Seeing the top sights of Los Angeles in a single day requires an early start and a bit of stamina, but it's quite doable. This "greatest hits" itinerary begins with L.A.'s sine qua non attraction, Hollywood. After lunch, you'll cruise along Sunset Boulevard west to the beach and spend a few hours on foot touring the Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach. In warm months, you'll conclude your, like, most excellent day with a live performance under the stars at the legendary Hollywood Bowl.
Start: Corner of Gower Street and Hollywood Boulevard, and walk west.
1. Hollywood Walk of Fame
Forget the culture/museum stuff—it's time to see for yourself all those famous Hollywood sites you've watched on TV since you were a toddler. Start the day by spending the morning on Hollywood Boulevard, following the path of bronze-and-marble stars along the Walk of Fame. Since 1960 more than 2,400 celebrities have been honored along the world's most famous sidewalk, but you'll need an old-timer to explain who a lot of the now-long-dead entertainers were. For a few bucks, you can buy a map that lists every star; better yet, log on to www.walkoffame.com/starfinder. There's also a free Official Hollywood Walk of Fame smartphone app.
On Hollywood Boulevard between Highland and La Brea avenues, you'll find:
2. Grauman's Chinese Theatre
It's sort of a tourist rite of passage to compare your hands and feet with the famous prints set in cement at the entrance court to Grauman's Chinese Theatre, a tradition started when silent-film star Norma Talmadge "accidentally" stepped in wet cement during the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings. Because it's along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you're already here. Go ahead: Compare your shoes to footprints left by Humphrey Bogart or Marilyn Monroe. There are about 160 celebrity squares to scrutinize: See if you can find Whoopi Goldberg's dreadlocks, Bob Hope's nose, Betty Grable's gams, and R2D2's wheels.
Stay at the Chinese Theatre for the:
3. Movie Stars' Homes Tour
Oh, c'mon! You know you want to do it. It's not like you're the only one who feels slightly guilty by paying to peek into the private lives of Katy Perry, Jennifer Aniston, and Nicolas Cage (hey, nobody forced them to buy a home around Hollywood). Besides, you're already here—the 2-hour tours leave every half-hour between 9:30am and 5:30pm in back of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Just buy a ticket at the Starline Tours kiosk, hop into a minibus, and let the voyeurism begin.
4. Take a Break: Musso & Frank Grill
Time for lunch. Walk down the street to Musso & Frank Grill, Hollywood's oldest restaurant (since 1919) and a paragon of Hollywood's halcyon-era grillrooms. Part restaurant, part museum, this is where Faulkner, Hemingway, and Orson Welles derived liquid inspiration during their screenwriting days. Slither into one of the red-leather booths, order one of the legendary martinis or bloody marys from the gruff red-coated waiters, and work on that Atkins diet with a perfectly cooked ribeye. 6667 Hollywood Blvd. (at Cherokee Ave.). tel. 323/467-7788.
After lunch, waddle to your rented convertible red Mustang (you did rent a convertible red Mustang, didn't you?), put in a Best of the Beach Boys CD, and slowly cruise the legendary:
5. Sunset Boulevard and The Sunset Strip
This 1-hour-or-so drive takes you from sorta-seedy Hollywood to flamboyant West Hollywood, past the moneyed minimansions of Beverly Hills, through neighborhoods most people can't afford to live in such as Westside and Brentwood, winding your way into the secluded enclave of Pacific Palisades toward Malibu, and finally the Pacific Coast Highway ("PCH," if you're hip). The winding drive takes you through a cross section of nearly everything the western side of Los Angeles has to offer.
Drive south on the PCH into the big-city beach town of Santa Monica, and park at the:
6. 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. Buy an ice-cream cone at one of the snack shacks and stroll seaward past the wooden carousel, roller coaster, and arcades, then buy a ticket to ride the Ferris wheel (when's the last time you rode on a Ferris wheel?).
From the pier, walk south to the carnival-like stretch known as:
7. Venice Beach's Ocean Front Walk
For first-timers, this pseudo-bohemian scene is a bit of a shock to the senses: a surreal assemblage of street performers, musicians, musclemen pumping serious iron, apocalyptic evangelists, break dancers, stoned drummers, and endless schlock shops. By now your feet are probably talking to you, so stop at one of the outdoor cafes and have a beer while taking in the scene. This is also where you can rent a bike and cruise along the 8-mile bike path that runs along the beach.
Pile into the convertible and cruise northeast on Santa Monica Boulevard all the way across town (or take I-10 east to Hwy. 110 north to Hwy. 101 north) to the:
8. Hollywood Bowl
I've saved the best for last: the Hollywood Bowl. I've yet to meet anyone who wasn't impressed by the Bowl, an elegant, Greek-style natural outdoor amphitheatre cradled in a small canyon north of Hollywood. Truly, it's one of L.A.'s grandest traditions, watching a live performance under the stars on a warm summer night while noshing on crackers, cheese and wine. It's the summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl orchestras, and often hosts internationally known conductors, soloists, and popular acts ranging from Radiohead to Garrison Keillor. Here's how you do the Bowl the fanciest and easiest way: Reserve a box seat section as far in advance as possible, then preorder a gourmet picnic basket filled with hot and cold dishes, desserts, and fine wines from the excellent on-site catering department, which will deliver the goodies to your box once you arrive.
Tip: For those on more of a budget, go for more moderately priced rear seats (there are two huge monitors, after all), and pick up a simple dinner from a local deli or grocery store, where you can also purchase wine (the Bowl is BYO-friendly for events it puts together; concerts that rent the Bowl have stricter rules). You'll save money and still have a great time.