Overview

The nation's second most-populous city (after New York), Los Angeles is a great place to do business or take a vacation. Its marvelous restaurants, terrific nightlife, expansive beaches, diverse cultural offerings, amusement parks and easygoing attitudes converge in a vast Southern California landscape flooded with sunshine and lined with palm trees.

Still the entertainment capital of the world, television shows and movies are filmed on the city's streets every day. Beyond the glamour of Hollywood, there are dozens of museums, sports facilities, quaint shops, world-class concerts, quiet gardens and a myriad of experiences waiting to be discovered in the patchwork quilt of communities that make up greater LA. Visitors should see Los Angeles at least once, though a single visit will hardly be enough to appreciate such a large area jam-packed with attractions.

Geography

Situated in a basin, the Greater Los Angeles area is framed by the Pacific Ocean (west and south) and mountains (north and east). It owes its somewhat Mediterranean climate to the desert valleys that spread out across Southern California and end at the coast. Los Angeles is made up of scores of independent communities and more than 80 different neighborhoods, whose often-indistinct boundaries are determined more by culture than geography. An extensive freeway system (some of which dates from the 1940s) connects the disparate parts of the city, covering more than 4,700 sq mi/12,000 sq km.

Downtown Los Angeles encompasses a cluster of skyscrapers about 15 mi/24 km from the ocean. It is home to the convention center, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Olvera Street, the Music Center, the Disney Concert Hall, the L.A. Live entertainment complex and some major museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Heading west from downtown, you go through Hollywood (with its famous sign and literally star-studded streets), West Hollywood (the center of LA's vibrant gay community), affluent Beverly Hills and Brentwood (with mansions and manicured lawns), and then the beach towns of Santa Monica, Malibu and Venice. (LA has 75 mi/120 km of coastline.)

South of Venice Beach and a bit inland is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The San Fernando Valley—known simply as The Valley—lies beneath a ridge of hills to the north and extends west from Burbank to Calabasas. Roughly one-third of LA's residents live there. Northeast of downtown, the San Gabriel Valley (with its inexpensive but delicious Chinese restaurants) extends east from Pasadena to Arcadia and beyond. South and immediately east of downtown are more economically depressed areas: South Central and, east of downtown across the cement-lined Los Angeles River, East LA.

History

Long before the rise of this sprawling metropolis, the Los Angeles basin was populated by peaceful Native Americans, attracted to the region by the natural springs that arose in the area because of seismic activity. In 1781, a group of 44 Mexican settlers established the first non-native settlement of what was to become the most diverse city in the world. Among them were Spaniards, Africans, mestizos and Native Americans. They gave their dusty small town a very large name—El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles (the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels). The city came under the control of Mexico in 1821 and was transferred to the U.S. in 1848 with the rest of alta California when the Mexican-American War ended.

By the mid-1880s, a rail line connected Los Angeles to the East Coast. The railroad brought growth and boosted Southern California's agricultural production by introducing seedless navel oranges to the area. With help from an aggressive chamber of commerce, the idea of California as the last frontier/land of opportunity sparked a massive westward movement, and the population of Los Angeles jumped dramatically. In 1880, 11,000 people lived in the city. By the turn of the century, that figure grew to 100,000. Today, more than 3.8 million people live in Los Angeles proper, as well as 6 million more who live in the county's 80 communities.

Among those who relocated to the "other" coast were moviemakers drawn by year-round sunshine. Over the decades, the city has also attracted everyone from dust-bowl migrants to business executives to waves of immigrants from China and Southeast Asia, Mexico and Central America, Europe and the Middle East. The city houses the largest population of Pacific Islanders in the nation, as well as the world's third-largest Hispanic population. People from 140 countries—speaking more than 224 different languages and dialects—call Los Angeles home. Together they have forged a city that's now the world's multimedia nerve center, an international aerospace hub, the center of entertainment production, the capital of the Pacific Rim and a multicultural magnet.

Sightseeing

Los Angeles is a city of visual delights. It has more museums—and more major museums—than any other U.S. city. It's worth a trip there just to tour the impressive, hilltop Getty Center in Brentwood. The original Getty Villa in Malibu houses antiquities in a beautiful location off the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).

In the middle of the city, along Museum Row (Wilshire Boulevard) is the renowned Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with one of the country's best art collections and the Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum on its campus. Nearby at the Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits is one of the world's largest collections of Ice Age fossils.

Downtown, a stroll through Olvera Street, the birthplace of LA, is essential, as is the ascent of Bunker Hill, once the city's most fashionable place to live. At the top are the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Broad Contemporary Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), with contemporary traveling exhibitions and permanent collections. The impressive Rafael Moneo-designed cathedral, Our Lady of the Angels, is worth a stop if you're in the area.

The Japanese American National Museum, right next to the Geffen Contemporary (a branch of MOCA), is a cultural treasure in Little Tokyo, just a few blocks to the east. (MOCA offers a free shuttle to and from the Geffen Contemporary space to its main Grand Avenue location.) In the L.A. Live complex is the Grammy Museum, which celebrates music history and appreciation. The largest natural-history museum west of the Mississippi River, along with the California Science Center, is in Exposition Park, across from the University of Southern California (USC).

Of course, the traditional LA icons are still in place. The starstruck will want to cruise the revitalized Hollywood Boulevard (in Hollywood), where throngs of tourists match their hand- and footprints to those of stars in front of TCL Chinese Theatre. A drive down the Sunset Strip is a visual adventure filled with giant billboards, boutique shops and hip hotels.

Some tourists like to visit the stars of yesterday in such lush cemeteries as Forest Lawn, Westwood and Hollywood Forever. And a must for first-time visitors is Universal City, home of Universal Studios, and the adjacent Universal CityWalk, a colorful four-block area of shops and restaurants in the San Fernando Valley, north of downtown. You could easily spend a day there.

While you're checking off highlights, take time to savor experiences that don't make the guidebooks: the view from a downtown high-rise or a beachside cafe, the murals that tell the story of the city's people, the architecture that reflects dozens of languages and eras, and the people themselves—as friendly, diverse and cosmopolitan a crowd as you're likely to find anywhere.

Nightlife

A variety of nightclubs throughout the city keep Angelenos hopping till 2 am. Try Santa Monica or West Hollywood's famous Sunset Strip for an eclectic mix of nightspots—from dive bar to diva-worthy. Cover charges vary, and there are often long lines to get in. Note that street parking is hard to find on the Strip and in Hollywood—check signs for restrictions. Your best bet is to use valet service or find a flat-rate lot.

The nightlife is as distinct as the city's residents, but you'll find live music everywhere. For those in need of an acoustic fix, head to the cozy space at McCabe's. And an evening at a comedy club can provide a rollicking good time. We suggest the Improv or the Comedy and Magic Club (if you've planned ahead and reserved a seat).

Generally, dance clubs start hopping around 10 pm, but comedy clubs often open earlier (around 7 pm). Bars stop serving drinks at 2 am, but some after-hours clubs will keep the good times rolling well into the dawn hours.

Dining

The diverse cultures within the boundaries of Los Angeles have produced a tantalizing array of cuisines. You can have huevos rancheros for breakfast, falafel for lunch and sushi for dinner, all within the same neighborhood. And when inventive chefs hybridize culinary traditions, you wind up with fusion cuisines such as Cal-French, Korean tacos and Peruvian-Japanese. California is one of the most agriculturally diverse states, offering Los Angeles chefs a vast array of fresh, local ingredients to bring to your table.

With temperate weather year-round, many restaurants offer alfresco dining. It used to be a way of attracting smokers, although many eateries and bars now ban smoking entirely, even on patios.

Angelenos tend to eat out often and can be quite particular. Some will think nothing of driving an hour on the freeways to satisfy a craving or indulge in the latest food fad. You'll see calorie counters gingerly dipping their forks in dressing (on the side, please) before plunging them into a bowl of field greens, and transplanted New Yorkers lining up in delicatessens for a pastrami fix or rugelach to go. You, too, may find yourself in hot pursuit of handmade tortillas or a signature cocktail from the newest celebrity mixologist.

The best thing about the restaurant scene in Los Angeles is the wide range of price points and the global diversity. A huge range of Asian restaurants are clustered around the Southland with Chinese eateries in the San Gabriel Valley to the east, Little Saigon to the South and Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Thai-town and Koreatown in the center of the city. Of course, Latin American flavors abound from traditional Mexican taco trucks to local pupuserias turning out made-to-order El Salvadorean goodies. Caribbean cuisine and BBQ joints can be found in South LA, and Little Ethiopia's restaurants serve up injera-lined platters of stewed meats and vegetables. Whatever cuisine you're craving, you'll have no problem finding it in LA's broad culinary landscape.

The finer restaurants have traditional dining hours: Lunch is generally 11:30 am-2 or 2:30 pm, and dinner is served 6-10 pm and till 10:30 or 11 pm on weekends. Many eateries close for a few hours between lunch and dinner. More casual restaurants keep less conventional hours, so call ahead.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one and not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$60; and $$$$ = more than US$60.

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