It may be home to Hollywood and Beverly Hills, but Los Angeles is more than just a la-la land of celebrities and “Real Housewives.” This vibrant metropolis manages to check all those cosmopolitan boxes, from the arts scene and luxe lodgings to the influx of innovative restaurants and indie neighborhoods. Of course, it’s not all urban — LA’s near perfect setting is where ocean, mountains, and desert meet. Just never forget: Hollywood defines this city (cue the celebrity sighting). Are you ready to get close up before your cruise?
Splurge: Shutters on the Beach – The gray-shingled Shutters might be built to resemble the grand inns of Martha’s Vineyard, but it embodies the ideals of SoCal barefoot luxury. Set right on Santa Monica’s sand, it feels like one giant beach house, from the living room-style lobby to the nautical chic rooms dressed up in shades of blue, cream, and white. Days pass with yoga on the sand and beachfront bike rides. After dark, you can fall asleep to the sound of the waves crashing just outside your balcony doors. Doubles from $495.
Steal: Mondrian Los Angeles – If ever there was a hotel for the cool kids, it’s this 237-room West Hollywood retreat. Originally done up by Philippe Starck, and redone by Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz in 2008, it manages to retain all the hipness of the original iteration, from the rooms with their white-on-orange color palettes to the tongue-in-cheek details (mini chandeliers and whimsically shaped mirrors that look like something out of “Alice in Wonderland”). And then there’s the just-renovated rooftop: By day, it’s an oh-so-sexy pool deck, complete with new maple-floored cabanas. At night, it becomes the Skybar, an outdoor lounge with killer views. Doubles from $279.
Tip: Traffic here is notorious, and you won’t be able to see all of Los Angeles in one short visit. Instead, pick an area and immerse yourself. Santa Monica is perfect for beach lovers and has good restaurants and shops. If you’re most interested in Hollywood, stay there: The studios may have left, but iconic attractions like the Dolby (formerly known as the Kodak Theatre) remain.
Breakfast: Griddle Cafe – If there’s one meal Angelenos take seriously, it’s breakfast. (There’s something to be said for grabbing a good, healthy meal before heading out for auditions and casting calls). Diners pack into the tiny, industrial-like dining room of this West Hollywood spot on Sunset for omelettes filled with farm-fresh ingredients and inventive pancakes the size of hubcaps. Arrive early, as lines are practically guaranteed every day of the week.
Lunch: Farmers Market – This complex of local stalls has been pulling local foodies in since it opened in 1934. Nowadays, you’ll find more than 100 food vendors, restaurants, shops, and the like spread across the compound. Our suggestion? Plan to spend several delicious hours wandering the labyrinthine outdoor market lanes, nibbling on freshly fried donuts, licking spoons of homemade peanut butter, and noshing on exotic ethnic eats. If you love fresh food, it may become your favorite spot in town.
Dinner: Spago – This 31-year-old icon in LA’s most famous ZIP code (ahem, 90210) is the mother ship of the ever-expanding Wolfgang Puck empire. The kitchen is still dishing out fresh California cuisine, and this is fusion fare at its best. Picture tandoori quail with lentil salad, and Scottish salmon grilled on a Japanese bincho. You’ll want to try it all — at a table on the terrace.
Dessert: Ramekin – Those looking for a sweet fix can head to this new dessert spot in Los Feliz, which serves homemade desserts in single servings. The menu changes daily, and most ingredients used come from the Santa Monica Farmers Market and area farms. Our favorite indulgence: the Valrhona chocolate bread pudding served with Tahitian vanilla ice cream.
Tip: Los Angeles has become a mecca of gourmet food trucks, specializing in everything from Korean-Mexican fusion to red velvet pancake balls. Foodtruckmaps.com gives info on the best, and where to find them.
For everyone: Venice Beach – Head to LA’s most vibrant neighborhood for some of the best people watching in the country. You’ll observe overly buff men at Muscle Beach — an outdoor gym on the sand — thong-wearing skaters on the boardwalk, and some very vocal musicians and activists. Once you’ve seen enough, head to Abbott Kenney, a stretch of boho chic bistros, boutiques, and bars a few blocks inland.
For couples: Sundance Cinemas Sunset – Leave it to Robert Redford to elevate a night at the movies at this West Hollywood art house theater, which screens indie flicks in an intimate setting. Moviegoers can sip on small-batch wines and draft beers on the outdoor patio before heading to one of the five screening rooms.
For families: Universal Studios Hollywood – This entertaining wonderland is a studio tour and amusement park combined. Although other Universal Studios around the world are more theme park-oriented, this outpost is still firmly grounded in Hollywood, thanks to the one-hour tram tour that takes you through the working studio. Book a Front of Line Pass online early (they have limited availability) so you can bypass the crowds; the VIP studio tour is also worth the upgrade for film buffs.
For the adventurous: Learn to Surf LA – What’s a visit to Los Angeles without riding the waves? Learn to Surf LA will have you standing up with the best of them, thanks to its year-round lessons in picturesque spots, including Santa Monica — where the surf is mild — and Malibu’s Zuma Beach, where you can watch the pros.
Tip: It’s no California dream without a convertible. Beverly Hills Rent-A-Car has classic (Caddy convertibles, anyone?) and luxe (Beemers, Benzes, and Bentleys) wheels for those who want to air out in style. Just watch the time: Unless you like moving slowly, avoid driving between 7 and 10 am, and 4 and 7 pm.
Not interested in glam Rodeo Drive, but love to shop? Head to the boutiques lining Westside shopping streets, including Venice Beach’s Abbott Kinney, Melrose in West Hollywood, and Montana and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.