LOS ANGELES — If you plan well and have a little luck, you can see the world in Los Angeles. If not, all you'll see is a world of traffic. More likely, you'll experience some of both.
Tourists might think "Hollywood" when they begin to plan a vacation — and Hollywood is worth a day of sightseeing — but Los Angeles also is home to world-class museums, ethnic restaurants, interesting shops and farmers markets that make a winter-weary Midwesterner green with envy.
With so many attractions, you may be tempted to try to do too much. But traffic can jam up seemingly at any time, any place, so the best thing a tourist can do is relax and go with the flow. If you must be somewhere at a specific time, leave early; if you end up with time to kill, chances are you'll find an interesting shop or restaurant to explore.
A good place to start your trip is Hollywood and Highland, the neighborhood centered on Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. This epicenter of Los Angeles mythology was sleazy and a bit scary just a few years ago. Thanks to several big-bucks developments, it has remade itself into a combination entertainment venue, upscale mall and tourist attraction.
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You can drop some serious money at a boutique or gawk for free at the costumed characters posing for photos outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. (If you snap a picture, they expect a tip, of course). As I watched, a pair of buxom policewomen, the Grim Reaper, Catwoman, Charlie Chaplin and Buzz Lightyear worked the crowd. Supergirl stood apart, reading a book. SpongeBob SquarePants looked more creepy than cuddly.
Many stars have homes nearby, and vendors selling maps are all around. You're on your own as to the maps' accuracy.
Instead of buying a map, I hopped into one of Skyline Tours' open-air vans. Our guide was Ted Schmidt, a native of St. Louis. The other seven passengers were from Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Greece and Germany — a not uncommon mix, Schmidt said. His passengers often don't speak much English, but they all speak celebrity.
The tour took us through Hollywood and Beverly Hills, with a stop at a scenic overlook on Mullholland Drive. Looking down, we could see LA spread before us. Looking up, we spotted a wooden house perched on a hill. It's one of several owned by Ron Howard, Schmidt said: "He writes there at night."
Schmidt pointed out dozens of homes, including the one where Michael Jackson died. That house is clearly visible from the street, but many were shielded by hedges and privacy fences. Nevertheless, it was fun to get a sense of where — and how — Hollywood stars live.
Once you've spied on celebrities' homes, you might want to get a closer look at the people. Sure, you could try to find the real deal — Larry King has breakfast each morning at a Beverly Hills delicatessen called Nate 'n Al should you have the urge to stalk, Schmidt says — or you could go for the next best thing and visit Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.
The wax depictions are pretty realistic, but the real fun is watching visitors interact with the figures. Props are available to make photographs more fun. You can jump on a camel next to Lawrence of Arabia, hop into the chair next to Captain Kirk or buddy up to Jennifer Lopez.
For a chance to see real stars and to get some exercise, head to Runyon Canyon Park, high in the Santa Monica Mountains. The park is crisscrossed with sandy and packed-dirt trails — some fairly level, some almost vertical — that will bring you to some of the best views around. On the rare clear day, you can see the ocean. Even on a hazy day, you'll get a good view of the Hollywood sign. Below, the city spreads to the horizon.
Regular visitors say that the canyon is a favorite of celebrities walking their dogs. I saw plenty of dogs, but no celebrities.
I ascended into the Santa Monica Mountains again to visit the Getty Center (a companion museum to its older sibling, the Getty Villa in Malibu). The views vie for attention with the art — and the art is amazing.
Trams carry visitors from the underground parking garage up to a complex designed by noted architect Richard Meier. The five buildings are made mostly of golden brown travertine stone — look closely, and you may see leaf fossils. The landscaping includes a cactus garden and a maze.
The art collection features modern sculpture, and European and American paintings, drawings, decorative arts and illuminated manuscripts. Paintings are housed on the top floors of the buildings to take advantage of natural light. Walking into a gallery of European impressionists was like walking into an art-history textbook: Monet's water lilies, Van Gogh's irises, works by Pissaro, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Cezanne and Manet adorned the walls.
A special photography exhibition called Urban Panoramas is on display through June 6. I found Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao's photos of New York and Catherine Opie's photos of Los Angeles' minimalls absorbing; Soo Kim's layered, hand-cut prints of Reykjavik, Iceland, taken at midnight during the summer solstice were amazing.
We headed into the mountains one last time to visit the Griffith Park Observatory, which is on the southern slope of Mount Hollywood. Even if you've never been there, the Greek-style building will look familiar — it's a popular setting for movies, most notably the 1955 James Dean classic "Rebel Without a Cause."
While the observatory looks much as it did when it opened in 1935, it recently was expanded and meticulously renovated. Workers lifted the concrete structure off its foundation and evacuated underneath, making way for an underground addition of nearly 40,000 square feet of public space.
You can browse the exhibits and catch a star show in the planetarium; if you visit after dark, you can climb to the top of the observatory and look through its telescope.
Down at sea level, I spent a day in the neighboring beach towns of Santa Monica and Venice. Instead of eating breakfast, I started at a farmers market held from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. each Wednesday at Arizona Avenue and Second Street in Santa Monica.
About 75 growers have booths, and much of the produce is organic. Organic sweet limes were sweet enough to eat out of hand. Like the organic pink Cara Cara navel oranges, they cost $2 a pound; organic tangerines were $3 a pound.
I also saw Asian vegetables of every description, six types of candy-sweet organic dates, perfect red strawberries, olives and olive oil, walnuts and walnut oil, and five colors of carrots (purple, yellow, tomato-orange, green-yellow and regular orange).
Pagoda-shaped heads of green cauliflower looked like lacy works of art. Live music played, the crowd swirled and a cheesemaker sang out an invitation: "Fresh mozzarella, don't be shy to buy, made yesterday."
Santa Monica also is known for its Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian-only stretch lined with restaurants and shops, and its wooden pier, complete with a vintage carousel, a Ferris wheel and a trapeze school.
After exploring the pier, I set out for Venice on South Bay Bicycle Trail, a coastal path that stretches 22 miles, from Will Rogers Beach in the north to Torrance Beach in the south. You'll find bike rental shops along the way, so pick a good starting (and ending) point. Prices range from about $10 an hour to about $25 for a full day, including a helmet.
Venice Beach is about two miles from Santa Monica, but it's a whole other world — or at least another decade. Sitar music and the scent of patchouli waft along the boardwalk. "Kush" doctors legally dispense medical marijuana — the smell of that wafts here and there, too. You can get a tattoo or a piercing, haggle with sidewalk vendors for art or jewelry, grab a slice of pizza and listen to the street musicians, including a classic pianist.
If you venture a few blocks from the boardwalk to Abbot Kinney Boulevard, you'll find yet another scene. This is a great shopping street with unique clothing stores, furniture stores, accessories shops, restaurants and bars. I especially enjoyed browsing through Ten Women, a small storefront that sells jewelry, fabric art, glassware and other objects from local artists.
Perhaps the most famous farmers market in Los Angeles is not so much a place to buy fruits and vegetables (although you can do that) as an outdoor restaurant venue and souvenir emporium. Go hungry if you visit the Farmers Market at Fairfax Avenue and Third Street: temptations include bakeries, candy shops and restaurants of almost every description. Next door is the Grove, a new and exceedingly upscale mall.
We ended our trip in Long Beach. The city's biggest tourist attraction is the Queen Mary, berthed just offshore. The ship was launched in 1934 as a luxury liner. Pressed into service as a troop transport and hospital ship during World War II, she served honorably and well.
When the Queen Mary re-entered civilian life, she also began her glory years. She transported Hollywood royalty — reflected in the photos of Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Swanson and other stars — and British royalty, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Then came jet airplanes, and ship travel fell from favor.
Long Beach bought the Queen Mary in 1967 for $3.45 million. Today, it is a hotel and a banquet and wedding venue. Visitors can stroll the decks and check out the historical displays. The Observation Bar, glorious in its art deco design, has live music on weekends.
About 1,000 wedding receptions are held on the Queen Mary each year, said Will Kayne, an actor who auditioned for a show on the Queen Mary 10 years ago and now portrays the ship's captain. Close to 2 million people visit annually, and about a third of them stay on board.
"You really feel you are away when you stay here," Kayne said.
Another view of sea life is on display at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Outdoors, you can catch a sea lion show or pet a (small) shark. Indoor exhibits showcase various habitats: Orange and ghostly white jellyfish float and pulse. Bright turquoise, fuchsia and orange fish dart about a tank as visiting children invoke the names of the characters in "Finding Nemo." Weedy-looking sea dragons float by, mesmerizing the people crowding around.
Planning a trip to Los Angeles and navigating the freeways once you arrive can be daunting. But with proper planning — and like those sea dragons, a go-with-the-flow attitude — you can bring home a world of memories.
IF YOU GO
CARS — Although Los Angeles has mass transit, you'll need a car to really see the area. Rental rates vary widely and tend to be higher close to LAX. You may save money by taking a cab or shuttle to your hotel and renting a car from a nearby location. I've gotten good rates from Midway Car Rental, 1-800-824-5260 and midwaycarrental.com.
HOTELS — Every chain imaginable is in the area, and locally owned hotels are plentiful. I booked a room at the Hilton in Glendale (in the San Fernando Valley) for $65 a night through Priceline.com. Parking was $18 a night. I also stayed at two unique hotels, the Embassy Hotel Apartments in Santa Monica and the Queen Mary in Long Beach.
LA: Hotel stays in Santa Monica, Long Beach
EMBASSY HOTEL APARTMENTS
1001 Third Street, Santa Monica
A stay at the Embassy Hotel Apartments might remind you of noir films and old Hollywood. The hotel is on a tree-lined street in a predominantly residential area just blocks from the beach and from the shops, restaurants and bars that make up the Third Street Promenade.
The hotel dates to 1927 and has been beautifully maintained. Guests enter through a courtyard made colorful by birds of paradise and other flowers. Oranges ripen on a tree. The lobby is decorated with tiles and dark wood and has arched doorways, high ceilings and big windows, as do the guest rooms.
Some of the rooms have fully equipped kitchens. Just about the only item not in character with the period decor of our guest room was a flat-screen television mounted on the wall.
The hotel rents its 28 rooms by the day, week and month. Nine residents have lived there since the 1970s and '80s, general manager Joshua H. Bond says. Several other guests regularly stay for months at a time.
Although the hotel lacks air conditioning, Bond says the ocean breezes keep it cool throughout the summer.
Rates start at $169 in the offseason (Oct. 1-May 31). A weekend night in high season in a two-bedroom suite is $390. On-street parking is included.
THE QUEEN MARY
1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach
The Queen Mary has 314 hotel rooms, all created from the ship's first-class suites and staterooms.
Cruise ships are not known for their spacious cabins, and our room in the Queen Mary was no exception. Unfortunately, the room also was dark and in need of updating. The brown wallpaper was peeling, and so were the ceiling paint and the wood veneer on the bedside table. None of the lights was strong enough to read by. The bathroom, however, was surprisingly roomy.
The Queen Mary is fun to explore, but we were so unhappy with our room that we cut short our stay and booked the next night at a nearby Courtyard by Marriott.
Depending on occupancy, the Queen Mary's nightly room rates range from about $110 to $249.
• Hollywood and Highland Center, hollywoodandhighland.com
• Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, 6933 Hollywood Boulevard. Admission $18-$25, depending on age. madametussauds.com/hollywood
• The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive. Free admission ($15 parking). Closed Monday. 1-310-440-7300 or getty.edu
• Griffith Park Observatory, 2800 East Observatory Road (the entrance is off Los Feliz Boulevard, near Interstate 5). Free admission; planetarium shows $3-$7, depending on age. Closed Monday. 1-213-473-0800 or griffithobservatory.org
• Stars tours are offered by several companies. Starline Tours' two-hour excursion is $39. 1-800-959-3131 and starlinetours.com
• Hollywood CityPass ($59) bundles four attractions with a list price of $110 (a walking tour; a tour of stars' homes; entry to Madame Tussaud's or the Hollywood Wax Museum and Guinness World Records Museum; and a tour of the Kodak Theatre or entry to the Hollywood Museum). citypass.com/city/hollywood
• Runyon Canyon Park. This rustic park in the Santa Monica Mountains has several entrances. We used the northern entrance, off the 7300 block of Mullholland Drive. 1-323-666-5046 or laparks.org
• Aquarium of the Pacific, 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach. Admission is $11.96 to $23.95, depending on age. 1-562-590-3100 and aquariumofpacific.org
• Farmers markets. In Santa Monica, markets are held in different locations on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. 1-310-458-8712 and smgov.net/farmers(underscore)market. For a list of markets across the region, go to farmernet.com.