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in Los Angeles
Emerging from the terminal after landing at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) can be a little like exiting a darkened movie theater in the middle of the day: nothing seems quite real, and the sunlight is downright blinding. Welcome to Los Angeles–we hope you've packed your chicest oversized sunglasses, 'cause you'll need 'em almost 365 days of the year. True, it can get cool in the winter (down to a chilly 50F!), but with a minimal wet season, chances are it won't be raining on your parade no matter when you arrive.
Don't bother trying to catch a train from the airport to your destination–chances are the Metro won't take you where you need to go (public transport is pretty limited here), and you're definitely going to want to rent a car to navigate the city's sprawling neighborhoods from the sea to the hills (trust us: make sure it's equipped with GPS). Unfortunately, everything you've heard about LA's notorious traffic is true and then some. Traffic jams can be downright beastly, so plan for some alternate routes before you hit the gas.
But driving here doesn't have to be a total downer. Splurge on a convertible, and you'll experience the essence of LA multitasking: looking cool (pack a stylish scarf to avoid windblown hair), getting a tan, and getting where you need to go, all at the same time. This is a town where the car you roll up to the valet in (don't worry about parking too much–valets are plentiful) often makes more of a statement than the label you're wearing, so skip the taxi unless it's going to be a night of abundant libations.
If all that sitting in the car has made you just a touch restless, options for moving your legs abound. The city's sunlit landscapes were practically designed for outdoor fitness: take a hike into the foothills at Griffith Park; bike, run, or skate along the ocean in Santa Monica and Venice; or surf and swim in the big blue Pacific (if you come in July, don't miss the International Surf Festival). Even indoor workouts get brought outside here–yoga by the pool or beach, anyone? But if you prefer to drop the sunglasses for once (or to take a break from the summer smog), no worries. You can't throw a stone here without hitting a yoga or Pilates studio.
Contrary to stereotypes, LA culture isn't limited to bronzed bodies, Benzes, and bakasana poses. You can catch festivals honoring the city's diverse ethnic residents, from Dia de los Muertos celebrations to the Chinese Autumn Festival, throughout the year. And of course, this being Hollywood, there's always a film festival of one sort or another underway. Because, really, no trip to LA would be complete without logging some time in a darkened movie theater.
As in most places in the US, tipping is now standard practice in LA, rather than just reserved for special occasions or super service. For restaurants, bars, and taxis, a tip of 15%-20% is appropriate. Spa and salon personnel (masseuses, hairdressers, facialists, etc.) will all expect tips as well–for a minor service (like a shampoo), a few dollars is ok, but for an extended service (like a massage), it should be about 15%-20% of the total. In top hotels, bellhops expect USD 2-5 per bag, and a concierge should get USD 2-5 for a small service, and USD 10-20 (or much more) if they’ve been consistently excellent across the stay or if they go above and beyond (like scoring you a table at a hot restaurant). Especially key for LA, if you’d like to nab a great lounger at an exclusive pool, it’s a good idea to tip the pool attendant USD 5-20.
Crime: LA has a bad reputation when it comes to crime, but in many areas of the city–especially those frequented by tourists–the situation is really not that grim. As with most major cities, petty theft is common (watch your wallet!), but otherwise, during the day you should be fine walking around. Many of the satellite cities on the Westside, like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, as well as Pasadena on the Eastside, are particularly safe, and you should even feel comfortable walking around in the evenings. In Venice, Hollywood, or Downtown (which empties out in the evenings after the commuters head home), make sure you stick to well-lit streets and don’t walk around alone at night. Definitely avoid high crime areas like Compton, Watts, and South LA after dark.
Roads: LA is a driving city, so road safety is particularly important. Whether driver or passenger, make sure you wear a seat belt at all times (it’s the law in California). What with all the traffic, there’s a burgeoning road rage problem here–avoid getting into sticky situations by knowing in advance what your route is and what the traffic laws are, and by not losing your cool at others’ bad behavior.
Environment: LA’s smog is iconic, but in recent decades, the city has really worked hard to scrub its air. If there is a particularly smoggy day, local weather reports will advise on how to best protect your health, but otherwise you should be fine. On the other hand, when it’s clear, definitely make sure you’re well protected from this sun–it’s easy to get burned here, especially if you haven’t been frolicking outdoors in sunny climes for a while. If you’re going swimming at the beach, splash around with confidence–the ocean around LA is actually quite clean despite being next to a sprawling metropolis. Beware, however, that for three days after any heavy rains, most of the beaches are closed due to storm drain run off. Drinking tap water is always a go in LA–it’s heavily chlorinated, so it may not be the best you’ve ever had, but it’s completely safe to drink. Last but not least, LA is smack dab in the middle of a major fault line and consequently prone to earthquakes. That said, no need to panic! Most of the quakes the city experiences are so low-intensity that no one even notices, and if there is a big one, fortunately most buildings are built to withstand them.
Etiquette, Customs, and Culture
LA is incredibly diverse. Almost half of the population was born outside of the US, with the majority coming from Latin America and Asia. Besides being a melting pot of nationalities, "Angelenos" also count among their ranks a huge range of cultural groups–everyone from hip-hoppers, surf bums, and hippies to ultra image-conscious hipsters and mega celebs. Because there’s so much diversity, it’s difficult to generalize, but Angelenos are generally fairly chilled out and happy to help (although some advise caution with high-maintenance Beverly Hills-types).
Running: Griffith Park offers running and walking trails for all levels–there are flat paved roads, wooded paths, and steep dirt tracks. For intermediate to advanced runners, its Mount Hollywood Trail offers great views of the Hollywood sign. Another popular spot for running is the grassy track alongside San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica. This run ends at the Santa Monica Pier, which is nice if you’d like to stretch out on the beach afterwards. Finally, beach running is always a great option in LA. If you’re not keen on getting sandy feet, try the paved bike path between Venice and Santa Monica. (Be aware, however, that bikers get priority here.)
Yoga: The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel offers poolside yoga for all levels on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00am-11:00am (USD 20)–no need to be a hotel guest to join in. Shutters on the Beach hotel also offers free yoga on the beach on Thursday mornings. Established studio YogaWorks (www.yogaworks.com; six locations across the city; USD 15-30/hour) and Ashtanga yoga specialists Power Yoga (www.poweryoga.com; two locations in Santa Monica; no fees but suggested donation of USD 14) both offer courses and workshops at a variety of levels and allow guests to join for a one-off class or a one-day workshop.
Biking: With all the traffic in LA, street biking isn’t always the easiest, but there are a few nice off-road options. For a relaxed ride, the Strand is a paved bicycle path along the beach that connects Venice Beach and Santa Monica Pier. Bike rentals are available at both ends (prices range from USD 6/hour-USD 22/day). Another low-key, scenic route in this area is around the Venice Canals (start from Venice Beach). If you’re looking for a more hard-core biking adventure, try the trails in Griffith Park or Runyon Canyon Park (which intersects with the unpaved section of Mulholland Drive). Mountain bikes are available from Topanga Creek Bicycle Rentals (1-310-455-2111; www.topangacreekbicycles.com; USD 50-75/day).
Surfing and Water Sports: Wetsuits and boards of all types (body, boogie, and surf) can be rented from surf shops at most beaches. If you’re new to surfing, Learn to Surf LA (1-310-663-2479; www.learntosurfla.com) offers lessons for individuals and groups at a few of the beaches around LA.
Other Key Information
Medical: Before you go, it’s worth checking which healthcare providers your insurance will allow you to use in LA. Also, if you’re not a US resident, definitely make sure you have travel insurance that covers medical emergencies, as hospital bills can run over USD 10,000 for a single treatment.
Smoking: Smoking is banned in most public places in LA. Many nightlife venues and restaurants have set up designated outdoor spaces for smokers.
Winter: The first big event of the calendar year is the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena on January 1st. This historic tournament (it’s been running for over a century) includes a lavish, flower-filled parade and a collegiate national championship football game. Later in January, the red carpets are rolled out for the Golden Globes, presented at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and these are followed a month later by the Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater. Another major winter event is Chinese New Year (usually in late January or early February)–celebrations include street parties and the famous Golden Dragon Parade running through Chinatown.
Spring: In March, the LA Marathon draws over 25,000 runners and more spectators than any other marathon in the US (some estimates peg the number at over one million). On May 5th, the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with both official festivities on Olvera Street (including food, music, and dancing) and private events at most bars and restaurants around the city.
Summer: Summer in LA brings a plethora of festivals and outdoor events. Among the most notable, in June the Los Angeles Film Festival offers an alternative to the big Hollywood offerings with its program of independent North American films and awards to innovative local filmmakers. On the lighter side, in July, the International Surf Festival serves up Baywatch-style action as America’s finest lifeguards take on an all-star Australian team. Throughout the summer, Shakespeare by the Sea offers free outdoor performances across the LA metro area and the LA Philharmonic presents their summer concert series at the Hollywood Bowl.
Autumn: In September/October, the Chinese Autumn Festival is celebrated with parades and events in Chinatown, while on November 1st, the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated with a number of events across the city. In heavily Hispanic areas, celebrations follow traditional Mexican practice, while in areas like Hollywood, hybrid versions of the festival–featuring elements like ceremonies for "dead" TV shows–have become increasingly popular.
Photo courtesy of usedtobemeeza1 on Flickr Creative Commons
Best Way in from the Airport
LAX: The primary airport servicing LA is the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). There are a number of ways to get into the city from here, ranging from public transportation to limo. LA is a driving city, so it will always be easiest to get to your final destination by car (rental, taxi, or limo)–though due to traffic, public transport can be just as quick, if more of a hassle.
• Rental Car: Renting a car upon arrival will serve you well throughout your trip. All major US rental car companies have outlets at LAX, and most provide free shuttles to their lots. Courtesy phones are also available in every terminal for you to contact them. Getting to the lot and working through paperwork can sometimes take awhile, but once you have keys in hand, the drive from LAX to downtown should take no more than 45 minutes to an hour.
• Taxi: There is no shortage of taxis available at LAX, and these are probably the quickest option for getting into the city–rides take about 45 minutes (but depends on where in LA you are going) if you can avoid traffic jams. There is a mandatory surcharge of USD 2.50 for all taxis originating at LAX, and a flat fare of USD 42 between LAX and downtown. Trips to other destinations in the city should cost USD 40-60.
• Limo or Town Car: Many limo and town car companies have courtesy phones available in LAX. A ride into downtown should cost about USD65-80 (though rates are often reduced if you book in advance) and take about 45 minutes.
• Shuttle: The FlyAway Shuttle (1-866-435-9529) offers express transport between LAX and Union Station, Van Nuys, Westwood, or Irvine. The ride to Union Station takes 45 minutes and costs USD 7 (one way). You can buy tickets and catch the FlyAway from all terminals at LAX. Other shuttle companies, like SuperShuttle and Prime Time Shuttle, have stands at most terminals and offer door-to-door service in shared vans. Prices range from USD 18-50 (depending on where you’re heading and whether you book in advance). Beware that these shuttle rides can take quite awhile because they make many stops along the way. Many major hotels also offer free direct shuttles from the airport–make sure to enquire about this before you travel, as arranging them on arrival can be difficult.
• Metro: There is no direct Metro link with LAX. There is, however, a free shuttle connecting all terminals to the Metro Green Line at the Aviation/LAX station. Tickets for the Metro cost USD 1.50, and the trip to downtown should take about 30 minutes.
Other airports: The three smaller airports outside of LA mainly take domestic flights: Bob Hope Airport (in Burbank), LA-Ontario International Airport (35 miles east of LA), and Long Beach Airport (on the border with Orange County). Taxis, rental cars, limos, and shuttles are available at all three. Also, Bob Hope Airport is connected directly with Union Station in Downtown LA via rail (fares vary).
What with the frequent traffic snarls, helicopter is an excellent (if extravagant) way to move quickly around LA. Briles Wing & Helicopter (1-818-994-1445; www.toflyla.com) is available 24 hours and specializes in last-minute pickups (in case you make a spur of the moment decision to scrap the nasty traffic). Helitac Aviation also offers charter flights around LA and Southern California, and they have a convenient downtown helipad and VIP services (1-213-483-6898; www.helitac.com). Rates are generally USD 200+/hour.
Amtrak runs regular train services from Union Station in downtown. Popular regional Southern California routes include San Diego (3 hours; USD 31); Santa Barbara (2.5 hours; USD 25); and San Luis Obispo (5.5 hours; USD 33). Rail connections to destinations all over the continental US are available.
LA is not an easy city to bike in (cars take up most of the road, and distances between venues are quite far), but there are rentals available if you’d like to give it a try. Topanga Creek Bicycle Rentals (1-310-455-2111; www.topangacreekbicycles.com; USD 50-100/day) offers a range of road and mountain bikes for short- and long-term rental. Also good to know if you’re planning on exploring the city on two wheels: bikes are allowed on Metro buses and trains at no extra charge. (Note that you cannot board a Metro train with a bike during rush hour: Mon.-Fri.: 6:30am-8:30am and 4:30pm-6:30pm.)
LA’s public transport, known as the Metro (www.metro.net), is an integrated subway, light rail, and bus system. Riders can buy individual tickets, daily or weekly passes, or they can buy rechargeable TAP cards (swipe cards that can be used on any bus or train). TAP cards, tickets, and passes can be purchased in any Metro Customer Center (in stations) as well as at many other retail locations around the city and online. Metro services run regularly 5:00am-12:00am seven days a week, with some late night services also running outside of the normal hours of operation. (See timetables at www.metro.net for details on specific services.)
The rail portion of LA’s subway system, known as Metro Rail, is relatively young, and therefore also relatively small (there are only five lines at the moment, although an ambitious program of expansion is planned). Though the Metro Rail will get you from downtown to Hollywood, if you are staying further out or plan to venture farther afield, you will need to use alternative transport (such as buses, taxis, or a car). Metro Rail tickets are available from vending machines at each station. The Metro Rail service is very well policed and safe at any hour, though you should always exercise caution when walking after dark in areas around stations.
PRICE: Single journey: USD 1.50; Day pass: USD 6; Week pass: USD 20 (Note that there are no free transfers allowed: if you are switching between lines or between rail and bus, you will need to buy a new ticket.)
CLICK HERE FOR MAP: www.metro.net
The Metro bus system is much more comprehensive than the rail system, with over 200 lines crisscrossing the city. Fares are the same as the Metro rail (USD 1.50/journey). Buses numbered 1 to 299 stop at almost every corner, while buses numbered above 299 are express buses. The Orange Line (running between Warner Center and North Hollywood) is an express bus service that runs in a special lane and has preferential treatment at traffic lights. Another bus operator, Dash Bus (www.ladottransit.com; USD 0.35), also runs many routes across the city. (Check out the Beachwood Canyon route, which offers great views of the Hollywood Sign.) Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus (www.bigbluebus.com; USD 1-2) serves much of the Westside, including Santa Monica, Venice, and Westwood. Their particularly popular express bus Number 10 connects Santa Monica with downtown. Bus drivers sell tickets for all three services, but be prepared because exact change is required when buying a ticket on board. One-day, weekly, and monthly passes can also be purchased in the offices of each service. In order to transfer between the different bus services, you will need to pay a USD 0.50 transfer fee. Security on Metro, Dash, and Big Blue Bus services is ok, but you should always be careful about traveling by bus in more dangerous areas of the city (such as East LA or Skid Row), especially if it’s after dark or your journey involves a transfer.
PRICE: Metro: USD 1.50/trip, USD 6/day, USD 20/week; Dash Bus: USD 0.35/trip; Big Blue Bus: USD 1-2/trip; Transfer between bus companies: USD 0.50/trip. (Note that there are no free transfers within the Metro system: if you are switching between lines or between rail and bus, you will need to buy a new ticket unless you have a pass.)
Taxis are available in LA–this is a city that loves its cars. Unless you are picking one up at a stand outside of an airport, train station, bus station, or major hotel, you will need to order your cab by phone (cabbies in LA won’t respond to hailing from the curb, no matter how enthusiastic you are). Fares are metered–it’s USD 2.85 at flag fall, and then USD 2.70 per mile. All major cab companies in LA accept cards. Note that there is a USD 2.50 surcharge for all taxi trips originating at LAX.
For a full listing of certified cab companies in LA, visit www.taxicabsla.org.
Being both car-centric and VIP-laden, LA has a bustling town car and limo industry. This is a particularly good option if you are not comfortable driving yourself but want something more reliable (or comfortable) than a cab. Hourly rates range from USD 50-180/hour, while packages (such as a "Night Out" service) range from USD 150-1000. A trip from LAX to downtown by town car is usually around USD 65. Note that many of the top hotels in town offer complimentary limo transport to major sightseeing and shopping destinations in the city (such as Rodeo Drive, Melrose Place, Museum Row)–this is definitely worth looking into before you book any services yourself.
PRICE: USD 50-180/hour
Crown Limo Service: 1-310-737-0888; www.crownlimola.com
Paramount Limousine Service: 1-310-670-6964; www.paramountlimo.com
Pronto Limo: 1-866-663-6831; www.prontolimousine.com
Eco Limo: 1-310-450-7100; www.eco-limo.com (specializing in eco-friendly limo services)
Renting a car is hands down one of the easiest ways to get around LA. Most major rental companies have outlets at LAX and around the city, and offer shuttles from the airport to their lots. To rent a car in LA, you will need a valid credit card and driver’s license. (If you have a non-U.S. license, check reciprocity agreements before arriving.) You may also need to purchase rental insurance: while most U.S. car insurance policies cover rental cars, foreign ones almost never do. Some credit cards may also provide coverage or secondary coverage if used to pay for the rental. Definitely check this out with your insurer and card company before you travel. Rental prices vary widely–cars from national chains are generally USD 40-120/day, while cars from specialty luxury car companies are generally USD 300-3500/day.
Once on the road in LA, try to avoid rush hour (7:00am-9:00am and 3:30pm-6:00pm on weekdays), as it is truly a nightmare. Traffic can also be heavy on Sunday afternoons and at the start and end dates of holiday periods. Another thing to be aware of is parking. Prices in LA range from USD 1-25, depending on where and when you park. Many top hotels have mandatory valet services, while cities like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills have an abundance of inexpensive city-run lots. Something else to keep in mind, what with so many drivers on the road, road rage can be an issue in LA. Some claim that the media have blown this city’s road rage problem out of proportion, but to be on the safe side, make sure you familiarize yourself with the local driving laws before hitting the road, try to plan your routes in advance, and keep your cool if you get in a sticky situation or other drivers are not on their best behavior. Finally, always wear a seatbelt–it’s the law in California.
Enterprise: 1-310-649-5400; www.enterprise.com
Hertz: 1-310-568-5100; www.hertz.com
Avis: 1-310-646-5600; www.avis.com
Beverly Hills Rent a Car: 1-800-479-5996; www.bhrentacar.com (local company specializing in luxury and exotic cars)
Midway Car Rental: 1-800-824-5260; www.midwaycarrental.com (local company specializing in green and luxury cars)
Photo courtesy of fredcamino on Flickr Creative Commons
Best Time to Go
LA’s perpetually sunny Mediterranean climate (there are only about 35 rainy days a year!) is, literally, the stuff of movies. The steady temperatures are warm and mild, varying only by about 20 degrees between summer and winter, so locals keep their perma-tans on display year round. That said, the varied geography of LA–ranging from cute beach towns washed with cool sea breezes to the baking pavements of the inland “urban jungle”–means that on any given day, there can be completely different weather downtown and on the beach. While the beaches are reliably mild (though often foggy), downtown can sometimes be 10-20 degrees hotter, and smoggier to boot.
Spring is one of the best times to visit LA, with high temperatures ranging comfortably from the 60s to 70s. Once the winter rainy season tails off (watch out for showers in March), early spring is known for brilliantly clear skies. Later in the season, the summer fog and smog do begin to set in, but even if you visit during “Gray May” or “June Gloom,” know that the mist usually burns off later in the day, leaving afternoons cloud-free.
Summer is when the heat and smog really make their entrance. Average highs are around 85F, but temperatures can get truly scorching, especially downtown and in the Valleys: the highest recorded summer temperature for LA is 113F (in 2010). Many believe that, despite the crummy air quality and baking temps, this is the best time to visit, because summer drought keeps skies clear and beach conditions optimal. Unfortunately SO many believe this that beaches are jam-packed with visitors, as are most other tourist attractions…be prepared to wait in line in the blazing sunshine for hours to get a good beach spot or a ride at Disneyland.
Autumn is arguably the best of the bunch–not only do the temperatures dip down to more bearable levels (the average high is 77F)–but both the smog and the crowds clear out as well. With empty beaches, blue skies, and less than an inch of rain over the entire season, it’s definitely a good time to visit.
While winter in LA is not cold by most standards, it is cooler and wetter than other times of year. Of course, "wet" and "cool" are relative–temperatures only dip into the 50s and 60s on average, and the "rainiest" month, February, tops out at about 3.5 inches of precipitation. Also, the rain tends to come in short, sharp bursts which end in rainbows and clear skies–a nice alternative to the depressing drizzle that cloaks other stretches of the West Coast. (Surfers, take note that beaches are sometimes closed after heavy rains, due to storm drain runoff into the ocean.)