Los Angeles, California
Ah, Los Angeles. A place I love and also love to hate. While I of course love the restaurants, lively nightlife, sporting events galore and shopping for days, like most people I absolutely despise the traffic, the pollution, and often times—unfortunately—the people. But first time visitors to LA often love it, and please don’t let my Debbie Downer mentality sway you from going. It can be magical, and the history—especially in Hollywood—is unmatched.
LA is truly like no other place on earth. It’s incredibly unique, and first time visitors often love the excitement of seeing celebrities, spending a day at Disneyland (which is technically in Anaheim, but close enough), soaking up the California sun at the beaches, and marveling at the sky-high palm trees, variety of shops and incredible monuments.
Before I get into my recommendations for where to stay, where to eat and what to do, I’ll start with a few things you should know:
Things to Know
Plan for traffic. The traffic is unlike anything you could ever imagine. There are few places on this earth where I have experienced traffic worse than in LA. And with Los Angeles, it’s constant. Yes, it’s definitely worse around rush hour (7:00 am to 9:00 am and 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm), but you’ll also encounter stopped traffic at strange times throughout the day, for no apparent reason at all. So if you have anything planned during your trip to LA that requires you to be at a particular place at a particular time, be sure to plan ahead.Don’t just rely on Google maps for timing and directions; map it a few days before—at the exact time you think you might need to leave—and see what the traffic is. Then do it again the following day to see how much it changes. If in doubt, ask a local or the hotel concierge. And always build in extra time on top of the estimate, in case traffic ends up being worse than you had anticipated.
Transportation Options: How long you're staying and what you plan to do will dictate how you get around.
Rent a car. If you're staying in LA for more than a few days, my clear recommendation is to rent a car. As I discuss more fully below, Los Angeles is a huge city, and sometimes it's just easier to get around if you have your own car. I prefer renting with Hertz because the rental process is always seamless and they have a great selection of cars.
Uber/Lyft. Using a rideshare company like Uber of Lyft is a great way to go if you're just heading to dinner here and there or are heading out for drinks at night. Personally I wouldn't recommend using rideshare companies if you're planning to go all over the city, as this could get pretty expensive, but it's a great option in some circumstances.
Public Transit. Not my preference in a place like LA, but it is an option for the budget traveler. Public transit in LA isn't like most major metropolitan cities (translation = it's not great) but definitely available.
Don’t assume you can see Los Angeles on a layover. A question I see posed fairly often on travel message boards is whether or not it’s possible/advisable to leave the airport on a 5-7 hour layover. The short answer is: no. Possible? Yes. Advisable? No. For one, there’s so much traffic at just about any time of day that it could take you 15 minutes to get somewhere fun or 2 hours. Next, the airport isn’t in a great location, so to leave in order to see anything worthwhile requires you to drive a fair bit. And do not—I repeat: do not—leave the airport on foot thinking you can walk around. The airport is just minutes away from one of the worst neighborhoods in all of LA, and it’s best that you’re not caught walking around—even in the daylight.
You might have time to get to someplace like Venice, Santa Monica or maybe even Hollywood with enough time to snap a few photos and maybe even enjoy a meal, but you’ll still need to make sure you have plenty of time to come back. Traffic can change quickly, so even if it did’t take you long to get there, if you’re heading back around rush hour, it could—quite literally—take you 2 hours to go 10 miles in an Uber to get back. And traffic around LAX can be quite troublesome as well. While some days are a breeze, others bring absolute gridlock. I encountered traffic so bad at LAX once that it took us an hour to go from the entrance of the airport to where my husband could drop me off to catch my flight. Seriously.
If you have plenty of time (I’d say more than 7 hours), the best places to visit that are relatively close geographically are Marina del Rey, Venice, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood
Los Angeles is a huge city. What is often referred to as “Los Angeles” might not necessarily be in the city of Los Angeles. And there’s also Los Angeles County, which encompasses everywhere from Lancaster down to Long Beach (which, by the way, are a couple hours away from each other). Los Angeles has grown so drastically over the years that when people refer to Los Angeles as a city, they often include everywhere from Burbank to Torrence, from Santa Monica to East LA, and everything in between. So try not to get confused by the different cities that are within the greater Los Angeles area—and note, rather importantly, that some are very close to the downtown and city center and some are quite far away.
This is important to know when you take into account the traffic. On a map, things can often look really close together. And someone without great knowledge of the city might see that something is only 10 miles away, but understand that because of where it is, it might take an hour to go that short 10 miles during rush hour.
The best pockets of LA that are worth visiting—in my opinion—include Santa Monica, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Venice and downtown LA. Places to avoid are Compton, Hawthorne, Inglewood and the area surrounding the LAX airport.
Where to Stay
If you’re a first-time visitor and are planning to hit up all the major touristy spots, staying someplace near Hollywood, West Hollywood or Santa Monica is probably best. I wouldn’t choose to stay in those areas, but I’ve been going to LA since childhood and live just an hour away now, so I just have no reason to be in the touristy spots. If you want to hit up the usual first-time visitor attractions (the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Santa Monica Pier, Universal Studios, TCL Chinese Theater, etc.) then stay in the West LA area. My picks in this area include Loews Santa Monica, the JW Marriott Santa Monica Le Merigot, or the Viceroy Santa Monica.
If you’re looking for upscale, stay in Beverly Hills. Santa Monica and downtown have some great luxury hotels as well, but Beverly Hills is both centrally located and also is bound to have great restaurants and shopping within walking distance, depending on where you stay. There, my favorites include the Beverly Wilshire Beverly Hills (a Four Seasons property) and the Maybourne Beverly Hills (formerly the Montage).
For trendy options with lively bar scenes and nightlife nearby, stay at the Hollywood Roosevelt, the W Hollywood, or the SLS Hotel, a Luxury Collection property.
If you’re in town to catch a basketball or hockey game downtown, stay at either the Ritz Carlton LW Live, JW Marriott LA Live or Courtyard LA Live. These options are in varying price points: the Ritz is the most expensive, with the JW being in the middle and the Courtyard being the cheapest of the three.
If you’re looking to stay by the beach, consider Loews Santa Monica, the Ritz Carlton in Marina del Rey or the The Surfrider Hotel in Malibu.
Where to Eat
One of the greatest things about Los Angeles is that it has a vibrant, diverse food scene. LA is known for its incredible food trucks, authentic Mexican food, impressive fine dining and casual California eats. Quite literally, you can find whatever type of food you’re craving in LA.
For fine dining, get a reservation early and get into n/naka. If you didn’t manage to get a res but still want upscale sushi, try Matsuhisa. In Beverly Hills, dine at Sfixio, Madeo or Il Pastaio for upscale Italian or CUT for Wolfgang Puck’s upscale steakhouse (their “Rolling Fog Over Mount Fuji cocktail is perhaps my favorite cocktail ever). Other phenomenal fine dining options are WP24 at the top of the Ritz Carlton in downtown LA, Somni’s 10 seat dining counter in Beverly Glen, Catch in West Hollywood (WeHo) or Vespertine in Culver City.
My favorite fine dining option with views is Nobu in Malibu. There is truly no better place to sip a glass of white wine while watching the sunset on their killer outdoor patio. Nobu, however, is one of the hardest places in LA to get a reservation at on a weekend or popular night. Get reservations early, or try to walk-in super early. Sometimes you can put your name in for a table and then grab a drink at the bar. Another secret is to just get there early and eat at the bar.
For trendy mid-level eats, dine at Animal (one of my faves), Craig’s, Gracias Madre, Ysabel or The Little Next Door in WeHo. In the west end, try the Butcher’s Daughter or Great White in Venice or Élephante in Santa Monica, which serves up trendy eats all day long. In Downtown LA (DTLA), hit up Broken Spanish for sophisticated Mexican and super creative cocktails, Nightshade for creative Asian-Californian, Bestia for trendy Italian or Bavel (also by rising star chef Ori Menashe—responsible for Bestia) for Middle Eastern eats. On the east end, try Hippo in Highland Park.
If you’re craving Asian food, hit up Night + Market Song in Silverlake for the best Thai or Pine and Crane for amazing Vietnamese. Also try Quarters for Korean BBQ or President Thai for Thai food in Pasadena.