What Makes Los Angeles Like No Place Else

L.A. is known for beaches, freeways and Hollywood, but hillside living also makes the city unique.
By: Jesus Sanchez
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The landscape of Los Angeles is all about sandy beaches and ribbons of concrete freeways. What often goes overlooked, despite their hulking presence across the city, are the hills. Most people have heard of the Hollywood Hills and Beverly Hills, of course. But how about the Baldwin Hills, the Puente Hills, Bunker Hill and Mount Washington? These are a few of the lesser known peaks and ridges that poke hundreds of feet into hazy skies above the crowded coastal basin.

Thanks to Los Angeles’ geography and metropolitan sprawl, you don’t need to drive for hours to sit atop a mountain to find inspiration. In fact, the Santa Monica Mountains, which tower more than 1,000 feet, are located within the city limits of Los Angeles.

Flattened ridges and hilltops serve as pedestals for the city’s skyscrapers and palaces of culture. The hills are also home to hundreds of thousands of residents, from celebrity millionaires ensconced in Bel Air mansions to working-class families crowded into aging Lincoln Heights bungalows.

It’s not all cool breezes and breathtaking views in the hills of Los Angeles, however. Fires threaten to consume brush-covered slopes and the homes in between while the winter rains leave hill-dwellers on the lookout for fast-moving flows of mud and rock. Forget to pick up a carton of milk on the drive home? Well, that means a long and slow trip down and then back up narrow, winding roads.

Still, the benefits, as well as prestige, of hillside living continues to draw more and more residents to build on ever-steeper slopes. What’s it like to live on a hill with year-round views? Here are some of the lofty spots worth visiting for the vistas:

Baldwin Hills

The mass of the Baldwin Hills appears to rise like an island on the urban sea of L.A.’s Westside. Much of the terrain remains an active oil field, which is off limits to the public. But the trails of Kenneth Hahn State Park as well as many of the streets of the surrounding upscale African-American community provide plenty of spots to gaze at the Hollywood Hills to the north, downtown Los Angeles to the east, the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

Hollywood Sign

The 50-foot-high landmark sign is located just below the 1,600-foot summit of Mount Lee, but don’t try and go near the giant letters. The sign itself is fenced, patrolled and off-limits to the public. You can get close and above the sign by hiking a few miles along the strenuous Brush Canyon Trail through Griffith Park. But a far easier option is to drive to nearby Lake Hollywood Reservoir and snap a few pictures from the picnic ground and jogging trails.

Griffith Observatory

The city’s vast grid of streets and freeways spreads out to the horizon from this landmark set high on a bluff in Griffith Park. A recent renovation and expansion placed new exhibit halls, displays and restaurants below ground, leaving the observatory’s copper domes and art deco styling untouched. Nighttime is when you should go to take a free peek at the city below and the stars above.

Getty Center & Museum

The white monorail glides silently up the side of a steep hill, leaving behind the roar and fumes of the 405 freeway before coming to a gentle stop. The doors whoosh open, and visitors step out upon a broad stone terrace high above the city. It's hard not to feel like some mythical god who has alighted atop a modern-day Acropolis. Instead, you are just one of the droves of visitors who roam the grounds and gardens of the Getty Center, the museum and research center perched on a ridge in the Santa Monica Mountains above the posh community of Brentwood. Yes, the artwork inside is world class. But it's hard to stay indoors when jetliner views of the city, mountains and Pacific emerge from nearly every direction. Not to be missed is a cactus garden that appears to float over the city's sprawl.

Elysian Fields

The Little League baseball players scoot around the playing fields, too obsessed with their game to take in the nearly 360-degree city views that surround them. The site of a former garbage dump has been transformed into 15 acres of playing fields and picnic areas atop the hills of Elysian Park, located north of downtown Los Angeles. If the views of the downtown skyline or the San Gabriel Mountains are not thrilling enough, young sluggers are sure to be inspired by the view into nearby Dodger Stadium.

Bunker Hill

The last of the Victorian-era mansions and apartment houses that once crowned this hill in downtown L.A. were bulldozed in the 1950s and '60s as part of a massive redevelopment project. Much of the hill was also scraped away with those same buildings. What remains, however, is a plateau that is home to some of the city’s major cultural attractions, including the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall, the Los Angeles Music Center and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

If you want to see an old piece of Bunker Hill, wander past the mirrored skyscrapers of California Plaza to admire Angels Flight. The old funicular (or inclined railway) is in the process of being restored to once again transport people up and down the steep slopes of what’s left of Bunker Hill.

Forest Lawn

Glendale: Even in death, Angelenos prefer a hilltop spot. The pinnacle of this legendary cemetery, where a long list of notable Hollywood celebrities are laid to rest, gives visitors views of the Verdugo and San Gabriel mountains as well as nearby valleys. Pull yourself away from the view to step inside the hilltop Hall of the Crucifixion-Resurrection, a Gothic-style building that houses a 300-foot-wide panoramic painting.

Mulholland Drive

This narrow highway snakes its way for more than 20 miles along the spine of the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains. The road's namesake, famed engineer William D. Mulholland, intended the road to serve as a scenic highway to the Santa Monica Mountains and beaches. Of course, most Angelenos jump on the freeway when headed for the coast. But winding Mulholland provides a far more memorable, albeit time-consuming, trip high above the city.

A series of overlooks along the curves provides motorists with enough room to safely pull over and admire views of the San Fernando Valley to the north and the Los Angeles basin to the south. But keep an eye out for some of the city's landmarks of residential design, including the Jetsons-like Chemosphere House, an eight-sided, glass-and-steel residence off of Mulholland near Torreyson Drive.

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