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Los Angeles isn't a single compact city like San Francisco, but a sprawling suburbia comprising dozens of disparate communities located either on the ocean or on the flatlands of a huge desert basin. Ocean breezes push the city's infamous smog inland and through mountain passes into the sprawl of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. Downtown L.A. is in the center of the basin, about 12 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Most visitors spend the bulk of their time either along the coastline, in Hollywood, or on the city's ever-trendy Westside.

Santa Monica & the Beaches

These are many people's favorite L.A. communities and get my strong recommendation as one of the premier places to book a hotel for your vacation, especially during summer, when the beaches can be a good 20 degrees cooler than the sweltering parts of the city. Fair warning though: especially in winter, the weather can be downright grey. The 60-mile beachfront stretching from Malibu to the Palos Verdes peninsula has milder weather and less smog than the inland communities, and traffic is lighter, except on summer weekends. The towns along the coast each have a distinct mood and charm, and most are connected via a walk/bike path. They're listed below from north to south.

Malibu -- At the northern border of Los Angeles County, 25 miles from Downtown, Malibu was once a privately owned ranch -- purchased in 1857 for 10¢ an acre and now the most expensive real estate in L.A. Today its 27 miles of wide beaches, beachfront cliffs, sparsely populated hills, and relative remoteness from the inner city make it popular with rich recluses such as Cher and Mel Gibson. Indeed, the resident lists of Malibu Colony and nearby Broad Beach -- oceanfront strips of closely packed mansions -- read like a who's who in Hollywood. With plenty of green space and dramatic rocky outcroppings, Malibu's rural beauty is unsurpassed in L.A., and surfers flock to "the 'Bu" for great, if crowded, waves.

Santa Monica -- Los Angeles's premier beach community, Santa Monica is known for its festive ocean pier, stylish oceanfront hotels, artsy atmosphere, and large population of homeless residents (I know, that's an oxymoron, but it fits). Shopping is king here, especially along the Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian-only outdoor mall lined with dozens of shops and restaurants.

Venice Beach -- Created by tobacco mogul Abbot Kinney (who set out in 1904 to transform a worthless marsh into a resort town modeled after Venice, Italy), Venice Beach has a series of narrow canals connected by one-lane bridges that you'll see as you explore this refreshingly eclectic community. It was once infested with grime and crime, but gentrification has brought scores of great restaurants, boutiques, and rising property values for the canal-side homes and apartment duplexes. Even the movie stars and pop stars are moving in: Kate Beckinsale, Anjelica Huston, and Alanis Morissette reside here. Some of L.A.'s most innovative and interesting architecture lines funky Main Street. But without question, Venice Beach is best known for its Ocean Front Walk, a nonstop Mardi Gras of thong-wearing skaters, fortunetellers, street musicians, and poseurs of all ages, colors, types, and sizes.

Marina del Rey -- Just south of Venice, Marina del Rey is a somewhat quieter, more upscale waterside community best known for its man-made small-craft harbor, the largest of its kind in the world. Fittingly, it offers a wide variety of public boating opportunities, including fishing trips, harbor tours, dinner cruises, and private sailing charters.

Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo beaches -- These are laid-back, mainly residential neighborhoods with modest homes (except for oceanfront real estate), mild weather, and residents happy to have fled the L.A. hubbub. There are excellent beaches for volleyball, surfing, and tanning here, but when it comes to cultural activities, pickings can be slim. The restaurant scene, while limited, has been improving steadily, and some great new bars and clubs have opened near their respective piers.

L.A.'s Westside & Beverly Hills

The Westside, sandwiched between Hollywood and the city's coastal communities, includes some of Los Angeles's most prestigious neighborhoods, virtually all with names you're sure to recognize:

Beverly Hills -- Politically distinct from the rest of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills is a famous enclave best known for its palm-tree-lined streets of palatial homes, famous residents (Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening), and high-priced shops. But it's not all glitz and glamour; the healthy mix of filthy rich, wannabes, and tourists that comprises downtown Beverly Hills creates a unique -- and often snobby-surreal -- atmosphere.

West Hollywood -- This key-shaped community's epicenter is the intersection of Santa Monica and La Cienega boulevards. Nestled between Beverly Hills and Hollywood, this politically independent -- and blissfully fast-food-free -- town is home to some of the area's best restaurants, clubs, shops, and art galleries. WeHo, as it's come to be known, is also the center of L.A.'s gay community -- you'll know you've arrived when you see the risqué billboards. Encompassing about 2 square miles, it's a pedestrian-friendly place with plenty of metered parking. Highlights include the 1 1/2 miles of Sunset Boulevard known as Sunset Strip, the chic Sunset Plaza retail strip, and the liveliest stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard.

Bel Air and Holmby Hills -- In the hills north of Westwood and west of Beverly Hills, these are old-money residential areas that are featured prominently on most maps to the stars' homes.

Brentwood -- Brentwood is best known as the famous backdrop to the O. J. Simpson melodrama. The neighborhood itself is generic, a relatively upscale mix of tract homes, restaurants, and strip malls. The Getty Center looms over Brentwood from its hilltop perch next to I-405.

Westwood -- An urban village founded in 1929 and home to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Westwood used to be a hot destination for a night on the town, but it lost much of its appeal in the past decade due to overcrowding and even some minor street violence. Although Westwood is unlikely to regain its old charm, the improved culinary scene has brought new life to the village. The area has been plagued by movie theater closures recently, but the historic Village Theater and the Bruin both survived, so it's still a fun destination for dinner and a flick.

Century City -- This is a compact and rather bland area sandwiched between West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. The primary draws here are the 20th Century Fox studios and the Westfield Century City, a huge open-air shopping mall. Century City's three main thoroughfares are Century Park East, Avenue of the Stars, and Century Park West.

West Los Angeles -- West Los Angeles is a label that generally applies to everything that isn't one of the other Westside neighborhoods. It's basically the area south of Santa Monica Boulevard, north of Venice Boulevard, east of Santa Monica and Venice, and west and south of Century City.

Hollywood

Yes, they still come to the mecca of the film industry -- young hopefuls with stars in their eyes gravitate to this historic heart of L.A.'s movie production like moths fluttering to the glare of neon lights. But today's Hollywood is more illusion than industry. Many of the neighborhood's former movie studios have moved to more spacious venues in Burbank, the Westside, and other parts of the city.

Despite the downturn, visitors continue to flock to Hollywood's landmark attractions, such as the star-studded Walk of Fame and Grauman's Chinese Theatre. And now that the city's $1-billion, 30-year revitalization project is in full swing, Hollywood Boulevard is, finally, solidly showing signs that its ascent from a long, seedy slump is permanent. Refurbished movie houses and stylish restaurants and clubs are making a fierce comeback, and two boutique hotels have opened near the Hollywood and Vine Red Line Station: the W and the Redbury. The centerpiece Hollywood and Highland complex anchors the neighborhood, with shopping, entertainment, and a luxury hotel built around the beautiful Kodak Theatre, designed specifically to host the Academy Awards (really, you'll want to poke your head into this gorgeous theater).

Melrose Avenue -- Scruffy but fun, Melrose Avenue is the city's funkiest shopping district, catering to often-raucous youth with secondhand and avant-garde clothing shops. There are also a number of good restaurants.

The stretch of Wilshire Boulevard running through the southern part of Hollywood is known as the Mid-Wilshire district, or the Miracle Mile. It's lined with tall, contemporary apartment houses and office buildings. The section just east of Fairfax Avenue, known as Museum Row, is home to almost a dozen museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the La Brea Tar Pits, and that shrine to L.A. car culture, the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Griffith Park -- Up Western Avenue in the northernmost part of Hollywood, this is one of the country's largest urban parks, home to the Los Angeles Zoo, the famous Griffith Observatory, and the outdoor Greek Theater.

Downtown

Despite the relatively recent construction of several major cultural and entertainment centers (such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall, L.A. LIVE, and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels) and a handful of trendy restaurants, L.A.'s Downtown isn't the tourist hub it would be in most cities. When it comes to entertaining visitors, the Westside, Hollywood, and beach communities are still far more popular. That said, if you haven't been in years, it's worth another look, particularly for those interested in eclectic restaurants and a bar scene more sophisticated but less pretentious than Hollywood's.

Easily recognized by the tight cluster of high-rise offices -- skyscrapers bolstered by earthquake-proof technology -- the business center of the city is eerily vacant on weekends and evenings, but the outlying residential communities, such as Koreatown, Little Tokyo, and Chinatown, are enticingly ethnic and vibrant. If you want a tan, head to Santa Monica, but if you want a refreshing dose of non-90210 culture, come here.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic District -- This is a 44-acre ode to the city's early years and is worth a visit. Chinatown is small and touristy but can be plenty of fun for souvenir hunting or traditional dim sum. Little Tokyo, on the other hand, is a genuine gathering place for the Southland's Japanese population, with a wide array of shops and restaurants with an authentic flair.

Silver Lake/Los Feliz -- These residential neighborhoods northwest of Downtown have arty, multicultural areas with unique cafes, theaters, and art galleries -- all in equally plentiful proportions, as well as a popular local music scene. It's also worth visiting to admire the old-school architecture styles from early L.A. -- Hollywood bungalows and Spanish haciendas, many built to house silent-screen actors.

Exposition Park -- South and west of Downtown is home to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the L.A. Sports Arena, as well as the Natural History Museum, the African-American Museum, and the California Science Center. The University of Southern California (USC) is next door.

The San Fernando Valley

The San Fernando Valley, known locally as "the Valley," was nationally popularized in the 1980s by the notorious mall-loving "Valley Girl" stereotype. Sandwiched between the Santa Monica and the San Gabriel mountain ranges, most of the Valley is residential and commercial and off the beaten track for tourists. But some of its attractions are bound to draw you over the hill. Universal City, located west of Griffith Park between U.S. 101 and California 134, is home to Universal Studios Hollywood and the supersize shopping and entertainment complex CityWalk. About the only reason to go to Burbank, west of these other suburbs and north of Universal City, is to see one of your favorite TV shows being filmed at NBC or Warner Brothers Studios. A few good restaurants and shops can be found along Ventura Boulevard, in and around Studio City.

Glendale

Glendale is a largely residential community north of Downtown between the Valley and Pasadena. Here you'll find Forest Lawn, the city's best cemetery for very retired movie stars.

Pasadena and Environs

Best known as the site of the Tournament of Roses Parade every New Year's Day, Pasadena was spared from the tear-down epidemic that swept L.A., so it has a refreshing old-time feel. Once upon a time, Pasadena was every Angeleno's best-kept secret: a quiet community whose slow and careful regentrification meant nonchain restaurants and boutique shopping without the crowds, in a revitalized downtown respectful of its old brick and stone commercial buildings. Although the area's natural and architectural beauty still shines through -- so much so that Pasadena remains Hollywood's favorite backyard location for countless movies and TV shows -- Old Town has become a pedestrian mall similar to Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, complete with huge crowds, midrange chain eateries, and standard-issue mall stores. It still gets our vote as a scenic alternative to the congestion of central L.A., but it has lost much of its small-town charm.

Pasadena is also home to the famous California Institute of Technology (CalTech), which boasts 22 Nobel Prize winners among its alumni. The CalTech-operated Jet Propulsion Laboratory was the birthplace of America's space program, and CalTech scientists were the first to report earthquake activity worldwide in the 1930s.

The residential neighborhoods in Pasadena and its adjacent communities -- Arcadia, La Cañada-Flintridge, San Marino, and South Pasadena -- are renowned for well-preserved historic homes, from humble bungalows to lavish mansions. These areas feature public gardens, historic neighborhoods, house museums, and quiet bed-and-breakfast inns.

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.