A Great Day in Downtown L.A.

If you haven't heard the news, it's hip to hang out in Downtown L.A. these days. What used to be a ghost town after 5pm is speedily becoming a trendy destination as chic hotels (the Standard), bars (Edison), and venues (Walt Disney Concert Hall) sprout up like weeds between all those tall buildings. Start the day early with a 9¢ cup of coffee and cinnamon-dipped French toast at Philippe the Original. Then make your way to Seventh Street for a self-guided walking tour of a glimpse into the financial, jewelry, theater and fashion districts. (Be sure to print out a map in advance at www.laconservancy.org/tours/Strolling_on_Seventh.pdf). Next up is an audio tour of the spectacular Walt Disney Concert Hall (bring a camera).

Time for lunch, so spend a few hours noshing your way through the dozens of ethnic food stalls at the Grand Central Market. After lunch, the options abound: tour the poignant Japanese American National Museum or Museum of Contemporary Art. If you did your homework, you already made reservations for a play or performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or Walt Disney Concert Hall. After the show, it's time for a late-night bite at the adjacent fine-dining Patina restaurant, which seats up to 30 minutes after performance end-time (if you're not hungry for a full meal, consider the impressive cheese cart). Cap off this grand day with a martini at the subterranean Edison, quite possibly the most beautiful bar I've ever had the pleasure of drinking in. Tip: Be sure to get a DASH shuttle map so you can get around Downtown quickly and easily; rides are only 35¢.

Secrets of Santa Monica

If you're the type of traveler who eschews crowded tourist attractions, here are a few of my favorite places in Santa Monica that only the locals know about:

Camera Obscura -- It's well named, because even most Santa Monicans don't know about this truly obscure attraction though they've passed right by it countless times. In the Senior Recreation Center in Palisades Park, the Camera Obscura (which is Latin for "dark room") is, well, a dark room that's round and has a white circular table in the middle. Turn the old boat steering wheel, which turns the overhead periscope thingy, and a reverse projection of the park, ocean, and avenue is reflected onto the table (that's your car getting a parking ticket). It's an ancient invention that offers a few minutes of mindless voyeuristic amusement in a modern world. To see it, you have to go into the Senior Center (mmmm, smell that Salisbury steak!), give the person at the desk your driver's license, and get the key to the Camera Obscura door located up the stairs to your right. The whole experience is a bit surreal, but fun (and free). It's open Monday to Friday 9am to 2pm and Saturday 11am to 4pm. 1450 Ocean Ave., between Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard, Santa Monica (tel. 310/458-8644).

Father's Office -- If you just want to tuck into a great burger and a beer without having to endure the Santa Monica tourist scene, join the young and beautiful at Father's Office, a small, unpretentious bar and grill that offers 40 beers on tap and one of the best burgers in L.A. -- dry-aged sirloin with a composite of apple-wood-smoked bacon, caramelized onion, arugula, Gruyère, and Maytag blue cheese on a French roll. Addictive sweet potato fries are piled into toy shopping carts (you'll see). It's usually standing room only on most evenings, so come early if you want a table. 1018 Montana Ave., at 10th Street, Santa Monica (tel. 310/736-2224; www.fathersoffice.com).

Chez Jay's -- It may look like a dumpy bar (okay, it is a dumpy bar), but it's my kind of dumpy bar. Located on a multimillion-dollar plot of land near the Santa Monica Pier, this creaky classic was opened by a man named Jay "Peanuts" Fiondella, a gray-bearded old-timer who wouldn't sell out to developers at any price; now that he's gone (may he rest in peace), hopefully it will stay that way. Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Peter Sellers, Kevin Spacey, Madonna, George Clooney -- they've all been regulars at one time or another over the years. Rumor has it astronaut Alan Shepard took a peanut from Jay's to the moon and back (and Steve McQueen tried to eat it). Naturally, there's a jukebox in the corner, a marlin mounted on the wall, peanut shells on the floor, and well-worn red vinyl booths. I hear they serve a great steak, but I've never seen the menu. The place is a bit hard to find -- look for the little neon sign on the east side of Ocean Avenue, 1/2 block south of the pier. 1657 Ocean Ave., between Pico Boulevard and Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica (tel. 310/395-1741; www.chezjays.com).

Good Day, Marina del Rey

The coastal playground of Marina del Rey offers several fun reasons to spend a day taking advantage of its harborside location. For instance, check out the Bird-Watching Experience starting within Burton Chace Park. The 2-hour walks explore the Ballona Wetlands fresh- and saltwater marshes, nesting sites of the great blue- and black-crowned night herons (for reservations for kayaking and bird-watching, call the park at tel. 310/305-9595). Kayaks, powerboats, jet skis, and sailboats are also available at Marina Boat Rentals (tel. 310/574-2822).

After an alfresco lunch on the elevated deck overlooking the harbor at Cafe Del Rey, head over to the Fisherman's Village, rent a bicycle at Daniel's Bikes (tel. 310/980-4045; www.danielsbikesales.com), and spend the afternoon cruising alongside the docks on the South Bay Bicycle Trail (you can even keep the bikes after hours by special request; be sure and get a lock, and you can arrange to leave it at the ice cream shop next door). If it's a Thursday or Saturday during the summer, arrive early for a good seat at the free classical, jazz, and pop concerts held at 7pm at Burton Chace Park. After the show, end your fun-filled day with a romantic dinner overlooking the harbor at the Vu restaurant within the Jamaica Bay Inn, Marina del Rey. For more information about Marina del Rey activities, call the Marina del Rey Convention and Visitors Bureau at tel. 310/305-9545 or log on to www.visitmarinadelrey.com.

Marina Oasis -- One of my favorite places in L.A. to get away from it all is a tiny, quiet, little-known park in Marina del Rey that overlooks the mouth of the harbor. All day long you can sit on a bench and enjoy the cool breeze as a never-ending parade of beautiful yachts and sailboats slowly works its way to the ocean or back to the marina. To reach this relaxing oasis, from Venice Beach drive to the south end of Pacific Avenue, turn left on Via Marina, and park in one of the metered spaces (bring quarters and binoculars).

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.