You'll need to make a lot of tough decisions if you're touring L.A. for the first time: surfing lessons or a jogging tour? Join the live studio audience at the Tonight Show or Jeopardy!? Go to Disneyland or Universal Studios Hollywood? You get the point; it would take you months to do all the things listed in this guide.
To find out what's going on while you're in town, pick up a copy of the free L.A. Weekly, the monthly magazine Los Angeles, or the Sunday Los Angeles Times "The Guide" section; each has detailed listings covering events and entertainment around town, often accompanied by helpful commentary on which activities might be worth your while.
Also, note that you usually have to drive everywhere in L.A. Be sure you have a map handy (or better yet, a GPS) and try to plan your itinerary with as little time on the freeways as possible, especially during rush hour.
Money-Saving Tourist Passes -- If you're the type who loves to cram as many tourist attractions as possible in one trip, then you might want to consider purchasing a Hollywood CityPASS or GO Los Angeles Card. The CityPASS (tel. 888/330-5008; www.citypass.com) booklet includes tickets to four attractions, all within 2 blocks of each other: Madam Tussauds Hollywood, Starline Tour of Hollywood, Red Line Tours, and the Kodak Theatre Guided Tour or the Hollywood Museum. Purchase the pass at any of the above attractions, or visit the CityPASS website to buy advance passes online. The pass costs $59 for adults ($39 for kids 3-11) and expires 9 days from the first use. Is it a good deal? If you use all the tickets, you end up saving about 45% over individual, full-price admission.
I think the better deal, however, is the GO Los Angeles Card (tel. 866/652-3053; www.smartdestinations.com). It offers free or discounted admission to more than 40 of L.A.'s most popular attractions, activities, and tours; has far more flexibility (available in 1-, 2-, 3-, 5, and 7-day increments over a 14-day period); and comes with a nifty little full-color guidebook that fits in your back pocket. The 2-day card costs $100 for adults ($70 for kids 3-12) and doesn't need to be used on consecutive days. The 3-, 5-, and 7-day cards include admission to Universal Studios Hollywood (a great bargain). You can purchase the GO Cards via their website or at the Hollywood Visitor Information Center (6801 Hollywood Blvd. at Highland Ave.; tel. 323/467-6412).
Sunset Boulevard and The Sunset Strip
Unless you were raised in a cave, you've undoubtedly heard of L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard. The most famous of the city's many legendary boulevards, it winds dozens of miles over prime real estate as it travels from Downtown (where it briefly turns into Cesar Chavez Avenue between Spring and Figueroa Streets) to the beach, taking its travelers on both a historical and microcosmic journey that defines Los Angeles as a whole -- from tacky strip malls and historic movie studios to infamous strip clubs and some of the most coveted zip codes on earth. In fact, driving the stretch from Hollywood to the Pacific should be required for all first-time visitors because it is such a good example of what L.A. is all about: instant gratification.
Bam! From the start, you'll see the Saharan Motor Hotel, of many a movie shoot; the Guitar Center's Hollywood RockWalk, where superstars like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Santana, and the Van Halen brothers left handprints or signatures; the "Riot Hyatt," (now the Andaz) where The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Guns N' Roses crashed and smashed from the '60s through the '80s; and Chateau Marmont, where Greta Garbo lived and John Belushi died.
Phew! And you've barely even started. Once you pass the Chateau Marmont, you're officially cruising the Sunset Strip -- a 1 3/4-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard from Crescent Heights Boulevard to Doheny Drive. The tour continues with the Comedy Store, where Roseanne Barr, Robin Williams, and David Letterman rose to stardom; Dan Aykroyd's ramshackle House of Blues, where the rock stars still show up for an impromptu show; the Sunset Tower Hotel, where Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne once lived; the ultraexclusive Skybar within the Mondrian hotel; the Viper Room, once owned by Johnny Depp, and the site of River Phoenix's overdose in 1993; Whisky A Go-Go, where the Doors were once a house band; and the Rainbow Bar and Grill, where Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Marley became legends.
Once you emerge from the Strip, things calm down considerably as you drive through the tony neighborhoods of Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, and Pacific Palisades. By the time you've reached Malibu and the beach where Baywatch was filmed, you'll have seen a vivid cross section of the city and have a pretty good idea of what L.A. is all about.
Probably the first misconception about Hollywood -- at least the areas described here -- is that it is crawling with celebrities. You may find one or two at some of the hot spot restaurants and bars, but when we say "iconic" Hollywood, we mean Old Hollywood, or at least the remnants of it. We're talking stars in the sidewalks, the sign, glorious old theaters, the places where the movie industry grew up. A good place to start is near one of the major intersections, like Hollywood and Highland or Sunset and Vine, and walk through the streets from there. You'll find paid parking garages at the shopping and entertainment complexes, lots on many of the side streets, and plenty of metered street parking. Prices get steep on weekend nights (up to $20 or more).
Visitors by the millions flock to Grauman's Chinese Theatre for its famous entry court, where stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and about 160 others set their signatures and hand-/footprints in concrete (a tradition started when actress Norma Talmadge "accidentally" stepped in wet cement during the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings). It's not always hands and feet: Betty Grable's shapely leg; the hoofprints of Gene Autry's horse, Champion; Jimmy Durante's and Bob Hope's trademark noses; Whoopi Goldberg's dreadlocks; George Burns's cigar; and even R2D2's wheels are all captured in cement.
Grauman's is one of the world's great movie palaces and one of Hollywood's finest landmarks. The theater was opened in 1927 by impresario Sid Grauman, a brilliant promoter who's credited with originating the idea of the paparazzi-packed movie "premiere." Outrageously conceived, with both authentic and simulated Chinese embellishments, Grauman's theater was designed to impress. Original Chinese heavenly doves top the facade, and two of the theater's columns once propped up a Ming dynasty temple. The theater is located at 6925 Hollywood Blvd. (btw. Highland and La Brea aves.), Hollywood. Ticket prices vary, but are usually around $15. Call tel. 323/464-8111 or go to www.manntheaters.com/chinese for showtimes.
When the Hollywood honchos realized how limited the footprint space was at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, they came up with another way to pay tribute to the stars: the Hollywood Walk of Fame, on Hollywood Boulevard between Gower Street and La Brea Avenue, and Vine Street between Yucca Street and Sunset Boulevard. Since 1960 more than 2,400 celebrities have been honored along the world's most famous sidewalk. Each bronze medallion, set into the center of a terrazzo star, pays homage to a famous television, film, radio, theater, or recording personality. Although about a third of them are now obscure -- their fame simply hasn't withstood the test of time -- millions of visitors are thrilled by the sight of famous names like James Dean (1719 Vine St.), John Lennon (1750 Vine St.), Marlon Brando (1765 Vine St.), Rudolph Valentino (6164 Hollywood Blvd.), Marilyn Monroe (6744 Hollywood Blvd.), Elvis Presley (7080 Hollywood Blvd.) -- the only star that has ever been moved -- Greta Garbo (6901 Hollywood Blvd.), Louis Armstrong (7000 Hollywood Blvd.), Barbra Streisand (6925 Hollywood Blvd.), and Eddie Murphy (7000 Hollywood Blvd.). Gene Autry is all over the place: The singing cowboy earned five different stars (a sidewalk record), one in each category.
The sight of bikers, metalheads, homeless wanderers, and hordes of disoriented tourists all treading on memorials to Hollywood's greats makes for a bizarre and somewhat tacky tribute. But the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has been doing a terrific job sprucing up the pedestrian experience with filmstrip crosswalks, swaying palms, and more. And at least 1 weekend a month, a group of fans calling themselves Star Polishers busy themselves scrubbing tarnished medallions.
The legendary sidewalk is continually adding new names, such as Muhammad Ali in front of the Kodak Theatre. The public is invited to attend dedication ceremonies; the honoree -- who pays a whopping $25,000 for the eternal upkeep -- is usually in attendance. Contact the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, 7018 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028 (tel. 323/469-8311; www.hollywoodchamber.net), for information on who's being honored this week.
Yet another Hollywood icon, the famous 50-foot-high white sheet-metal letters of the HOLLYWOOD sign have come to symbolize the movie industry and the city itself. The sign was erected on Mount Lee in 1923 as an advertisement for a real-estate development. The full text originally read HOLLYWOODLAND and was lined with thousands of 20-watt bulbs around the letters (changed periodically by a caretaker who lived in a small house behind the sign). The sign gained notoriety when actress Peg Entwistle leapt to her death from the "H" in 1932. The LAND section was damaged by a landslide, and the entire sign fell into major disrepair until the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce spearheaded a campaign to repair it (Hugh Hefner, Alice Cooper, Gene Autry, and Andy Williams were all major contributors). Officially completed in 1978, the 450-foot-long installation is now protected by a fence and motion detectors. The best view is from down below, at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Bronson Avenue. Tip: It may look like it on a map, but Beachwood Drive does not lead to the sign. If you want to reach the sign on foot (you still won't be able to touch it), it requires a somewhat strenuous (depending on your level of physical fitness) 5-mile round-trip hike on the Brush Canyon Trail in Griffith Park -- the trail head is at the end of Canyon Drive. You can also choose to park at the Observatory (it's the same distance either way) and combine two activities in one. For more information, call the Griffith Park headquarters at tel. 323/913-4688.
When it opened in 1934, the original Farmers Market at the intersection of 3rd Street and Fairfax Boulevard was little more than an empty lot with wooden stands set up by farmers during the Depression so they could sell directly to city dwellers. Eventually, permanent buildings grew up, including the trademark shingled 10-story clock tower. Today the place has evolved into a sprawling marketplace with a carnival atmosphere, a kind of "turf" version of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. About 70 restaurants, shops, and grocers cater to a mix of workers from the CBS Television City complex, locals, and tourists brought here by the busload. Retailers sell greeting cards, kitchen implements, candles, and souvenirs, but everyone comes for the food stands, which offer oysters, hot doughnuts, Cajun gumbo, fresh-squeezed orange juice, corned beef sandwiches, fresh-pressed peanut butter, and all kinds of international fast foods. You can still buy produce here -- it's no longer a farm-fresh bargain, but the selection's better than at the grocery store. Don't miss Loteria Grill, 6627 Hollywood Blvd. (tel. 323/930-2211; www.loteriagrill.com) for shredded beef tacos on handmade tortillas (trust me, they aren't your average asada) and cool aguas frescas, or Du-par's (tel. 323/933-8446) for a slice of pie. The seafood gumbo and gumbo ya ya at the Gumbo Pot (tel. 323/933-0358) are also very popular.
At the eastern end of the Farmers Market is the Grove, a massive 575,000-sq.-ft. Vegas-style retail complex composed of various architectural styles ranging from Art Deco to Italian Renaissance. Miniature streets link the Grove to the Market via a double-deck electric trolley. Granted, it's all a bit Disney-gaudy, but we locals love it. Where else can you power-shop until noon, check all your bags at a drop-off station, see a movie at the 14-screen Grove Theatre (tel. 323/692-0829; www.thegrovela.com), have a concierge secure you an early dinner reservation at Morels French Steakhouse and Bistro (tel. 323/965-9595), and be home by 7pm? The Grove is located at 6333 W. 3rd St. (at Fairfax Ave.), Los Angeles (tel. 888/315-8883 or 323/900-8080; www.thegrovela.com). It is open Monday through Thursday from 10am to 9pm, Friday and Saturday from 10am to 10pm, and Sunday from 10am to 8pm. Park in either the Grove parking structure (entry on The Grove Dr. or off of Fairfax Blvd.) or the Farmers Market parking lot, which is free for 2 hours with validation from one of the market vendors.
Venice Beach's Ocean Front Walk has long been one of L.A.'s most colorful areas and a must-see for any first-time visitor. Founded at the turn of the last century, Venice was a development inspired by its Italian namesake. Authentic gondolas plied miles of inland waterways lined with rococo palaces. In the 1950s, Venice became the stamping grounds of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and other Beats. In the 1960s, this was the epicenter of L.A.'s hippie scene.
Today Venice is still one of the world's most engaging bohemian locales. It's not an exaggeration to say that no visit to L.A. would be complete without a stroll along the famous paved beach path, an almost surreal assemblage of every L.A. stereotype -- and then some. Among stalls and stands selling cheap sunglasses, Mexican blankets, and medical marijuana swirls a carnival of humanity that includes bikini-clad in-line skaters, tattooed bikers, tan hunks pumping iron at Muscle Beach, panhandling vets, beautiful wannabes, and plenty of tourists and gawkers. On any given day, you're bound to come across all kinds of performers: mimes, break dancers, stoned drummers, chain-saw jugglers, talking parrots, and the occasional apocalyptic evangelist. The walk is located along the beach in Venice between Venice Boulevard and Rose Avenue.
About a mile up the Ocean Front Walk from Venice, and making for a great round-trip stroll, is the world-famous Santa Monica Pier. Piers have been a tradition in Southern California since the area's 19th-century seaside resort days. Many have long since disappeared (like Pacific Ocean Park, an entire amusement park perched on offshore pilings), and others have been shortened by battering storms and are now mere shadows (or stumps) of their former selves, but you can still experience those halcyon days of yesteryear at the Santa Monica Pier.
Built in 1908 for passenger and cargo ships, the Santa Monica Pier does a pretty good job of recapturing the glory days of Southern California. The wooden wharf is now home to seafood restaurants and snack shacks, a touristy Mexican cantina, a gaily-colored 1920's indoor wooden carousel (which Paul Newman operated in The Sting), an aquarium filled with sharks, rays, octopus, eels, and other local sea life, and a trapeze school that offers lessons. The original Muscle Beach is also just south of the Pier. Summer evening concerts called Twilight Dance Series, which are free and range from big band to Miami-style Latin, draw crowds, as does the small amusement area perched halfway down. Its name, Pacific Park (tel. 310/260-8744; www.pacpark.com), hearkens back to the granddaddy pier amusement park in California, Pacific Ocean Park; this updated version has a solar-powered Ferris wheel, a vintage roller coaster, and 10 other rides, plus a high-tech arcade shootout. But anglers still head to the end to fish, and nostalgia buffs to view the photographic display of the pier's history. This is the last of the great pleasure piers, offering rides, romance, and perfect panoramic views of the bay and mountains.
The Santa Monica Pier is also now home to the official West Coast end of Route 66. The end has been long debated, but in November 2009, the sign was planted on the Pier, which now attracts many tourists.
Parking is available for $6 to $8 on both the pier deck and the beachfront nearby. Limited short-term parking is also available. For information on twilight concerts (generally held Thurs mid-June through the end of Aug), call tel. 310/458-8900 or visit www.santamonicapier.org.
Plane Spotting at LAX
You've undoubtedly heard of train spotters -- those supergeeks sporting a pair of binoculars in one hand and a journal in the other -- but what about plane spotters? The hobby of maintaining meticulous records of every type of commercial aircraft spotted has become so popular that the city of El Segundo invested $150,000 into a "hilltop aircraft observation area" near LAX, complete with benches, tables, and telescopes. It's located at the end of the southern runways on West Imperial Avenue between Sepulveda Boulevard and Main Street. For more information, log on to www.planespotting.com.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.