Leave the car and your preconceptions behind, this is a great city to visit. Andrew Gumbel, The Independent's LA correspondent, leads the way

Los Angeles may be a great place to live, but who would want to go there? Few cities give the first-time visitor such an off-putting account of themselves: the endless sprawl, the suburban sameness, the smog, the lack of obvious landmarks except, perhaps, for the Hollywood sign - itself just a bunch of nondescript letters originally erected by an estate agent.

Los Angeles may be a great place to live, but who would want to go there? Few cities give the first-time visitor such an off-putting account of themselves: the endless sprawl, the suburban sameness, the smog, the lack of obvious landmarks except, perhaps, for the Hollywood sign - itself just a bunch of nondescript letters originally erected by an estate agent.

Visiting Los Angeles requires a considerable leap of the imagination, the discarding of almost every preconceived notion of what a beautiful city should be. Forget monuments; LA is not a monumental city. Don't expect the alluring neighbourhoods to jump out at you; they are tucked away into little corners within the grid of freeways and concrete, almost perversely resistant to discovery by the first-timer.

Don't expect architectural coherence; LA is a great architectural city, but it is architecture created house by house, very occasionally street by street, with no hint of when something extraordinary is about to wow your senses.

For the first couple of years that I lived here, I remained somehow unsure whether I had been to Los Angeles at all. The creeping sensation I could not shake off was that the real city was somewhere just beyond my grasp in a place I had not yet visited.

The truth is that the shards of experience that make up LA are the city - there is nothing else. Once you've bent your mind around that concept, you are ready to have a lot of fun.

The first job is to orient yourself, to create your own manageable map of the metropolis. Here's a painless way to do just that.

* Start with the beach, the one tangible limit that even LA cannot breach. Luckily, Santa Monica Bay is one of the great urban littorals anywhere in the world - an Elysian field of white sand, palm trees and in-line skating trails offering views, on a clear day, from the Palos Verdes peninsula to the mountains of Malibu, and out to Catalina island. Rather than parking at the beach itself, stop on Ocean Way in Venice - the parking's free there, too - and walk through the beautiful, pedestrian-only canal district with its fine houses, riotous displays of climbing plants, elegant bridges and intriguingly eccentric duck park. Beyond the side-show freaks of the Venice boardwalk, the beach then acts as a grand finale to an LA intro on an undeniably human scale.

* Next, negotiate the mountains. The Santa Monicas and the Hollywood hills act as both a spine and a rectilinear reference point for the urban madness. Walk up the Paseo Miramar in the Pacific Palisades, or wander around the parkland at the top of Coldwater Canyon, and you will be rewarded not only with spectacular views but also the very tangible sense that nature in this concrete jungle has not been suppressed. It is merely biding its time on the sidelines.

* Time to explore some neighbourhoods, and realise that without a car Los Angeles takes on an entirely different, much more human, aspect. Silverlake and Echo Park (take Sunset Boulevard as your orientation point) have fabulous 1920s houses arranged around hillside staircases, and give a powerful sense of LA as it was when the movie moguls moved in. West Hollywood has swanky shops, boutique restaurants, the garishness of Sunset Strip and the fabulous Book Soup, one of LA's best bookstores. Santa Monica, especially along Main Street and Montana Avenue, belongs to the latte-sippers and would-be screenwriters tapping away on their computers in public. Los Feliz, at the foot of Griffith Park, is a less pretentious version of the same thing, especially in the few blocks around Skylight Books on Vermont.

* Now that all notions of a city centre are drummed out of you, time to visit downtown Los Angeles, an extraordinarily disordered swirl of corporate high-rises, Mexican street markets, homeless shelters, avant-garde architecture and landmarks both eccentric and, for the most part, forgotten. Try the outrageous faux exotica of the Figueroa Hotel or the Mayan Theatre, the shuttered movie palaces along Broadway, the architectural splendours of the Bradbury Building and the Public Library, and such recent additions to the landscape as Frank Gehry's Disney Hall or the new Roman Catholic cathedral.

* Having tamed the LA basin, reward yourself with Pasadena, with its recognisably urban centre, its rows of spectacular Arts and Crafts houses, the exquisite Norton Simon museum and the Huntington botanical gardens in neighbouring San Marino, one of the great horticultural experiences on the planet.

* Venture out into the expanse of South Los Angeles. No, it's not beautiful and it's desperately poor, but there are highly engaging ways to get a sense of it. Attend a service at the First AME Church, one of the great inspirational centres of black Los Angeles. Head down to the Watts Towers, a Gaudi-like enterprise made entirely out of city detritus. Take surface streets down to San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles and head over to Long Beach, where industrial grit gives way to the extraordinary pedestrian island suburb of Naples.

* Back out to the wilderness, this time through the movie-star beach palaces of Malibu. Walk along the sand at The Colony, or at Paradise Cove, to ogle the absurdly over-lavish houses. Go to El Matador for the most beautiful beach in southern California. Drive up into the hills and hike through Malibu Creek State Park - you can hardly believe one of the world's biggest cities is just half an hour away.

* Become acquainted with LA's 100-plus ethnicities the easy way - through food. Go to Little Armenia (next to Hollywood), to the Indian markets and restaurants of Gardena, to the Chinese restaurants of Monterey Park, to Little Ethiopia on Fairfax Avenue and to the Japanese colony off Sawtelle Avenue in west Los Angeles.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Trailfinders (020-7937 5400) is offering direct, return flights from Heathrow to Los Angeles with American Airlines from £459, valid for travel until 31 May.

Further information

Contact LA Inc, The Convention and Visitors Bureau (020-7318 9555; www.seemyla.com).

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