Need I tell you that Los Angeles is a car-crazed city? L.A. is a sprawling metropolis, so you're really going to need some wheels to get around easily (there is public transportation in L.A., but you probably don't want to rely on it). An elaborate network of well-maintained freeways connects this urban sprawl, but you have to learn how to make sense of the system and cultivate some patience for dealing with the traffic -- purchasing one of those plastic-covered fold-out maps is a smart investment; purchasing a GPS navigation system is a better one (don't count on your smartphone if you are without a co-pilot -- the hands-free driving law is strictly enforced).
Car Rentals -- Los Angeles is one of the cheapest places in America to rent a car. The major national car-rental companies usually rent economy- and compact-class cars for about $40 per day (hybrids $80-$90) and $200-plus per week, with unlimited mileage. All the major car-rental agencies have offices at the airports and in the larger hotels; I highly recommend booking a car online before you arrive, such as Simply Hybrid Rental Cars (tel. 888/359-0055; www.simplyhybrid.com) or Enterprise Rent-A-Car (tel. 800/261-7331 or 310/649-5400; www.enterprise.com).
If you're thinking of splurging on a dig-me road machine such as a Maserati, Ferrari, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, or Hummer, the place to call is Beverly Hills Rent-A-Car, 9732 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills (tel. 800/479-5996 or 310/337-1400; www.bhrentacar.com). There are additional locations in Hollywood, Santa Monica, LAX, and Newport Beach, with complimentary delivery to local hotels or pickup service at LAX.
L.A.'S Main Freeways -- L.A.'s extensive system of toll-free, high-speed (in theory, anyway) freeways connects the city's patchwork of communities, though most visitors spend the bulk of their time either along the coastline or on the city's ever-trendy Westside. The system works well to get you where you need to be, although rush-hour (roughly 7-9am and 3-7pm) traffic is often bumper-to-bumper, particularly on the dreaded I-405. Here's an overview of the city's main freeways (best read with an L.A. map in hand):
U.S. 101, called the Ventura Freeway in the San Fernando Valley and the Hollywood Freeway in the city, runs across L.A. in a roughly northwest-southeast direction, from the San Fernando Valley to the center of Downtown. You'll encounter heavy rush-hour traffic.
California 134 continues as the Ventura Freeway after U.S. 101 reaches the city and becomes the Hollywood Freeway. This branch of the Ventura Freeway continues directly east, through the valley towns of Burbank and Glendale, to I-210 (the Foothill Fwy.), which takes you through Pasadena and out toward the eastern edge of Los Angeles County.
I-5, otherwise known as the Golden State Freeway north of I-10, and the Santa Ana Freeway south of I-10, bisects Downtown on its way from Sacramento to San Diego.
I-10, labeled the Santa Monica Freeway west of I-5, and the San Bernardino Freeway east of I-5, is the city's major east-west freeway, connecting the San Gabriel Valley with Downtown and Santa Monica.
I-405, known as the San Diego Freeway, runs north-south through L.A.'s Westside, connecting the San Fernando Valley with LAX and southern beach areas. Tip: This is one of the area's busiest freeways; avoid it as much as possible (and like the plague during rush hour).
I-105, Los Angeles's newest freeway -- called the Century Freeway -- extends from LAX east to I-605.
I-110, commonly known as the Harbor Freeway, starts in Pasadena as California 110 (the Pasadena Fwy.); it becomes an interstate in Downtown Los Angeles and runs directly south, where it dead-ends in San Pedro. The section that is now the Pasadena Freeway was Los Angeles's first freeway, known as the Arroyo Seco when it opened in 1940.
I-710, also known as the Long Beach Freeway, runs in a north-south direction through East Los Angeles and dead-ends at Long Beach. Crammed with big rigs leaving the port in San Pedro in a rush, this is the ugliest and most dangerous freeway in California.
I-605, the San Gabriel River Freeway, runs from I-405 near Seal Beach to the I-210 interchange at Duarte. It follows the San Gabriel River (hence the moniker), roughly paralleling I-710 to the east. Most importantly, it gets you through the San Gabriel Valley up to the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains.
California 1 -- called Hwy. 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, or simply PCH -- is more of a scenic parkway than a freeway. It skirts the ocean, linking all of L.A.'s beach communities, from Malibu to the Orange Coast. It's often slow going due to all the stoplights, but is far more scenic than the freeways.
A complex web of surface streets complements the freeways. From north to south, the major east-west thoroughfares connecting Downtown to the beaches are Sunset, Santa Monica, Wilshire, Olympic, Pico, and Venice boulevards.
Freeway Names and Numbers -- Locals refer to L.A. freeways by both their numbers and their names. For example, I-10 is both "the 10" and "the Santa Monica Freeway."
L.A. Driving Tips -- Many Southern California freeways have designated carpool lanes, also known as High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes or "diamond" lanes (after the large, white diamonds painted on the blacktop along the lane). Most require two passengers (others three), and they have rigidly enforced zones where you can't leave the HOV lane for several miles at a time (I've missed many an exit because of this rule). Most on-ramps are metered during even light congestion to regulate the flow of traffic onto the freeway; cars in HOV lanes can usually pass the signal without stopping. Although there are tales of drivers sitting life-size mannequins next to them to beat the system, don't use the HOV lane unless you have the right numbers -- fines begin around $350.
Keep in mind that California has a seat-belt law for both drivers and passengers, so buckle up before you venture out.
Here are a few more tips for driving around:
- Allow more time than you think it will actually take to get where you're going. You need to make time for traffic and parking. Double your margin in weekday rush hours, from 7 to 9am and again from 3 to 7pm. Also, the freeways tend to be much more crowded than you'd expect all day on Saturdays, especially heading toward the ocean on a sunny day.
- You may turn right at a red light after stopping unless a sign says otherwise. Likewise, you may turn left on a red light from a one-way street onto another one-way street after coming to a full stop.
- Plan your exact route before you set out. Know where you need to exit the freeway and/or make turns -- especially lefts -- and merge well in advance. Otherwise, you're likely to find yourself waving at your freeway exit from an inside lane or your turnoff from an outside one. Pulling over and whipping out your map if you screw up is never easy, and it's near impossible on the freeways. Better yet, bring your smartphone and use its map app (as long as you can do it hands-free), or rent a car that has a GPS unit.
- Pedestrians in Los Angeles have the right of way at all times, so stop for people who have stepped off the curb.
- Get detailed driving directions to your hotel. Save yourself the frustration of trying to find your hotel -- plot it on a map and call the hotel for the best route.
Stay Away from Santa Monica Boulevard -- If you're driving to or from Santa Monica and the Westside communities -- Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Century City -- try to avoid Santa Monica Boulevard during rush hour. Both Olympic and Pico boulevards parallel Santa Monica Boulevard and are usually far less congested. (Pico Blvd. is my savior.)
Parking -- Explaining the parking situation in Los Angeles is like explaining the English language -- there are more exceptions than rules. In some areas, every establishment has a convenient free lot or ample street parking; other areas are pretty manageable as long as you have a quick eye and are willing to take a few turns around the block, but there are some frustrating parts of town (particularly around restaurants after 7pm) where you might have to give in and use valet parking. Whether there's valet parking depends more on the congestion of the area than on the elegance of the establishment; the size of an establishment's lot often simply won't allow for self-parking. These days, restaurants and nightclubs rarely provide a complimentary valet service; more often than not they charge between $5 and $15. Some areas, like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, offer self-park lots and garages near the neighborhood action; costs range from $2 to $10. In the heart of Hollywood and on the Sunset Strip, self-park lots can run up to $20. Most of the hotels that are listed in this guide offer both self-parking and/or valet parking, which ranges from $10 to $40 per day.
Here are a few more parking tips to remember:
- Beware of parking in residential neighborhoods. Many areas allow only permit parking, so you will be ticketed and possibly towed (especially in the West Hollywood and Beverly Hills neighborhoods).
- Have plenty of quarters on hand. Angelenos scrounge for parking-meter quarters like New Yorkers do for laundry coinage: They are the equivalent of pure gold. Save yourself some hassle and just buy a roll or two at your bank before you leave home. Note: More and more cities are now accepting credit cards and/or converting to centralized parking machines, but in areas with the old-style meters, many businesses maintain a no-change policy, unless you make a purchase.
- Be creative. Case the immediate area by taking a turn around the block. In many parts of the city, you can find an unrestricted street space less than a block away from eager valets.
- Read posted restrictions carefully. You can avoid a ticket if you pay attention to the signs, which warn of street-cleaning schedules and those sneaky rush-hour "no parking" zones.
- Don't lose your car in a parking garage. This seems like obvious advice, but you'd be surprised how easily you can lose your car at an L.A. megamall. Most garage levels and subsections are letter-, number-, and color-coded, so make a mental note after you lock your car.
Hogging the Roads
Instead of renting a boring ol' car to cruise the Sunset Strip, why not rent a motorcycle? Even better, why not rent a Harley? EagleRider (11860 S. La Cienega Blvd., Hawthorne; tel. 800/501-8687 or 310/536-6777; www.eaglerider.com), the world's largest motorcycle rental and tour company, will rent you a mild-mannered Sportster 883cc for about $101 per day. Leather chaps are optional, but a motorcycle license is required. Other quality L.A.-based Harley motorcycle-rental companies include Route 66 Riders (4161 Lincoln Blvd., Marina del Rey; tel. 888/434-4473 or 310/578-0112; www.route66riders.com) and Ride Free Motorcycle Tours (4848 W. 136th St., Hawthorne; tel. 310/978-9558; www.ridefree.com). Keep the rubber side down.
By Public Transportation
There are visitors who successfully tour Los Angeles entirely by public transportation (I've met them both), but we can't honestly recommend that plan for most readers. L.A. is a metropolis that's grown up around -- and is best traversed by -- the automobile, and many areas are inaccessible without one. As a result, an overwhelming number of visitors rent a car for their stay. Still, if you're in the city for only a short time, are on a very tight budget, or don't expect to be moving around a lot, public transport might be for you.
The city's trains and buses are operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA; tel. 213/922-2000; www.mta.net), and MTA brochures and schedules are available at every area visitor center.
Public-Transport Tip -- The L.A. County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) website, www.metro.net, provides all the practical information you need -- hours, routes, fares -- for using L.A.'s nearly invisible network of public transportation (buses, subways, light rail).
Spread-out stops, sluggish service, and frequent transfers make extensive touring by bus impractical. For straight shots, short hops and occasional jaunts, however, buses are economical and environmentally correct. However, I don't recommend riding buses late at night.
The basic bus fare is $1.50 for all local lines, with transfers costing 35¢. A Metro Day Pass is $6 and gives you unlimited bus and rail rides all day long; these can be purchased while boarding any Metro Bus (exact change is needed) or at the self-service vending machines at the Metro Rail stations. Note: Up to two kids age 4 and under may travel free with each fare-paying adult.
The Downtown Area Short Hop (DASH) shuttle system operates buses throughout Downtown and Hollywood. Service runs every 5 to 30 minutes, depending on the time of day, and costs just 35¢. Contact the Department of Transportation (tel. 213/808-2273; www.ladottransit.com) for schedules and route information (it's pretty confusing -- you'll definitely need a weekday and weekend map).
The Cityline shuttle is a great way to get around West Hollywood on weekdays and Saturdays (9am-6pm). For 50¢, it'll take you from La Brea Ave. and Fountain Ave. all the way to Beverly Blvd and San Vicente Blvd area near Cedars-Sinai Hospital. For more information, call tel. 800/447-2189.
By Rail and Subway
The MetroRail system is a sore subject around town. For years, the MTA has been digging up the city's streets, sucking in huge amounts of tax money, and pushing exhaust vents up through peaceful parkland -- and for what? Let's face it, L.A. will never have New York's subway or San Francisco's BART. Today the system is still in its infancy, mainly popular with commuters from outlying suburbs. Here's an overview of what's currently in place:
The Metro Blue Line, a mostly aboveground rail line, connects Downtown Los Angeles with Long Beach. As with all other metro rail lines, it operates daily from 5am to midnight.
The Metro Red Line, L.A.'s first subway, opened a highly publicized Hollywood-Universal City extension in 2000. The line begins at Union Station, the city's main train depot, and travels west underneath Wilshire Boulevard, looping north into Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.
The Metro Purple Line subway starts at Union Station, shares six stations with the Red Line Downtown, and continues to the Mid-Wilshire area.
The Metro Green Line runs for 20 miles along the center of I-105, the Glenn Anderson (Century) Freeway, and connects Norwalk in eastern Los Angeles County to LAX and Redondo Beach. A connection with the Blue Line offers visitors access from LAX to Downtown L.A. or Long Beach.
The Metro Gold Line is a 14-mile link between Pasadena and Union Station in Downtown L.A. Stops include Old Pasadena, the Southwest Museum, and Chinatown.
The base Metro fare is $1.50 for all lines. A Metro Day Pass is $6 and weekly passes are $20. Passes are available at Metro Customer Centers and local convenience and grocery stores. For more information on public transportation -- including construction updates, timetables, and details on purchasing tokens or passes -- call MTA at tel. 213/922-2000 or, better yet, log on to their handy website at www.metro.net.
Distances are long in Los Angeles, and cab fares are high; even a short trip can cost $20 or more. Taxis currently charge $2.85 at the flag drop, plus $2.70 per mile. A service charge of $2.50 is added to fares originating from LAX. Beware, there's also an additional charge of $30¢ for each 37 seconds on delay, and if you know anything about L.A. traffic, that can really add up fast.
Except in the heart of Downtown, cabs will usually not pull over when hailed. Cabstands are at airports, at Downtown's Union Station, and at major hotels. To ensure a ride, order a taxi in advance from Checker Cab (tel. 323/654-8400), L.A. Taxi (tel. 213/627-7000), or United Taxi (tel. 800/822-8294).