Thursday, Sep. 25, 2008


You could spend your day in L.A. at the Universal Studios theme park and the attached City Walk outdoor mall. (Maybe you've got kids with you. Maybe you're a dork. I don't know.)

Or you could take a picture of the Hollywood sign. (No, you can't drive to it. You can't even walk to it; there's a fence. So, from Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, turn uphill onto Beachwood Canyon Drive and take a photo halfway up the street. Or park at the end of Beachwood and hike 30 minutes to get really close.)

You could stroll down Hollywood Boulevard to Grauman's Chinese Theater and look at all the celebrity handprints and footprints, pose for photos with the weirdos who dress up as superheroes and ask you for money, then go hang out the Hollywood and Highland Center mall. You could spend the day gawking at the expensive stores on the twisty part of Rodeo Drive. You could drive 45 minutes south to Disneyland, for all I care. But you won't have seen L.A.

Here's how I would spend my time in L.A., on my first trip or my tenth.

1. Huntington Library, Los Angeles

Apparently this place has some famous art, like Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy, and lots of important documents, such as a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of The Canterbury Tales and two quartos of Hamlet. But no one goes inside.

The Huntington's 120 acres of botanical gardens are endless and amazing — and I don't even like plants. It's not just rose gardens or herb gardens — they've got full-on ecosystems: a Japanese garden, Chinese garden, jungle, desert, lily ponds, a subtropical garden. It's crazy in there. And if you call ahead, you can have high tea.

Or, since you're right near Pasadena, you can have lunch at Pie 'n Burger instead. L.A. may not have the best high-end dining in the country, but we have the best burgers: Try Father's Office, 25 Degrees or The Counter.

2. J. Paul Getty Museum

I know, a museum in L.A. — crazy, right? Don't worry, I'm not sending you there for the art. In L.A., you go see high culture for the architecture. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, is really good, but if you're at the symphony, you're really there to check out Frank Gehry's stainless-steel Disney Concert Hall.

The Getty Trust may have more money to throw around on art than any museum in the world, but you go to the Getty Center to take a tram up a huge hill, enter the perfectly simple, calming, Richard Meier–designed space, stroll around the gardens — and maybe see a painting. Unlike museums in cities that don't own the entertainment industry, the Getty is always free.

3. Sushi in the Valley

If you are from anyplace other than Japan, you will be really impressed with our sushi. Great sushi joints grow like weeds in crappy looking strip malls on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, the heart of the San Fernando Valley. They're not cheap, but they're all worth it. Asanebo is my favorite, but Katsu-ya with its seared albacore with crispy onions has blossomed into a mini-chain here. Another solid option: Teru Sushi. The competition is so intense that you can't go wrong here. Plus, you get to go to the Valley, which is our version of suburbia but has become oddly cool.

4. Runyon Canyon Park, Los Angeles

If you firebombed L.A. and obliterated its strip-mall ugliness, you'd see how pretty this place is. That's because of the ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains, which we, along with anyone who watches MTV, call "the Hills."

The plastic, Beverly Hills types notwithstanding, L.A. is divided into two kinds of residents: ocean people (rich, mellow, beach-front-dwelling yuppie/hippies) and hill people (grungy, hip urban cowboys, who eventually have kids and move to the beach). The ocean people surf and run and bike along the water. Us hill people, we hike. We hike obsessively. And the good-looking people hike Runyon. You might see famous people here, but you won't even notice them because you'll be blinded by the hotness of merely struggling actors and actresses. Plus, you'll get a workout — from panting at hot people.

5. Robertson Boulevard

Yes, Melrose Avenue is a funkier place to shop with way cooler clothes, and Rodeo Drive has all the famous stores, but the sad fact is it's lame to go home without having seen a celebrity in L.A. And Robertson Boulevard — the tiny stretch of horribleness that includes the Ivy restaurant and boutiques like Kitson and Madison — is where Us Weekly photos are born. Once you've ogled someone famous, have lunch at the Newsroom Cafe, a vegetarian-friendly restaurant that is the only normal place on the block. If you somehow stroll this street and don't see a celebrity and don't mind paying $100 per person to do it, push your way past the paparazzi outside the Ivy and try to get a table for lunch.

6. Malibu Beach

Zuma beach in Malibu is awfully L.A. — hot moms, surfer dudes, Pamela Anderson (she lives right near there). Walking past the freaks in Venice selling their pot paraphernalia and working out at Muscle Beach (Arnold Schwarzenegger's old gym) is also interesting. Or you could drive all the way down to Manhattan Beach where the corporate frat boys drink beer and play volleyball with their trophy girlfriends.

Personally, I'd go to Zuma in Malibu, where the hills meet the ocean (and where you can park for free on Westward Beach Road, right off the Pacific Coast Highway). Then I'd grab dinner at the Reel Inn, where you eat simply grilled fish from a tray at picnic tables. Or I'd get Greek food at Taverna Tony at the Malibu Country Mart, the outdoor mall where the locals hang out.

If you have time for a long lunch in the middle of the day in Malibu, go to the Malibu Family Wines vineyard, do a tasting and buy one of their surprisingly good bottles to drink at the winery's picnic tables with the veggie burger — trust me on that — you got at John's Garden Fresh Health Store at the Country Mart.

7. Olvera Street

Don't go downtown during rush hour, which is basically all the time. But if you do make it, stop at this little tourist block that was the original center of Los Angeles in Spanish-owned times. Amidst the souvenir shops (Mexican wrestling masks! Scarface posters!) is Mr. Churro, where you should get a caramel-filled churro. You can also eat at one of the good Mexican restaurants here, or you can go a block over and get the amazing lamb French dip sandwich at Philippe's, the sawdust-covered counter restaurant that's been around since 1908. Or drive a few blocks to Langer's, where to everyone's shock they make a better pastrami sandwich than any deli in New York City. The secret is that L.A. is actually more Jewish than Manhattan.

Walk off lunch by heading to the curvy, metal Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the new church — who knew they were still building churches? — that redefines Catholic grandiosity by using restraint.

8. Warner Brothers Studio Tour

The Universal Studios lot is great, but you have to go to the theme park for that tour. So, take the WB Studio Tour instead, or arrange a tour of one of the other big studios near wherever you're staying (Fox, if you're by the beach). Mostly they're all just huge, generic, windowless warehouses that act as soundstages, but each lot has a block of cool New York City facades; plus, WB has the Gilmore Girls' sweet, fake perfect town and, for some reason, Universal still has its Old West set. Either way, it's just fun to see people in silly costumes driving around in golf carts.

9. The Dresden Room

Remember the scene in Swingers where that old couple sings standards to a bunch of hipsters? That couple, Marty and Elayne, still sings Cole Porter songs to those hipsters at the Dresden Room (every night except Sunday), which is a supercool place to get a drink, relax and feel like you're in Rat Pack–era Vegas.

10. Third Street Promenade

This is just an outdoor mall. It is full of cheesy tourists and teenagers. I'm not entirely sure why I'm recommending it. But it's outside and three blocks from the beach — and malls are just so L.A. Almost as good, mallwise, is The Grove in the Fairfax District. The Grove's trolley, which travels the one block between the mall and the excellent nearby Farmers Market, where every single booth sells awesome food, is the only public transportation most Angelinos ever use.

Bonus: Celebrity Centre International

Scientology's not scary! In fact, if you come to the Celebrity Centre just to have the decent Sunday brunch in the outdoor portion of this beautiful former hotel, no one will even bother you about Scientology stuff. But it's still fun to explore the rest of the place after brunch, get your e-meter read and maybe even watch the Scientologists' 20-minute movie. I sometimes take pieces of the stationery they keep by the bathroom and write letters to my parents — just to freak them out.