A first-timer's guide to having fun in Los Angeles

Sites to see

I am a planner, by nature – a list-maker, a restaurant researcher, a top-10 list addict. For every other trip that my husband, Sean, and I have taken, we’ve overplanned.


Somehow that didn’t happen when we decided to go to Los Angeles. Sure, we did a last-minute Google search, but our most effective research tactic? Posting a grinning selfie of the two of us on the plane, tagged, “LA bound! Tell us what we need to see and do.”

The comments poured in – great recommendations from friends on sites to see and food to eat. Somehow, despite our non-planning, our first-time trip to Los Angeles became one of the best vacations we’d ever had. On our last day, as I gazed over the city from atop Mount Hollywood, it was with a sense of “LA? Yeah, I got you.”

Sites to see

It was funny, but when I mentioned that we would be spending two weeks in LA, several people said, “What? LA? Why? You’re going to hate it!” – the incessant traffic, the smog, the crush of people.

Granted, if you go to LA, you have to rent a car, and you have to be willing to allow at least a half-hour to an hour to get anywhere. But after we slid into our silver Chevrolet, popped in a book on CD and shed our Augusta coats for lighter, warm-weather wear, we breathed in deep (despite the light haze). The sun was shining, the palm trees waving – and the view from our 29th floor hotel room? Filled with sites that we couldn’t wait to explore.

Our first stop had to be Hollywood, and where better than Hollywood Boulevard? Yes, it’s crowded and a little kitschy, but I still couldn’t help yelping in excitement at the names of some of my favorite stars on the Walk of Fame. The Walk of Fame extends for blocks, and along the way you’ll pass Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, along with impromptu street entertainment – from gyrating human “robots” to costumed superheroes pausing to snap photos with tourists. Our last stop was at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (still a working movie theater!), where I put my hands into the prints of some of my favorite Hollywood stars, immortalized in concrete.

For the ultimate Hollywood experience, take a studio tour. We chose the Warner Brothers’ VIP Tour after careful research. It’s the longest tour for the price (just over two hours for $54) and because they limit each group to 12 people, it really gives an inside look at where popular TV shows and movies are made. We saw still-existing sets for the Dukes of Hazzard, Gilmore Girls, Casablanca, Spider-Man (and the famous upside-down kiss) and Friends, plus sets for current shows such as The Big Bang Theory and The Mentalist. When we came back, it was fun to watch some of our favorite TV shows and movies and remember seeing the actual sets.

To add a dose of culture, the Getty Museum (in two locations, the Getty Center in LA and the Getty Villa in Malibu) presents European and American art, as well as Greco-Roman art; and San Marino’s Huntington Library has Blue Boy and a Gutenburg Bible. But our choice? The La Brea Tar Pits and the Page Museum. Some may not know that the city of LA is built on pits of tar (asphalt) that have captured some of the best Ice Age fossils anywhere. The museum and park site showcase a piece of LA’s past that I wasn’t really aware of – plus, there are amazing fossils to see, from sabertooth tigers to mastodons to dire wolves. The park is also dotted with pools of inky (and stinky) black tar and real working excavation sites.

If you go to LA, you must dip your toes in the Pacific, and I dipped mine into the icy water along Venice Beach. The boardwalk, though, is a cacophony of T-shirt shops, medical marijuana clinics, tacky souvenirs and blocks upon blocks of homeless people hawking some beautiful – but mostly sad – art. When I spied what was just on the outside of the public restrooms, I was done. Much better was our trip up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu and Zuma Beach. The beach there in winter is glorious and open, with winds blowing up on the hills of sand that you can clamber up for a better view. The finish? A freshly prepared fish lunch at the beachside Malibu Seafood.

We toured the beautifully lit Rodeo Drive at night (after our GPS took us to Rodeo Road instead. The difference? Rodeo Road has 7-11, while Rodeo Drive has Cartier) – the better to window shop and avoid snooty shopgirls. But for serious shopping, head over to the Citadel Outlets on Interstate-5, where we did some damage at the outlet center’s more than 110 stores, from H&M and Banana Republic to COACH, Juicy Couture and Kate Spade.

A trip to Los Angeles isn’t complete without a day (yes, a full day) at Disneyland. I’ve been to Disney World in Florida, and I have to say there’s something special about the original theme park. Go early and plot out exactly which rides you want – and get the FastPass tickets if you can. We chose Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones Adventure and It’s a Small World – along with other Fantasyland classics. We took a break at 4 p.m., only to return to Disney about 10:30 p.m. With much shorter lines, we were able to ride two more rides, enjoy Main Street’s pretty lights and catch the park’s closing show (with fireworks), Fantasmic!

We hit the nightlife with drinks and people-watching at a classic bar and nightclub, The Rooftop at The Standard, atop the Standard Hotel in downtown LA. Expect to pay a lot for your wristband and access (going past burly bouncers twice along the way). Get there before 10 if you want to snag one of the coveted poolside cabanas – red teardrop-shaped pods complete with a waterbed – or opt for one of the white cushioned lounges near the outdoor fireplace. Snacks are available too at the heated biergarten.

One side trip worth taking is the two-hour drive to Palm Springs. An oasis in the desert, it boasts a sky-gazing statue of Marilyn Monroe in her classic pose from The Seven Year Itch and a sky-climbing aerial tram (the world’s largest rotating tram!) to the mountains above the desert. Although the tram ride is not for the claustrophobic (and get your tickets early if you want to avoid a wait), there are fantastic views and the possibility of building a tiny snowman atop the mountain.

Food to Eat

To slightly edit a comment from my California cousin, Elli, “Food in LA is no joke!” It’s a good thing that we did a lot of walking along with our driving because we ate well – very well – during our time in the city. Here are our recommendations:

BREAKFAST: Venice Farmer’s Market. Our bad beach day did do one thing: It led us to this gem of a farmers market. Located on Venice Boulevard, the market is open on Fridays from 7 to 11 a.m. and has the best fresh-squeezed orange juice that we’ve ever tasted. Drink it with one of the bakery-fresh cinnamon rolls or croissants available at the stalls for a great light breakfast.

LUNCH: The Original Farmers Market at the Grove. Yes, another farmers market. But where the Venice market is an actual farmers market with fresh produce, this one is more a permanent installation of outdoor restaurants, bakeries and food-related shops. There is much to choose from, so just follow your nose. We did, and it took us to one of the longest lines, always a good sign: the Brazilian buffet at Pampas Grill. The churrascaría features tender and delicious barbecued meats as well as plenty of sides. You pay by weight, so order as much or as little as you like.

VEGAN: Café Gratitude. It feels good to eat at Café Gratitude, and not just because the food is vegan and healthier for you. The restaurant is white, spacious and open, and the menu items are beautifully named: We started with the I Am Generous butternut squash quesadilla, and for my main, I enjoyed the I Am Inspired, a barbecue tempeh sandwich with creamy coleslaw.

ETHNIC: Genwa. This Korean barbecue restaurant welcomed us with 24 banchan, tiny dishes of Korean appetizers, before the servers walked us through how to expertly grill our marinated meats on the hot grill plate. The meats were delicately flavored and deliciously tender, with just that perfect edge of char. With the rice, sauces, a steamed egg dish, soup and dessert, it wasn’t so much a Korean meal as an experience.

NEIGHBORHOOD LOCALE: The Pikey Café & Bar. Tucked along a nondescript section of Sunset Boulevard, the Pikey is where I imagine we’d hang out with friends if we lived in LA. The British pub is intimate and warm, loud with laughter, with a terrific selection of beers, cocktails and liquor. The food is great too: I had an incredible, rich and flavorful roasted goose with potatoes fried in goose fat, followed by a sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream.

QUINTESSENTIALLY BEVERLY HILLS: The Bazaar by Jose Andres. This is where the movers and shakers go. We glanced around to see what Hollywood producer might be at the next table, but we were thrilled to see wondering glances turned as much our way.

The food, though, is the true star: traditional Spanish tapas reimagined into something almost otherworldly. Case in point: The Bazaar presents the classic Spanish potato tortilla in the new style – deconstructed in a shot glass, served with a tiny wooden spoon, with layers of potato foam, creamy egg and caramelized liquid onion. After our series of carefully constructed tapas, we were then escorted from the sleek and graphic red, white and black dining room into the entirely separate Patisserie – all pink and glass and gilded – where we could enjoy our dessert. Our choice was the nitro coconut floating island, coconut ice cream quickly frozen and smoking from nitrogen with touches of passion fruit and vanilla.

DESSERTS: Bottega Louie. This hip LA restaurant and bakery is super popular and boasted the longest waits of any restaurant we went to. It makes a mean clam linguini, but the star is the bakery case filled with jewel-like French macarons in every flavor imaginable (but do try the salted caramel).

By the end of our vacation, we were filled. Every city has a flavor, and LA’s is so incredibly complex. I don’t know that we even scratched the surface, but we definitely got a taste.

I think the last day of any vacation is the hardest to plan. But we ended up with the perfect day and another view of Los Angeles. As we hiked, then climbed the rugged trails leading up to Mount Hollywood, we took the obligatory photos of the Hollywood sign.

Then, we just stopped a moment for one last long look at the beautiful city, golden under a smoky haze, under a dome of blue sky.