Movie mecca, denizen of dreamers, Left Coast liberal haven …
The vast sprawl that is Los Angeles inspires a lot of feelings from the rest of the country—many of them, it seems, negative. East Coast residents deride its “lack of culture.” Northerners, who judge a person’s mettle by how far below freezing it must go before he’ll put on a coat, sneer at L.A.’s succession of sunny, balmy days. Southerners and Midwesterners claim it’s Sodom and Gomorrah rolled into one godless megalopolis.
Methinks they all protest too much. L.A. may be spread-out and smoggy, glitzy and gritty, over-indulgent and opulent, kitschy and Kardashian-heavy. But it’s also one big delight in—as they say in the film industry—cinemascope and technicolor.
Los Angeles appears as a jumble of neighborhoods in search of a city. Where exactly does Hollywood become West Hollywood? Where is the dividing line between Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Brentwood, and where does Westwood fit in? Is Santa Monica anywhere near Santa Ana? And does the city have anything resembling a core?
Determined to find out, I began my odyssey in West Hollywood, which is distinctly different from Hollywood. The latter often surprises first-time visitors with its slightly seedy appearance, but West Hollywood is hip and trendy, a glossy magazine spread of a locale.
Tour operators can do with a group what I did: Walking map in hand, I was off to see the Wizard. It was allegedly at an earlier incarnation of the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the famous Sunset Strip that the idea for “The Wizard of Oz” movie came to fruition. If that isn’t enough cinematic magic, it’s also where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio first met on a blind date.
Seeking the darker side of celebrity, I stopped for a coffee at the legendary Chateau Marmont, a hotel whose famous clientele have exhibited behavior that’s alternately good (Humphrey Bogart tended a garden here), bad (members of Led Zeppelin rode their motorcycles through the lobby) and ugly (John Belushi met his end in one of the rooms).
Sadly, some of the Strip’s former landmarks are nothing but memories. The glamorous nightclubs of Hollywood’s golden era—the Mocambo and Trocadero—are gone; the art deco Argyle, once an apartment building whose famous tenants included Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, is now a hotel; and all that remains of that 1950s TV address—77 Sunset Strip—is a commemorative plaque.
However, travelers of a certain age will be delighted to know that the carhops at Mel’s Diner still bring your burger, fries and shake on roller skates, just as they did in “American Graffiti,” and the infamous Whiskey a Go Go, an anchor on the Strip since the Swinging Sixties, is still a go-go-going.
Next stop: Santa Monica
From the hills of West Hollywood to the beaches of Santa Monica is a mere 25-minute drive, but the two are separated by light years in lifestyle.
If West Hollywood is the epitome of hip edginess, Santa Monica is the definition of laid-back casualness. Life here really is a beach—miles and miles of it—and everything in this palm-fringed community seems to focus on it.
The main drag, Ocean Avenue, parallels the Pacific, and a lovely seaside park serves as the backdrop for a canvas of joggers, cyclers, skaters and dog walkers, all reveling in their own version of California Dreamin.’ The centerpiece of Ocean Avenue is Santa Monica Pier, where your group can enjoy the thrill of a roller coaster ride, enhanced by what seems to be a near-plunge into the Pacific, and where they can snap photos of the usual carny types posing alongside surfer dudes and beach bunnies.
For those who think that in Los Angeles, culture refers only to yogurt (I’m looking at you, East Coasters), a visit to the Getty Center in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains is obligatory. The J. Paul Getty Museum has five galleries situated around a courtyard, 86 acres of landscaped gardens and a promontory commanding sweeping views of the mountains, ocean and entire Los Angeles basin.
As with most great cultural centers, you could spend days at the Getty, but the museum staff has prepared an informative brochure for those who have limited time to explore.
Clutching my copy of “If You Only Have an Hour,” I was able to get to three of the five galleries, seeing Correggio’s “Head of Christ,” Bernini’s sculpture Neptune and Dolphin, Rembrandt’s “Daniel and Cyrus Before the Idol Bel,” Van Gogh’s “Irises,” and an extravagantly decorated set of vases made for King Louis XVI of France.
If all you know about Pasadena is that it’s home to the Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl football game, and as the setting of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” you and your group are in for a treat. Start by booking a tour at The Huntington, a magnificent museum/botanical garden/library endowed by railroad magnate Henry Huntington.
Marvel at the world-famous collection of British paintings, most notably Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy,” in the Georgian mansion that doubles as the museum. Next, it’s on to the library housing the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” a Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum, and a collection of the early editions of Shakespeare’s works.
Groups will also enjoy the extensive botanical gardens (16 specialty gardens with more than 15,000 plant varieties), and arrangements can be made for tea in the lovely Rose Garden Tea Room. (It’s suggested that groups schedule this eight weeks in advance.)
Long Beach, a city in its own right, is also considered part of the Greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. Located south of LAX, Long Beach and makes for an interesting day tip.
Book a tour of Rancho Los Alamitos, a one-time Spanish land grant that offers a peek into the history of early California. Next, check out the Aquarium of the Pacific for a journey across the world’s largest ocean, from the California coast itself to the icy waters of the North Pacific to the colorful reefs of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and the tropical South Seas.
Groups can enjoy a sumptuous meal aboard the Queen Mary, once considered the most luxurious vessel ever to ply the Atlantic and now permanently moored in Long Beach Harbor. They can tour her art deco public rooms and grand promenades, and then dine in Sir Winston’s, the ship’s gourmet restaurant, which offers haute cuisine as well as panoramic views of the Long Beach skyline. You can even arrange for them to overnight in one of the first-class staterooms.
If you and your group want to go even further afield, book passage with Catalina Express for the 22-mile cruise from Long Beach to Catalina Island, a slice of the Mediterranean in Southern California.
Smaller groups can take advantage of specialty activities, such as the famous glass-bottom boat tour and jitney tours of the town of Avalon and surrounding area.
Another popular option is a guided tour of the landmark Catalina Casino. Built by William Wrigley of chewing gum fame, the white-columned rotunda overlooking the bay was never used as a casino, but as a movie palace and, on the second floor, a ballroom where top orchestras of the big-band era played on Saturday nights.
If you still believe that Los Angeles doesn’t really have a downtown, take your group to the place where the City of Angels started: Olvera Street, featuring a Mexican-style market, and the adjoining El Pueblo Los Angeles, established in 1781 as a farming community. Today it boasts 26 historical structures, 11 of which are open to the public.
Other downtown attractions range from the city’s original Flower Market (avoid Wednesdays and Fridays, as they are the busiest days) to the Grammy Museum (group tours can be arranged) to MOCA, the main branch of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, housing thousands of pieces dating from 1940 from artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
With all it has to offer, La La Land might better be called Oooohhh La La Land.
Five bonus tips (one TUT)
Tamy Martelli from the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board has five suggestions for tour operators packaging the City of Angels:
- Go to the California Science Center to see the KING TUT exhibition, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Los Angeles is the only North American destination where visitors can view this extraordinary collection of artifacts. Tour operators can book through early January 2019.
- Shop and dine at more than 200 shops and restaurants in Westfield Century City, an open-air destination that recently received a $1 billion makeover.
- Give your group a different perspective on Los Angeles at OUE Skyspace LA, the tallest open-air observation deck in California, with 360-degree views of the city and a unique glass slide 1,000 feet above sea level.
- Explore L. A.’s diverse neighborhoods with specialty food tours on foot (Urban Adventures, Melting Pot Food Tours) or by bike (L.A. Cycle Tours). From tacos to tortellini to tikka masala, this is the way to “eat Los Angeles.”
- Get tickets for a major pro sporting event, be it basketball (Lakers and Clippers), baseball (Dodgers and Angels), football (Rams and Chargers), hockey (Kings) or soccer (Galaxy and L.A. Football Club).
Top photo: Downtown Los Angeles from Griffith Park Observatory
Photo by Boqiang Liao