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Perched atop Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, Griffith Observatory offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, the iconic Hollywood sign and the stars (the kind that twinkle). A theater, fleets of telescopes and planetarium with live space shows are housed in the Art Deco building. The house specialty? Admission-free stargazing on clear nights.
As the story goes, watching his daughters ride the merry-go-round at L.A.’s Griffith Park inspired Walt Disney to create a park where children and adults could have fun together. Six decades on, the original Disneyland in Anaheim is Disneyland Park, a sprawling theme park marrying Disneyland (Fantasyland,Tomorrowland, Main Street U.S.A.) and Pixar-inflected Disney California Adventure Park (Paradise Pier, Grizzly Peak, Cars Land). Both parks pulsate with non-stop activities — parades, fireworks, singers, dancers, Broadway shows and sightings of larger-than-life Mickeys, Minnies and Goofys.
What began with 5-cent tours of the Universal Studio in 1915 is now the megawatt Universal Hollywood Studios theme park with movie-themed rides (hop on Transformers 3-D or King Kong 360) and a museum. The 45-minute studio tour whips you through four acres of back lots for a behind-the-scenes look at movie magic.
When the Space Shuttle Endeavor finished its tour of duty, it landed permanently at the California Science Center, a dazzling, hands-on repository of aircraft, spacecraft and knowledge in Exposition Park. Permanent exhibitions, housed in a gleaming Frank Gehry building, celebrate the science of life, everyday technology and ecosystems.
As befits a sprawling metropolis, Griffith Park in the Santa Monica Mountains is vast — the largest municipal park/urban wildlife mash-up in America. A fresh-air haven for hiking, horseback riding, swimming, tennis and golf, the park is also home to the Los Angeles Zoo, Griffith Observatory, Autry National Collection and outdoor concerts in the famed Greek Theater. Stop by to commune with nature — or ride the merry-go-round.
In a city where movies rule as the hometown industry, it’s no surprise the visual arts thrive in L.A. Latest proof: The Broad, a gleaming $140 million contemporary art museum, which opened in Fall 2015. Designed by the New York City architecture firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, it was built to house the blue-chip collection of Eli and Edythe Broad, local philanthropists and enthusiastic collectors. Look for a mix of instantly recognizable works and seldom-seen gems by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Christopher Wool, Joseph Beuys, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Cindy Sherman, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, among others. But pride of place goes to the L.A. artists: Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Mike Kelley and Chris Burden. With two floors of galleries and a third floor devoted to the Broad Foundation’s lending library, the imposing horizontal building boasts a cavern-like lobby, acres of white walls, skylights and a generous spirit. Admission is free, but it’s best to reserve a visiting time online before you show up.
After making a fortune in the cosmetics industry, J.B. Nethercutt fueled his other passion: collecting and restoring vintage automobiles. Opened in 1971 in Sylmar, the Nethercutt Collection and Museum showcases the remarkable results: a 250-car fleet, spanning 1898 to 1997, studded with Packards, Duesenbergs, Ferraris, Bentleys and the humble Model T.
Even if it didn’t display the world’s only Tyrannosaurus rex growth series featuring skeletons of a baby, juvenile and sub-adult T. rex, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Center merits a visit. From halls of mammals to a superb insect zoo (wide-eyed assassin bugs and velvet ants, to name a few), nature’s wonders come alive. An added bonus is the building — an inspired melding of old and new, showcasing the magnificent domed rotunda of the 1910 structure.
As you’d expect, movie stars, action heroes and pop icons people Madame Tussauds Hollywood. Opened in 2009, the splashy three-story waxworks displays more than 100 iconic individuals — Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean and Wolverine, to name a few. And a hulking Shrek, cast in plastic so he can greet guests outdoors without melting.
As battleships go, the USS Iowa was big in every way. Twenty feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, it held 2,800 sailors, weighed 57,450 tons and labored successfully through World War II, the Korean conflict and the Cold War. Franklin Roosevelt boarded it for a pivotal wartime meeting with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill. And at the Battleship USS Iowa Museum, you can climb aboard this piece of floating history, looking shipshape in its permanent San Pedro home.
Not many big cities can boast an ongoing excavation of Ice Age fossils on a main thoroughfare. But for over 40 years paleontologists have mined the La Brea Tar Pits on Wilshire Boulevard to the hum of speeding traffic. Ground sloth, dire wolf and coyote fossils are among the tar pit bounty on display at the Page Museum La Brea Tar Pits, a satellite of L.A.’s Natural History Museum. To witness paleontologists at work visit the museum's Observation Pit and Fossil Lab.
Immerse yourself in the city’s dynamic art scene with a stroll through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s futuristic campus, revitalized a decade ago by architect Renzo Piano. The rich holdings date from antiquity to the present but go deep into Asian, Islamic and Latin American art. Look for signature works by Diego Rivera, French Impressionists and artisans of California’s Arts and Crafts movement.
The Pacific Ocean fills Santa Monica Bay, a half-moon curve in the coastline stretching from Malibu’s Point Dume to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Sandy beaches in well-known towns and communities dot the bay, each with its own personality and attractions. Look for beach volleyball at Redondo Beach, skateboarding at Venice Beach, rides and restaurants on Santa Monica Pier and surfing nearly everywhere, especially in the South Bay. A paved path runs from Torrence to Will Rogers State Beach, where people on foot, roller blades, skateboards and bikes take in the sun and scene.
Hitting the sweet spot between new and nostalgic is a challenge for historic amusements, but Santa Monica Pier gets it right. Dating from 1909 (and updated tastefully), the Santa Monica Beach landmark emits a retro, beachy vibe but also boasts the world’s only solar powered Ferris wheel. Choose from 12, hair-raising rides including a steel roller coaster rising 55 feet above the ocean. Or grab a bite, go fishing, take a flyer at Trapeze School or ride the vintage carousel in the 1916 Hippodrome.
Among L.A.’s glories are its pockets of unexpected urban wilderness. Runyon Canyon Park is a rugged patch of wild chaparral in mountainous terrain, yet it’s just two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. Hiking abounds, from bunny trails to back-breaking climbs, leading to spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, Catalina Island and the fabled Hollywood sign.
When a building’s circular gallery evokes a convex lens, you know photography is the main event. And so it is at the Annenberg Space for Photography, the city’s first exhibition space dedicated to photography. Opened in 2009, the serene gallery mounts changing shows of digital and print photography, built around an individual photographer, a group or a theme, like water, war or rock stars.
Gene Autry shot to fame playing a singing cowboy on the radio and TV, but his love for the American West was genuine. In 1988 he created a multi-media institution in Griffith Park to explore the cultures, stories and significance of the West. Today the Autry National Center hosts theatrical, musical and educational events and boasts a museum jam-packed with top-flight Western art and artifacts.
Yes, you see people in rowboats, kayaks and canoes, but the easiest way to explore the canals of Venice (the L.A. version) is on foot following a paved, two-mile route bordering the district’s six man-made canals built in 1905. A dozen bridges curve above the canals allowing you to switch sides as you stroll past lush plantings, fragrant flowers and a lively collection of Italianate villas, California bungalows, split-level houses and Cape Cods. Look for ducks and geese frolicking in the seawater that fills the canals. And enjoy the respite from the noise and traffic of Venice.
When landmark signs are cited, HOLLYWOOD is up there with Abbey Road and Route 66. Erected in 1923 to last just 18 months, 45-foot-tall plywood letters illuinated by 4,000 light bulbs touted Hollywoodland, a real estate development. In 1949, the word “land” was removed, and a spruced up chain of metal letters, redolent of movie myth (and protected by a security system), beckons today from the Hollywood Hills. Though off limits to those who want to touch (or deface) it, the sign lives large in the rolling chapparal of the Santa Monica Mountains, and you can almost-but-not-quite hike to it.
Hollywood flaunts its considerable magic on the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street that comprises the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You look down to see these stars. More than 2,500 (and counting) in pink terrazzo brighten the sidewalk, immortalizing entertainment’s elite from movies, television, theater and music. Stars for Burt Lancaster and Joanne Woodward are two of Walk’s original eight from 1958.
You’re unlikely to see Placido Domingo, Pepe Aguilar and Taylor Swift in performance together (unless it’s the Super Bowl). But like the Grammy Awards, the namesake Grammy Museum at L.A. Live unites all genres of music harmoniously and celebrates those who perform them. Opened in 2008 (the Grammys’s 50th anniversary), the Grammy hums with four floors of videos, recording booths, interactive touch screens and exhibitions of award-winning musicians spanning a medley of styles and eras.
Call it the pocket Pere Lachaise. Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, a small-scale cemetery tucked behind Wilshire Boulevard high rises, is the final resting place for some of Hollywood’s marquee names. The celestial roll call includes Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matheau, Burt Lancaster and Truman Capote. Though non-boldface names are also at rest, the cemetery’s compact dimensions facilitate posthumous star spotting.
Even without its 19 roller coasters (a world record), Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia is an attention-grabbing amusement park. It boasts nine themed areas with rides and restaurants, including a desert, a wilderness campsite and a reimagining of Samurai Japan. As for the roller coasters, they include one with floorless cars and a 4th-dimension coaster with cars that rotate independently of the tracks.
Before theme parks, themed movie palaces reigned. Opened in 1927 with Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings, TCL Chinese Theater, formerly Grauman’s, sports an exuberant pagoda-style entry, a gold-leafed interior and, following a major refurbishment, IMAX. Cary Grant, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and a very young, barefoot Shirley Temple are among those immortalized in the Forecourt of Stars’s Footprints.
Built in 1905 as a beachfront resort designed to replicate the real thing, Venice featured man-made canals instead of streets and Italianate architecture. Though most canals were filled in as cars proliferated, Venice oozes a unique brand of charm and pulsates with activity (in a laid-back way). Look for surfing at Venice Beach, wheelboarding at Skatepark, people-watching at Venice Oceanfront Walk and postcard-perfect sunsets. And check out the restaurants and shops on Abbott Kinney Boulevard, a stylish thoroughfare named for Venice’s founder.
You’ve probably seen images of Stahl House even if you’ve never heard of it. Built in 1959, this deceptively simple hilltop glass and steel masterstroke, distinguished by its cantilevered living room, epitomizes mid-century modern residential architecture. You can view it in the Hollywood Hills or take a tour. It’s still owned by the Stahls, the “blue collar family living in a white collar house,” as owner Buck Stahl once put it.
History permeates the Japanese American National Museum wherever you look. An exhibition detailing 130 years of Japanese American history is a highlight of the museum’s gleaming stone, steel and glass pavilion, unveiled in 1999 in Tokyo Town. Adjoining it is the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, built by Japanese immigrants in 1925 and used as a storage facility for belongings of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. Popular changing exhibitions have showcased Japanese tattoo tradition and Hello Kitty.
Olvera Street boasts nostalgic and historic roots. Begun in 1930 as a recreation of a bygone Mexican street, this tree-shaded, block-long Mexican marketplace pulsates with vendors selling food and handcrafts, folkloric dancers and strolling mariachi musicians. Located in the oldest part of L.A., it’s home to Avila Adobe, the city’s oldest surviving building, and David Alfaro Sigueros’ famed “La America Tropical,” one of the first grand-scale exterior murals in the U.S.
How did it feel to live like a well-heeled Roman, ca 1 A.D.? Constructed from a Roman villa buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Malibu’s Villa Getty offers a hint. On view inside are 1,200 Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities, just a taste of the 44,000 ancient objects Getty collected. And outside? Tranquil grounds punctuated by fountains, arbors and reflecting ponds.
Like numerous cathedrals before it, from Notre Dame to St. Paul’s, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles was conceived as a showpiece as well as a place of worship. Eleven stories tall, Rafael Moneo’s bold postmodern building boasts an airy, angled interior, a massive pipe organ and a light tan exterior that evokes the adobe of California’s 18th-century missions. Gregory Peck and Robert Graham, who designed the cathedral’s brass doors, are among those interred in the cathedral mausoleum.
Begun by Holocaust survivors in 1961, the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum aims to commemorate those who perished and survived and to educate the public, a mission reflected in the thoughtful design of the 2010 building in Pan Pacific Park. As you descend into the subterranean structure, each gallery grows darker until you reach the room devoted to concentration camps. Light gradually returns as you ascend to a stirring 70-screen video wall sculpture featuring survivor testimonies.
Even if it wasn’t home to the California Science Center and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Exposition Park would be a visitor magnet. This former agricultural fairground across from University of Southern California houses eight megawatt museums, stadiums and exhibition halls including Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, California African American Museum, an IMAX Theater, Expo Center (competition pool and sports field), a rose garden and the Los Angeles Colosseum, the world’s only building to host two Olympic Games (1932 and 1984).
With Toponga State Park, Los Angeles wins the distinction of having the world’s largest wildland within a city limits. This translates into 36 miles of Santa Monica Mountain trails through grasslands, canyons and live oaks, punctuated by jaw-dropping Pacific Ocean views. A haven for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, the park is justifiably famous for its wild flowers, geologic formations and Topanga Nature Center.
Since opening in 1996 on a sprawling campus in the Santa Monica Mountains, Skirball Cultural Center has explored connections between Jewish heritage and American ideals through films, music, theatrical performances, art exhibitions and more. Its museum houses artifacts dating from biblical times to the present. But Skirball’s showstopper is a spectacular floor-to-ceiling Noah’s Ark, built from wood, populated by handcrafted animals and beloved by kids (and their parents).
Don’t be put off by the unexceptional Romanesque exterior. Inside the five-story Bradbury Building in downtown L.A. beats the heart of an exuberant Victorian masterpiece with a skylit court, marble stairs, ornamental grillwork and birdcage elevators. Built in 1893 by gold mining millionaire Lewis L. Bradbury, L.A.’s oldest landmarked building still houses offices, but you can tour the showpiece lobby.
One of the biggest bells in the world, the Korean Bell of Friendship is impossible to miss at Angel’s Gate Park in San Pedro. A 17-ton replica of Korea’s revered 8th-century Bell of King Seongdeok, the enormous bronze, housed in an open-air pavilion, sounds when it’s struck with a wooden log (it doesn’t have a clapper). It’s rung just five times a year, including New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July.
Here’s where you want to be on a starry night. High in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Hollywood Bowl Overlook perches above the celebrated Hollywood Bowl band shell and commands thrilling views of the city, Pacific Ocean and, if you’re in luck, Catalina Island. Bonus: you can hear the music free of charge on nights the bowl hosts concerts.
A beloved movie star, cowboy philosopher and humorist, Will Rogers (1879-1935) liked to chill at his sprawling ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. Open to the public since 1944, Will Rogers State Historic Park reflects its former owner’s interests with horseback riding, a polo field and splendid hiking trails with Pacific Ocean views. Tours take you through Rogers’ 31-room ranch house, outfitted with seven fireplaces, 11 bathrooms and California craftsman furnishings.
After decades at sea during World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War, the cargo ship S.S. Lane Victory returned as a museum to the city where it was built in 1945. Designed to transport cargo, the 7,162-ton ship boasts enormous holds with deck-side hatches and booms for raising and lowering heavy loads. Her storied past includes shipping food to Europe under the Marshall Plan and evacuating civilians and U.N. personnel from North Korea.
Hollywood Boulevard is the famous, palm-lined thoroughfare that traverses Hollywood. Expect heavy traffic on the swath from Highland Avenue to Orange Drive, jam-packed with landmarks, museums and other movie-star-kissed attractions — The TCL Chinese Theater (check out the footprints of the stars), Dolby Theater (see where the Academy Awards take place), El Capitan Theater (watch a new or classic Disney movie) and Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Beloved by music enthusiasts, architecture buffs and locals, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is the pride of the Music Center, a 2,265-seat theater that feels intimate. Termed “an acoustic nirvana,” Frank Gehry’s masterstroke — sculpted stainless steel on the outside, curvaceous honey-colored wood warming the inside — encompasses an open platform stage, a magnificent wood-canopy ceiling and an eye-popping deconstructed pipe organ. Home to LA Philharmonic and the LA Master Chorale, the hall also hosts a varied roster of performers, from jazz to pop. Additionally, the hall boasts a 250-seat theater, gallery and roof garden. No time to see a performance? Tours are offered.
The Music Center is L.A.’s world class performing arts campus, home to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ahmanson Theater, the Mark Taper Forum and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Opened in 1964 with the Chandler and expanded in 2003 with the Disney, the Music Center is home base for LA Opera, LA Phil, LA Master Chorale and Center Theatre Dance Group. A children’s theater, outdoor plaza and visits from the world’s premiere orchestras, jazz musicians and dance, opera and theater companies keep the good looking campus humming.
LA’s answer to New York’s Central Park arrived in 2012, a downtown three-block greenspace blending time-honored accoutrements (palm trees, lawns, upbeat plantings) with a 21st Century attitude (the exuberant Grand Fountain spouts recirculated water, using just 20 gallons a year). Bracketed by City Hall and the Music Center, “the park for everyone” pulsates with community events, holiday celebrations, festivals and performances. With movable hot pink furniture, it’s easy find a shady spot for a picnic (food trucks park nearby), a meet-up with friends or an afternoon read. Check the events calendar for free concerts, lunchtime yoga and more.
Looking good following a two-year overhaul, this historic urban oasis is once again a flourishing recreational park, famed for its lotus garden and views of the Downtown L.A. skyline. Created in 1860, the lake once served as a reservoir for drinking water and made guest appearances in early silent films as well as later 20th Century efforts like Chinatown and Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Today you can explore Echo Park Lake in a pedal boat or walk the track that borders it. Not to be missed are the famed Lady of the Lake statue and the renovated boathouse, a beautiful old building whose Square One restaurant serves breakfast all day.