, and has 260 beds spread around colourful dorms, doubles and family rooms, plus kitchen, library and laundry facilities. Visitors can sign up for trips around the city or just wander Santa Monica and explore the coastline and piers.
Dorm beds from $34, private doubles from $109, hilosangeles.org

 

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