Overview of Los Angeles

From its tangled freeways to the iconic and world-famous Hollywood, Los Angeles is a city that can be an all-out assault on the senses.
From its tangled freeways to the iconic and world-famous Hollywood, Los Angeles is a city that can be an all-out assault on the senses.

From its tangled and permanently congested freeways to the iconic and world-famous Hollywood, Los Angeles is a city that can be an all-out assault on the senses. Once a Gold Rush era boomtown, the biggest city in the west has developed into one of the country's biggest melting pots, attracting immigrants and fame-seekers from faraway countries and small towns within the United States.

While far from the biggest city in the country – that honor goes to New York City – Los Angeles is undoubtedly the biggest area in the United States. An endless sprawl of commercial and residential space, the city itself extends for miles in every direction imaginable. At a two hour drive from one end to the other, it's safe to say that LA is seriously large, and has a huge amount of things to see.

Unlike many other cities in the United States, Los Angeles itself is made up of several smaller cities which have slowly been engulfed by the City of Los Angeles. Cities like Burbank and Beverly Hills are technically not a part of Los Angeles itself, although locals and visitors alike treat them as part of the city itself due to their proximity and important cultural identity.

From the noise and 'LA Sorbet' pollution to the endless expanse of buildings, LA can be a difficult city to navigate as a tourist. However, it's also one of the country's most rewarding cities once you start to understand it, and as such it's always worth spending some time exploring its streets. With the right attitude, the right resources, and the right amount of time, LA can be a great experience.

To the untrained eye, Los Angeles can look like an endless expanse of freeways, identical buildings, and traffic lights. It's certainly a perception that's thrown at visitors from their arrival, with the short trip from LAX to the city itself offering little more than the occasional view from the freeway. With a little navigation, however, you'll quickly get your bearings and understand LA's layout.

Unlike New York or Chicago, most of the actions in LA is found outside the city center. Extensive freeways and cheap gasoline turned Los Angeles into America's first true car-dependent city, and much of the city's attractions moved out into the suburbs. Despite this, Downtown LA is still quite an interesting place to visit, particularly for fans of fine art and museum culture.

If you find yourself in Downtown, check out Los Angeles' version of Chinatown, found on North Broadway. While it's less impressive than its northern rival in San Francisco, LA's Chinatown is a great place to stop and enjoy some tasty Hong Kong-style Chinese food and shopping. During the week you'll find an open air market on the Broadway corner that has some good deals on offer.

Most of Downtown's attractions are of the museum variety, and culture buffs will find themselves in heaven given the amount of museums found in the area. The Museum of Contemporary Art and the nearby Geffen Museum, found on South Grand and Central Avenue, are an interesting visit for those interested in the less traditional side of art.

Los Angeles' central train station, Union Station, is also found in Downtown, and is a great place to check out if you're interested in movie history. The station has been used in hundreds of films, but is probably most well known for its iconic appearance in Blade Runner. The station is still used today, so try and combine a visit with a quick trip into or out of the city on one of its train lines.

Outside of Downtown is where Los Angeles really kicks off, and some of the city's best areas are found just a short drive from the city center. Hollywood, arguably Los Angeles' most famous area, is a reasonable distance from Downtown but offers some great activities and attractions for tourists seeking a distinctly LA-style cultural experience.

Once an independent city, Hollywood became part of Los Angeles a little over a century ago.
Once an independent city, Hollywood became part of Los Angeles a little over a century ago.

Once an independent city, Hollywood became part of Los Angeles a little over a century ago. While it's renowned as the world's movie capital, most of the film studios have moved from Hollywood to Burbank and other areas in recent years. Nonetheless, it still remains that film industry's top cultural area, and it's almost impossible to walk around Hollywood without being reminded of its history.

For a kitsch yet interesting experience, make your way along the Walk of Fame, which runs down Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. With over two-thousand stars embedded in the street, it's a fun way to brush up on your movie history. See which names you can remember, which you can't, and which seem downright strange – Godzilla and other fictional characters have their own spots.

Grauman's Chinese Theater, the theater complex at which most new movies premiere, is found on Hollywood Boulevard and is an interesting stop for movie fans. Movies show throughout the day, and a walking tour of the theater is available, explaining its historical importance. From hits like Pulp Fiction to historic Academy Awards ceremonies, this theater has a lot of history to offer.

One of the more popular activities in Hollywood is to take a tour of celebrity homes. While it's not a bad way to spend an afternoon, it's far from authentic, or even accurate. Expect to spend your day in a crowded van viewing ambiguous luxury homes, many of which celebrities don't live in. While it's not a bad way to view Hollywood, it's far from the best way to spend your time in the city.

For a more authentic celebrity experience, head to the areas of Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, both of which offer the classic South California experience. Beverly Hills is undoubtedly the city's high-end shopping home, with luxury boutiques and huge department stores found in its downtown area.

Santa Monica is one of Los Angeles County's best beaches, offering a mix of fun seaside activities and good swimming.
Santa Monica is one of Los Angeles County's best beaches, offering a mix of fun seaside activities and good swimming.

Santa Monica, on the other hand, is one of Los Angeles County's best beaches, offering a mix of fun seaside activities and good swimming. If you're looking for the glamorous side of LA's beaches, the area around Santa Monica Beach is a great place to find it. In the evening, the Santa Monica Pier, an icon of coastal LA, lights up and turns into a fun, albeit somewhat kitsch, amusement park.

To the south of Santa Monica is Venice Beach, one of the city's most interesting districts. While Los Angeles itself is all about business and serious work, Venice is the city's eclectic and bizarre fun and relaxation district. The Venice area was once a large network of canals and homes, but now most of the action is centered around the district's beachfront boardwalk and its many small alleyways.

Venice has something to offer almost anyone, and it shows in the district's huge mix of residents. At the north end of Venice Beach is 'Muscle Beach,' the fitness world's hotspot and former training area for megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger. Along the boardwalk you'll see more street performers than in any other part of LA, many of which offer really great shows for those that stop and watch.

It's safe to say that there's always something going on in this part of LA, and even on a non-eventful weekend, you'll be able to keep yourself occupied by people watching along the boulevard. Venice is one of South California's most colorful and interesting neighborhoods, and it really deserves to be seen, along with its slightly more sanitized northern neighbor, Santa Monica.

Of course, some of LA's most famous attractions are its theme parks, and with both Disneyland and Universal Studios found within its borders, Los Angeles is definitely one of the world's best places for amusement park gurus. Disneyland, arguably the world's most famous amusement park, can be found in Orange County, slightly to the south of Los Angeles itself.

Make your way to Anaheim to access the park, which is open until midnight during peak days. The Disneyland complex itself is made up of several parks, including the California Adventure park. To see everything, make sure you purchase a Park Hopper ticket, which allows access to everything in the two theme parks.

Other theme parks include Universal Studios LA, which is found in Universal City. Accessible by private car or using the city's train network, the easiest way to reach Universal Studios is by using the Light Rail Red train line and exiting at Universal City station. While Disneyland appeals to the younger crowd, Universal Studios is a better experience for teenagers and older visitors.

Finally, thrill-seekers will want to visit Knott's Berry Farm, one of the county's oldest amusement parks and certainly a favorite of locals. While it's less well known internationally than Disneyland or Universal Studios, Knott's Berry Farm is LA's best attraction for thrill addicts. The coasters are much steeper, the drops much faster, and the thrills upsized significantly from nearby Disneyland.

Visitors seeking an escape from the noise, pollution, and constant action of Los Angeles itself will want to visit Catalina Island, a small island located off the coast of South Los Angeles. Reachable by boat from Long Beach or Marina Del Ray, the island itself is home to two small settlements and some of South California's best snorkeling and SCUBA diving locations.

Catalina – technically called Santa Catalina – is one of the region's more popular hiking spots, and it's not uncommon to see large groups setting out to explore the island. Although it's a world away from the noise and development of southern California's coast, the island isn't' short of amenities – you'll find the standard shops and restaurants, as well as several hotels, on the island.

Los Angeles is an incredibly large city on its own, and the Greater Los Angeles Area is an endless, intimidating expanse that's as frustratingly spread out for locals as it is for visitors. As such, it's of key importance that you plan out your trip to Los Angeles in advance, taking into account the city's notorious traffic problems and congested freeway system.

Allow at least an hour to travel between most parts of the city, and significantly more time to reach further-afield areas like Anaheim or Santa Monica. While Los Angeles has a subway and light rail system, it's of limited use to visitors, and is very underused compared to its counterparts in Chicago and New York. Los Angeles is very car dependent, and this can present problems for visitors.

However, with the right attitude and the right amount of planning, a trip to Los Angeles, whether a short one-day visit or a lengthy stay in the city, can be incredibly rewarding. Beyond the amusement parks and celebrity homes, which are an interesting attraction by themselves, Los Angeles is one of the world's most engaging and dynamic cities, particularly for those who explore it on their own.

So spend some time really enjoying LA, and make sure you make your way off the well-traveled path and really feel a part of the city. From the kitsch attractions of Hollywood to the huge theme parks of Anaheim and San Fernando, the Los Angeles area is packed with things to do, and is one city that will never leave you feeling bored.