On paper, Los Angeles is one city. In reality, however, what is referred to as L.A. is not one city, but instead is a region made up of countless hubs connected by freeways and large boulevards. On a super simplistic level, you could divide LA into two regions: the West and the East. The geographical divider inevitably would be the 405 Freeway. Think of it like Buda and Pest—in this case, Los and Angeles. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is which.
My No. 1 tactic for planning a trip to L.A. is to decide whether you want a vacation that feels like a beach-town getaway or an urban jaunt where you really engage in the emerging foodie scenes, nightlife, and art. If you want both (and you are lucky enough to have the time), spend a couple nights on each side of town and explore the two parts of the city from different angles, guaranteeing a more authentic experience overall.
Here is a brief rundown of various areas on either side of the 405 worth a visit.
East of the 405
Downtown Los Angeles — DTLA has been undergoing both a cultural revolution and a real-estate makeover for some time. In recent years, it has emerged as the epicenter of the culinary and cultural worlds in L.A. New restaurants such as Bestia for amazing Italian food and Alma (named by Bon Appetit as best new restaurant) are just a couple of eateries leading the charge. Also check out the dense area known as the Arts District, where independent galleries, shops, and restaurants are forming a cultural hub.
Viewfinder Tip: The key to cracking the code of L.A. is exploring by region to minimize time spent in a car. Never attempt to do Malibu and Downtown in the same day.
Larger venues that attract visitors to Downtown include the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Staples Center and L.A. Live (the latter two for live sporting events and concerts.) For a taste of old downtown L.A., try the Grand Central Market, a covered market full of food stalls from cultures around the world.
If you want to stay at a hotel in the heart of Downtown, try the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles. The property has an impressive restaurant on the ground floor, as well as a rooftop lounge and bar with a view of the city. (On warm nights, get to this deck early as it becomes a popular lounge in the evenings.)
Silverlake/Echo Park/Atwater/Los Feliz — These areas are sometimes referred to as the “Brooklyns” of L.A. Located next to Downtown, the areas are going through a cultural transformation themselves. Hipsters, young artists, and people in search of a more urban life flock here. The ‘hoods are a little rough around the edges, but they still are full of great bars and low-key eateries. Get a glimpse into the bar scene in and around Echo Park in this Travel with Kate video: Top Bars in Echo Park, Los Angeles.
KoreaTown/Chinatown/Little Tokyo — These areas are not exactly geographically adjacent, but I lump them together because they are popular to visit for great and authentic food. A few of my favorites include the Soban Korean Restaurant, in K-town; Ocean Seafood, in Chinatown (try the dim sum!); and Sushi Gen, in Little Tokyo. You easily can plan a day dining in one of these areas and exploring Downtown.
Hollywood — The heart of this famed region, along Hollywood Boulevard itself, is a tourist hub. Everyday it is bustling with visitors and street performers near the TCL Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hollywood and Highland Center (a mall), and a perfect view of the Hollywood sign. It is worth a trip if you have never been. But please know this is not a good representation of L.A. culture.
What is great in Hollywood are the hotels as destinations to hang out. These are popular activities among locals. My favorite spots are the Hollywood Roosevelt and Chateau Marmont, both by day or night. They are not inexpensive but worth feeling the Hollywood glam. Both have two options for parties: Pools or bars.
There are other ways to spend a day in Hollywood. Catch a live show at Hemmingway’s, a library themed bar on Hollywood Boulevard that showcases top independent bands. Have some fun at La Descarga, a reservation-only, Havana-inspired speakeasy that features burlesque dancing. Hike Runyan Canyon or the path to the Hollywood Sign—both activities can help you get in some exercise and see views of the city. Finally, if there is a concert happening at Hollywood Bowl while you are in town, go to it! Even if it is for a musical genre toward which you don’t naturally gravitate, seeing a show at that venue is a memorable experience.
A residential street in Central LA
Central L.A. — I use the term, “Central L.A.,” loosely, because this area can be further categorized as West Hollywood, Mid-City and more. The region is prime for shopping and dining. Pick Melrose Avenue or West Third Street (they run parallel to each other) to stroll around; on either of these thoroughfares, you’ll find boutique shops and trendy restaurants.
I love The Little Next Door on West Third; I featured the restaurant in a recent article and go there often for lunch. I also like Joan’s on Third, a popular deli and market with lots of great lunch specials. Elsewhere in the areas, try Fonuts—my obsession! This place sells baked donuts that are not good for my waistline but make me smile regardless. Two other great indulgences are the Vegan/Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre, and Animal (for meat lovers), on Fairfax Avenue.
Shopping is the favorite pastime on Melrose Avenue. Closer to Doheny Drive are big-time designer shops such as Michael Kors and Chagoury Couture. Then there is the Kardashian’s store, Dash, and the lingerie store, Agent Provocateur. As you make your way East you’ll find consignment stores, vintage shops, and less-expensive boutiques.
The Grove, at Fairfax and Third Street, is a shopping mall that has been designed to resemble a European city (complete with cobblestone streets and a trolley). This place gets crowded and parking can be steep. I come here to see movies or to go to the farmer’s market next door. Actually, the Farmer’s Market is my favorite part of the complex. Come between 8-9 a.m. on weekends, and you’ll find easy parking and a treasure-trove of food stalls, restaurants, and specialty shops. This farmer’s market is permanent, so many of the best attractions are here all the time.
Also in the West Hollywood/Mid-City area, a super-local thing to do is catch an improv show. The Groundlings is a popular school and theater off Melrose, and up-and-coming comedians and actors perform here regularly. (The Upright Citizen’s Brigade, in Hollywood, is great too.)
If you want to stay in the heart of it all but still get an away-from-it-all vibe, stay at Petit Ermitage, a members-only club in West Hollywood where just about anyone can book rooms as a guest. The rooftop here is an exclusive hangout spot with a great view of the city.
Beverly Hills — I like to think of Beverly Hills as a little walkable village with designer-brand shopping, restaurants, and lots of offices (of doctors, lawyers, and movie business professionals). Visitors are drawn to the famed Rodeo (pronounced Row-day-oh) Drive to marvel at designer wares in storefront windows. They also cruise by car the flat residential streets just north of Santa Monica Boulevard that are lined with the enormous homes of the rich and famous.
On your visit, be sure to slip in to the Paley Center for Media, a museum of cinema and television, or see a show at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. My hands-down-favorite local place to eat in Beverly Hills is Momed on South Beverly Drive. It serves Israeli and Greek food with Intelligentsia coffee. While you are at it, duck into the Beverly Hills Bikini Shop down the street; it has great bathing suits and has been around for years.
The beach in Santa Monica
West of the 405
Santa Monica — Santa Monica is a rather large area spanning from the beach to 26th Street and from San Vicente to Ocean Park. The beach stretch offers some of the best sunbathing and surfing in L.A. Also along this stretch is the Santa Monica Pier, the Annenberg Community Beach House, and numerous places to rent bikes, blades, and other wheels.
Off the beach, there are three main areas to explore. The Third Street Promenade, on (you guessed it!) Third Street, is the most well-known area, and is a pedestrian-only street with shopping, street performers, and restaurants. The street runs between Broadway and Wilshire; the are area really caters to out-of-towners but locals frequent it too for the high concentrations of shops. There also is a more traditional (covered) mall on Third and Broadway.
More popular among locals in Santa Monica is Main Street between Hollister and Rose avenues. This is another area with shops, restaurants, and galleries. Finally, Montana Avenue between 7th and 17th streets is brimming with boutiques. There also are numerous coffee shops, my favorite being Café Luxxe. This area is really nice for taking a stroll, getting something to eat, and window-shopping.
For bar suggestions in Santa Monica, The Misfit, on Santa Monica and Second, is a fun and swanky place, and is open most of the day. Father’s Office worth visiting, too; it’s a bar and delicious burger joint on Montana.
Venice — Venice Beach is like a time capsule and an alternate universe wrapped in one. It continues to hit all the marks in terms of having a beautiful beach, street performers, a skate park, muscular guys working out, dudes playing pick-up games of basketball, drum circles out on the sand, and local artisans selling their wares. One place I like to grab a bite (and even a brew) on the boardwalk is the Venice Ale House.
Getting off the beach, there are two main places I like to hang. The increasingly popular Abbot Kinney (between Venice Boulevard and Westminster Avenue) is a strip with a relaxed vibe and well-curated mix of restaurants and shops. Geljina is one of my favorites in this area for its delicious, Mediterranean-inspired eats.
Elsewhere in Venice, I also enjoy Rose Avenue between Main Street and Sixth Avenue. This particular area is just developing, but you can find the Rose Café, Café Gratitude (a Vegan restaurant loved by all, vegan or not), and other fun restaurants. To get here, walk east on Rose from the Venice boardwalk; at first you might think you’ve gone the wrong way, but you’ll find what I’m talking about and, ultimately, be happy you came!
If you want to stay in Venice, I’d suggest the Erwin Hotel. (where you can watch the sunset over the Pacific from a roof terrace). In Santa Monica, the Viceroy Santa Monica is prime if you’re into a swanky scene, and the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel is conveniently close to the beach for family travel.
Other good options for beach destinations to consider in the Los Angeles area include Malibu, Huntington Beach or Manhattan Beach. But these are for another article!