There’s a line in Steve Martin’s celebrated nineties comedy, LA Story, that seems to resonate with those who haven’t yet ventured beyond the bright lights of Hollywood Boulevard.
Harris Telemacher (played by Martin) turns to tourist Sara (Victoria Tennant) and says he’d like to take her on a cultural tour of Los Angeles. Her response? “That’s the first fifteen minutes, then what?
Surprising as it may be – there is a thriving community and culture within Los Angeles that exists beyond celebrity and cliché. The idea that L.A. has no culture, no character or no soul just doesn’t cut it anymore.
And here are just a few reasons why.
As Petula Clarke once famously crooned, “things will be great when you’re downtown”. And boy was she right. While LA’s central business district has often been seen as a no-no (safety has been a big issue), it’s exciting to see things are quickly changing. Downtown is undergoing its very own renaissance and it just keeps getting better.
The golden age is back. There’s never been a better time to appreciate the wide streets, art deco buildings, old-fashioned theatres, quaint and quiet parks and outstanding hotels.
That’s not mention all the libraries, public buildings and performance spaces.
For the first of many visual delights, take a quick trip down to Union Station. Originally built in 1926, the station has undergone many a renovation due to a number of earthquakes, but this fascinating structure combines art deco, mission revival and a streamline moderne style that is not to be missed. While you’re there, get a closer look at the ceiling. Think it’s made of wood? Think again…
Olvera Street is next on the list, especially if you’re in the mood for the most colourful Mexican Marketplace you’ll ever come across. Situated in the oldest part of Los Angeles, this precinct is often referred to as the birthplace of L.A and recreates an undeniable old school vibe and authenticity. Think street vendors, food stalls and live entertainment.
Not in the mood for a Mexican feast? Phillippe’s down the street is the perfect culinary alternative. Their signature French dip sandwiches are worth the walk.
If time permits, standout activities also include Angel’s Flight in Bunker Hill and a tour through the exquisite Millennium Biltmore Hotel, which was originally built as a beaux arts-inspired getaway in 1923. There are no words. You simply need to see it. Let’s put it this way – the hotel’s indoor pool was modelled after the decks of ocean liners in the 1920s…
HAVE A NOSH
In my experience however, it’s the unassuming eateries and diners that win every time.
Sure, five star restaurants are great but these places have character! A personal favourite is Norm’s on La Cienega Boulevard. Open 24 hours a day, this is my go-to venue when I’m craving pancakes at 2am, looking for an amusing afternoon of people watching, am clamouring for old fashioned service or need to go somewhere that everybody knows my name.
The Lumberjack breakfast will fill you up all day for less than ten dollars. You may actually never want to eat again. Hot tip? When they ask if you want your hash browns ‘loaded’, you say ‘yes’.
A little further down the road in West Hollywood on Fairfax Avenue is the famous Canter’s Deli. Another LA institution that’s open 24 hours a day, Canter’s is a Jewish style delicatessen, bakery and restaurant that originally opened all the way back in 1931. With more items than you can throw a matzo ball at, you’ll have a choice of everything from their famous homemade pickles to the pastrami on rye that has had regulars coming back each day for more than thirty years.
HIT THE STORES
Sorry dear reader, I’m not talking about having a Julia Roberts Pretty Woman moment on Rodeo Drive. In fact, I’m going to go the complete opposite direction. Los Angeles has a huge range of amazing music and bookstores that rival anything we’ve had in Sydney for a damn long time.
Make sure you visit Amoeba Records on Sunset Boulevard. Not only do they sell CDs, cassettes, videos and DVD’s – their vinyl section is HUGE. Occupying an entire city block, this store is also home to a number of live performances from a range of artists and genres. This place is a sight to be seen… if not heard.
Is there anything quite like getting a brand new book and cracking that spine for the first time? Book lovers need to head back to Fairfax and right into Family.
Launched and run by an Australian, this stylish shop sells an array of artsy books, zines, prints, novels, magazines and t-shirts. It also hosts a range of live events and launches.
Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard is another must-visit destination for lovers of the written word. Apologies in advance if your suitcase on the trip home is filled new additions to your own personal library…
It has been on the literary scene since it was founded in 1975. With more than 60,000 titles specialising in film, photography, art, music, fiction, non-fiction as well as international magazines, the floor to ceiling shelves will keep you occupied for hours.
Honorary mention: Skylight Books in Los Feliz
TAKE A TOUR
This might be a little different to the tours you’d normally sign up for in L.A. Forget traipsing around the backlot of a studio wearing a headset. You won’t find yourself sitting on a TMZ or Starline bus, and there are definitely no Hollywood celebrity homes here. Instead, The Angelino Heights Walking Tour highlights some of the most outstanding architecture L.A. has to offer.
You may recognise one or two of these houses from a range of films, but that’s not what these walking tours are about. This tour is run by Los Angeles Conservancy and explores the architecture and history of this charming Victorian neighbourhood located least of Each Park. Angelino Heights was one of the first suburbs in L.A. and is one of the last remaining neighbourhoods that has property intact from the Victorian era.
These houses are stunning. The main part of the tour focuses on Carroll Avenue, which is lined with Victorian homes from the late nineteenth century. Almost completely restored, all homes on this street is registered as part of a Historic District.
Best of all? This tour even features two private home interiors.
GO FOR A DRIVE
There’s nothing I love more in LA than jumping in the car, switching on KEarth 101 for some sweet old tunes and heading out of West Hollywood for the Pacific Coast Highway. Destination? Malibu!
Less than an hour away (depending on the traffic of course), Malibu is a quaint sanctuary filled with breathtaking views, exceptional restaurants, a tightknit community and two adorable shopping villages that are worth stopping at.
All that driving got you hungry? Paradise Cove Beach Café ticks all the boxes. Not only is the food great (and the portions huge), but the café’s outdoor area sits directly on the sand of their own private beach. Any closer and your feet would be wet.
In what looks like a scene from an old Elvis flick, this restaurant has been serving locals and visitors breakfast, lunch and dinner for more than two decades. My favourite dish? You can’t go past the prawn cocktail. It’s the size of your head.
CATCH A MOVIE, ART SHOW OR EXHIBITION
Beyond the Kodak Theatre and plethora of cinemas throughout L.A., there’s one film society that stands out for all the right reasons. Cinefamily is a non-profit organisation of movie lovers that are devoted to presenting the best and most unique programs of weird and wonderful films. Doing their darndest to revive film culture within a community space, the guys and gals at Cinefamily put on an array of events each week in a variety of places.
Case in point? Last year they screened one of my personal favourites, The Craft, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Don’t forget to check out: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
P.S: Want to know where to stay during your trip? The Orlando Hotel on West 3rd street is boutique accommodation with a friendly smile and an even friendlier price tag. Positioned perfectly along an active hub of bars, restaurants and shops – the location could not be better. Rooms are modern and generously sized, while the staff will go above and beyond to ensure an excellent stay.
“Roland thinks L.A. is a place for the brain-dead. He says if you turned off the sprinklers, it would turn into a desert. But I think – I don’t know, it’s not what I expected. It’s a place where they’ve taken a desert and turned it into their dreams. I’ve seen a lot of L.A. and I think it’s also a place of secrets: secret houses, secret lives, secret pleasures. And no one is looking to the outside for verification that what they’re doing is all right.” – Sara, LA STORY