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Los Angeles

On a clear day you can see downtown. On rare breezy, crisp days in Los Angeles, the smog gets pushed aside and the haze evaporates to reveal not only the buildings downtown but the mountains and forests surrounding the city. For about the first six months I was in Los Angeles, I never saw downtown let alone the mountains surrounding the basin. Los Angeles has long been where the American Dream was manufactured but if you’re not prepared to embrace the dream it’s a good bet that you will see LA for what it has become filthy, irritating, frightening or just plain dumb. But if you are prepared and have a drop-top, you’ve come to the right place.

Almost everything you hear about Los Angeles is true which is both good and bad. It’s true that this city is, as they say, a habitat for the fake and plastic, a bastion of the beautiful. But it is also a burgeoning cultural and business center, emerging during the past decade as a world-class city with lofty goals and a promising future. Yes, there have been numerous earthquakes, fires and floods in its 200 plus years (good news; no sign of locusts yet), but the city continues to swell in population. In fact, the metropolitan area is now home to over 14 million residents.

LA has long been renowned as a getaway for the laid-back (even its airport is LAX), but for many on the fast track, the speed can be furious. The metropolitan LA area, with its large harbor, vast expanse of land and increasing wealth, is poised to become the leading metropolis for a 21st century Pacific Rim.

Introduction

It has taken a long time but Los Angeles has shed its long-entrenched inferiority complex, moving forward by brashly constructing its own cultural heritage. In the past two decades, the city has been transformed from a culinary wasteland to one of the world’s great restaurant cities. While its museums and performance groups have for years lagged behind other major cities, the construction of the Getty Center in Brentwood and a resuscitated Los Angeles Philharmonic (with the state-of-the-art Disney Hall to follow) have the city catching up to more senior civic entities. Downtown Los Angeles is a misnomer. The city has no center, instead existing merely as a sprawling mess of neighborhoods from artsy Venice and sunny Santa Monica to funky Silverlake and the subdued Valley, from the high-profile glitz of Brentwood and Beverly Hills to the subtle cultural traditions of East L. A. and South Central. Home to people from over 120 countries and with 150 languages spoken within its boundaries, Los Angeles is truly the one of the world’s most multi-cultural city. In this respect, it is easy to view Los Angeles as a global experiment in diversity.

Though most citizens remain sequestered in their communities, with the freeways serving as concrete boundaries between neighborhoods, there is a vibrant cultural mix in the Gen-X coffee shops and entertainment communities that might signal a promising shift toward a new spirit of cooperation. When you visit Los Angeles, you’ll discover that much of the vibrant life here seems to thrive somewhere between reality and dream. This alluring place is where trends are born. Convertibles. Short skirts. Health food. In-line skates. Even the Internet.

Since its beginning, LA has lived on the cusp of a trend, always re-inventing itself from Mexican outpost to agricultural Mecca to boomtown movie colony to high-tech aerospace hub to the new economy. LA reaches new horizons every day. Los Angeles first coined the word “tourist.” Because most people arrived here as strangers, LA makes up the richest ethnic mix in the country. Cultures from around the world rub elbows and join hands in fusions of language, fashion and food. Have you tried a Thai taco LA has them. This cultural celebration also means the LA has more stage theaters (80+) and museums (300) than any U. S. city. With metropolitan LA at more than twice the size of Switzerland, you can be sure there’s plenty to explore.

History & Culture

Los Angeles was a diverse city, with a distinct blend of cultures at its founding. This diversity and cultural mixture persists in the city today. In 1781, a band of settlers reached what is now the megalopolis of Los Angeles. This group, which sought to expand the reign of the Spanish Crown, did not consist primarily of Spaniards. Most of the settlers were of mixed decent. Of the 23 adults, eight were Indian and ten were black. One black settler was the son of a black slave and an Indian woman from Alamos. There was only one European Spaniard. The first outsider to arrive by way of an arduous overland route was a fur trapper, Jedediah Smith, who turned up in 1826, four years after an independent Mexico had hoisted its flag above El Pueblo. Los Angeles, with a population of nearly 1,250, had become a city in 1835 when Richard Henry Dana looked in on it. By the time war broke out between the United States and Mexico in 1846, the California capital was so overrun with enterprising people that when American forces entered the city in 1846, not a shot was fired and n July 4, 1847, Los Angeles celebrated its first Independence Day.

Los Angeles was incorporated on April 4, 1850 and designated the seat of Los Angeles County. The lawless, adobe cow town prospered in the wake of the Gold Rush when hungry miners in San Francisco and Sacramento gorged on beef from southern California. A catastrophic drought (1862-65) following several years of declining cattle prices brought an end to the era of the ranchos. Vast Spanish and Mexican land grants, mortgaged and bankrupt, their owners ignorant of Yanqui laws and Yanqui interest rates, were broken up, fenced and planted by a new breed of Angelino. By 1860 the city had become so Americanized that it had banned bullfighting and formed a baseball club.

With the arrival of the railroads in 1876 and 1885, Los Angeles began to ship its oranges back east and, by means of a massive advertising campaign, to lure immigrants westward to the New Eden. Aided by a railroad rate war, the boom of the 1880’s more than quadrupled the city’s population during that decade.

Unlike San Francisco and San Diego, Los Angeles has no natural harbour. A narrow, artfully gerrymandered “shoestring strip” connects the inland city with its port, 23 miles south of City Hall. Work began on the harbour in 1899. The opening of the first wharf in 1914 coincided with the completion of the Panama Canal, which put the ports of the Atlantic seaboard some 8,000 miles closer to Los Angeles and its harbour became the busiest on the West Coast.

In 1904, casting about for new sources of water to sustain the city’s relentless growth, William Mulholland, water-bureau superintendent, explored the Owens Valley some 250 miles northeast of Los Angeles and returned with a bold plan for an aqueduct to carry melted snow from the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada to Los Angeles faucets. The 233-mile-long aqueduct, with 142 separate tunnels totalling 52 miles in length, has been supplemented by a 105-mile extension into the Mono Basin. The system supplies 80 percent of the city’s water needs. The remainder comes from local wells, the California Aqueduct and the Colorado River.

A severe drought in 1976-77 gave Angelinos a foretaste of the time (1985) when their Colorado River water would, by court order, be shared with Arizona. Meanwhile, with rain and snow dumping about three-fourths of California’s usable surface water in the north, while more than half of its people live in the south, the “water wars” between powerful corporate farmers and resourceful urban environmentalists continue to be fought out in the legislature, the courts and the voting booth.

In the first decade of the 20th century, while San Francisco tidied up the rubble of its 1906 earthquake, Los Angeles tripled its population, from about 100,000 to nearly 320,000. One local entrepreneur opened the first motion-picture theatre in the United States, in 1902 and another built the city’s first garage to accommodate its growing number of automobiles, but the parasol-shaded girls from the red-plush brothels run by Pearl Morton and Cora Phillips still drove about in open carriages, much to the distress of the retired druggists, dentists and wheat farmers from the middle West who kept streaming into Los Angeles.

Angelinos live in enclaves walled off from one another by ethnic, cultural and economic differences. They go their own way, surfing, riding, skiing, yachting, hiking, playing golf and tennis. Nowhere in the world is the pursuit of happiness more unabashedly hedonistic, and, perhaps, no city in modern times has been so universally envied, imitated, ridiculed, and, because of what it may portend, feared. As early as 1927 it was recognized by Bruce Bliven as “a melting pot in which the civilization of the future may be seen bubbling darkly up in a foreshadowing brew.”

Attractions

Los Angeles has built its reputation on the glamour of the movies and most visitors want at least a little of its glitz to rub off on them. Hollywood itself (in northwestern LA) is no longer the movie Mecca it once was, but it certainly holds plenty of historic interest. Take a walk down Hollywood Blvd and you’ll pass by famous sights such as Mann’s Chinese Theatre, where more than 150 of the glitterati have left their prints on the sidewalk out the front. Head east along the Boulevard, stepping on those famous bronze stars and you’ll find yourself at the Roosevelt Hotel. Soak up a bit of 1930’s ambience: this is where the first Academy Awards were held in 1928 and where Errol Flynn, Salvador Dali and F Scott Fitzgerald often propped up the bar. The corner of Hollywood and Vine was once the heart of off-screen action for the Industry, but you wouldn’t know it now. If you want a memento of those golden days, the Collectors Book Store on the corner is a treasure trove of memorabilia. If you don’t manage to spot a real star while you’re in Hollywood, drop by the Hollywood Wax Museum or (for real stars’ knickers) Frederick’s of Hollywood Lingerie Museum. No star-studded tour would be complete without a visit to Beverly Hills, home to the rich and famous. Just west of Hollywood, this city-within-a-city flaunts its wealth with opulent manors on manicured grounds and shopping streets overflowing with designer labels. The Hills’ Golden Triangle is bisected by that Mecca of conspicuous consumption, Rodeo Drive, where retailers such as Tiffany, Armani and Vuitton flog their wares. North Beverly Hills is the epicenter of luxury living, home to the likes of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Harrison Ford. For all the latest on who lives where, pick up a ‘Star Home Map’ from a street-corner vendor. If your desire to look over strangers’ fences isn’t sated by Beverly Hills, extend your trip to that other famous neighborhood, Bel Air, in western LA, or the slightly less lively (but nonetheless star-studded) Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, resting place of Rudolph Valentino, Jayne Mansfield and Cecil B De Mille.

Los Angeles doesn’t let its wealthy down, with plenty of opportunities to give that Gold Card a thrashing. Nowhere does conspicuous consumption better than Rodeo Drive. Do your best Audrey Hepburn or Julia Roberts impersonation at absolutely fabulous outlets like Cartier, Dior, Valentino and Versace. If 21st century funk is more your style, give Melrose Ave a try. This is the strip to pick up imported records, wind up toys, folk art, novelties, biker jackets, cowboy boots and second-hand clothes. It’s also a top spot for eating out.

Los Angeles’ beaches have a lot of hype to live up to and in most cases they don’t quite make it. Immortalized by the Beach Boys, Beach Blanket Bingo and Baywatch as miles of golden sand awash with babes of both sexes, in reality the city’s beaches are often polluted and sparsely populated. Nonetheless, some of them are definitely worth a look. Malibu is the archetypal Southern California babe beach and your best bet for sunning and swimming. West of the city, Malibu’s beaches are backed by the rugged mountains of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. It can be quite difficult to find a stretch of sand, as much of the shoreline is privately owned, but there are some very pleasant state beaches.

Santa Monica, just north of LAX, is one of the city’s most appealing neighborhoods. Although the beach only comes to life on the hottest summer days, the surrounding area is a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon. The heart of Santa Monica is the 3rd St Promenade, a lively pedestrian mall packed with buskers, movie theatres, bars and cafes. The Santa Monica pier, built between 1908 and 1921, is the oldest pleasure pier on the West Coast. It has plenty of olde worlde carnival attractions, including a 1920’s carousel and seafood restaurants. The neighborhood is also home to some excellent museums of modern art.

Venice Beach pretty much sums up the LA lifestyle. The beach’s Ocean Front Walk is a human circus of jugglers and acrobats, tarot readers, jug-band musicians, pick-up basketballers, oiled-up fitness freaks and petition circulators. A hundred years ago this place was just swampland, until an enterprising cigarette tycoon turned it into a network of gondola-poled canals and dubbed it the ‘Playland of the Pacific’. All but three miles of the canals have now been built over, but the playland atmosphere is hanging in there. It’s a great place to shop and an even better place to down a freshly-squeezed juice while the human tide washes over you.

You shouldn’t miss Olvera St, a narrow, block-long passageway in El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the area where the city was founded. In 1930, the street was restored as an open-air Mexican market and it’s now a great place to get hold of handcrafted leather, handwoven clothes and other Mexican gear. To add to the atmosphere, the street is infested with strolling mariachi bands.

Apart from great food, Chinatown also has Chinese inlaid furniture, silk clothing and religious artworks. If all this shopping has left you spiritually and physically sapped, visit one of the neighborhood’s acupuncturists or herbalists. Contrary to popular belief, LA does have an intellectual, refined side.

When you’re shopped, glitzed, tanned and rollercoastered out, head for some of the best museums in the USA. Top of the list has to be the J Paul Getty Museum, on the Pacific Coast Hwy just west of Santa Monica. This replica of an A. D. 79 Pompeiian villa houses one of the world’s most valuable art collections (around $3 billion worth). Displayed among its magnificent indoor and outdoor gardens are a fantastic array of Greek and Roman antiquities.

North of downtown, opulent San Marino is home to the Huntington Library, Museum and Botanical Gardens. Once the estate of railroad tycoon Henry E Huntington, this is now a cultural center, research institution and a damn fine place to spend a lazy afternoon. The library’s collection of rare books includes a Gutenberg bible, a Chaucer manuscript and Benjamin Franklin’s handwritten autobiography. The art gallery has a world-class collection of 18th century British and French paintings and two centuries’ worth of American art. The botanical gardens are made up of 15 theme gardens: the most popular are the Desert, Japanese and Shakespearean Gardens.

Other museums worth a look include downtown’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which houses one of the world’s best collections of modern art. The La Brea Tar Pits, just outside the downtown area, is one of the world’s most important paleontological sites. These bubbling pits have trapped thousands of plants and animals over the last 40,000 years and fossils of all sorts of prehistoric beasts are still being uncovered. You can see excavations in action at an observation pit and the George C Page Museum displays many of the fossils pulled from the pits, including saber-tooth cats and an enormous dire wolf.

The Museum of Tolerance, just south of Beverly Hills, presents a gut-wrenching look at some of the more appalling examples of human behavior. The museum focuses on the oppression of Blacks in America and the Jewish Holocaust, using interactive, high-tech exhibits. Slightly less serious, the Max Factor Beauty Museum in Hollywood gives cosmetics due credit for their role in creating many an LA beauty.

Recreation

Biking
Although smoggy LA is not particularly inviting to cyclists, the county has more than 200 miles of bike trails. Best of the bunch is the South Bay Bicycle Trail, 22 miles from Santa Monica to Torrance Beach. The best place to rent a bike is at the concessions along the beachfront cycle path.

Climbing
Rock climbers test themselves on the cliffs at Point Dume, while Escondido Beach has the best diving in the bay. There’s a whale-watching platform at nearby Westward Beach and a nature trail that leads to Zuma Beach County Park, a couple of miles to the north.

Hiking
Urban hiking is your best bet, but if you need to get space and a bit of greenery, LA’s surrounding mountains are good day-hike destinations. Try the rugged Santa Monica Mountains or the Topango State Park, both inland from Malibu, or try Griffith Park, a few miles northwest of downtown.

Surfing
Zuma is the largest and sandiest of LA’s county-owned beaches, has rough surf and plenty of oily hardbodies. LA’s southern beaches include Manhattan Beach, jampacked on summer days with surfers, volleyball players and the American-as-apple-pie local residents it’s arguably the nearest thing you’ll find to the ‘California Dream’. Redondo Beach is one of LA’s more intriguing beaches. At its northern end is King Harbor, a small-boat marina and fishermen’s haven.

Winter Sports
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: LA is a city where you can surf at the beach in the morning and ski in the snowfields in the afternoon as long as you get up early and have a warm wetsuit. The main area for downhill skiing is Big Bear in the San Bernardino Mountains, a 90-minute drive east of LA. The season lasts from mid-December until March or April and skiing is generally only good in the morning. Groomed runs and moguls are excellent, but don’t expect powder. The best part about Big Bear is the weather sunshine 90% of the time and shorts and T-shirt temperatures in spring.

In The Area

Disneyland
Does anyone go to Los Angeles and not visit Disneyland Apparently the happiest place on earth (though the hordes of screaming children and parents at their wits’ end may make you doubt it), Disneyland is a masterpiece of picture-perfect choreography even the litter bins are themed. The park is divided into four different lands: Adventureland has a jungle theme and features Indiana Jones and the Forbidden Eye; Frontierland celebrates the myth of the Wild West; Fantasyland devotes itself to Disney’s favorite characters; and Tomorrowland is (you guessed it) all about the future. In summer you’ll spend the better part of your visit to Disneyland queuing one of the best ways to avoid this is to come in the evening when the kiddies are in bed. Uncle Walt’s wonderland is in Anaheim, half an hour’s drive south of downtown LA; you can get there by bus, hotel shuttle or by car on Interstate 5.

Magic Mountain
Rollercoaster purists will bypass both Disneyland and Knott’s for the greater glories of Six Flags Magic Mountain. Magic Mountain has more rides than Greyhound, with all the joys of spiral hairpin drops, boomerang turns, zero-gravity spins and waterfall plummets. Magic Mountain’s 100 rides are in Valencia, an hour’s drive northwest of downtown off of Interstate 5.

Santa Catalina
Discovered by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 and named by Sebastian Vizcaino when he arrived 60 years later, Santa Catalina is one of the largest of the Channel Islands, a chain of semi-submerged mountains between Santa Barbara and San Diego. Most of the island has been privately owned since 1811, when the Native American population was shipped off to the mainland. Tourists have been coming to the island since the 1930’s, but the privately-owned areas remained largely untouched until 1975, when they were bought out by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. The island is now preserved against development and its unique ecosystem, with 400 endemic and indigenous plants, 100 species of birds and numerous animals (including wild American bison), is protected by law.

Avalon is the only town on Catalina. It’s dominated by the white Spanish-Moderne Casino, built by chewing-gum heir William Wrigley Jr. in 1929, when he owned the island. The Casino is no longer open for gambling, but it does have a grand ballroom (Benny Goodman and Glenn miller both played here), a huge theatre, the Catalina Island Museum and an art gallery. Other highlights of the town include the Chimes Tower, which is covered in inlaid tiles; the old Wrigley Mansion, now a hotel; and the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Gardens.

Most visitors to Catalina come for the fantastic watersports, including diving, snorkeling, sea kayaking, ocean rafting and sailing. There’s also some great hiking, horseriding and bicycling trails. If undersea adventure is more your thing, take a semi-sub or glass-bottomed boat tour. Catalina has plenty of hotels and resorts, as well as four campgrounds, but most are fairly expensive. You can get to Catalina on one of the regular cruises from Long Beach, San Pedro, Redondo Beach or Newport beach, or you can take a (very pricey) helicopter from Queen Mary Seaport.

Big Bear
High in the San Bernardino National Forest, south of the popular outdoors destination of Big Bear, San Gorgonio is 92 square miles of trees, lakes and barren slopes. The area takes in Mt San Bernardino and San Gorgonio Pealaska, both over 10,000 foot high and a multitude of hiking and equestrian trails traverse the area’s steep and rugged terrain. At low elevations the area is very arid, hot in the summer and full of rattlesnakes; at higher elevations, oak and manzanita are joined by cedar, fir, sugar and lodgepole pines. Black bears, coyote, deer and squirrel are common and even bald eagles are seen frequently around the area’s campgrounds. Jenks Lake, between Mt San Bernardino and San Gorgonio Pealaska, is a scenic spot for picnicking and easy hiking. San Gorgonio is about 90 minutes’ drive from LA. If you don’t have wheels, buses run as far as nearby Big Bear but you’ll probably need to organize a ride along Hwy 38 to San Gorgonio.

Palm Springs
Famous as a winter retreat for Hollywood stars, but increasingly a well-scrubbed retirement home for the moderately wealthy, Palm Springs is the original desert resort city in the Coachella Valley east of LA. To get things in perspective, the valley has about 250,000 people, 10,000 swimming pools, 85 golf courses and more plastic surgeons per head than anywhere else in the US. There’s a growing gay scene in Palm Springs and college kids in the thousands descend on the town for a riotous spring break but there’s not much to do in town except hang around the pool or play golf. The real interest is in visiting the nearby canyons, mountains and desert. Highlights include hiking trails in the Andreas, Murray, Palm and Tahquitz canyons, which are shaded by fan palms and surrounded by towering cliffs and taking the aerial tramway which climbs 6000 feet from the desert floor up into the San Jacinto mountains.

There are a number of museums in town, including the informative Palm Springs Desert Museum, the Living Desert outdoor museum and botanic garden and the Museum of the Heart, which explains heart attacks while giving you the chance to step inside a giant aorta. Palm Springs is a two hour drive east of LA and is accessible by Greyhound or train.

Santa Barbara
Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is often called the California Riviera because of its affluent population, outstanding Mediterranean architecture and gorgeous seaside location.

Highlights include the delightful Spanish-Moorish revival style Santa Barbara County Courthouse, the stately mission Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The city boasts half a dozen decent beaches, the oldest continuously operating wharf on the west coast (once owned by James Cagney), botanic gardens, zoological gardens and arguably one of the most pleasant downtown areas in Southern California. Rising abruptly and majestically to the north, the Santa Ynez foothills offer great camping and hiking opportunities. Santa Barbara is just over an hour’s drive along the coast north of Los Angeles.

When To Go

Despite its desert climate, most of Los Angeles is protected from extremes of temperature and humidity by the mountain ranges to its north and east. August and September are the hottest months, January and February the coolest and wettest. Offshore breezes keep the beach communities cooler in summer and warmer in winter than those further inland, particularly the San Fernando Valley, which is the hottest area in summer and the coldest in winter. The average Los Angeles temperature is around 70 degrees F. Summer temperatures can get well over 90 degrees F, while winter days around 55F are not uncommon. There really aren’t any seasonal restrictions on a visit to LA.

If you go in summer you’ll see the beaches at their liveliest. If the thought of wall-to-wall toned bodies makes you a tad uneasy, try spring (April to May) or fall (September to November), when the crowds are smaller and prices lower.


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