Three Tried-and-True Ways to Explore LA

For a city this size, narrow your scope.

By Margaret Seiler Published in the February 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

The lawn at Griffith Park Observatory

1. Soak Up the Visual Splendor

Look past the clogged freeways and the no-there-there burbs and discover a world of dazzling architecture and natural beauty, a city nestled into its surrounding hills, mountains, and water as if a young artiste were decorating a diorama. Nearly every neighborhood is hiding at least a few buildings worth exploring. Here are some possible starting points:

Perched along a ridge in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Getty Center offers city views and buildings (designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Richard Meier) that can overshadow the European art on its walls. For a contemporary art fix, the Broad Museum, opened in 2015, sits tucked under a weird webbing wrap right downtown. (General admission is free, but there can be a wait to get in and it might be worth preordering a timed ticket at thebroad.org.) One of the largest art museums in the world, the sprawling Los Angeles County Museum of Art, west of downtown along Wilshire Boulevard, can easily suck up a whole day even with many of its galleries closed for construction of a new main building, starting this winter.

In the Hollywood Hills, the Griffith Park Observatory houses a planetarium, space exhibits, a Tesla coil, and what’s considered the world’s most looked-through telescope. A 1930s-era project of the Works Progress Administration (like Timberline Lodge, but with a lot more movies filmed there, from Rebel Without a Cause to La La Land), the observatory is also a rewarding endpoint for a tiring hourlong hike up Griffith Park’s Firebreak Trail, an unsigned but well-worn route starting near the Trails Café.

In Pasadena, 1908 Arts and Crafts masterpiece the Gamble House (built for part of the Procter & Gamble crew) offers one guided two-hour tour focused just on its leaded glass and another that runs three hours looking at its wooden joinery. But even a self-guided, free, 10-minute walk around the exterior can be worth it. The century-old, now-city-owned Hollyhock House in East Hollywood finds Frank Lloyd Wright in his full Mayan Revival period, as does the Ennis House in Los Feliz; still a private residence with occasional public openings, the onetime Blade Runner set sold in 2018 for a cool $18 million.

The porchetta melt and an iced americano at Gjusta

2. Just Eat and Laugh

In this 24-hour world city, it can be hard to simply let your stomach freewheel. You might want to adopt a strategy. Perhaps it’s eating outside? Portlanders could find themselves wanting more from local food cart pods after a visit to the Original Farmers Market, a permanent, open-air (but roofed) warren of produce stands, meat counters, microrestaurants, bars, and shops. There’s also the waterfront seating offered by farm-to-table Malibu Farm, with a sit-down restaurant at one end of Malibu Pier and a counter-service café at the other. You can make your own taco tour, with guaranteed stops at old-school Paco’s Tacos in Mar Vista and hard-shell icon Tito’s Tacos in Culver City. Or get ahead of the curve and eat at places sure to open a Portland location someday, like Gjusta, an elaborate Venice bakery and sandwich counter largely stocked from farmers markets that’s part of a rapidly expanding local restaurant empire.

Once you’re stuffed, try to hold it all in during the belly laughs at one of LA’s comedy clubs. Hit Santa Monica’s Westside Comedy Theater or West Hollywood’s Comedy Store for the right late-night time slot, and don’t be surprised if you happen upon some big names trying out new material (especially if you’re able to stay past midnight).

Combine the evening’s dinner and entertainment with a meat-and-potatoes meal and a show at the Magic Castle—if, that is, you know a member magician who can invite you to the exclusive Hollywood clubhouse as a guest, or if you can score a reservation while staying next door at the Magic Castle Hotel (magiccastlehotel.com, rooms from $229). While most Magic Castle events are adults-only, the next-door hotel is a kid paradise, with free snacks and a poolside red phone to order emergency Popsicle deliveries.

The beach at Santa Monica and the Endeavour space shuttle

3. Family Frenzy

The area’s many theme parks (see here) are far from the only family attractions in SoCal. From its Metro Rail subway system to the Hello Kitty store in Little Tokyo to the Santa Monica Pier and the Strand Beach Path, Los Angeles is packed with “wait till I tell my friends back home about this!” kid pleasers. Just southwest of downtown in Exposition Park, see the space shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center, get a dose of dino skeletons at LA County’s Natural History Museum (there’s also a Science of Scary horror film exhibit running through April 19), and catch an LA FC soccer game at Banc of California Stadium (the Timbers make a spring-break visit March 22). On Wilshire west of downtown, young paleontologists can get a fossil fix at the La Brea Tar Pits, while budding artists can find pop-up workshops next door at the LA County Museum of Art, which is free for kids 12 and under.

Take a break from the bustle with a family stop at a Koreatown jimjilbang. Try the multistory, Conan O’Brien–approved Wi Spa for hot and cold soaks, sweaty sauna sessions, and TVs and books in the lounge area. (Note: post-toddler kids under 18 need to be with a parent or guardian of the same gender.) Or do another kind of relaxing with an afternoon at The Last Bookstore, a former bank building full of labyrinthine stacks of new and used. For even more head-clearing, get out of the city altogether and drive a couple of hours east to the otherworldly Joshua Tree National Park. Remember that fourth graders and their families can get a free National Park Pass (everykidoutdoors.gov—thanks, Obama!).

Hungry? As in Portland, there are higher concentrations of Chinese restaurants outside of LA’s Chinatown, but the historic district can still deliver a solid dim sum experience at Ocean Seafood. In Highland Park, adults can get some real SoCal vibes and kids can score mac and cheese (albeit with brown rice noodles) at the gluten-free veggie haven Kitchen Mouse.

For souvenirs, skip the mouse ears and consider a “What Happens in La Brea Tar Pits Stays in La Brea Tar Pits” T-shirt at the Time Travel Mart, “the convenience store for time travelers” that raises money for a local kids’ writing nonprofit at its Mar Vista and Echo Park locations (also online at timetravelmart.com).

The Last Bookstore; Joshua Tree National Park

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