Los Angeles: The World's Backlot

Universal Studios Tram Tour | Photo courtesy of prayitno, Flickr

LA's history of using special effects to turn a local studio set or street into just about any place in the world has long been documented. Add some 19th Century-era looking houses to a plantation scene in a Culver City back lot and you have Civil War-era Georgia in "Gone With the Wind." Bring in truckloads of snow and a faux town square to the San Fernando Valley, and a chunk of Encino becomes the fictional upstate New York town of Bedford Falls in "It's a Wonderful Life." Keep the lighting dark enough, and one would never know that the final airport scene in "Casablanca" is actually Van Nuys Airport.

And there's no shortage of opportunities for LA visitors to check out movie studios in action. In addition to the world-renowned tram tour of Universal Studios HollywoodSM, whose backlots have been the film homes to movies such as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Back to the Future" franchises, Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank has a VIP tour where film junkies can check out where parts of "Inception," " "The Green Mile," "American Beauty" and "Blade Runner" were shot. In Culver City, the Sony Pictures Studios Tour give visitors a first-hand look at the movie and television sound stages that have been used for more than half a century. Finally, the Studios at Paramount in Hollywood has its own VIP tour every weekday.

That said, LA County's more than 4,000 square miles provide enough geographical, cultural and architectural variety to allow for many local sites to stand in for far off cities, countries and even planets, with no makeup added. With such diversity in place, LA gives locals and visitors alike the opportunity for a wide variety of experiences, all within a day trip. Here are a few of LA's film "stand-ins" that are worth a visit:

Downtown's place as a primary entertainment, hospitality and residential destination may be a relatively recent phenomenon, but filmmakers have long used its ornate, century-old buildings, one-way streets and sense of grit and bustle to represent a number of other cities. "Spider-Man," "Date Night" and "CSI:NY" are all stories that supposedly take place in New York but were partially filmed on the streets of Downtown Los Angeles, as was the San Francisco-based "Zodiac." Directors looking for a posh hotel backdrop have long turned to the Millennium Biltmore, which has stood in for hotels in New York ("Ghostbusters," "Splash"), Chicago ("The Sting") and San Francisco ("The Rock," "Vertigo"). Architectural landmark Union Station serves as a New York depot in the 1961 Paul Newman-Jackie Gleason classic "The Hustler" while filling in for a Miami bank in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." Finally, the Korean Church at Grand Avenue and Washington Boulevard may seem like an odd place for a boxing match, but the building was formerly the legendary boxing and wrestling venue the Grand Olympic Auditorium, where parts of "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" that supposedly took place on the East Coast were shot. ("Rocky" junkies should also check out Santa Monica's Fred Segal store, which used to be the indoor ice rink where the skating scene with Rocky and Adrian was shot)

Sure, LA-area beaches have long been used as a backdrop for hundreds of movies and shows looking to convey the California dream ("Baywatch" anyone?). But those beaches are also versatile. Malibu's Leo Carrillo State Beach and its dramatic rock formations have twice stood in for Japan's Iwo Jima – first for the 1949 John Wayne-starring "Sands of Iwo Jima," and more recently for 2006's "Letters From Iwo Jima." Will Rogers State Beach went otherworldly for 1954's "Creature From the Black Lagoon." Meanwhile, San Pedro's Fort MacArthur stands in for Cuba's Guantanamo Bay in the Tom Cruise-Jack Nicholson-starring "A Few Good Men," while parts of 2001's "Pearl Harbor" were also shot in San Pedro. Finally, those looking for a fishing hole and a good tune to whistle can head towards Franklin Canyon Reservoir, site of the opening credits for "The Andy Griffith Show" and its fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina.

Vulcan landscape? California's Central Valley? The Town of Bedrock? Vasquez Rocks Natural Area and Nature Center has been used as a facsimile for all of these places and many more. The nearly 1,000-acre park and its iconic, jagged, diagonally-shaped formations allow for some fantastic hiking, and after a day there, you'll see why such scenery has been used in both "Star Trek" television episodes and movies, the 1960s TV series "The Big Valley," "The Flintstones" movie and even as Dr. Evil's lair in "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery." And if you're looking for even more of that Wild West Vibe, check out Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, which stood in for Mexico in the 1948 Humphrey Bogart classic "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," approximated 19th Century Dodge City, Kansas, in the TV series "Gunsmoke" and served as a backdrop for the TV show "The Rifleman." Just remember to stay hydrated.

If you thought LA-area universities could avoid being used as film sites for schools in other parts of the country, think again. USC's brick buildings were used for scenes from "The Graduate" that were supposed to take place at UC Berkeley (the campus's Dedeaux Field also doubled as a Midwest baseball diamond in "A League of Their Own"). Additionally, while Bruins and Trojans don't like to share credit for anything, both UCLA and USC were used for scenes as Harvard in Reese Witherspoon's "Legally Blonde" as well as stand-ins for the fictional upstate New York school Harrison University in Will Ferrell's "Old School."

The Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Arcadia has 127 acres of birds, plants, and animals, but that's not why you, the pop-culture junkie, are there. No, you're there to check out the Queen Anne cottage made famous as a backdrop to Herve Villechaize and Ricardo Montalban and their opening scenes for "Fantasy Island." Which wasn't actually an island but isn't a fantasy either, if you're in LA.