Los Angeles can be a dream or a nightmare. For the uninitiated, it’s easy to fall into the superficial tourist traps and spend hours trying to make your way across the city’s massive urban sprawl through the tangle of freeways that sometimes feel less functional than clogged arteries.
I’ve had more than one person tell me they didn’t like Los Angeles. From personal experience, I know that it can be an acquired taste. But once you accept the fact that it will take you 30 minutes to go 5 miles and you start exploring by neighborhoods instead of trying to swallow whole, you’ll see that this city is anything but shallow.
Los Angeles has long been a city of transplants, with so many coming to realize their dream. But that’s made everything from the people to the food to the art scene an eclectic mix that is constantly reinventing itself, almost like a perpetual renaissance. Even classic spots find ways to put on new twists. Whether it is your first visit or fifteenth, here’s a fresh and fun guide to all the things to do in Los Angeles to celebrate the city’s artistic roots.
Ace Hotel: Downtown Los Angeles
To get those creative juices flowing, stay at Ace Hotel housed in the former United Artists building. The 13-story Spanish Gothic tower was built in 1927 for Charlie Chaplin’s film and television studio. The hotel, which opened in 2014, pays homage to the building’s artistic past. The attached movie palace that was revamped along with the hotel hosts acts ranging from Jerry Lee Lewis to Tori Amos. Instead of a long hall of replicate rooms like most hotels, each room at the Ace is different. The furniture and décor are a curated mix of one-of-a-kind vintage finds and mid-century modern pieces from local shops.
Downtown Los Angeles has gone from being a ghost town by 5 p.m. to a pretty lively place. Old, underused buildings are being renovated, stripping back drywall and dropped ceilings to reveal exposed brick and ornate moldings. Located on South Broadway, Ace Hotel is now in good company with a slew of new restaurants, bars, and shops.
The hotel-adjacent restaurant Best Girl recently brought on chef Michael Cimarusti of Providence fame, where you can order breakfast, lunch, dinner and even room service, so you may not be tempted to stray far. The Ace’s rooftop serves as the heart of the hotel, complete with a pool, bar and cozy seating around flickering fireplaces. As a place to see and be seen, it’s busy from breakfast until the wee hours of the morning.See Ace Hotel
New restaurants pop up in Los Angeles so fast it’s like spinning on a hamster wheel trying to keep up, but instead of burning calories, you’re consuming them. I often look to Pulitzer Prize-winning and Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold for the skinny on new restaurants in LA. Though the next big thing to hit the city may open between the time I push send and this piece is published (seriously, it feels like it happens that fast), here are my picks for the best eating experiences in LA.
Grand Central Market
One place you’ll be sure to find the hippest eateries in Los Angeles is Grand Central Market, about a mile down the street from Ace Hotel. Think of it as a tasting flight from a selection of the city’s best chefs and restaurateurs, all in a lively, communal atmosphere.
On my first visit to this food hall back in 2009, the floors were strewn with sawdust, most vendors sold dried beans, spices, or overripe produce, and the menus from the multicultural food stalls were simple and cheap. A push to modernize the market in 2012 brought in a decidedly more upscale set of vendors like Eggslut, Valerie Confections, and Knead & Co. But a few long-term proprietors have kept their stalls, including Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, where the massive al pastor tacos are still $3.50.
Even though I have some nostalgia for the days when no lunch cost more than $5, the newcomers have revitalized the market, making it one of the best places to eat out in LA.
With the largest Korean community in the United States, it’s easy to argue that Los Angeles’ Koreatown has some of the tastiest kimchi and galbi around. Even David Chang, Michelin star chef and founder of the famed Momofuku Restaurant Group recently said K-town is “probably the most exciting place to eat in America.” Go to Genwa for a massive spread of banchan; with 23 small dishes, you will probably experience at least a few new flavors even if you’re a KBBQ regular. Park’s BBQ has gained almost universal consensus as the King of LA’s Korean barbecue scene. Like almost every traditional barbecue spot in K-town, the slices of meat are cooked on a small grill in the middle of your table, but Park’s galbi, bulgogi and pork belly tend to be a cut above the rest.
If you’re not in the mood for Korean food, never fear, because K-town is a multicultural melting pot. The Death By Duck, which is duck fat fries topped with duck confit, at gastropub Beer Belly tastes so good it’s worth the heart attack. Or, if you need to lighten things up, order the crunchy green papaya salad at Thai restaurant Isaan Station.
A trip to the neighborhood wouldn’t be complete without a late night karaoke session. Book a private room with friends or join the crowds and sing the night away.
Get the full Koreatown itinerary…
The U.S. has gone through a craft brew revolution in recent years, and while Los Angeles has been somewhat slow to catch on, the movement is spreading like wildfire. With an ever-growing number of microbreweries, enjoy a showcase of the best beers in the city with LA Craft Beer Tours. The bus tour includes tastings at three different breweries. Popular stops include Golden Road, Arts District, and Angel City, and the outing is usually accompanied by a behind-the-scenes tour of a brewery.
Father’s Office, a gastropub with locations in Santa Monica and Culver City, may not brew its own beer, but it has a rotating lineup of over 30 craft beers on tap. Don’t drink on an empty stomach and order the famous Office Burger, a dry-aged beef patty topped with caramelized onion, blue cheese, Gruyère, applewood bacon, and arugula. If you’re like me and have a penchant for smothering your burgers in ketchup, here’s fair warning that chef and owner Sang Yoon has a strict no ketchup, no substitutions policy, so don’t ask.
If you haven’t heard about LA’s love affair with green juices, the plethora of cold-pressed juice bars around town should clue you in. I kid you not, there’s a group that passes out bunches of kale to drivers along the PCH on National Kale Day. We take our kale very, very seriously. If you want to try a juice from people who were juicing before it was a fad, stop by Beverly Hills Juice. This tiny shop opened in 1975 and still has customer favorites like Banana Manna shakes and the Green Genie on the menu. Plus, if you over-imbibed the night before, the apple lemon triple ginger juice can work wonders as a hangover cure.
For a city that feels hierarchical in its social structure, where the rich and famous live in sprawling mansions hidden behind high hedges and iron gates, access to its art is refreshingly egalitarian. Both the Getty Museum and the Getty Villa are free (there is a $15 parking charge or there is a bus stop six minutes walk off the PCH), the most popular feature at the LACMA is a collection of street lamps called Urban Light installed in the sidewalk outside the entrance, and there are numerous no-charge museums with small but impressive collections (my favorite is the Annenberg Space for Photography).
Street murals used to be heavily concentrated in the downtown Arts District, but now colorful displays beckoning to be your next Instagram backdrop pop up regularly in almost every neighborhood across LA. The Broad, a contemporary art museum which opened in downtown in 2015, made museum-going popular again, with the free online tickets snatched up almost as soon as they are released on the first of the month.
Even with so many prestigious institutions in Los Angeles, I often like to head over to the small galleries clustered around Melrose Avenue. A memorable show opening at Gallery 1988 featured an artist that used glow-in-the-dark paint. The lights were periodically turned off in order to reveal the additional layer of paint, where all the scenes took an eerie turn.
With what I’d argue is the best music scene in the world, you’d be remiss not to squeeze in at least one concert during your weekend in LA. A performance at the Hollywood Bowl is always sure to be epic, but the tiny Hotel Café, with its back-alley entrance and intimate atmosphere, can be the best place to discover new artists before they hit it big. Sara Bareilles used to be a regular performer here before her “Love Song” fame, and I’ve even spotted her in the crowd at a show.
The best place to escape the stress of traffic grid-lock is Griffith Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country. Its over 4,500 acres are largely unmanicured, so in some spots, you actually feel like you’re in nature instead of a few miles from the 5 Freeway. You can make the partially paved walk up to the Hollywood sign, or go exploring on over 50 miles of less-frequented trails. You can’t miss a stop at the Griffith Observatory, especially at night. Catch a planetarium show, stargaze through the telescopes on the front lawn, or simply enjoy the twinkle of lights of the city below.
If you’ve done a weekend in Los Angles right, you’ve spent most of your time basking in the sunshine, not the glow of the brake lights in front of you (download Waze and thank me later). Since you’ve only just skimmed the surface, start planning your next weekend back soon.
Feature image courtesy of Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash