Hundreds of guidebooks and websites tell Los Angeles travelers the best places to visit, but for someone with just one day for an only-in-L.A. experience, here are some tips from locals when it comes to recreation, shopping, food and other activities.
Lots of cities boast establishments specializing in mini-pizzas, hybrid-ethnic cuisine, highbrow food-truck service and other culinary trends that first became popular in L.A. before spreading north and east. Which is why the most uniquely L.A. restaurant has nothing to do with trendiness but on a single day will serve about as wide a cross-section of Angelenos as any place in town. Philippe the Original, the self-proclaimed inventor of the French dip, has been serving locals in Downtown since 1908 and sells about 3,000 beef, pork, lamb and turkey dip sandwiches a day (not to mention its notoriously hot mustard). Philippe (pronounced "phillee-pay") is within a few blocks of Union Station, Olvera Street and Chinatown, giving locals and visitors a great excuse to work off that French dip while checking out a few other uniquely LA sites.
What the tour books might not tell you: Whether Philippe actually invented the French dip is open to debate, as Cole's (located a few blocks away) was opened the same year and claims to have beaten that restaurant to the punch. French dip aficionados are welcome to compare the two and argue for bragging rights over a glass of wine at Philippe or a stiff cocktail at Cole's.
Philippe the Original, 1001 N. Alameda St., Downtown Los Angeles, 213.628.3781
Cole's, 118 E. 6th St., Downtown Los Angeles, 213.622.4090
While it's true that L.A. has a serious car culture, experiencing it without the barrier of a windshield is a fantastic way to get an up-close-and-personal look at the city. Bikes and Hikes LA offers an LA in a Day! tour, which takes participants (locals and visitors alike) on a six-hour bicycle and walking trek through the city, stopping at hidden gems and allowing an inside glimpse of life in L.A.'s neighborhoods. Want to get a great workout and earn some postcard-worthy views? Get both, as well as a stunning view of the Hollywood sign, on the Hollywood Hills Hike.
What the tour books might not tell you: It's fairly common knowledge that the Hollywood sign first said "Hollywoodland" when erected in 1923. Lesser known is that the idea for the sign was conceived by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, not as a monument to the city or its burgeoning film industry, but as advertising for the housing development below. By 1950, after the development was built, the letters "L-A-N-D" were removed, while the rest of the sign was upgraded after falling into disrepair. And in 1978, the sign was actually briefly torn down for a few months while the letters were rebuilt.
The surf's probably better in Malibu, the beach volleyball's more competitive in Santa Monica and the sand might be a little whiter in the South Bay, but when it comes to pure, unobstructed, what-in-the-world-is-that people watching, few places in L.A. beat Venice Beach, even for a local who only thinks he or she has seen it all. Buskers, hippies, burnouts and other attention-grabbing folks like Harry Perry, the turbaned roller-skating guitar player; bodybuilders; pickup basketball players (the seaside court was featured in "White Men Can't Jump"); dozens of vendors and the ever-present Santa Monica Bay vie for your attention. Beware — it can get crowded on weekends, but that's pretty much the point, isn't it?
What the tour books might not tell you: In addition to its beaches and lively boardwalk scene, Venice is also known for its century-old canals (most have since been filled in, but a few remain and are worth exploring) and vibrant art scene, which in part is celebrated by festivals that take place on Venice's Abbot Kinney Boulevard the first Friday of every month (aka Abbot Kinney First Fridays). The monthly event event has picked up more cultural significance by attracting many of the best-known food trucks in town and the hundreds of culinary devotees who follow them.
From The Grove near Hollywood to Santa Monica's Montana Avenue to Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive, there's no shortage of L.A. shopping districts that will burn a hole in your plastic. But if you want to blow out the budget in truly local fashion, check out Los Feliz Village's Vermont and Hillhurst Avenues. The area is home to thrift shops and higher-end boutiques; independent bookstores and theaters like Skylight Books, the Los Feliz 3 and the Vista; old-school (Fatburger) and new-school L.A. burger haunts (Umami, Juicy Burger); and café-hangouts like the Alcove and Café Figaro, whose daytime scenes will make you ask if anyone actually works in this town. All are part of a Los Feliz Village retail collection that pulls in plenty of Hollywood industry types but remains somewhat off the radar when it comes to tourists.
What the tour books might not tell you: Getting one of the best 360-degree views of the L.A. basin doesn't take a hike up to the Griffith Observatory or through Runyon Canyon. In fact, it's just a block from Los Feliz Village. Barnsdall Art Park may be best known for the tours it gives of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hollyhock House that sits on the property, but the park's grass-covered hill also offers a fairly close-up perspective of Griffith Park and central Hollywood, and a more distant view that stretches to the South Bay and Pacific Ocean.
No great day in L.A. would be complete without a trip to the beach, and while Venice may take care of the people-watching aspect, the purist may be looking for something that's a little more secluded and low key. For someone who's at liberty to make a day of it, Leo Carrillo State Beach is a wonder to behold, complete with clear waters, stunning rock formations and dozens of tidepools for the kids to explore. But for those on a tighter schedule that doesn't allow for the 60-mile roundtrip from Santa Monica, Topanga State Beach combines of the best of many worlds — a fairly quiet, cove-like beach; a decent surf break; a close-up view of catamaraners, windsurfers and kitesurfers; a great perspective of the Santa Monica Bay and Palos Verdes Peninsula in the distance; and a short walk across the street to the beachy seafood haunt Reel Inn. And the beach can be reached with either a six-mile drive along Pacific Coast Highway from the foot of the Santa Monica Freeway or a 25-minute drive through scenic Topanga Canyon from the Ventura Freeway and San Fernando Valley.
What the tour books might not tell you: Those looking to get a feel for the crunchy-hippie vibe of Topanga Canyon may do no better than to make a visit to the Malibu Feed Bin, just across the highway from Topanga State Beach. Opened in 1966, the Feed Bin sells what's truly a hodgepodge of items, from holiday decorations to small farm animals, out back.
The thing about the Hollywood Bowl is this: No matter how many times you've gone, where you're from, what the weather's like or who the featured act is, you always get the unmistakable feeling that you’ve become an infinitely cooler person (at least temporarily) from the experience of soaking up the hillside scenery and the sublime acoustics. The Bowl, whose first season was kicked off by the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Easter Sunrise Service in 1921, continues to offer an eclectic mix of pop, rock, classical and jazz acts, and annually hosts such events as a Fourth of July music-and-fireworks spectacular and the Playboy Jazz Festival. Regardless of genre, though, once you're in the presence of that stage set with its concentric circles, you're in the presence of greatness. And there's an added bonus for those making a trip to the Bowl because it's within walking distance of such attractions as the Hollywood Walk of Fame, TCL Chinese Theatre and Hollywood & Highland.
What the tour books might not tell you: The Bowl didn't get the first of its iconic stage-covering shells until 1928 (it's had five) — it opened without a shell, then had shells that were elliptical, then pyramid-shaped. Additionally, the first of the iconic shells was designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright
More than 200 languages are spoken by L.A. residents, and the city has dozens of enclaves that reflect international cultures. But while areas like Chinatown, Little Tokyo and Olvera Street represent districts specifically set aside by the city to celebrate certain ethnicities, many other areas sprouted organically as various nationalities gradually shifted the look and feel of particular neighborhoods. Two primary, albeit sprawling, examples of this are Koreatown and San Gabriel Valley Asian communities such as Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel and Rosemead. Mid-Wilshire's Koreatown, a few miles west of Downtown, is one of the densest parts of the city, and its stretch along Wilshire Boulevard, especially between Western and Normandie Avenues, offers a fascinating mix of tofu houses, retail stores, nightclubs and other establishments that reflect Seoul. Meanwhile, about a dozen miles east of Downtown, San Gabriel Square (a.k.a. "The Great Mall of China") is a ground zero of sorts for the local Chinese population, complete with a 99 Ranch supermarket that has more live fish than most ponds, a bunch of authentic Chinese restaurants, lots of gift shops and a vibe that says Vegas and Southern California as much as Beijing.
What the tour books might not tell you: Food critic Jonathan Gold didn’t win a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for waxing poetic about the latest $100-a-plate restaurant, he won it largely for seeking out and championing L.A.'s best, most authentic ethnic-food establishments, whether they had white tablecloths or only took cash. Making sense of where to go eat in either Koreatown or the San Gabriel Valley is a challenge no matter how many languages you speak. A perusal of Gold's articles on restaurants in Koreatown, San Gabriel or Monterey Park will likely ensure a fantastic and fascinating meal.
San Gabriel Square Mall, 140 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, 626.280.0786
The Getty Center, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Norton Simon Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) are among the world-class museums that dot the L.A. landscape. But if you're looking to get a more populist and uniquely L.A. viewpoint on the visual arts during your day here — and that day happens to be the second Thursday of the month — the self-guided Downtown Art Walk will give you an opportunity to tour more than 40 galleries and museums throughout Gallery Row, Little Tokyo, the Historic Core and other Downtown sub-districts. Started in 2004, the art walk, which goes from noon to 9 p.m., attracts about 10,000 visitors regularly.
What the tour books might not tell you: The Downtown Art Walk's success has spawned similar once-a-month street shindigs showing off various districts' local arts, music, food and retail scenes, so fear not if your visit doesn't fall on the second Thursday of the month.