City breaks LA: Down to earth in La La Land

Los Angeles has great restaurants, a thriving cultural scene, and leisure and sporting facilities to beat the band. John Butler on where to top up your culture quota, eat great food, and work it off on hiking trails and beaches

Those who haven’t been to LA disguise their aversion to it with a line of harmless rhetorical questioning, usually concerning the car. Isn’t it very big – don’t you need to drive everywhere? Isn’t it a bit ugly, what’s with all those freeways? In fact let’s be honest, aren’t we talking about a bleak, culture-free and sun-scorched Hades, given over to tranquili sed starlets, predatory movie executives and resting musicians, all traversing a lattice of cracked asphalt?

Well, yes and no. There is no denying the vastness of America’s largest city, and having a car might help, but visitors to Mexico City, Sao Paolo and Beijing may not feel the same urge to dominate every cubic inch of it. And it’s less walkable than New York, true, but I would hotly dispute that LA in 2013 is Manhattan’s cultural or aesthetic inferior.

If you don’t drive, it’s just a matter of picking your neighbourhood, based on whether you prefer beautiful beaches, wild hiking trails or an incredible cultural life, and working outward from there. Easily accessible and within the city limits, L A offers all of the above – and they have taxis here, too.

Roughly speaking, the city divides itself in two : Westside and Eastside. The Westside has the beach-bound neighbourhoods of Venice and Santa Monica, with Malibu to the north and Marina Del Rey to the south. The Eastside (which sits near the centre of the city map) has hipster enclaves like Silverlake and Echo Park as well as Downtown; which, given that the dominant industry of the town is based in Hollywood, feels something like a suburb. The 10 freeway connects east to west, and in between lie Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where most of the hotels are found.


Your concierge will be able to tell you all about the obvious attractions – Disneyland, the Universal studios tour, Mulholland Drive – because the cultural life of this city extends far beyond the industry for which it is most famous. When the oil tycoons and movie moguls made their moolah, their desire for LA to acquire a cultural life to rival that of New York began an acquisitive trend now exemplified by the wonderful Getty Museum. Perched atop a hill below which the 405 carves its way through Brentwood, a funicular will transport you to the top, and it is as much for the building, the gardens and the dazzling views that it's celebrated.

Nearby, on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, the Getty Villa specialises in the art and culture of Greece, Rome and Etruria. Farther inland, situated right by the La Brea tar pits, LACMA is the largest art museum in the western United States, housing 100,000 works of art, including a fascinating Stanley Kubrick exhibition, which ends in July.

Given it's main racket, LA has always offered an abundance of world-class stand-up comics, but a golden age might well be occurring at this very moment. Here, on any given day of the week you can see natives like Patton Oswalt, Aziz Ansari, Sarah Silverman and PF Tomkins work their act without much need for advance booking, and for about $30. The same goes for music, too, as just about every band on tour stops off at LA , with venues like the El Rey, the Roxy and the Troubadour each having nightly shows. The piece de resistance, though, is the Greek Theatre, where outdoor shows at this natural amphitheatre are lent accompaniment by crickets, and the scent of jasmine drifts through the night air.

Given its reputation for healthy living, it’ll come as no surprise that there’s an abundance of outdoor pursuits in LA. Rent a bike at Venice beach, cycle the beachside path north past the Santa Monica promenade and you’ll witness a panoply of healthy living: bodies flung skywards after volleyballs, bent this way and that, plunging beneath the surf. Further north, the beaches at Zuma and Malibu are less populated.

Back in the city, extensive hiking, biking and equestrian trails begin at many of the city parks and snake up to cover the entire LA mountain range . Favourites are the ones that starts at Griffith Park observatory, those at Temescal Canyon and Will Rogers Park, and at the tamer, more populated and therefore starrier Runyon Canyon.

But it is not all virtue. Angelinos are huge fans of eating, drinking and shopping. For the latter, the larger indoor malls like The Beverly Center and the Century City Westfield are worth a canter, as are those of the outdoor variety, like the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and The Grove, in Hollywood / Mid City.

America is home to some of the best casual dining, and it would be remiss not to cover eggs, tacos and burgers. Make sure to have breakfast at one of the good diners . I like Dusty's in Silverlake, the Bright Spot in Echo Park, the 101 Café in Hollywood (immortalised in Swingers ), and the diner at the Hollywood Standard hotel – itself a reasonable option for a hotel stay.

With the considerable Latino population, the Mexican food here is outstanding. A visit to Malo in Los Feliz is also worth it for the cocktail list; they make a mean michelada – a combination of beer and Bloody Mary. And many of the less salubrious looking taco shacks around the city have the best fish tacos – like Yucca (2056 Hillhurst Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90027) in Los Feliz.

And then there is the burger. In and Out is an institution, but recently, the burger at Umami is receiving serious acclaim. I like the port and Stilton option .

Then there is lunch at Barney Greengrass (on the rooftop of Barney's department store in Beverly Hills), some bibimbap in Korea town, the French dip sandwich at Phillipe's, the Farmer's Market at the Grove, the Reuben sandwich at Langer's Deli in McArthur Park , the chicken and biscuits at Roscoe's – okay, it is impossible to condense the range of food options into a few paragraphs. If you are hungry, in this town you can be fed in any manner of terrific ways.

I have made it this far without mentioning the great pleasure of being in a car in LA. It might not be necessary, but it is atmospheric. Whether you're heading west on Sunset in a cab in the morning sun , or taking a night-time spin to a movie at The Arclight; when, for the last few moments before the sun sets, the streets are golden orange and the smell is of jacaranda, the experience offers a fundamental sense of place. It's always to Manhattan which this megalopolis unfavourably compares, or the "much more European" west coast counterpart San Francisco – as if all you could possibly want when you land in America is a place that reminds you of home. But LA is special and if you're going to America, you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and visit the most American of all American cities.


The Sunset Marquis,, just off Sunset Boulevard, is discreet and low key . Even by the pool, the atmosphere is refined, which can come as a relief, given the party atmosphere at other hotel s.

The Roosevelt, , is known primarily for its poo l . Each weekend the club, Teddy's, in packed with Ari Gold and Lindsay Lohan types .

The Downtown Standard ,

Formerly a weird hybrid of business by day and ghost town by night, recently, this area has become gentrified, with an arts district, terrific food in Japantown and some great art deco buildings .


Little Dom’s, 2128 Hillhurst Ave .

Elbow up beside Spike Jones, Cameron Crowe and other celebs that like to eat and drink at this expertly-run, friendly bar and restaurant in the middle of Los Feliz.

Musso & Frank, 6667 Hollywood Boulevard . Makers of the world’s Best-Ever Gimlet, served by brusque middle-aged waiters in tuxedos. Menu options here are traditional .

Gjelina, 1429 Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Absolutely everything here is hand-sourced, artisinal, distressed and burnished in some way - which is not to say it isn’t delicious .

Wa sushi, 1106 N La Cienega Boulevard . LA has great sushi, much of it in far starrier locations than this place . Lobster tempura, octopus ceviche, seared scallop with artichoke hearts - a distinct Californian influence pervades the food .

Mozza, 641 N Highland Avenue . Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali's place has been open a few years and might have lost its new-place lustre, but the Italian food never gets old and you'll need to book in advance.