48 hours in Los Angeles

The vibe on Venice Beach may be 'boho', but the area with the biggest buzz is Downtown. Sarah Barrell finds a few surprises in the city of angels
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO?

WHY GO?

Dorothy Parker once dubbed Los Angeles "72 suburbs in search of a city". With the conclusion of a 35-year municipal make-over project, that search looks set to end. With a little help from a new concert hall designed by Frank Gehry and a hip new hotel by interior design wunderkind André Balazs, Downtown LA is fast becoming the heart of this sprawling city. For information on summer events contact the LA Convention and Visitors' Bureau (020-7318 9555, www.visitLAnow.com) and West Hollywood Visitors' Bureau (00 1310 289 2525, www.visitwesthollywood.com).

BEAM DOWN

I flew with Delta Air Lines (0800 14767, www.delta.com) which has daily flights from Manchester and Gatwick via Altanta and Cincinatti. Direct flights to Los Angeles are operated by Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149, www.airnz.co.uk), American Airlines (0845 778 9789, www.americanairlines.co.uk), British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com), United (0845 844 4777, www.unitedairlines.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007, www.virgin-atlantic.com). Continental (0845 607 6760, www.continental.com), has an allocation of seats on Virgin. To get to Downtown from LAX airport, take the free shuttle bus to the metro station. You have to change trains once, but the one-hour journey costs the single ride fare of $1.25 (80p). Private minivan companies, such as SuperShuttle (001 310 782 6600, www.supershuttle.com) offer share taxi services. A ride Downtown costs $16 (£10) and takes around an hour.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The city can be roughly broken down into six different areas: Santa Monica and the beach; Beverly Hills and the Westside; Hollywood; Downtown; the San Fernando Valley and Pasadena. Each of these is linked by freeways, which can be heavily congested during rush hours. However, despite initial scepticism the $5.5bn (£3.5bn) Metrorail has helped reduce highway traffic. The newly extended metro system means that you can now get from Hollywood to Universal Studios in a miraculous four minutes, while the line running between the two destinations and Downtown takes 20 minutes.

TAKE A VIEW

...of the Hollywood sign. LA's most iconic sight is actually quite hard to spot from many parts of the city. One of the best views is to be had from the leafy Hollywood Forever Cemetery (6000 Santa Monica Boulevard). From here the big white letters are overlooked by the graves of such long-gone film luminaries as Cecil B DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks Senior and Mel Blanc. The latter was the voice of Warner Brothers' cartoons, whose headstone reads: "That's all, folks!"

TAKE A HIKE

...around the Downtown area. Start outside the grand Beaux Arts style Biltmore Hotel where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists created the Academy Awards. A few blocks south, the beautiful neo-French Renaissance, Orpheum Theatre at 842 South Broadway is one of the city's few remaining 1920s working movie houses. Stay on Broadway for a quick peak inside the atrium of the Bradbury Building (at number 304), the Victorian office block featured in the film Blade Runner. Just west is Frank Gehry's huge new Concert Hall and to the north, the city's imposing new cathedral. Further north is El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the site of the 18th-century Mexican settlement where the city began, home to the LA's oldest church La Placita, at Paseo de la Plaza. North again, Chinatown is lately another symbol of Downtown's revival, its Chung King Road now undergoing colonisation by young artists.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The Farmer's Market at 6333 West 3rd Street is an antidote to the dine-and-be-discovered mentality of many of LA's lunch spots. Dine al fresco at one of its 100-plus food stands, alongside old Mexican couples and aspiring screenwriters. Tusquellas, near Gate One, is a fish and oyster stall selling California salads (avocado and shrimp) for $10 (£6.25).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

With views as fine inside as they are out, the Getty Museum (001 310 440 7300, www.getty.edu) is a must-see. Its hilltop location offers one of the best views across LA's extended sprawl. Inside, the late oil magnate and billionaire John Paul Getty's collection is a who's who of 19th-century European painting and decorative arts, alongside a selection of photography. Open Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday 10am-6pm and Friday-Saturday 10am-9pm. Closed Monday. Entry is free but the car park costs $5 (£3).

AN APERITIF

Forget Sunset strip, the rooftop bar at the new Standard Hotel (001 213 892 8080, www.standardhotel.com) at 550 South Flower Street in Downtown LA surpasses that of its fashionable forebear in Hollywood. Try not to gawp at the futuristic backdrop (a chrome and glass forest of skyscrapers) and make straight for one of the bar's coveted red plastic pods. Each pod contains a waterbed so avoid sloppy martini glass cocktails when you order from your pert waitress-cum-MAW (local slang for "model, actress, whatever").

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Spent too much on cocktails? Barney's Beanery, at 8447 Santa Monica Boulevard (001 323 654 2287, www.barneysbeanery.com) has been serving basic American food to everyone from parking attendants to movie stars since it opened in 1920, and was a one-time favourite of Marilyn Monroe. $7.25 (£4.50) buys you a sourdough bowl of what is said to be the best chilli in town.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

...at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels at 55 West Temple Street. Designed by Pritzker Prize winning Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo, this $195m structure, with a 50ft concrete cross, appears rather austere from the freeway. But head through the huge bronze doors (designed by Robert Graham, husband of actress Anjelica Huston) to find chandeliers, rich tapestries and an altar made of red marble. Sunday mass is at 8am and 10am.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Opposite Angel City Gym (Madonna's preferred pilates venue) at 8565 Melrose Avenue, is the Urth Caffe (001 310 659 0628). The patio here is the place to watch patrons pretending to eat their Urth Organic Granola Bowl ($4.95/£3) while really ogling the rich celebrity clientele.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The beaches are LA's public playgrounds and Venice Beach is the most playful of them all. The vibe on Venice Boardwalk is still decidedly "boho". Come here to watch the boardwalk's fire jugglers and surfers.

TAKE A RIDE

LA may be a car city but that doesn't rule out two-wheel tours. LA Bike Tours (001 323 466 5890) covers Hollywood's central sights along with less known spots such as the working tar pit south of Hollywood Boulevard (yes, really). The five-hour ride costs $50 (£31) including equipment rental, snacks and guide. Times vary. Advance reservation required.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Forget the Hollywood sign, the icon of modern Los Angeles looks set to be the new Walt Disney Concert Hall (001 213 972 7483, www.musiccenter.org) designed by Frank Gehry. Nothing to do with Disney Studios (aside from a sizeable donation from the late Lillian Disney, Walt's wife), the new home of the LA Philharmonic opened last October.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

After a 72-year absence from the Kodak Theatre (001 323-308-6363, www.kodaktheatre.com) the Academy Awards Ceremony is back in Hollywood. A half-hour tour takes you behind the scenes, allowing you to take a seat in the auditorium - your guide can tell you whose starry behind it has hosted. Tours are daily, 10.30am-2.30pm, $15 (£9.40).

CHECK IN

Shutters on the Beach at Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica (001 310 458 0030, www.shuttersonthebeach.com) is a Cape Cod style hotel, as the name suggests right on the beach. All rooms have balconies, many overlooking the sea. Doubles from $380 (£238), room only.

To stay alongside such rock-star regulars as U2 and Eminem, check in at the all-suite Sunset Marquis hotel, just off Sunset Strip. Junior suites are from $302 (£189) per night, room only.

Chateau Marmont (001 323 656 1010, www.chateaumarmont.com) at 8221 Sunset Boulevard is the least name-dropping of Hollywood's smart hotels, despite having been a celebrity refuge since 1920. Recently this Norman-style "castle" underwent a makeover by André Balazs (of LA's night club-like Standard hotels). Doubles from $336 (£210), room only.

Also within flip-flopping reach of the sea, The Venice Beach House (001 310 823 1966, www.venicebeachhouse.com) at 15 Thirtieth Avenue, Venice, is a B&B set in an former workman's cottage. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Doubles with en suite start at $148 (£93) including an American-sized "continental" breakfast.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Head for the Beverly Center at San Vincente and Beverly Boulevards for affordable American chains. Rodeo Drive is for those who prefer the Pretty Woman experience, while the boutiques along Melrose offer a less staid selection, such as the fun Fred Segal store at 80100 Melrose Avenue.

For the best window-shopping, visit the Avenues of Art and Design - namely Robertson Boulevard, where it intersects with Melrose Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. Little differentiates the commercial galleries with swanky stores here: case in point is the perfectly curated Maxfield at 8825 Melrose Avenue, where vintage Hermès duffle bags ($15,000/£9,300) are sold alongside funky contemporary T-shirts. Pop into Kinara, at 656 North Robertson Boulevard for a full selection of "medi" spa treatments (botox anyone?).

Hamilton-Selway Fine Art (001 310 657 1711, www.hamiltonselway.com) has a huge selection of Andy Warhol prints seemingly stacked up against every available wall space. Next door at 8540 Melrose, located in an old mortuary, Heritage Books (001 310 659 3674, www.heritagebookshop.com) has an equally pocket-challenging collection of rare books. Buyers can read, say, a first edition Tolkien seated in chairs from the set of Gone With The Wind.

TASTE OF THE CITY

Chef Joachim Splichal has moved his flagship restaurant, Patina (001 213 972 3331) from its Hollywood home to join the buzz Downtown, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. This is the place to splash out on the likes of butter-poached lobster tail and seared foie gras with candied kumquats. Two courses, without wine, cost about $50 (£31).

If you need some sustenance between bar hopping along Sunset Strip, try Katana (001 323 650 8585) where Brad Pitt recently threw a birthday party for Jennifer Aniston. Japanese-style Robata food (meat and seafood skewers cooked on an open grill) is served on this buzzy Hollywood patio, also one of the best spots in town for sushi. Two courses cost around $40 (£25).

Eat tapas-style small plates of cheese, fresh salads and seasonal grilled fish, at AOC (001 323 653 6359), a Californian wine bar on LA's foodie happening 3rd Street. Two courses cost less than $25 (£16). Almost next door, Quality Food and Beverage (001 323 658 5959) is a Fifties-style cafeteria serving hearty American-Mexican fare. Sit outside and order "huevos rancheros" (eggs with fresh chilli, avocado, onions and tomato) and a bottomless cup of coffee for less than $15 (£9.40).

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