Rough Guide: The most familiar spot on earth can still surprise

Forget the movies: write your own screenplay, suggests Jeff Dickey, author of 'The Rough Guide to Los Angeles'

Although many Americans profess to hate it for its sprawl, smog, and vulgarity, Los Angeles is in many ways the quintessence of everything that is American. LA's endless suburbs, mass entertainment, automobile- worship, and social instability are not only endemic to the United States, but also increasingly prevalent in the rest of the world. Even if you'd rather spend a season in hell than visit the City of Angels, you're sure to get a heavy dose of the town by just going to your local cinema or turning on your television - LA is not only the prime producer of international pop culture, it is also its own favourite subject. Perhaps more than any other place, LA is now, thanks to mass media, the most familiar spot on the planet.

Best discovery

That said, LA can still surprise you. One of the most unexpected treats is exploring the Santa Monica Mountains, the rugged terrain that splits the city in half and is most appealing north of Malibu. Along with being free of freeways, air pollution, and human congestion (except near the busy Pacific Coast Highway), this section of the mountain chain also offers some very enjoyable sights. The protected wilderness zones are surprisingly vast and pristine for being so close to a major city, and a string of parks and preserves offers much to both casual visitors and intrepid explorers. Highlights include San Vicente Mountain Park, a former nuclear- missile facility located on a rocky pinnacle; Paramount Ranch, a Wild West movie set with faux train station and cemetery; and the newest addition, the Barbra Streisand Center for Conservancy Studies, a sprawling estate that the pop diva donated to the public a few years ago, complete with theme houses (Art Deco, Art Nouveau, etc).

Favourite restaurants

While you can always find plenty of glam eateries where movie stars munch on rocket (typically Beverly Hills and West LA), the most memorable and fun restaurants are those that serve basic American fast food. One of these, Tommy's, is arguably the top spot for fat, greasy burgers and is open all night to boot. Similarly, Pink's is the undisputed champion of the chilli dog, which you can get smothered in cheese and rolled up like a burrito. And no trip to LA is complete without a stop at Tail o' the Pup, the roadside stand shaped like a giant hot dog.

Biggest disappointment

Although all of LA's major theme parks are overrated (apart from the rollercoaster paradise of Magic Mountain), the biggest disappointment is just outside the gates of Universal Studios. The pedestrian zone, known as CityWalk, is not only a bland incarnation of Los Angeles, complete with movieland icons like King Kong hanging from a building, it is also a thinly disguised shopping mall with wildly overpriced goods and consistently mediocre food. And a casual visit isn't an option: you'll be stuck with a steep parking fee just for looking around.

Best souvenirs

For shock value alone, there is nothing better than coming back from LA with a handful of trinkets from the County Coroner's Gift Shop. Beach towels decorated with neon skeletons, T-shirts with chalk outlines of corpses, and key-rings, baseball caps, and stickers featuring slogans like "Stay Cool" are but a few of the morbid items on display. But don't even think about stealing anything - as the sign says, "shop-lifters' bodies will be prosecuted".

Greatest movie palace

Even though the moviehouses along Hollywood Boulevard get most of the attention, especially the ever-popular Chinese Theatre, most of LA's grandest cinemas can be found Downtown, along the Broadway route. The greatest is still the Los Angeles Theater, a riot of French Baroque, with chandeliers, draperies, decorative nudes, and much wildly indulgent ornamentation. Unfortunately, the theatre is only open once a year, for the popular Last Remaining Seats film festival - book your tickets now.

Best advice

Accept the conventional wisdom and use motorised transport. Although walking or even cycling is possible in central areas like Venice and Santa Monica, cars and buses are the only effective means of navigating the entire metropolis. Never rely on the subway, known as the Red Line, or the light-rail routes known as the Blue and Green Lines. The latter is especially useless for visitors: instead of taking you to LAX airport, the line ends several miles away, near a miniature golf course.

FACT FILE

los angeles

Getting there

LA International Airport (LAX) is the obvious choice if flying, though Orange County's John Wayne Airport also receives international flights. If travelling overland to LA, renting a car is not the only option. Amtrak (tel: 800 USA RAIL) offers train services to the city from selected areas, and Greyhound (tel: 800 231 2222) provides a cheaper, if more arduous, bus alternative. Additional information: the LA Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel: 800 228 2452).

What to experience

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (tel: 818 597 1036) and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (tel: 818 597 9192) provide information on the park system, and the Streisand Conservancy, 5750 Ramirez Canyon Road near Malibu, offers free (pre-booked) tours (tel: 310 589 2850).

Los Angeles Theater, 615 S Broadway, Downtown; Last Remaining Seats festival runs in June; call Los Angeles Conservancy for details (tel: 213 623 CITY).

LA County Coroner's Gift Shop, 1104 N Mission Road, Downtown (tel: 213 343 0760).

Tommy's, 2575 W Beverly Blvd, Silver Lake (tel: 213 389 9060).

Pink's, 711 N La Brea Ave, Mid-Wilshire (tel: 213 931 4223).

Tail o' the Pup, 329 N San Vicente Blvd, West Hollywood (tel: 310 652 4517).

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