How to Be a Tourist in Los Angeles (and Not Feel Totally Lame)

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I normally stay put during peak holiday travel times as I try actively to avoid hordes of tourist whenever possible, but when my friend Ellen asked if I would consider coming to LA for her 30th birthday—which happened to take place over MLK weekend—all it took was discovering that Virgin America was practically giving away seats for $39 a pop, and I was on that plane. (Cheaper than a tank of gas and far less stressful than the six- to eight-hour drive down I-5. I win!)

If you’ve read this blog for awhile, you might remember Ellen as the Norwegian lass I met on a plane in Iceland some several years ago. I spent a week with her in Norway in 2008 following my trip to Svalbard, then she came to Sacramento later that year to SVV’s family’s house for Thanksgiving. It’s funny how some of the best friends you make often are the product of a random intervention of fate. That’s Ellen’s and my friendship in a one-sentence summary.

Ellen moved to Los Angeles two years ago to do an MBA, which she completed in just a year and a half while working full time (go, Ellen!). When I was down in LA last May for work, she was back home in Norway so we hadn’t seen each other in a year and change. I love LA. Love it. (And I love Ellen, so Ellen in LA is like the best possible combination a girl could ask for.) I don’t know if I could necessarily live there as I prefer not to have to allow myself two hours to drive three miles—as I learned the hard way when I accidentally stood Abby up for a much-anticipated hike of Temescal Canyon in an unfortunate end to a stressful Friday afternoon in gridlock—but I will visit as often as LA will have me.

The first few times I found myself down that way after moving to California, I did all the touristy stuff. When you’re a travel writer on assignment, sometimes that’s inevitable depending on the scope of the story. I’d spend an afternoon on Venice Beach, stroll Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, take the back lot studio tour at Universal Studios, do the VIP Experience at Warner Brothers. But now that that’s all behind me, I don’t feel the need to rush from one site to the next with little break in between. (Though let’s be honest: Until I master the traffic situation in LA, that will probably continue to happen anyway.)

So here’s my abbreviated itinerary for a perfect LA weekend—or how you can still be a tourist while interacting with locals:

Take a stroll down Robertson Boulevard. Ellen lives just one block over from and works on Robertson, which is convenient for a shopaholic like myself. Equally convenient (for my bank account) is the fact that I can’t actually afford anything in any of those shops, but browsing is sometimes nearly as fulfilling. Pair that with a savory crepe at Jack ‘n Jill’s for lunch, a little celeb-watching at the Ivy (I dined there two years ago and found the food sub-par and much over-hyped, but you can still spy from across the street), and playing spectator to the wacky Crazy Robertson dancer, and you have yourself a relaxing afternoon in Beverly Hills—without even needing to meander down Rodeo Drive.

Explore the Getty. My friend China, who studied with me in Edinburgh eight long years ago, now works in the public affairs office at the Getty. She thought it ridiculous the number of times I had been to LA and the fact that I had yet to step foot on the premises of one of the United States’ most beloved museums. So this trip, I changed that. (More to come this Photo Friday.)

Pre-game in style, while your limo transports you all the way up Mulholland Drive. On Ellen’s birthday night, her awesome company Moods of Norway sent their baby blue limo to pick us up. This was only the second time I’ve been in a limo ever (life of the underprivileged, ha), and what better way to see the Hollywood sign than when it’s close enough to touch and illuminated by the brilliance of the LA skyline at night? (Let’s forget the fact that drinking sugary champagne while riding in a limo up the very windy ways of the Hollywood Hills gave us all more than a mild dose of nausea.)

Hit the town in Hollywood. After our rather turbulent trip, the limo dropped Ellen, me and her two friends Laura and Elizabeth off at Katana on Sunset Boulevard where another eight of Ellen’s posse met us for our dinner reservation. We had a prime table out on the front deck of the restaurant with heat lamps keeping us cozy and ate our respective weights in sushi and edamame. Once we were sufficiently full, we only had to teeter on our stilettos across the street to the SkyBar at the Mondrian for the remainder of our evening. It may have been a weird crowd on that particular night, but the view from the back patio more than made up for the resident sketchballs who vied for our attention.

Find a friend with a pool. Make use of that friend (and pool). My good pal Stef has a glorious house with a plush backyard and pool in northern LA. She also has five dogs and three cats (the dogs of whom I adore and couldn’t wait to see again…sorry, cat people, but felines just aren’t for me). It was a glorious 80 degrees out, so we threw on our bikinis and spent the afternoon with Stef and her husband. Fun fact that I just learned: Most of the pools in town, including the famed Roosevelt, are open to the public (and free), so even if you’re not staying there, you should definitely take advantage. Think: Las Vegas pool scene, but not nearly as trashy. Three of my favorites are the Beverly Hilton, the W Hollywood and Thompson Beverly Hills (though obviously double check to make sure your chosen pool does indeed allow outsiders…I’d hate to steer you wrong and have you tell the concierge, “oh but Kristin of Camels & Chocolate promised me I could just pull up a chair and work on my tan!”).

Plan a low-key night in West Hollywood. Since we were out pretty late on Ellen’s birthday, Saturday night was for a casual dinner at Jones with China and two of my friends and former colleagues from New York, Tanner and Kara, who both just moved to the area for their jobs at Entertainment Weekly and MTV, respectively. They were hitting the Golden Globes coverage hard the following afternoon, which made me ever so nostalgic for my former days of red carpet reporting. It got mundane and was far from glamorous on most occasions, but sometimes working awards shows and movie premieres could be a blast. I felt a bit bad for Ellen and China, as the other three of us couldn’t shut up about TV shows we’re loving and mutual celebrities we have met. But such is the life of an entertainment reporter I suppose; you have a one-track mind!

Go to Disneyland. We got up bright and early on Sunday to drive to Anaheim for two sunny days at the parks. Because if you can’t go to Disney on your 30th birthday, when can you go?

*****

What are your favorite things to do in LA? Do you love that vibrant, nutty city as much as I do, or could you live without the smog and traffic?

COMMENTS
  • January 24, 2011

    Looks like a fun weekend getaway!!! I love Ellen’s dress! I was in LA a lot when I lived in SD. I enjoyed the city, but the traffic would give me panic attacks LOL.

    • January 24, 2011
      Kristin

      I’m jealous you lived in SD! So close to so many cool places–LA, Mexico, Palm Springs, Phoenix, etc. It takes us a full day to get anywhere “nearby” from San Francisco!

  • January 24, 2011

    I haven’t been to Disney since I was 15 years old! It’s really not a far drive from PHX, but now it’s a major drive to either coast. *sigh* This year I will get to Hogwarts though. I WILL.

    • January 25, 2011
      Kristin

      I’ll meet you there! I can’t get enough of that delicious Butterbeer!

  • January 24, 2011

    Being I’m not a city girl…. But I can never get too much of Disneyland. I usually head for the Las Padre Mts east of the city.

    • January 24, 2011
      Kristin

      We’re birds of a feather in that respect: I would go to Disneyland (or World) once a month if it was at all feasible!

  • January 24, 2011

    Oh I loved this, it made me nostalgic. I lived in LA for 5 years while taking a “hiatus” from college and it will always be a city I love. Now that I am a suburban bore I could probably never live there again, but every chance I get I will visit. There’s nothing like overpriced martinis in West Hollywood and c’mon…the people watching everywhere is PRICELESS. 🙂

    • January 24, 2011
      Kristin

      I didn’t know you lived there. I bet that was a blast! And now, living in the ‘burbs, you can appreciate both the good and the bad from your time in LA–particularly the fact that it doesn’t take you hours to get anywhere! (Though that said, Sac traffic is pretty darn awful at times!)

  • January 24, 2011

    Love, LOve, LOVE her dress! Insane jealousy.

    I’m never been to LA, nor any part of California, for that matter. It’s somewhere I’d like to go, but probably not on my list of top ten cities. There are other cities my heart yearns for more strongly than LA.

    • January 24, 2011
      Kristin

      That’s how I felt prior to moving to California. I’d only ever been in LA for tennis matches and never had any real draw to the city. Now that I’ve been there so many times, I can appreciate it for what it is–and for all its quirky little nooks and neighborhoods and pockets of activity, too!

  • January 24, 2011

    I love LA! My four years at UCLA were great, and although the city has its downsides like the ridiculous traffic and the phony LA scene people, something about it just makes me happy. Now that you’ve finally been to the Getty, next time you’ve got to check out the Getty Villa.

    • January 24, 2011
      Kristin

      Having gone to school on a mountain for my first two years, then in a mid-sized city (half a million residents), I can’t fathom what it would be like to go to college in LA. But I imagine it was pretty awesome as you’d never run out of things to do!

  • January 24, 2011

    It has been over three years since I’ve been in LA, so I’m not sure how much has changed, but here are my Top 10 things to do:

    1. Go to the Getty Center (Hollywood) and the Getty Villa (Malibu)
    2. Eat at Roscoe’s Chicken N’ Waffles off Sunset Blvd.
    3. Have a night of sushi and partying at Miyagi’s off Sunset Blvd.
    4. Shop, people watch and eat inside and around the Beverly Center
    5. Go to the Grove Farmer’s Market
    6. Shop for albums (yes I said albums- they make great wall art) at Amoeba Music in Hollywood off Sunset.
    7. Take a ride beyond Disneyland and see the real O.C. (Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, San Clemente)
    8. If it’s basketball season, go to a Lakers game
    9. Picnic in Griffith Park then trek up to the Griffith Observatory
    10. Venice Beach on a Sunday

    Since I lived in Orange County for nine years, I highly recommend that people take a ride down the 405 and then the PCH and see the million dollar views and multi-million dollar lifestyles, lol. I also think that Long Beach is overlooked by tourists and loved by locals. The pier area has been rebuilt nicely and you’ll find lots of great restaurants on Pine Ave. Also, try a Sunday brunch at the Bel Air hotel.

    I Love LA!

    • January 25, 2011
      Kristin

      This is an AWESOME list. I’m taking it with me the next time I’m in LA! Scott and I went to Orange County for the first time last summer and were blown away by its beauty.

      • January 3, 2012

        I think both your lists combined makes for a pretty comprehensive LA itinerary! Even though I lived in LA for a year before I moved to Sweden I can’t say I’ve done it all so will be working on it now that I am back here for a couple more weeks–specifically searching for the crazy Robertson dancer, a pool (because we are having ridiculously amazing weather for January), the Getty and ROSCOES. Thanks guys 🙂

  • January 24, 2011

    One of my best friends lives out there and I need to get back there soon. I loved the Getty when we went! And the La Brea Tar Pits because it reminded me of My Girl 2.

  • January 24, 2011

    All cool things to do – we did Robertson Blvd and Disneyland last time we were there but definitely need to take advantage of the rest of the things on here when we’re there next in August especially the nightlife. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    PS. Anyone have a pool we can use?

    • January 25, 2011
      Kristin

      Ha! The Roosevelt does =)

  • January 24, 2011

    Don’t worry Kristin. I have been living in the LA area for 7 years and have never being to the Getty Center. Don’t know why because everybody says it is a great place.

    Last November, we took a bunch of people from out of town around LA. We just had one day because they came for a special event. We went to the Olveras Street, the Griffin Observatory, Hollywood Boulevard, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Enough for a day!!!!! They just loved every place and want to come back for more. LA rocks!!!

    • January 25, 2011
      Kristin

      You’ve just reminded me of two iconic LA things I STILL haven’t done: Olveras Street and the Observatory. Sigh. Next trip! Can’t believe you managed all of that in one day with your guests, though. You truly are a professional Angeleno!

      (But get yourself to the Getty, woman, pronto! If, for nothing else, the views alone.)

  • January 24, 2011

    I live in San Diego, so I have to drive through LA all the time and let me just say I don’t think I will ever master driving in this city. It’s horrible. Actually, I make Scott drive most of the time because the drivers scare me. Maybe getting a limo is the trick to enjoying LA. 😉 Sounds like you had a great time!

    • January 25, 2011
      Kristin

      The funny thing is that I actually don’t mind driving in it that much–it’s definitely no worse than San Francisco–but I will never be able to master giving myself enough time to travel from Point A to Point B. I always underestimate the traffic there!

      • January 25, 2011

        I know what you mean. If I fly out of LAX I usually give myself 5 hours or more to get to the airport. Without traffic it is only a 1.5 hour drive.

  • January 25, 2011
    Ellen

    WOW, thank you so much for the amazing post my dear friend. And thank you for making my 30 birthday weekend so special. I had so much fun. Turning 30 wasn’t so bad after all 🙂

    As Kristin wrote, I have been living in LA 1,5 years now. With the fact that I come from the small city of Oslo (atleast compared to LA) I had some problems adjusting to LA. But now that I can manage to get from A to B without my GPS, learned to handle any traffic situation with some great music, and gotten used to the Holly”weirdness” I have come to love this city. What I find most interesting is that it has so much to offer, and you will find different areas and centers that all offers a totally different environment and culture. You have Hollywood that is just crazy, Beverly Hills that is very high class, Santa Monica that has a beach style, Venice with its hippie style, and Malibu with its vacation vibe. And in the middle of this you have The Grove, a supercozy shopping street, Runyon Canyon with amazing hiking and so much more. The city has something for everyone!!

    Again, thank you for a fantastic weekend. Can’t wait to see you in San Francisco soon. Love you!
    Ellen

    PS. For those who liked my dress I can reveal that its a Karen Millen dress, bought at the Beverly Center, LA.

    • January 25, 2011
      Kristin

      Ahhhh, let’s do it all over again! Perfect weather, 30th birthday, the whole kit and kaboodle!

  • January 25, 2011
    Sid

    You met a girl on a plane and now suddenly you’re friends for life? WOW.

    • January 25, 2011
      Kristin

      Are you judging me, Sid? 😉

      It’s wild, isn’t it? The funny thing is that I was coming from Iceland and she from Oslo–her plane just stopped over in Reykjavik, she wasn’t even vacationing there like I was. Even weirder is that I wasn’t supposed to be sitting by her but switched seats because the plane was pretty empty! And I’m definitely glad I did!

  • January 25, 2011

    I’ve been to LA twice, and while I really like all the amazing different things there are to do there, I kind of hate the way everything is so spread out ( and the bloody awful traffic!) It feels more like individual little towns to me, than one big city. That said, I loved Santa Monica, Venice and Malibu and would definitely go back there again. I also loved the parks, we did Disney and Universal last time and had a blast! The Hollywood craziness is good times too, we ended up being propositioned by Scientologists last time we walked down Hollywood Boulevard, only to escape their clutches and to end up in the middle of an audition for models! Didier especially liked that bit! :0)

  • January 25, 2011

    I can’t count the number times I’ve been in LA and I’ve never been to the Getty either! I always think about it and then somehow I never make it up there. However, I’m headed down there this weekend and will finally be going to the Getty – I’m so excited! And I can’t wait to see your Photo Friday for some last minute info/tips.

    • January 25, 2011
      Kristin

      Kelly, that’s double incentive for me to get my photos up then! I just emailed China to get her favorite exhibits; I’ll post all that info this Friday in time for your trip. You’ll love it! I was only bummed I didn’t have more time there. Next visit…

  • January 26, 2011

    I know this post is about activities in LA but I can’t help but focus on the blue limo- I LOVE it! I have only been in two limos as well- one that was green and it was for my 16th birthday and another that a friend owns. Definitely need to work on that 😉

  • January 26, 2011

    That’s a great, and very do-able, list. Thanks for putting it out there… And I hope you enjoyed Disney as much as I enjoyed Disney Paris. I’m over 30 and have yet to go to the real deal…

    • January 26, 2011
      Kristin

      Oooh I’d love to go to Disney in Paris! Maybe I’ll add to my (non-existent) bucket list: Hit up all the Disney parks in the world =)

      (And Disneyland was a blast and not at all a disappointment even after all my years growing up spent at the Disney World parks in Orlando. I’m going to do a comparison post if ever I get my act together, ha!)

      • January 26, 2011

        I think theme parks and water parks make a laudable bucket list.

  • January 29, 2011

    I can’t beleive I’ve still never been to LA. You girls look fabulous and sounds like a great time! And I’m dying to go to the Getty Museum.

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