Los Angeles, also known as ‘LA’ or ‘La La Land,’ is a huge city that spreads between the Pacific Ocean and the San Gabriel Mountains in a flat urban expanse that is punctuated by freeway overpasses known as spaghetti junctions. Famous for smog and disasters like earthquakes and landslides, it’s not the easiest city to get to know although everyone knows it’s the home of the Hollywood Sign and Beverly Hills. At the other end of the economic spectrum are Watts and Compton, some of the poorest slum areas in the USA and where the race riots erupted in 1992.
LA is home to more Koreans, Chinese, Druids and Mexicans outside of their native countries than any other city on earth and its ethnic makeup heralds the profound changes affecting American demographics.
Getting Around LA
It’s a little known fact that the car companies themselves are the reason why public transportation is so dismal in the USA, and LA is the best example of a city that is addicted to the automobile. After years of buying bus companies and dismantling them, the freeway has become such a part of life in Los Angeles that LA is not just a stranger to mass transit, it is in fact, a public transport nightmare. People in this town take driving not as a privilege, but as a right. It can be an unnerving place to visit as every one is in a car, no one walks the streets and you’ll get strange looks from rear view mirrors if you dare to walk the city’s blocks.
While there is a small light rail system operating in downtown Los Angeles, this is more designed for commuters, not tourists. A local bus system exists, but isn’t safe, easy to navigate or convenient and goes to few places. The freeway has conquered the city like no other and to see the sites (often scattered dozens of miles apart) you will need a rental car, a good map (with all the freeways clearly marked) and nerves of steel, especially at rush hour! If you’re staying a while, it’s worth bearing in mind that you can travel in a quicker freeway lane if there is more than one person travelling in a vehicle. As traffic jams on the 405, 101 and other freeways are so common, don’t be surprised if you spend a few hours as other Angelinos do stuck in traffic, listening to the radio for traffic reports and dodging backups through an intricate series of shortcuts and back alleys.
Petrol stations are everywhere so it’s not hard to find a place to fill up, though carrying a cell phone is recommended in case a break down occurs; though most freeways have call boxes for stranded drivers. Parking can be a nightmare too, especially on weekends and in the height of summer so be prepared to circle the block a few times looking for a space; after a week in LA you may come to appreciate why the road rage phenomenon is such a problem here.
As a land of of contrasts, LA has lots of interesting neighbourhoods and things to see, and you should spend at least three days here to do the minimum. It’s a very popular domestic tourist destination so along with the huge foreign tour groups expect to get a heavy dose of middle America at the same time. If you don’t have time to visit the square states in the middle of the country now’s your chance to meet some authentic Oklahomans, Texans and Kansans as they too take in what LA has to offer.
The most famous suburb is, of course, Beverly Hills. What with the popularity of tinted windows and tall security gates these days seeing any actual stars in Beverly Hills is pretty remote, though you may look out when window shopping (or actual shopping, if you’re loaded) on Rodeo Drive. Numerous “star maps” are on sale throughout the area and you can drive by your favorite star’s house, though be warned with such intense security old cars are often stopped for questioning.
The place to go to star search is actually Westwood, a suburb next to UCLA. Though most of the stars here are from TV and may be unrecognizable without makeup, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and even Madonna have been spotted here grabbing a latte, jogging or just walking their dogs. Always respect these people’s privacy; you’ll notice locals practically ignoring them as they go about their lives.
Manns Chinese Theater is probably where you’ll see more stars, their foot and hand prints, at least. The sidewalk outside is full of celebrity paw prints and it’s a popular place to take photos of your favorites.
Doing the studio tour thing is best experienced at Universal Studios, where constant expansions turn practically every new movie into a ride of some sort. Watch how they ‘burn’ houses, make the Red Sea part, create Jaws and simulate an earthquake here, all the while keeping a sharp lookout for stars as you never know who will be walking to their trailer as you drive by (though they won’t stop for autographs they don’t mind a quick photo or two).
Most of what you watch in theaters and on TV is produced somewhere in LA and huge movie lots can be found in Studio City and Burbank. If you plan in advance you can often get free tickets to watch programs (including popular sitcoms) being taped at these studios.The wait is long but it is worth it because after the show the stars themselves hang around for autographs and for a chat with fans.
LA is also home to a serious beach culture, best experienced in Santa Monica and Venice Beach, two coastal communities located north of the LAX airport. From dawn to dusk Venice is a popular rollerblading, bicycling, running and bodybuilding area and has tattoo parlors, t-shirt vendors and other businesses calling it home. It’s a place to see and be seen though its not that safe after dark. With such stable weather, Venice Beach is a year round carnival where the people themselves are the sights. Santa Monica is more upmarket with a pier that has rides and trendy restaurants serving seafood and ‘California Fusion’ food.
A two hour drive south of Los Angeles, San Diego has undergone a transformation in the last decade that has made it one of the fastest growing cities in America. Home to a large Navy base, San Diego is famous for its beautiful Spanish Mission churches and upper-class neighbourhoods of La Jolla. Its urban beaches are some of the State’s best although pollution from nearby Tijuana often causes beach closures.
Located east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs has been a popular retreat for Hollywood’s elite for more than 50 years. It’s also been developed into a retirement area where ‘Gucci Grannies’ are catered for by stylists, manicurists and plastic surgeons. Its warm temperatures in the winter are the opposite of those in the summer when it can soar to 120F. With almost one hundred golf courses Palm Springs uses one million gallons of water per day and many visitors find the place as artificial as plastic grass.
Up the coast from LA is San Luis Obispo, a mission and university town, famous for its surfing culture and laid back lifestyle. In the downtown area is a narrow street called Bubblegum Alley where thousands of old bubble gum wads have been squished on the walls making one of the most unique community art projects ever seen. Some find it disgusting including a few businesses located in the alley who post clear signs pointing to where Bubble Gum Alley ends.
The gold rush from 1849 (giving name to the San Francisco football team, the 49ers), but which officially began 24 January 1848 (when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma), transformed California from a distant backwater into an economic powerhouse seen today in the film and technology industries. Perhaps the best example of the rough and tumble gold rush days is the town of Bodie where there was reported to be at least one gunfight a day and legend has it the funeral bell never stopped ringing for the dead. Though it’s a ghost town now, in its heyday it used to have more than 10,000 residents. The Californian Gold Rush which is thought to have brought some 300,000 people to the region from all around the world, is officially marked to have run from 1848 to 1855.
Home to the world’s tallest trees, the Coast Redwood, Humbolt County is torn between logging interests and protecting these ancient giants. Growing to over 400 feet tall and living for 2000 years the trees were alive when Jesus walked the earth. Conservationists have been known to live in a redwood for months to bring attention to the plight of these trees that have been completely logged in more southern regions of the state.
A haunt of legendary California photographer Ansel Adams, Yosemite holds some of the most beautiful natural scenery in all of California and is one of the gems of America’s National Park Service. Situated in the Sierra Nevada mountains, that form California’s eastern boundary with the state of Nevada, the park’s most famous sights are Half Dome and Bridal Veil Falls.
It’s a magnificent place to come and experience the unique California wilderness that has been threatened by over development. In the peak summer months visitors swamp the park to capacity, often spoiling the experience and in recent years caps have been put in place to keep the park from being damaged by pollution and human pressure.
People in Garberville are quick to call themselves ‘Northern Californians’ distancing their independent minded selves from the consumerist cities in ‘Southern California,’ anywhere south of Sacramento, the state’s capital. It’s a very liberal and relaxed place where cannabis is quite often consumed. An interesting spot in California, either way.