Los Angeles has no center, no one place from which to measure its pulse. Instead, each neighborhood has its own distinct heart. Some of what we consider L.A. “neighborhoods” are actually separate cities within LA’s boundaries, like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. Some Los Angeles neighborhoods can be visited in a few hours while others warrant a day or two. Visitors tend to spend most of their time in Santa Monica, Venice, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. In Hollywood, it's all about the stars and the movie industry. Travelers hang out in Santa Monica and Venice to soak up the sun and in Beverly Hills, it's all about living the high life.
The revival of downtown Los Angeles has been touted for so long that its actual arrival has come as a bit of a surprise. The openings of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new cathedral, and the L.A. Live complex have encouraged a rash of condo conversions, trendy restaurants, wine bars and nightspots. Chinatown has sprouted edgy art galleries and Little Tokyo has the Japanese American Museum. Downtown is rich with architectural gems like the Bradbury Building, Union Station and the Biltmore Hotel, along with the historic adobes of Olvera Street, and the Los Angeles Conservancy runs excellent walking tours. The one thing downtown lacks? Good shopping.
West Los Angeles
Prosperous, leafy and filled with large homes, Brentwood, Bel Air, Pacific Palisades, and Westwood are the main neighborhoods on LA’s west side. Attractions include the Getty Center, UCLA, and the Hammer Museum. Westwood Boulevard to the south of Wilshire is dotted with Iranian restaurants and shops. Montana Avenue, which connects Brentwood to Santa Monica, is another popular shopping strip lined with clothing and shelter boutiques, and the Brentwood Country Mart is a favorite casual shopping stop for local celebrities.
West Hollywood has some of L.A.’s best shopping and restaurants. If you’re looking for edgy designer boutiques, not to mention decadent shelter shops, these streets are your best bets: Robertson Boulevard, the west end of Melrose Avenue, Third Street and Beverly Boulevard. Santa Monica Boulevard (WeHo’s main drag) is known as Boys’ Town due to the large number of gay residents. There’s also a sizeable Russian population here and, consequently, you’ll find plenty of delis offering Russian black breads, cheeses, and memorable prepared foods. It was feared the big outdoor Grove shopping center would kill the historic Farmer’s Market, but instead it has brought new energy to the collection of produce stalls, shops, and eateries that offer some of LA’s most affordable good food. On its north side, WeHo includes the outdoor cafes and trendy shops of Sunset Plaza, and the now tame, but once roaring Sunset Strip.
The mainly laid-back, working class San Fernando Valley (on the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains from the Los Angeles Basin) is vast and includes Studio City, Burbank, North Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Encino, Reseda, and Woodland Hills. For most visitors, the main attractions are the Warner Brothers Studios, Universal Studios (including Universal City and the Universal tours), the Disney Studios, and NBC and CBS lots. The Valley is positively bucolic compared to the rest of traffic-clogged LA, and is marked by ample free parking and casual restaurants and shops.
Beverly Hills/Century City
Manicured, haughty Beverly Hills is LA’s center for nosebleed-expensive designer boutiques and aging-celebrity-magnet restaurants like Spago. Outside of the Golden Triangle of designer shops, however, Beverly Hills has all the usual chain stores, from Anthropology to Crate and Barrel. Just west is Century City, which is built on the former back lot of Fox Studios. The main attraction in the maze of office towers and condos is the expansive Westfield shopping mall. Many celebrities and pop stars live in the neighborhoods of Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Holmby Hills.
The city just east and north of downtown Los Angeles is most famous for its annual Rose Parade. But historic Old Town is a popular outing for Angelenos for shopping and restaurants. The Norton Simon Museum is renowned for its collection. Next door in San Marino is the Huntington, known for its collection of rare manuscripts, European paintings, and botanical gardens. Once a month, the Rose Bowl is home to one of the world’s great flea markets. Pasadena is manna for architecture buffs, particularly for lovers of the Craftsman style, best exemplified by the Langham Huntington Hotel, Castle Green, and the Greene-and-Greene-designed Gamble House. Mediterranean and Spanish Renaissance architecture are embodied in the City Hall and Pasadena Public Library.
There’s so much romance associated with this world-famous beach town north of Santa Monica that you almost expect to be disappointed when you visit. In spite of the fact that Malibu has become ground zero for well-to-do ocean-worshippers, it retains the aura of possibility from its days as surf central. Aside from Getty Villa (a faux Roman villa built on the hillside), the main attractions for visitors lie in ocean-front restaurants and the legendary beaches, like Surfriders and Point Dume. Don’t want to spend the equivalent of a car payment to sit near celebs at Nobu? A short drive north of Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway is Neptune’s Net, the legendary fish shack that’s a favorite of surfers and bikers. Though Malibu’s beaches are all open to the public, it can be difficult to figure out how to access some through the apparent unbroken line of multi-million-dollar houses fronting the ocean.
Santa Monica/Venice/Marina del Rey
Santa Monica and Venice are legendary beach towns, but they couldn’t be more different: the first is spotless and well-to-do, the second is scruffy, bohemian and full of fun. Shopping in Santa Monica is centered on the pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade. In Venice, Abbott Kinney Boulevard and Main Street are great shopping for everything from women’s summer frocks to zen-inspired home wares and rare books. But Venice is most famous for the strip of boardwalk that stretches from Santa Monica on the north to Marina del Rey on the south, which on weekends turns into a carnival of street performers, body builders, skaters, craft stalls, and funky shops. Even on a cloudy weekday, the boardwalk is lively and amusing. The Marina is packed with restaurants and hotels that are an easy 15-minute drive from LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport.
Not long ago, dowdy Culver City had little to offer beyond safe, affordable housing. But the historic home of MGM studios (and now Sony) has become one of the hottest corners of the city, sprouting restaurants, wine bars, and shops by the dozens. The old Helms Bakery, a Deco landmark, is home to a variety of shelter shops and restaurants. On the eastern end of the city, enough art galleries line Washington Boulevard and L.A. Cienega to constitute a scene.
The legendary town that gave the American film industry its name was, not long ago, a gritty, depressed area where crestfallen tourists gazed about in confusion. Then the opening of the Kodak Theatre brought the Academy Awards back to Hollywood, and gentrification has continued a mile a minute. These days Hollywood is the center of L.A. nightlife, with an ever-changing list of celebrity-populated restaurants and clubs. A glitzy W Hotel has opened at the iconic intersection of Hollywood and Vine and the historic Roosevelt Hotel has been turned into trendy digs. Hollywood is home to many tiny, equity-waiver theaters, as well as the ornate movie palaces, Grauman’s Chinese, the Egyptian, and El Capitan. Then there’s the Walk of Stars, Paramount Studios, the Hollywood sign, the wilds of Griffith Park, Thai Town, and Little Armenia.
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