Whenever I connect with travelers visiting the U.S. from abroad, there’s one destination that’s invariably on their itineraries: Los Angeles.
I like Los Angeles – probably more than most Americans. But it has some highly visible warts. And my foreign friends are so eager to see it that I cringe at the disappointment that can follow. I’d like to prepare them for the reality of Los Angeles with this list of observations gleaned from way too many visits to the area.
Hollywood – All the Grunge, Little of the Glamor
If you have dreams of Hollywood glitz, lower your expectations. It’s shabby and run-down with its best years decades in the past. I actually like the Sunset Strip quite a bit, but not for the usual reasons – the place is packed full of guitar shops selling some serious pro-grade gear. And you can walk from one to the other (perfect for a guy like me who spent way too much time playing in local bands), unlike my city where I could spend a day driving around and never find anything interesting. By and large, dining is pretty much focused on chains. I suppose things could get interesting if you’re interested in seeing where celebrities live or once lived – they have all sorts of tours for that sort of thing.
Beaches are Meh, But People Watching is Amazing
I know, I know – it’s sunny SoCal! The water should be warm and inviting, right? Nope. This is, year-round, some chilly water. Navy SEAL operators train just 120 miles away because the water is cold enough to test their endurance and fortitude. If you want warm, clear, sparkly water, you will not find it on a Los Angeles beach. You will, however, find absolutely epic people watching. Venice Beach, Muscle Beach, all the spots in Santa Monica … I’ll just say to bring your camera. The fun part of Muscle Beach is watching people try their hands at some of the activities; my wife once saw an amazing wipeout on a slackline, and we both wished she’d been rolling some video of it.
Natural History in the Concrete
My favorite place in LA is going to surprise you: the La Brea Tar Pits. Here’s the deal … Los Angeles is a huge mass of concrete. Here, the earth looks completely static. But the La Brea Tar Pits are a reminder that the earth is alive, that it is moving and living right under our feet – even in a city that appears locked into its current form. You can watch scientists at work there, dredging up clues from the earth’s long history. It’s absolutely hypnotic, especially jammed into the backdrop of concrete, crowds and traffic.
Speaking of Sprawling
Travelers from abroad are often used to public transit. If you’re from Tokyo, London, Frankfurt or Seoul, there’s literally nowhere you can’t reach thanks to their world-class public transit and inherent walkability. You will not find that here. Just leaving Los Angeles International Airport is difficult. There is no Tube or Metro to zip you to the most-interesting parts of the city (compare that to Stockholm, where a sweet rail system can help you make the most of a 7-hour layover). There is allegedly some sort of rail system under construction. For now, you’re best-off making prior arrangements. You have taxis, but they can be hit-and-miss from a quality standpoint. I never thought about this before being a parent, but booking something in advance can make sure that you’ll have a car seat, adequate space, a knowledgeable driver … all very important to get a trip started off well. I’d lean toward booking a car service from LAX.
Tons of Theme Parks
If you have kids that watch too much TV, chances are they’re clamoring for a visit to a certain rodent-fronted theme park. It’s here, it’s sprawling and it’s absolutely astounding in its ability to absolutely dominate everything about Anaheim. If you’re traveling without little people, you’ll find better rides at Magic Mountain Parkway or Knotts Berry Farm. But there are other theme parks and attractions, from paintball fields to racecar-themed parks. Los Angeles is pretty astounding that way – if there’s an obscure hobby, you can find people practicing it here.
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