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Visiting out West? Here's a SoCal traveler's cheat sheet

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For most of the last 20 years, it’s been my job to leave Los Angeles and bring home tips on travel elsewhere. But let’s face it: Elsewhere can get expensive. And there’s a lot of elsewhere here already.

So a year ago, I turned my tourism inside-out. Since then, I’ve roamed the cities, beaches, valleys and hills of Los Angeles and Orange counties, assembling more than 120 Southern California itineraries, favoring independent enterprises over national brands. (As will become clear pretty quickly, these tips are one man's opinions, entirely unscientific but informed by firsthand experience. By year's end, I’d sampled more than 115 restaurants and bars; 70 hotels, inns and hostels; 70 arts and entertainment venues; 25 parks, piers, ballparks, arenas and gardens and 25 shopping spots — and those are just the ones that made the cut.

Along the way, I confronted some of the most important questions of our time, touristically speaking. Here are 25 of them, with answers, for anybody headed to Los Angeles from across the planet or across town. Don’t leave home, or stay home, without them.

1. Where can I sleep safely and affordably outside Disneyland? I like the Ramada Maingate, which is about $90-$180 nightly. And here are a few more tips on inland Orange County.

2. By LAX? The Sheraton Gateway LAX (affiliated with Starwood) or the Renaissance Los Angeles Airport Hotel (affiliated with Marriott). The Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel (Starwood again) runs a close third. At all three, weekends are usually cheaper than weekdays. But nobody should ever spend more than one night at a time on charmless Century Boulevard. Consider the nearby South Bay instead.

On the Warner Brothers studio tour, the old "Friends" Central Perk set gets a lot of attention. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

3. Is Universal Studios the best place to learn how TV shows and movies actually get made? No. It's a fine theme park but you’ll see and learn more, while paying less, at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. (And here are a few more San Fernando Valley tips.)

A view of Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

4. My sources tell me that Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant in the Hollywood Hills, has the best city-lights view in Los Angeles. Does it? No, although nice, and its $12 cocktails are tasty. For a wider panorama, absolutely free, with no 600-year-old pagodas to interrupt the vista, head to the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park. But be ready to walk a bit – the parking lot fills up as the sun sinks.

Four riders from Sunset Ranch in the Hollywood Hills. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

5. Is there really a horse stable tucked into the canyon beneath the Hollywood sign, or is that an urban myth, like the big orange that supposedly hovers over Orange County? Yes, there’s a stable — Sunset Ranch. Guided rides are usually $30 an hour. And that hovering orange is no myth. It’s the Great Park Balloon, designed to promote the conversion of an Irvine military base into the Great Park of O.C., local officials offer free rides to promote the park. You stay connected to Earth by a 400-foot tether. Nice view.

The grounds and cliffs at Montage Laguna Beach. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

6. I come from money and I’d like a pleasant hotel on the beach, price no object. Which one? Check out Santa Monica’s Casa del Mar (cool historic building) or its next-door sibling, Shutters on the Beach, which gets a lot of celebrity dining and drinking traffic. Along the O.C. coast, the Montage Laguna Beach has amazing grounds. (Golfers, however, may prefer the Resort at Pelican Hill or the St. Regis Monarch Beach. (Here are more tips on the Orange County coast.) If you’d like to see the Pacific but don’t need a sandy beach, head for the blufftop Terranea Resort on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

7. Nevermind the beach. Where can I sleep in proximity to wealth and fame?  For old-school glitz, go to the Pink Palace, a.k.a. the Beverly Hills Hotel. For 21st century glitz, the Montage Beverly Hills is footsteps from Rodeo Drive. (Here are more of my tips on Beverly Hills and the Westside.) For high-flying nightlife access (and a witty, pseudo-British setting), there’s the London West Hollywood, a short stroll from the Sunset Strip. Or there’s The Redbury, a new place at Hollywood and Vine, just around the corner from the Pantages Theatre.

Hostelling International, Santa Monica. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

8. I am the 99%, under 25 and underemployed. Where can I possibly afford to sleep out there? Look into Hostelling Internationan's 260-bed headquarters on 2nd Street in Santa Monica. Its dorm beds rent for around $30. Private rooms go for $60 but book up fast. Here'a more on Santa Monica and neighboring coastline.

9. I am the 99% too, but I'm over 25 with a decent job. Can I get a presentable hotel near the beach for under $200 a night? In the summer, it’s a challenge. The rest of the year, especially on weeknights, it’s no problem. You'll do well at the Bay Shores Peninsula Hotel in Newport Beach. In Santa Monica, the Georgian Hotel sometimes comes in under $200.  In Venice, try the Hotel Erwin. In Laguna Beach, try the Pacific Edge Hotel or the Inn at Laguna Beach.

Overnight guests at the Los Angeles Athletic Club get access to a pool where many Olympic athletes have trained. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

10. I want to startle a grizzled Angeleno with my local savvy. How? Take her to Shade, a Manhattan Beach luxury boutique hotel that opened in 2005. Or book him into the quirky, historic Los Angeles Athletic Club downtown. Or call the Magic Castle Hotel, a converted Hollywood apartment building whose guests get access to the private restaurant and club in the Magic Castle.

11. Where can I knock somebody’s socks off with a gourmet dinner?Our restaurant critic, S. Irene Virbila, is the best source on this subject. But I can vouch for Wolfgang Puck’s WP24 downtown; Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Beverly Hills and Hatfield’s in West Hollywood. And you can't beat Musso & Frank for the feel of old Hollywood.

12. I’ve got New Yorkers coming in March and I want to make sure they understand the superiority of our climate. This way, please, to the patio dining. There's Julienne in San Marino; or the Ramos House Café in San Juan Capistrano; Madison Square & Garden Cafe in Laguna Beach; Rock’n Fish in Manhattan Beach; Larchmont Bungalow in Larchmont Village; Aroma Coffee & Tea Co. in Studio City; or Alcove Café in Los Feliz.

13. Tell me two unexpected spots where can I get good, quick food. The Trails Café on Fern Dell Drive in Griffith Park. Also the Nickel Diner on gritty South Main Street at 5th downtown. And here are a bunch more tips on downtown.

14. Got any homegrown fast food besides McDonald’s and Taco Bell? More than you could or should ever eat. One beloved option is a hickory burger at the website-less Apple Pan (10801 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90064; [310] 475-3585). If you’re willing to confront a hot dog at 10 a.m., that’s just about the only time there’s won’t be line at Pink’s on La Brea Avenue. Farther south, dig into a fresh specimen at Jane’s Corn Dogs (my location of choice: 106 McFadden Place, Newport Beach; [949] 675-1770).

Morning mist clings to the hills above the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

15. Where can an early riser find a prime sunrise view? Make the 45-minute climb from the Griffith Observatory to the top of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park. (And I've got plenty more tips here on Griffith Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park.) Or stroll out on the Huntington Beach Pier, preferably on a big-wave day.

Camp mall in Costa Mesa. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

16. I want to buy things, but I’m allergic to the national chains. You could start down in Costa Mesa, where the indy-spirited Lab and Camp provide great counterpoint to epic South Coast Plaza. Up in the Santa Monica-Brentwood borderlands, the Brentwood Country Mart has distinctive shops and famous shoppers. And in Silver Lake there's a charming stretch of shops along Sunset Boulevard (collective known as Sunset Junction) between Santa Monica Boulevard and Lucile Avenue.

Buster's, a restaurant by the Gold Line tracks in South Pasadena. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

17. Leave my car behind? Are you kidding? No. Inch by controversial inch, L.A.’s Metro rail transit system continues to grow. For a carless city adventure, stay at or near the W Hotel, directly above a Metro stop on Hollywood boulevard; or the downtown Millennium Biltmore on South Grand Avenue near the Red Line’s Pershing Square stop. The subway’s Red Line is especially convenient for downtown, Hollywood and Universal Studios/CityWalk destinations, and if you connect with the Gold Line at Union Station (which is a marvel in itself), you’re within easy reach of Little Tokyo, Chinatown, South Pasadena and Pasadena. 

18. Best place to see a movie with a kid? Disney's El Capitan Theater, a restored palace from the ‘20s on Hollywood Boulevard. And here are more Hollywood tips.

19. Would it be inexcusably cheesy for me to take a tour of the stars’ homes? Yes. But there are other tours. Here are three good guides: Brian Donnelly, who covers Hollywood and beyond for Starline Tours and Dearly Departed Tours; Laura Massino Smith, owner of Architecture Tours L.A.; and Lisa Scalia, co-owner of Melting Pot Food Tours.

20. Is Catalina pretty? Yes. You'll find some details here.

21. Should I spend more than 48 hours there? No.

Marilyn Monroerests at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

22. Will the people at Forest Lawnin Glendale help me find Michael Jackson’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s headstones? No. Instead, go to Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, a tiny cemetery in Westwood whose residents include Marilyn Monroe and many familiar showbiz names.

LACMA's contemporary collection includes this poodle by Jeff Koons. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

23. I’ve already been to LACMA and the Getty. Got any other museums? A few. But if you haven’t been to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the last four years, it doesn’t count. New art (including the 202 startling streetlights of Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” out front), new buildings, new restaurant, new attitude. (Here are a few more tips on Wilshire Boulevard, where LACMA stands.) As for the Getty, if you’ve seen that bright-white Brentwood hilltop campus (opened 1997) with Van Gogh’s “Irises” and the big photography collection, then maybe instead hit the antiquities and gardens at the Getty’s Pacific Palisades villa (reopened 2006), which is handy to Malibu.  Or vice versa. But don’t forget the San Gabriel Valley. The smallish Norton Simon Museum has so much great art per square foot that you might not even mind being scolded by its officious security guards. And the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens really are a triple threat. If the acres of exotic flora don’t seduce you, the significant collections of European and American art might. And if they don’t, check the library displays, where you’ll find Charles Bukowski’s manuscripts and Gutenberg’s Bible, together at last. Here are more of my tips on the San Gabriel Valley.

24. So that’s pretty much it for arts and entertainment? Not at all. But it’s what you probably have time for. If you find yourself with an extra night, remember, almost every Sunday, you can find the workaholic Jay Leno testing material at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach. And most Tuesdays you can count on Porn Star Karaoke Night at Sardo’s in Burbank. That’s right: Off-duty porn industry personnel convening while fully clothed to shed their workaday worries and belt out a few tunes. That’s basically what you were expecting from your Los Angeles visit, right?

Venus mural, Venice. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

25. I need to snap just the right Facebook status update photo. Where should I stand? At Windward Avenue and Speedway in Venice, beneath the behemoth Venus who glides on roller skates at while thinking: “History is Myth.” The mural, known as “Venice Reconstituted,” has been there since 1989, and there is no L.A. image more emblematic or silly.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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