You come for the glitz; you stay for the landscape. As soon as you think you know her free-spirited, hedonistic nature, LA suddenly reveals her softer side. And, at odds with the wild tapestry of neon lights and quirky clubs, you’re never far from nature in Los Angeles, despite how immune to the elements the supermodel-skinny palm trees flanking every road may seem. West Hollywood sits in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains; a couple of blocks north of Sunset Boulevard, the road inches up and around canyon walls, with signs warning of wild deer — reminding you that not even the palatial houses teetering on Mulholland Drive can eclipse Mother Nature here.
Yet the glamour and glitz drawing thousands of wannabe stars and visitors every year remains easy to find: Hollywood permeates through every layer of LA. If you don’t see a star shopping on Rodeo Drive or partying on the Sunset Strip, you’re likely to catch one hiking the canyons or ordering off a menu at the table next to you. And since the city isn’t brimming with must-see museums and iconic sights, your best bet is to partake in a little spontaneous wandering, for the chance to stumble upon that quirky shoe store or wacky celeb spot.
LA is often labelled a difficult place to visit, and it’s true — its earthquake-prone location demanded low-rise buildings when it was first developed, making it more a collection of self-contained neighbourhoods than a city with any traditional structure. Where’s the centre? That’s for you to decide. It’s only by jumping head first into the swell that you’ll fall in love with this most versatile of cities.
Everything you’ve heard about LA is true. The manicured streets of Beverly Hills seem as nipped and tucked as their inhabitants; every other building really is a bar on the Sunset Strip; and, if you’re lucky, you might catch a celebrity unveiling their star on the (otherwise unremarkable) Hollywood Walk of Fame. But to stick to the ‘tourist triangle’ is to do the city a disservice.
“By all means take a bus tour of the stars’ homes and see the Walk of Fame, but don’t judge the city by the things it’s easiest to do,” says Tony Horkins, a British journalist who’s been reporting from Hollywood for 12 years. “LA is a hard city to visit, but it’s worth the effort if you hike the canyons, or head into the hills to enjoy the views.”
Sure enough, a five-minute drive from Sunset Boulevard and I’m on Mulholland Drive, the long, twisted spine separating one side of LA from the other; canyons cleaving the ground beneath it on either side. To my right, the wild landscape melts into the Studio City area (home to Universal Studios). To my left lie West Hollywood, the skyscrapers of Downtown LA and, in the distance, the faint shimmer of the Pacific Ocean.
Hiking this unforgiving landscape is the daily workout for many Angelenos. Tony takes me to Fryman Canyon, connecting Mulholland and Studio City. Starting at the bottom, we clamber through the wilderness as he identifies the odd C-lister jogging past. On the way down, we pass George Clooney’s house.
But once you’ve noticed LA’s natural attractions, the frisson of a celebrity encounter is a little diluted. A drive to the Hollywood sign (ignore the ‘no access’ placards — Deronda Drive’s dead-end is so close to it you can see the bolts welding the letters together) has me swooning over the wildflower-covered hills, and on Mulholland Highway — a prime sign-viewing area — I turn my back to watch the full moon hanging, pendulous, over the neighbouring canyon. At the Getty Center, I’m lured away from the Hockneys by a sculpture terrace facing the ocean.
LA does beaches beautifully. Santa Monica is a large, laid-back town, whose retro Main Street is almost as alluring as the beach, two blocks away. Malibu is breathtaking but inaccessible — a wall of houses blocks off the sea from the road, and there are access points only every couple of miles. And then there’s Venice. “Welcome to Mars,” grins Dave Bradt, as I pad along the boardwalk — a mile-long parade of artists, social misfits, and rebels with a cause, be it medical marijuana, 9/11 conspiracy theories or ‘Jews for Jesus’. Dave’s crusade, which has brought him here every Sunday since 1995, is to rally against circumcision. He walks me past tarot card readers, a ‘world-famous tongue whistler’ and artists, including two entrepreneurial homeless men, whose cardboard ‘Venice Bum Signs’, with slogans like ‘I need a freaking beer’, go for $5 (£3.20) a pop. He leaves me at Muscle Beach — which isn’t living up to its name today; either Sunday is the day of rest for Schwarzeneggers-in-training or they’ve responded to the siren call of the drum circle taking place on the fine-grained sand beach. “There’s no place like this on earth,” Dave sighs, as he walks away.
Few experiences are more ‘LA’ than a shopping trip to Rodeo Drive, where palm trees and paparazzi compete for your attention amid the slew of Chanel, Prada, and D&G. But for independent, trendy boutiques, Angelenos head to Silver Lake.
“When we opened in 2001, the neighbourhood was thrift stores and taco stands,” explains Peter Choi — owner of gift shop Serifos — referring to Silver Lake’s transformation from a rough suburb to LA’s crucible of independent stores.
“Artists and musicians who’d been priced out of other areas moved in, and Silver Lake became very trendy — and now the working Hollywood types have moved in,” he says. It’s a tight-knit, active community: “There are no chains here,” Peter adds. “They always try to move in, and every time they do, the neighbourhood gathers together and says, ‘No, you can’t do this’. So we’re mostly owner-owned boutiques.”
He’s right. At ‘Sunset Junction’ — the intersection of Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards — you can pair a phenomenal flat white at Intelligentsia coffee shop with a toasted sandwich at The Cheese Store of Silver Lake, owned by a former rock band manager, then spend an afternoon in the two-block pocket of shops, without ever seeing a brand name. “There are probably more artists per capita here than anywhere else in LA,” says Vince Bilbrow, who’s been supplying Hollywood with vintage clothes from his shop, Ragg Mopp Vintage, since 1998.
At Matrushka, owner Laura Howe designs and makes dresses using material she buys in Downtown LA. “We’re lucky because we have a garment district here,” she says, tending to a hem. “I can buy the fabric, come back here, cut it out, and have it in the window on the same day.” Laura’s dresses come in around 20 styles, using an array of fabrics — from bold graphic prints to whimsical pastels resembling an impressionist canvas. If you like a fabric, but not the cut, she can run you up a brand new dress in an afternoon. When a Christopher Kane-style maxi dress isn’t quite long enough for my six-foot frame, Laura sews me a made-to-measure version to collect en route to the airport.
I’m in good company — a number of celebs also wear Matrushka, but Laura won’t name them. Or, rather, can’t. “I’m just so bad with names,” she says, she shrugs, before noting a Desperate Housewife and “the woman from those Wolverine movies” have been in.
It should come as no surprise that LA is a city that readily embraces food fads. “Right now, we have burger wars,” says Tony Horkins. “From the poshest restaurants to the small dives, everyone is trying to outdo each other with burgers.” Gourmet food trucks and British-style gastro pubs are also huge at the moment. In fact, LA’s penchant for all things Brit has seen him start a side business, British Flog, which sells clothing emblazoned with UK idioms.
I mix my fads at Baby’s Badass Burgers, a roaming food truck that announces its location via Twitter, and counts Paris Hilton and Charlie Sheen as fans. The meat is succulent, the bread tastes like brioche and the sweet-with-a-hint-of-spice sauce is something I’d gladly coat my meals in for the rest of my days.
Of course, Hollywood is notoriously traditional too. Bruce Willis and Heidi Klum are fans of Scarpetta restaurant, whose spaghetti in tomato sauce is almost as famous as the stars who eat it. Celeb chef Scott Conant has me at the bread basket, and seals the deal with the main course — fresh tagliatelle tossed in butter and Parmesan, with sweet truffle crumbled on top. “They add pasta water to the sauce for texture,” my waitress tells me. I’m pretty sure they add a touch of divinity, too.
Old-school Hollywood, modernism, hip minimalism — there’s a hotel for every taste in LA. “In some ways it’s the same as it’s been for the past several decades,” says Santa Monica-based Juliana Shallcross, who edits website HotelChatter. “There are still iconic hotels like The Beverly Hills Hotel, which turned 100 this May. Then there are the party hotels on the Sunset Strip. And, of course, there are all the beachfront hotels in Santa Monica — if you want some ocean and sand with your celeb spotting.” As we chat, at Shutters on the Beach hotel, Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman walks by.
For those looking to party in LA, West Hollywood is the place to be. Glass-fronted towerblock, Andaz West Hollywood is a magnet for the rock ’n’ roll crowd. In its former incarnation as the ‘Riot Hyatt’, Led Zeppelin rode a motorcycle through the corridors and Keith Richards lobbed a television over his balcony. A 2009 renovation ‘boutiquified’ the decor and enclosed all the balconies — they’re now glass boxes jutting over Sunset Boulevard.
The Thompson Beverly Hills, meanwhile, two-and-a-half blocks from Rodeo Drive, whisks you back to the glam, Mad Men era with subtle-but-sexy rooms featuring black-marbled bathrooms, cowhide rugs and headboards-cum-canopies interlacing brown leather with mirrored panels.
But my most memorable night in LA was at Shutters on the Beach, right on the Santa Monica boardwalk, with only a thin line of palm trees between my balcony and the Pacific Ocean. Its graceful, retro rooms have high wooden beds, full bookshelves and huge whirlpool bathtubs. Having heard numerous people rave about Shutters, I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype; falling asleep to the sound of waves skimming against the shore, I could see their point.
As night falls, most visitors head to West Hollywood, and legendary Sunset Strip venues such as The Viper Room and The Roxy Theatre, whose sticky boards have been trodden by the likes of John Lennon, Alice Cooper and Bruce Springsteen.
In Santa Monica, part restaurant, part dive-bar Chez Jays has been a Hollywood draw since 1959 — everyone from Marilyn Monroe (who used to take JFK there) to Drew Barrymore (who named it one of her favourite spots) has been in. The food is, as Juliana warns, ‘so-so’, but the atmosphere is extraordinary: classic rock on the radio, fairy lights slung around the bar, and a carpeting of peanut shells on the floor — ‘Shells on the floor or you’re out the door!’ warns a stern sign on entry.
Juliana’s other suggestion takes me from the ridiculous to the sublime. At the Montage Beverly Hills hotel, £10 is an unadvertised, reservations-only bar so exclusive the door can only be opened from the inside. Not, I soon find, out of snobbery, but because of the sheer value of what lurks inside this dark, wood-panelled room. Run in conjunction with whisky brand The Macallan, the bar not only stocks bottles that cost up to $64,000 (£41,000) a shot — the last 2oz in existence of 64-year-old Macallan — but everything that could be glass is made from Lalique crystal, from the door handle to the candle holders and decanters.
“At $2,800 (£1,785) a drink, these spirits are going to spend a long time in their decanters,” says bartender Nick Daniels of the 57-year-old Old & Rare Scotch. “You’re not going to take a double shot after a long day at work. Lalique crystal is the purest in the world, which means the whisky will keep as much integrity as is humanly possible, however long it’s in there.”
The self-confessed ‘booze dork’ whips me up a cocktail for my brewing cold: gin (flavoured with saffron and rose hip rather than juniper), ginger, lemon and honey. I taste parma violets soaked in honey and given a fiery kick. What there’s not a hint of, though, is the stiff shot of alcohol that normally makes me grimace. “You’re not supposed to taste the alcohol in a cocktail,” Nick informs me. “If you can, it means it’s unbalanced.”
But the venue isn’t for those on a budget — shots start at $16 (the £10 in the bar’s name) and cocktails $25 (£16), while there’s a minimum spend of $50 (£32) per head. Far more problematic, though, is the fact that once you drink here, you’ll never want to set foot in a bar that doesn’t have four types of ice cube (deionised water, with the £10 logo sculpted inside), smoked bacon rashers as bar snacks and cocktails that woo your taste buds, rather than sear them in a bid to prove their potency. A victory of subtlety over brashness, then. Not what you’d might except of Tinseltown. But then, that’s La La Land — whenever you think you’ve pinned it down, it throws you a curve ball worthy of the Dodgers.
Virgin Atlantic, United, American Airlines, British Airways and Air New Zealand all fly direct from Heathrow. www.virgin-atlantic.com www.unitedairlines.co.uk www.americanairlines.co.uk www.ba.com www.airnewzealand.co.uk
Average flight time: 11h.
Buses and four rail lines are operated by Metro with tickets costing from $1.50 (96p) per boarding or $5 (£3.22)for a day pass with unlimited rides. But public transport is hopeless and, as traffic is so heavy, a rental car is much cheaper than taxis. Most hotels and restaurants have valet parking, which is pricey, but across the city there are plenty of (slightly) cheaper car parks, and parking meters.
When to go
With an average of 329 days of sun a year, there’s never a bad time to visit LA, although smog is often a problem in summer. August is a balmy 26-32C; January, the coldest month, 15-32C. Hotels near the ocean and in Beverly Hills tend to have the highest rates in summer, but a reasonable deal can usually be found, given the vast number of hotels.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens travelling for fewer than 90 days operate under the US Visa Waiver Program, but will need to apply for security clearance in advance, via an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) form, which costs $14 (£8.90). Apply at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta
Currency: Dollar ($). £1 = $1.60.
International dial code: 00 1.
Time difference: GMT -7.
Serifos: 3814 W Sunset Blvd. T: 00 1 323 660 7467.
The Cheese Store of Silver Lake: 3926 W Sunset Blvd. www.cheesestoresl.com
Ragg Mopp Vintage: 3816 W Sunset Blvd. T: 00 1 323 666 0550.
Matrushka: 3822 W Sunset Blvd. www.matrushka.com
British Flog: www.zazzle.com/britishflog
Fryman Canyon: www.modernhiker.com/2009/02/09/hiking-fryman-canyon
Getty Center: 1200 Getty Center Drive. www.getty.edu/museum
The Beverly Hills Hotel: 9641 Sunset Blvd. www.beverlyhillshotel.com
Andaz West Holywood: 8401 Sunset Blvd. www.andaz.com
Thompson Beverly Hill: 9360 Wilshire Blvd. www.thompsonhotels.com
Shutters on the Beach: 1 Pico Blvd. www.shuttersonthebeach.com
The Viper Room: 8852 W Sunset Blvd. www.viperroom.com
The Roxy Theatre: 9009 W Sunset Blvd. www.theroxyonsunset.com
Chez Jays: 1657 Ocean Ave. www.chezjays.com
£10: 225 N Canon Drive. www.montagebeverlyhills.com
How to do it
Virgin Holidays offers three nights at the Andaz West Hollywood and two at Shutters on the Beach, on a room-only basis, plus car hire and direct Virgin Atlantic flights, from £1,279. www.virginholidays.co.uk
Travelbag has four nights at the Thompson Beverly Hills, room-only, with US Airways flights via Charlotte or Philadelphia from £989. www.travelbag.co.uk
Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)