With the coming of the motion picture and the rise of the great Southern California studios, Los Angeles - previously a sleepy desert backwater - became a magnet for the powerful, the beautiful and the wannabe set. Now America's second-largest conurbation, Los Angeles has more immigrants living within its boundaries than New York, its population speaks over 120 languages, and its arts scene is as vibrant as that of any of the great European capitals. Defying easy definition, the City of the Angels is the quintessential 20th-century living experiment: on the one hand, a dark place of violence, drugs, clogged freeways, smog-ridden summers, and natural disasters, and on the other, a sun- drenched, air-conditioned, car-worshipping utopia.
WHEN TO GO
Los Angeles almost always enjoys warm weather. Summer regularly sees the mercury soaring to over 100C, and is the peak season for tourists. Spring and autumn are when the temperature is at its most comfortable.
If you don't like smog, avoid summers in LA, when pollution hangs permanently over the city. However, the summer months are good for music-lovers: from July to September, the Hollywood Bowl hosts great outdoor concerts nightly. There are also shows at several smaller venues in the hills separating the San Fernando valley from Hollywood.
North West Airlines (tel: 0990 561000) has direct return flights to LA for pounds 427, travelling from 24 August, staying a minimum of one Saturday night and a maximum of six months. Trailfinders (tel: 0171-937 5400) is offering the same deal for pounds 410, and also has returns to LA at the end of August with British Airways for pounds 420, staying a minimum of one Saturday night and a maximum of one month.
Although LA has a vast bus system, to see this city, you really need to drive. The freeways are intimidating, but easier than they look. Car rental can be arranged at the airport, at large hotels, or through local companies. Most will pick you up from where you are staying and drive you to the rental agency. Rates range from about $20-$40 per day (pounds 12- pounds 24), with an additional $9-$20 insurance coverage. Buses generally run into the downtown area, and the metro is limited to the central district. If you do not drive, you will want to stay near the beach: the towns of Santa Monica and Venice run their own, better, bus services.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
n Disneyland, 1313 Harbor Blvd, Anaheim (tel: 714/781 4565). Since it opened in 1955, Orange County's famed institution has never looked back. From the Pirates of the Caribbean to the Matterhorn rollercoaster, it is a unique example of kitsch. Real aficionados dodge the crowds by arriving after dusk. Entrance $38, times vary.
n The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive (tel: 310 440 7300). A much- hyped new art colossus literally overlooking the city, the Getty is a sprawling ego-trip for the clan from which it takes its name. Set in 105 acres, the centre contains much of the collection put together by the late oil magnate, J Paul Getty: Greco-Roman antiquities, Baroque and Renaissance paintings, and 18th-century decorative arts. Entrance free ($5 parking charge), but reserve tickets in advance, Tues-Wed 11am-7pm, Thur-Fri 11am-9pm, weekends 10am-6pm.
n La Brea Tarpits, 5801 Wilshire Blvd (tel: 213 857 6311). Oil was discovered here a century ago, in subterranean pools of tar. When explorations began, hundreds of fossilized creatures were discovered. From mammoths to sabre-toothed tigers, the remains are now on display in the museum. For kids in particular, a fascinating place to visit. Entrance $6, Tues- Sun, 10am-5pm.
n Other Museums Los Angeles, and its environs, is home to numerous world- class art galleries and, naturally, pop-culture museums. The finest modern- art collection on the West Coast is at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena (411 West Colorado Blvd (tel: 626 449 6840). Entrance $4, Thurs-Sun, 12- 6pm). The quirky Museum of Jurassic Technology (9341 Venice Blvd, Entrance $4, Thur 2pm-8pm, Fri-Sun 12-6pm) has exhibits on disparate subjects ranging from microscopic sculptures to worldwide superstitious practices. The widely respected Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) complements its works of art with the occasional free jazz concert. MOCA is located at 250 South Grand Avenue (tel: 213 626 6222). Entrance $6, Tues-Sun 11am-5pm. The Autry Museum of Western Inheritance (4700 Western Heritage Highway (tel: 213 667 2000). Entrance $7.50, Tues-Sun 10am-5pm), located in the heart of the verdant Griffith Park, is a paean to the cowboy and the Western.
n Hollywood Los Angeles and Hollywood are so intertwined in the popular consciousness that it is easy to forget that they are not identical. These days, Hollywood is more a state of mind than a single place: the studios are dotted all over the city, and the glamour of showbiz spreads far beyond the streets of old Hollywood. To literally follow in the footsteps of the screen giants, visit Mann's Chinese Theater (6925 Hollywood Blvd (tel: 213 464 8111)), where 160-plus imprints of film stars' feet are moulded into the hot Hollywood pavement. For a glimpse of the hip and famous, park yourself in a cafe or bar on the Sunset Strip.
The Hollywood Bowl, home to international musical events for over 60 years, is an LA institution built into the Hollywood hills. Concerts range from LA Philharmonic events, complete with fireworks, through to jazz nights, Brazilian samba festivals and rock concerts. (Season runs from July to early September, tel: 213 850 2000).
n Third Street Promenade Santa Monica is one of the hipper parts of the LA sprawl. Three blocks inland, the promenade is a scene unto itself. Restaurants, cafes, bookshops, vintage-clothing stores and music venues combine to provide an atmosphere somewhere between London's Carnaby Street and Covent Garden.
n Venice Boardwalk LA's most famous beachfront feels like a year-long carnival. The boardwalk is home to dozens of performing artists, in-line skaters, tattoo parlours, and bodybuilders. Once the hang-out of Doors frontman, Jim Morrison, today it is still a freak-magnet. Everyone, from Legalise-Hemp campaigners to fortune tellers, gravitates here eventually.
FOOD AND DRINK
Californian cuisine is a hybrid, fusing aspects of Italian, Mexican, Asian and health food. Casual-chic restaurants are plentiful in Los Angeles, as are cafes. For sushi-lovers, LA is about as good as it gets outside Japan. Tex-Mex cuisine - burritos, guacamole, margaritas et al - is cheap and generally delicious. Fifties-style diners abound, as do fashionable, oft-overpriced French and Italian restaurants. As elsewhere in America, portions tend to be huge - a single main dish is often enough for two.
n Dining Room, Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, 9500 Wilshire Blvd (tel: 310 275 5200). If you are looking to spend a lot of money, this salon- style restaurant is for you. Adjacent to the eating area, a chic, dimly lit cocktail lounge comes complete with resident pianist.
n Gladstones, 17300 Pacific Coast Highway, (tel: 310 454 3474). Perched atop a glorious stretch of Malibu sand, at the point where Sunset Boulevard descends from the hills and hits Highway 1, this is probably the most popular coastal restaurant in town. The ocean views are fantastic, and portions - salads, calamari, great slabs of grilled fish, clam chowder - are gargantuan.
n Matsuhisa, 129 North La Cienaga Blvd (tel: 310 659 9639). One of LA's best Japanese restaurants, choices here range from caviar-capped tuna to super-fresh sushi.
n Pinot Hollywood, 1448 North Gower Street (tel: 213 461 8800). One of the most elegant restaurants in LA, Pinot serves up delicate pastas, chicken and other local culinary staples. The outdoor patio is particularly atmospheric. If you are not in Hollywood, there are several other Pinots dotted around the city.
n Spago, 1114 Horn Avenue (tel: 310 652 4025). The quintessential California- cuisine experience, this is superchef Wolfgang Puck's most noted venture. Meals range from chilli-covered oysters to grilled free-range chicken. The newer Spago in Beverly Hills is fancier and more expensive.
WHERE TO STAY
Accommodation in LA ranges from hotels of undreamt-of luxury to functional lodging rooms. The prices vary accordingly. This being the land of celluloid, many hotels offer theme rooms, and others promote their rooms by listing the celebrities - past and present - who have decamped in the hotel at one time or another. Prices listed are for twin rooms.
n The Argyle, 8358 Sunset Blvd (tel: 213 654 7100). Visible from afar, this pink and burgundy art deco hotel still boasts period details such as brass door handles and ornate marble bathrooms. A good place to stay if you want to be at the heart of the Hollywood scene. From $179.
n Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd (tel: 310 276 2251). Guests - from Liz Taylor to the humble tourist - stay either in rooms crammed with mod cons, or in the luxurious bungalows dotted around the grounds. From $320-$375.
n Regent Beverly Wilshire, 9500 Wilshire Blvd (tel: 310 275 5200). Famed for its Italian Renaissance-style architecture, this is another LA landmark. Large balconies look down onto a plush pool area. From $335-$420.
n Clarion Hotel Hollywood Roosevelt, 7000 Hollywood Blvd. (213 466 7000). Noted for holding the first ever Oscars ceremony, this art deco creation contains 40 themed suites (ranging from Gable-Lombard to Shirley Temple). From $159.
n Hotel Carmel, 201 Broadway, Santa Monica (tel: 310 451 2469). Two blocks from the beach, this old hotel is elegant yet unpretentious. Away from the bustle of Hollywood, Santa Monica is a good place for families to stay. From $60-$169.
In contrast to New York, if you are not into the club scene, nightlife in LA is actually fairly limited. However, if you do like clubs, LA is the place to dance the night away while slurping on drastically over-priced cocktails. Hollywood is where most of the late-night clubs are. Bars stay open until about 2am, and many diners never close. LA is, of course, also noted for its numerous cinemas. When in town, grab a copy of the LA Weekly newspaper for comprehensive listings.
n Comedy Store, 8433 Sunset Blvd (tel: 213 656 6225). The best comedy venue in town. Famous comedians sometimes make surprise appearances. Shows go on till late.
n Greek Theatre, 2700 North Vermont Avenue (tel: 213 665 1927). An outdoor concert venue on the edge of Griffith park. Music ranges from rock to classical.
n House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd (tel: 213 650 1451). Owned by actor Dan Ackroyd, this club combines glitz and great music. Acts range from blues to funk.
n Music Center, 135 North Grand Avenue (tel: 213 972 7211). LA's equivalent of London's Barbican Centre. This lush complex is home to the LA Philharmonic and is the city's largest theatre.
n 3 Of Clubs, 1123 North Vine Street (tel: 213 669 9381). Hardly noticeable from the outside, this downtown lounge-bar is home to LA's hip, restless, nocturnal youth.
n Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd (tel: 310 276 6168). Santa Monica's hottest rock venue. A multi-level club with nightly concerts.
n Whiskey A Go Go, 8901 Sunset Blvd (tel: 310 652 4202). One-time centre of the LA punk scene, this is still a great place to see alternative rock bands. Recording scouts routinely turn up looking for new talent.
OUT OF TOWN
It is hard to know exactly where LA ends and the rest of the Southern Californian sprawl begins. Most guidebooks list Disneyland as being "near LA", although Anaheim is really a suburb of the city. For those willing to cruise the freeways out of town, Catalina Island is an easy day trip, and offers the chance to mingle with the affluent beach community of Santa Barbara. San Diego and the Mexican-border town of Tijuana are three hours to the south, and Joshua Tree National Monument, in the heart of the ferociously hot Mojave Desert, is also accessible within a day.
DEALS AND PACKAGES
Travel Bag (tel: 0171-287 5559) organises tailor-made packages to Los Angeles. Travelling at the end of August, a basic self-drive package with car and first-class hotel for one week, plus return flights (valid for up to six months) costs pounds 750 per person.
Quest Worldwide (tel: 0181-546 6000) also arranges individual packages. Travelling from 23 August with United Airlines is pounds 751 return per person based on two travelling and includes one week's car hire and hotel accommodation in the Pacific Shore Hotel in Santa Monica.
The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel: 213 689 8822) provides maps, brochures and - important if you don't have a car - lists of bus routes. The downtown office is located at the Omni Hotel, 685 South Figueroa Street (Between Wilshire Blvd and 7th Street). Open weekdays 8am-5pm, Sat 8.30am-5pm. The Hollywood office is at 6541 Hollywood Blvd (near Hudson Avenue, tel: 213 236 2331). Open Mon-Sat 9am-5pm. The Santa Monica Visitors Center is at 1400 Ocean Avenue (between Broadway and Santa Monica Blvd, tel: 310 393 7593). Open daily 10am-5pm (4pm in winter).