As a school-aged kid living in Nashville, Tennessee, I longed to live in a big city. Throughout high school, my loyalties were torn between the anchor cities of each coast, and I ultimately opted for New York because California just felt too far from family and home.
But the California from my adolescent visits never lost its luster, and it’s even more magical to a 37-year-old mom taking a mini-break from real life responsibilities and living like a carefree 20-something for a few days. For the second year in a row, I took a long weekend of leisure to visit my friend Amy. She’s a fantastic tour guide, digging into the activities and destinations that would only pop up on the radar of a local. We had three days, and this is where we explored:
DAY ONE (OUTDOOR)
There may be no better city for urban hikes than Los Angeles, and the newly completed Park to Playa Trail offers 13 miles of the best scenery the city has to offer. After a late-night arrival and a restful, uninterrupted night’s sleep, I woke to my first full day in LA which promised to be an active one. Amy was eager to take this trek; it connects a series of trails, parks, and recreation areas stretching from the Crenshaw District [or South LA, to non-locals like me] to the ocean at Marina del Rey without stepping foot on a city road (minus a couple street crossings).
The trail’s start is at the corner of Stocker Street and Presidio Drive. (Street parking is available on Presidio.) The route then climbs along the western side of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, hugging the ridge and offering a panorama of the neighborhoods and mountains to the east. It was a clear, beautiful fall day – just what you expect of LA and hope to experience. Standing with this huge metropolis laid out below, surrounded by snowcapped and shining in perpetual golden hour light, I smiled at the thought that maybe my 18-year-old self had picked the wrong coast.
The route was completed in 2020 with the construction of the Mark Ridley-Thomas Bridge, crossing La Cienega Blvd. and connecting the Kenneth Hahn area to the Baldwin Hills Overlook. We enjoyed a late picnic lunch at its highest point before descending through Culver City Park to the final stage of the trail, the Ballona Creek Bike Path that completes its last 5.5 miles. Daylight Saving Time had just ended, and we weren’t yet accustomed to the early sunset. We would never have made it by foot; an impulsive decision to navigate the electric scooter app market and pick up a couple Birds saved the day and carried us to the Pacific for a perfect sunset.
DAY TWO (CULTURE)
I have never explored the museum side of Los Angeles, but years ago my mom spent a day wandering the Getty Center and has recalled it with fondness many times in the two decades since. Perched on a hilltop in Brentwood, the Getty is more of a sprawling compound than a singular museum. It’s also has a style and aesthetic completely opposite than I imagined.
We’d assumed our weekday visit would be on the quieter side but had neglected to remember it was also Veterans Day. Admission to the Getty Center is free (timed-entry reservations are currently required), but there’s a charge for parking. With the rest of our holiday crowd, we took the infamous, picturesque tram ride from the parking garage up the hillside to the center’s main campus. [A walking path is also available.] If you’ve ever seen the 2001 teen thriller Antitrust about a tech mogul (Tim Robbins) and his ruthless software corporation… this is what immediately came to mind when I stepped foot on the Getty complex. It’s not the white, bright, contemporary California architecture I had imagined; it looks, instead, like the nefarious headquarters of a villain group.
We spent a few hours wandering through the painting galleries and exploring the central garden. The sheer expansive nature of the campus, though, hints that there is much more to the Getty than just an art museum. Its namesake, J. Paul Getty, was a fervent collector who believed art should be accessible to the public for both education and enjoyment. The Trust formed from Getty’s estate, following his death, grappled for several years with the direction it should take regarding contribution to the arts. What finally emerged was a vision for an institution that would serve the world of art and art history – “a research center and scholarly library, a conservation institute, an art history information program, arts education, a grant program, and new publications initiatives, as well as a new museum.”
There are bits of knowledge to discover in every piece of this institution – even in the structure itself, intentionally designed with fire-proof engineering. And when museum fatigue sets in, the view’s not so bad, either.
DAY THREE (WANDER)
I think the best way to explore a city is through a sort of aimless wandering – on foot, at a leisurely pace, fully immersed, and given the time and space to notice your surroundings. Downtown LA is probably not high on the must-see list for most tourists. I don’t think it’s totally inaccurate to say it suffers a bit of a negative reputation. [Just Google “downtown LA” and take a quick look at the relevant news stories.] But it’s also worth mentioning there are loads of hidden historical and cultural gems to discover in this city center. It’s the best place to simply wander in this sprawling metropolis, where the walkability allows you to explore distinct neighborhoods and districts as they blend into one another.
Our adventure began on the Metro, which is not the mode of transportation usually associated with LA, but it’s definitely the faster way to get from North Hollywood to Downtown when the interstates are in a gridlock… which seems to be often. The terminus of the B line is Union Station, a historic and utterly beautiful blend of popular 1930s California architecture styles. We stopped for a drink to ogle the design in Homebound Brew Haus, a beer hall that occupies the station’s flagship restaurant space and was home to a Harvey House restaurant from the station’s opening in 1939 until 1967. Like the rest of the station, it’s a mix of Art Deco, Southwestern, and Spanish Colonial Revival styles. The beer was cold, the bartender friendly, and the vibe wonderful.
Directly across from Union Station is El Pueblo Historic Park and Olvera Street, the oldest part of Downtown LA. The area has been a destination since 1930 when it was saved from demolition by a wealthy socialite who had a penchant for history. She envisioned a Mexican marketplace and cultural center, which is exactly what it is today. We strolled through music and dancing in the plaza; past Avila Adobe, built in 1818 and the oldest existing house in the city; and through the stretch of street vendors and restaurants before stopping for a snack at Cielito Lindo, a food stand well-known for its taquitos.
We ventured south under the 101 to the Arts District, a neighborhood that was once an industrial and manufacturing hub. A new, artistic scene emerged when, as has happened in many cities, the old industry left and the forgotten buildings offered cheap rent and ample space. The neighborhood seems to still be developing as many of the spaces we passed were either new, renovated, or home to new business. We made our way to the Hauser & Wirth gallery which opened in 2016 in the 100,000 square foot former space of a flour mill. Had we been looking for a sip or a bite, there is no shortage of sidewalk dining options in the area.
For my last night in LA, I wanted a cliché: a sunset with a view. With the clock ticking, we embarked upon our (unexpectedly long) trek to the hotel rooftop bars of Broadway. We passed along the edge of Little Tokyo and through a busy Grand Central Market with so many stalls to explore had we not been on the clock. Exiting the market, we followed Broadway for three-quarters of a mile, passing the old theaters and movie houses whose names have become synonymous with cinema – the Orpheum, the Palace, the Roxie. I liken this stretch of city streets to the soul-less stretch of midtown Manhattan between Penn Station and Times Square: littered with trash, vacant storefronts, overall aura of dodgy. And then suddenly you notice an Apple store occupying an old theater on one corner, and next to it an Urban Outfitters. It doesn’t seem to make any sense; where did we cross the line from pawn shops to upscale commercialism?
But we had finally reached our destination: the upstairs bar of the Ace Hotel. We sat with a glass (or two) of rosé, observing as friends gossiped, a fashion team found the best light, and a couple passionately reunited. The sun began to set, and the sky turned pink. The downtown lights began to twinkle, and LA, with its infinite displays of light, stretched out below. The temperate dropped as the November night settled in, and it was time for us to go.
| EAT & DRINK |
- Cara Vana Coffee | North Hollywood coffee shop with fantastic breakfasts and house-made syrups, owned by the same family as the tire shop next door.
- Petit Trois le Valley | French bistro with enough ambiance for a fancy dinner but casual enough for sneakers and drinks at the bar.
- HomeState | Local Tex-Mex chain with killer breakfast (and anytime) tacos and an extensive drink menu.
- NIGHT + MARKET (WEHO) | Thai restaurant with an emphasis on natural wine; perfect vibe to begin a long night out.
- Ramen Maruya | One of many noodle joints in Little Tokyo’s Japanese Village with an extensive village and just as satisfying as you’d hope.
- Oceans Cafe & Grill | Small beachfront restaurant near LAX with a hardy breakfast burrito, perfect pre-departure.