Los Angeles Essentials

Discover the best places to do whatever it is you want to do in Los Angeles.

By: Jesus Sanchez

Entertainment Essentials: Best Places to ...

HAVE FUN FOR FREE

Chinatown Art Gallery Openings, 900 block of Chung King Road 
The shopping alley known as Chung King Road has been reborn as a hot spot to catch the rising stars of the city’s art scene. Walk under colorful lanterns and neon dragons as you gallery hop and snack your way through multiple art openings held in former souvenir shops.

Stroll along the canals of Venice and Naples 
Venice Canals, Northeast of Washington Boulevard and Pacific Avenue 
Naples Canals, South of Second Street, Long Beach 
There’s no charge to stroll along the canals of Venice and Naples, two beachside neighborhoods, packed with lush gardens, architecturally interesting homes and charming foot bridges. Better yet, all the crowds are at the beach a few blocks away. While you might spot a celebrity strolling along a canal in Venice, head to Naples in December for holiday displays and an annual boat parade.

Palos Verdes Drive & Point Vicente Interpretive Center, 31501 Palos Verdes Drive West, Rancho Palos Verdes 
Palos Verdes Drive loops around the hilly Palos Verdes Peninsula, where towering cliffs loom above rocky coves and fog sweeps across green hillsides dotted with the red-tile roofs of Mediterranean-style homes. Take a break at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, a mini museum devoted to the peninsula’s natural history. Stop by between December and April, and you may catch sight of a Pacific Gray Whale during their annual migration.

MEET NEW PEOPLE

Los Angeles Conservancy Walking Tours, Downtown Los Angeles 
Want to meet like-minded people interested in the arts, architecture and local history? Then take a downtown Los Angeles walking tour offered by the Los Angeles Conservancy, one of the nation’s largest historic preservation groups. End a tour of the Art Deco masterpieces of downtown Los Angeles by inviting your newfound friends for a drink or a meal at one of downtown’s new hot spots.

TAKE A DATE

Old Pasadena 
The renovated century-old brick storefronts and warehouses of Old Pasadena, on the western end of town, provide a romantic backdrop for a Saturday afternoon or a weekday evening of shopping and dining. There is no shortage of outdoor cafes and restaurants to take advantage of warm nights. The sidewalks along Colorado Boulevard are usually jammed, particularly on weekend evenings. Best to stay on the side streets, like Green and Union, which are only a block away but much less hectic.

TAKE THE KIDS

Metrolink train ride from Union Station, 800 North Alameda 
If your kids love trains, why not take them on the real thing? Metrolink commuter trains run frequently enough on weekends from L.A.’s historic Union Station that you can spend a few hours or an entire day on a round-trip adventure. Take a morning train to San Juan Capistrano, and tour the historic mission and picturesque downtown. Eat lunch and return home in time for a pre-dinner nap.

Aquarium of the Pacific, 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach 
You can’t go wrong with taking the family to see, and even touch, the marine life that inhabits the huge indoor tanks and outdoor pools of the Aquarium of the Pacific. But kids love things that move, so call the aquarium in advance to reserve some seats on a 45-minute boat tour of Long Beach Harbor, one of the nation’s largest and busiest seaports.

PEOPLE WATCH

The Grove, Third and Fairfax Streets 
It shouldn't be too surprising that a mall is one of the best places to people watch in Los Angeles. The Grove, which rises beside the food stalls of the beloved Farmers Market, resembles a Disneyland-like Main Street lined with national chain stores and restaurants. It’s contrived but wildly popular, drawing a diverse crowd of shoppers and scenesters. How can you not love a place where the main fountain shoots up jets of water in tune with songs by Donna Summer and Frank Sinatra?

GRAB A BEER

Father’s Office, 1018 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica 
It’s tiny. The beers are pricey, and the wait to get in can be long. But this Santa Monica pub boasts a huge selection of micro brews on tap that keeps the crowds coming. You can expect a shorter wait at their new Culver City location.

DANCE

Akbar, 4356 Sunset Blvd. 
Skip the velvet ropes and $10 cover charges of Hollywood dance clubs and nightspots. Drive a few miles east to Akbar, located next to a fast-food parking lot and a late-night diner, and dance yourself silly in a mixed crowd of straight and gay dancing machines.

WATCH A MOVIE

ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. 
A general admission ticket will set you back $14.50 on a weekend night. But you won’t hear many complaints or see many empty seats in this high-tech movie palace featuring the latest in sound and projection systems. Some of the best seats in the house, however, are in the Balcony Bar, which overlooks the long lines and scene in the cavernous lobby. If you don’t have enough time to sip a cocktail by showtime, don’t worry. You can enjoy a drink inside the theaters on weekend and Thursday nights.

Food and Drink Essentials: Best Places to ...

BUY GROCERIES

Santa Monica Farmers Markets 
Arizona Avenue and Second Street, Wednesdays, 8:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. 
Arizona Avenue and Third Street, Saturdays, 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. 
Droves of farmers and foodies head each week to the Santa Monica Farmers Markets, which are held near the shop-lined Third Street Promenade a block from the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. The Saturday morning market is jammed with residents as well as tourists. The crowds are thinner on Wednesday mornings, which are popular with many of L.A.’s up-and-coming chefs snapping up everything from organic blood oranges and mission figs to pistachios and lavender (yes, for cooking).

Trader Joe’s, numerous locations across Los Angeles County 
Angelenos are always amused when visiting friends and family head home with suitcases packed with Trader Joe’s Mt. Baldy trail mix, pineapple salsa and other specialties. TJ’s, as the locals call it, has retained a quirky feel and a lineup of unique staples (Thai shrimp gyozas, anyone?) that appeals to local tastes even as it grows nationwide. Don’t forget to pick up a Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer on the way out for a fun read.

GET FULL WITHOUT SPENDING A LOT

Zankou Chicken, 5065 W. Sunset Blvd., East Hollywood 
The grungy parking lot, the fast food-like interior and the often blank stares from employees behind the counter may find many first-time visitors wondering what they are doing in the Zankou Chicken outlet in East Hollywood. But any doubts about this Middle Eastern restaurant evaporate with the first bite of the juicy, rotisserie chicken smeared with pungent garlic paste.

Making the meals even more attractive are the prices. The half-chicken plate, which bulges in its to-go container, can feed two people with a slab of crispy-skinned chicken, a side of tangy hummus, pita bread, magenta-colored pickled turnips and that garlic paste. That will set you back less than $9. Since you already saved money, you might as well throw in some balls of deep-fried falafel and a container of grape leaves.

SAMPLE ETHNIC FARE

La Serenata de Garibaldi, 1842 E. First St., East Los Angeles, 323-265-2887 
It's hard to think of Mexican cuisine as ethnic food in Los Angeles since it is so mainstream, featured on menus in nearly every corner of the city, from taco trucks in the San Fernando Valley to expense account-type restaurants in Century City. But much of it is in the predictable forms -- burritos, enchilada plates, fajitas -- found pretty much anywhere in the country. So, the family-owned La Serenata de Garibaldi distinguishes itself with a refined menu featuring seafood and other dishes not found in a typical Mexican restaurant.

La Serenata operates two other outlets, but the mother ship in Boyle Heights still draws foodies from across the city. Here you will find a fish empanada -- a cornmeal turnover oozing with fish, cheese and herbs -- as well as grilled and sautéed fresh fish specials. But it's the sauces that make the meals come to life: bright-green avocado and chile verde sauce, a fiery molcajete sauce and huitlacoche, an earthy-tasting sauce made out of corn fungus. You might never go back to just red and green sauce again.

ENJOY FINE DINING WITHOUT BREAKING THE BANK

Lucques, 8474 Melrose Ave., 323-655-6277 
Maybe it's the roaring fireplace in the middle of the cozy dining room or the sun-filled back patio, but Lucques feels much more like someone's comfortable home than one of the city's most well-regarded restaurants. This Westside restaurant is at once sleek and sophisticated but also casual and welcoming, with a menu featuring Mediterranean dishes tailored for California tastes. The restaurant's first-rate ingredients and unexpected combinations -- such as pomegranate salsa and green harissa -- don't come cheap, however.

So, that's why Lucques’ Sunday Supper menu is a popular and relatively inexpensive alternative (for this type of cuisine). The three-course Sunday Supper, about $45, features a changing seasonal menu that could start with a salad of roasted root vegetables, followed by a main course of rosemary-grilled pork tenderloin and end with a dessert of freshly made beignets and banana ice cream. Too bad Sunday night comes only once a week.

GRAB A LATE-NIGHT BITE

Pacific Dining Car, 1310 West Sixth Street 
A thick, juicy steak, the specialty of the house, might sound too heavy when you get the midnight munchies. But this legendary L.A. steakhouse, open 24 hours, will gladly serve you smaller, but equally tasty, lighter dishes along with a classic cocktail. Already hungry for breakfast? No problem. The kitchen can cook up the perfect eggs benedict, with buttery hollandaise sauce running over perfectly formed poached eggs, thick ham slices and a crispy muffin.

GET COFFEE

Intelligentsia, 3922 West Sunset Blvd. 
Order a macchiato. Grab a table in the outdoor dining room, and enjoy the parade of bearded, pierced hipsters; stylish couples; and skateboarders who roam the shopping strip called Sunset Junction. Go early because tables can be hard to come by even during the middle of the week. Before you hunt for street parking, check to see if there’s a space in the lot behind the store.

MUNCH ON MOUTHWATERING COOKIES

Some Crust Bakery, 119 Yale Ave. 
Decades of the students who graduated from this town’s prestigious Claremont Colleges not only leave with a valuable degree, but also with a lifelong love for the made-from-scratch cookies and pastries at Some Crust. Nothing goes better with a dense yet moist mocha cookie than an iced latte, delivering several hours of renewed energy and relief from the inland heat.

Shopping Essentials: Best Places to ...

CHECK OUT A FUNKY LOCAL BUSINESS

It’s a Wrap, 3315 W. Magnolia Blvd. 
Want a deal and a piece of Hollywood you can wear? It’s a Wrap sells clothing that has been worn by the actors and extras on TV shows and movies. There’s a new location on the Westside but head to the mother ship in Burbank for the biggest selection.

St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, 210 North Avenue 21, Lincoln Heights 
This sprawling secondhand store packed with donated clothes and furniture is a popular stop for vintage store owners looking to stock their own stores. So, cut out the middleman and stop by. They even deliver.

Wacko/La Luz de Jesus Gallery, 4633 Hollywood Blvd. 
No one really needs a $200 bust of Beethoven in red vinyl or a $3 wind-up lobster. But then you wouldn’t expect practical gifts at a place called Wacko, the city’s leading purveyor of all things kitsch. In the back of the store, behind shelves stocked with Tiki mugs, Last Supper lunchboxes and underground art books, the Luz de Jesus Gallery has helped launch the career of many outsider artists. The opening night crowds are even more colorful than the merchandise.

SUPPORT AN ENDANGERED BRICK-AND-MORTAR RETAILER

Amoeba Records, 6400 Sunset Blvd. 
Enter the cavern of Amoeba Records, and you will be assaulted by the sound of not only music but of customers flipping through thousands of new and used CD and DVD cases. That music, by the way, may not be recorded. The store is a popular spot for free live shows from new and established artists.

Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd. 
It seems that nearly every few months brings news of another independent bookstore closing its doors, unable to compete with online rivals. Yet Vroman’s, founded in 1894, has not only survived but it has grown, winning the loyalty of readers with a huge selection (more than 80,000 titles in three locations) and frequent readings for adults and kids. Bargain-book hunters make Vroman’s the first stop on their day-after-Christmas shopping spree when the store marks down many holiday books and other items by 50 percent.

Outdoor Essentials: Best Places to ...

ENJOY NATURE

Hike Topanga Canyon, 20829 Entrada Road 
It’s hard to believe that you are still within the Los Angeles city limits when you wander the more than 30 miles of trails that wind their way through oak-studded hills and the untouched grasslands of Topanga State Park. Hit the Musch Ranch Trail loop beginning in late February for a dazzling display of native wildflowers.

Santa Monica-Marina Del Rey bike path 
The most difficult thing about riding the eight miles of the beachside bike trail between Santa Monica and Marina del Rey is to stay focused. Stunning coastal views, the antics on the Venice Boardwalk and the eye-catching Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier are going to vie for your attention. So, keep your eyes on the path and start your ride early.

RELAX AT THE BEACH

Malibu Lagoon State Beach, 23200 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu 
The gentle arc of Malibu Lagoon State Beach will not disappoint those in search of sun and surf. But there is much more to this spot than just a sandy beach (you can find miles of them around here). On the western edge of the park, Malibu Creek tumbles out of the mountains, creating a lush wetland and lagoon popular with bird watchers and nature enthusiasts. The more urban and somewhat more crowded eastern end of the beach includes the famed Malibu Pier and nearby shops and restaurants along Pacific Coast Highway.

But it's in the middle section of beach where visitors will be surprised to run across a colorful piece of Malibu history: the Adamson House. And we mean colorful. The well-preserved, 1929 Spanish-Colonial-style mansion overlooking the sand and surf includes entire walls and floors clad in legendary Malibu tile, which was once produced by the family that owned this estate and much of the nearby coastline. Even when the house is closed for public tours, you can sit on the grounds, take in the view and sample what life was like here for the lucky few to call Malibu home.

SEE GREAT VIEWS OF THE CITY

110 & 105 Freeway Interchange 
The street lights of the Los Angeles Basin shoot out in all directions below and the skyline of downtown Los Angeles glows in the distance. But you are not on top of a hill or a rotating restaurant bar. You are in a car speeding in one of the elevated traffic lanes that converge at the interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways. The best view is the carpool lane from the eastbound 105 as it banks and descends into the northbound lanes of the 110 freeway. It's like a plane ride without having to pay for a ticket.

Hollywood & Highland Center, 6801 Hollywood Blvd. 
The rooftop terraces of the giant Hollywood & Highland Center mall in the heart of Hollywood offer sweeping views of the Los Angeles Basin, the Hollywood Hills and all the hoopla and activities of Hollywood Boulevard below. The best part is you don’t have to go on a long hike. All you have to climb is an escalator.

WATCH THE SUNSET

Palisades Park, Pacific Palisades 
High on the bluffs towering over Will Rogers State Beach, you can watch the sun slide into the Pacific framed by the beaches and mountains of Malibu to the north and the city lights of Santa Monica to the south. But unlike the better-known Palisades Park in Santa Monica, this fringe of green space at the edge of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacific Palisades is free of crowds and commotion. It's a bit remote, but all you have to do is just drive or walk several blocks south from Pacific Palisades' tiny downtown on Sunset Boulevard until you reach Villa de las Olas. Then just pick a quiet spot and enjoy the view.

TAKE FIDO

Verdugo Mountain Park, 1621 La Canada Blvd. 
Leave the crowded city dog parks behind and head for the hills. In this case, the trails of Verdugo Mountain Park above Glendale and Burbank are only a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles but offer you and your pet much more breathing room. The trails are easy to get to but make sure to take water and a hat because there are few trees along the way.

GET AWAY FOR A WEEKEND

Ojai 
Ringed with mountains that glow pink at sunset, it's no surprise that the Ojai Valley doubled as the setting for the legendary city of Shangri-La in the 1939 movie Lost Horizon. Ojai, located in Ventura County about 90 minutes north of downtown Los Angeles, has changed much since that movie classic was shot here, with many of the fruit orchards giving way to estates and housing tracts.

But Ojai, which comes from the Chumash Indian word "A'hwai," or "moon," has remained a charming small town, whose picturesque setting has drawn a year-round community of artists, New Age spiritualists and weekend visitors from Los Angeles. A small and walkable downtown is centered on oak-shaded Libbey Park, home of the annual Ojai Music Festival, and a covered arcade of shops and restaurants. Small hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts are spread around the town and surrounding valley. The nine-mile Ojai Valley Trail provides a great way to explore the area on bike or on foot. But make sure to save some time to admire the "pink moment" at sunset, when the hills glow with light and memories of Shangri-La.

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