Where: Los Angeles, California, USA
When: September 2017
Why: We went to Los Angeles because of a preposterously cheap flight deal.
Friends and family who had visited LA before us hadn’t been that complimentary about LA, so we decided to just transit through and to focus our California visit on San Diego, where we were to visit a fiend of ours (‘Hi P’).
We arranged to have a night in LA on our arrival and then a night and a day at the end of our trip. Surprisingly, we loved LA and wish we had stayed much longer here. Now we can’t wait to come back to explore the city and the wider area further.
LA is a huge, sprawly, spread-out city. Downtown is in the centre. North west of this is the Hollywood area, sitting at the base of the Hollywood Hills. To the west, on the coast, are the districts of Santa Monica, Venice Beach and Long Beach, which is in the south west, by the harbour. LAX is close to Venice Beach, in the west of the city. As tourists, most of our visit was focused around these areas.
We went to LA because of a preposterously cheap flight deal that Jeff found. He got us return flights, direct from Barcelona to Los Angeles, for €295 return. We have friends in California and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to go and catch up with them – something which we’d been wanting to do for years. Even though we couldn’t really afford this trip, we booked it anyway. We didn’t know if we’d get the chance to go to California again, especially so cheaply, for another few years.
Before we went to Los Angeles, a lot of people told us we probably wouldn’t like it: that though it was interesting it was also polluted, congested, hard to navigate and stressful. This is why, even though we were flying to LA, we decided to spend most of our California holiday in San Diego. Also, we found LA accommodation to be a little expensive, so we arranged to only stay here for the first and last night of our holiday.
Unfortunately for us, our friends were completely wrong – because we loved LA! It’s so iconic and interesting, there are cool districts, beautiful beaches, amazing paces to eat, the locals were (mostly) friendly to us, there was so much to do, everything was so cool! We didn’t have nearly enough time here.
We spent the first night of our trip in a chain airport hotel, close to LAX. We then caught the shuttle bus downtown to Union Street Station and then we caught a train to San Diego. At the end of our trip, we caught the train back up to Union Street, then we stayed in a really cool hostel downtown. We met our friends for dinner in the evening, then the next day, our day of departure, we spent the day exploring the city. Our plane didn’t leave till 10 p.m., so we had the full day to run around LA.
It was not nearly enough time and we are so going to have to come back. I can’t wait!
The only reason we went to Los Angeles was that Jeff found a preposterously cheap flight deal on Secret Flyer. Iberia launched a new long-haul budget airline called LEVEL, and with them we got return flights from Barcelona to Los Angeles for under €300 each! We couldn’t really afford it, booking these flights meant we would be poor for the whole summer – we did it anyway.
So what is a thirteen hour, budget flight like? Well, if you’re prepared it’s not that bad. Our ticket price didn’t include luggage, but Jeff and I are old hands at travelling with just hand-luggage. We have 35 liter backpacks that easily contain a week’s worth of clothes. We took these. We found out later that we could have also had an additional personal item (such as a handbag), but we just took the rucksacks. Many people brought mini-suitcases and a handbag or small-backpack etc.
There were no drinks or meals included with our price, but we could buy meals, drinks and snacks on-board if we needed them and although they were slightly expensive, they weren’t unaffordable. You buy them through the online entertainment system and then pay for them by card.
We went to Carrefour before we went to the airport and we made ourselves a big picnic and packed loads of fruit and snacks and this lasted us sufficiently. We also took a couple of empty water bottles and filled these up at a water fountain at Barcelona airport.
The layout of the plane was 2-4-2. Luckily, both ways, we were allocated two seats at the side – so we were able to spread out more and only had to climb over each other to go to the bathroom. It also meant that I got a window seat, which I love, and Jeff got an aisle seat, which he likes. There was loads of leg-room; more than on some mainline airlines.
There was a great selection of movies and TV programmes and even though this was a really long flight and I didn’t sleep, I didn’t get bored.
The downside to this flight was the crew. I have never flown with such a miserable bunch of people ever. In fact, I actually ended up having an argument with one of them: they kept shouting at me for trying to peek out of my window during the flight – insisting that I have my blind closed – even though I wanted to look out of the window and this was a day flight. The flight attendant even went so far as to tell me I was selfish and then wouldn’t speak to me again.
The other downside was that when we landed our gate wasn’t ready and we literally drove around LAX three times; then when we left we departed from some strange offshoot terminal that looked like a big cattle shed.
Other than that, the airline was fine and I would definitely fly with them again – especially for those silly prices.
Los Angeles International Airport is huge and slightly chaotic. We arrived and departed from the Tom Bradley terminal. (I thought Tom Bradley was the NFL player married to Giselle, but apparently he’s an LA politician.) Most of this was a pretty new, pretty nice terminal – though we departed from a huge cattle-shed area, which only had one or two stalls. It was like being at Stansted, but for a long-haul flight.
Outside the terminals it was chaotic! All of the arrivals traffic moves around the terminals on a four lane road and because everyone arrives at the airport by road this was a cacophony of noise, beeping cars, people getting in each others way as they tried to cross traffic to get to where they wanted to be. I think the people of LA are used to this, as though it was busy and chaotic, nobody seemed to be getting angry – which was good. Hopefully when the new metro and mono-rail system are introduced then this traffic will be vastly reduced.
We were staying at the Holiday Inn for our first night and there was a shuttle bus which ran about every twenty minutes.
Leaving L.A.X. the customs officers were again a bit chaotic. I got really annoyed with one guard who kept shouting at us to move up, when there was nowhere for us to move up to. Also, security just seemed a little lax (ironically) and a bit unprofessional. I think everyone should take lessons from Birmingham, Gatwick and Heathrow T5 on how to do security as they have got it down to an art.
More info on LAX and each of the terminals can be found at their official website: www.lawa.org/welcomeLAX.aspx.
The cliche is that the USA doesn’t have public transport and that everyone gets around by car. Whilst this is true to a point, we found that California is catching up when it comes to having an integrated transport system. The city is investing in its public transport and there are metro trains and buses. Whilst districts don’t quite connect yet, we found that we were able to get everywhere we wanted to on public transport and that it was pretty easy to navigate. All of the transport information we needed was embedded into Google Maps.
LAX Shuttle Service
To get from LAX to Union Station we caught the Flyaway shuttle bus. This coach service runs from every terminal at the airport to Union Station about every half an hour. The journey takes approximately 40 minutes. Tickets cost $9.75 and you can buy them in advance or when you get off the bus. (They won”t let you have your luggage back until you pay). Payment is by card only. This was a really good service that got us into town quickly and efficiently.
The Flyaway shuttle services also runs buses to Hollywood, Long Beach, Orange Line, Westwood and Van Nuys.
You can get information on their stops, ticket prices and the timetables at www.lawa.org/flyaway.
A light-rail line is currently being built for LAX airport; this will connect to the Metro Green and Blue lines. Whilst it will be great that this transport option will exist, it will involve changing trains to get to downtown LA and Union Street station – so the direct Flyaway bus might still be more convenient. The new line is due to open in 2019. Wiki has a page about this new line where you can find out more.
Union Street Station
We caught the Amtrak train from Union Street Station to San Diego (I’ll write about this on the San Diego page). Union Street Station is absolutely gorgeous and was a wonderful surprise. It’s an airy, open, Mexican-style, art-deco train station, with wonderful waiting halls (with what felt like wooden thrones), good shops, really friendly staff, a big fish tank, a palm tree garden outside etc. It was so quiet, peaceful and relaxed and such a nice place to be. I really didn’t expect Union Station to be so wonderful. I’ve been to the horrible Penn Central Station in New York and I thought the American train infrastructure was really neglected – but this was world-class: one of the nicest stations I’ve ever been to.
I didn’t know LA had metro trains. I thought they just had buses which explode if they go under 50 miles per hour and private cars.
What I loved about the LA Metro was that the places it goes to are so iconic: you can get ‘Straight out of Compton’ on the dark blue line; You can take your wallet to El Segundo, on the green line; Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard have about ten stations.
There’s currently six metro lines, with more coming soon. Some of these lines are underground and some are light-rails. We used the metro to get to our hotel downtown, to go to Hollywood and then to visit Santa Monica. The Santa Monica line only opened in May 2017, just before our visit, but apparently the trains are already full as the service is so popular. View a route map here.
Some of the trains were a little grotty, and this being LA there were some ‘interesting’ people on here, but otherwise this was a good option for getting around the city.
Tickets cost $1.75 per ride or you could get a day-pass on a beepy TAP Card for $7. More info here. We got the TAP card day pass for our exploring day and I think it was worth it.
There’s a route planner and up to date information on the metro service at www.metro.net.
LA also has quite a good bus service, though sadly none of the buses are driven by Keanu Reeves or Sandra Bullock.
We caught the DASH bus up to Griffith Park, up in the Hollywood Hills. (I’ve written more about this on teh Griffith Observatory section below.) We also caught a local bus from Santa Monica to L.A.X. transit centre, where we got a shuttle bus to the terminal.
The DASH bus was lovely. It was air-conditioned, cheap and fun to ride.
The bus from Santa Monica was quite grotty and got caught up in LA traffic; so much so that we were a little worried that we might be late for our departure flight. The bus dropped us off at the LAX transit centre, which is just off the highway, next to one of the main car parks. From here we caught a free shuttle bus up to the airport. This stopped at every terminal (they’re in a horseshoe shape and it just went past them one by one).
We got all of our bus information, including times and the locations of the bus stops, from Google Maps. We found there was loads of free wifi in LA so we could get online to use this.
What we did on our holiday
Hollywood Hills and Griffith Observatory
As we knew we were only going to have one day in California, we asked our California-based friends what we should do. They all recommended the Griffith Observatory. Also, I’d watched the movie Lala Land earlier in the year, which features the Griffith Observatory – so it was a place that was already on my radar.
We went to Griffith Observatory not to look at the stars (we saved that for Hollywood Boulevard) but because we wanted to see the amazing views overlooking Los Angeles. The observatory is located up in the Hollywood Hills, up above the smog of the city, and it overlooks the sprawl of central and southern LA and also the Hollywood Hills sign.
We travelled to the Griffith Observatory on public transport. We caught the subway to Vermont/Sunset and then we caught the DASH observatory bus up to the observatory. This bus travels on a loop between these two locations about once every 25 minutes. The observatory website has a good map of the bus route on its site. The service didn’t start till noon – which a driver very rudely shouted at us about ten times, like we should have known. The bus cost 50c each. We had a little problem finding the bus stop and ended up sat outside a garage up the street from Vermont/Sunset station, but there is actually a bus stop on the corner opposite the station (you can see it on the observatory website map).
For me, this bus journey was the main point of the trip – more fun than the destination. The bus runs from Hollywood Boulevard, up through the Hollywood Hills, past the Greek Theatre (which I presume is from the movie Get him to the Greek), up to the observatory. It was all so iconic: the dry hills, the Hollywood sign, the big houses. I loved it.
The views from the observatory were pretty smoggy and unclear, but still pretty and impressive. The view over the Hollywood sign was much better.
The observatory itself is a beautiful art-deco space. We pottered in here to have a look at some of the exhibits and to use their bathrooms. There is a gorgeous entrance way with a pendulum and a beautiful frescoed ceiling. There were some exhibits about space and a Tesla coil, which sadly wasn’t switched on. They also have planetarium shows, which looked good – but we didn’t have time to wait for and sit through the next one; and to be honest, that’s not what we were here for.
If we had had more time in LA I would have liked to have explored the Hollywood Hills further, as they look really interesting. They’re quite wild and when we were there it was extremely hot, so they looked pretty desert like. There were loads of trails and people out hiking and walking. It’s not what I think of when I think of LA – the nature and the wild side.
Entrance to the observatory was free, though there was a charge for the planetarium (currently $7 for adults). The observatory is open from noon to 10 p.m.
Hollywood Boulevard is very famous and iconic but, like many famous things, it’s a bit style over substance and mostly designed to sell you things. The main area on Hollywood Boulevard is the area around the Chinese Theatre. Hollywood Boulevard is actually an extremely long road and apparently some of it is quite grotty. There are celebrity stars embedded in the pavement all up the road, but the bit around the Chinese Theatre is the ‘famous’ area.
So what is actually here? The Chinese Theatre, the Oscars shop, the theatre where they film Jimmy Kimmel each day, a shopping centre and Ripley’s Believe it or not museum – and that was it. It was all very cool and I’m glad we visited just to see it but we didn’t hang around for long.
We only spent about an hour in this area and most of that time was spent at In-and-Out Burger. I’m glad we visited, as it was interesting to see and very iconic. The shopping centre actually looked pretty good – with many international high street franchises. I would come back here for the shopping.
Hollywood Walk of Fame
The Hollywood Walk of Fame Stars are interesting, although they are just a star with someone’s name on in the pavement. The stars are designed to be a tribute to a famous celebrity and a place of homage for fans. The Walk of Fame is actually quite an interesting, historical process in its own right, and the Wikipedia page about the Walk of Fame is pretty fascinating. from a visitor’s [erspective though. they are essentially just a star on a pavement with a name on it. (Trump’s is just outside the Metro station and it was so tempting to go stamp on it).
Twenty stars are embedded each year. The Walk of Fame website lists when the events are going to take place.
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is a cinema whose frontage is shaped like a Chinese temple. It opened in 1927 and has been the location of many famous film premieres, including the premier for the original Star Wars. Three Oscar ceremonies have been held here; they are now held at the Dolby Theatre, next door.
In the forecourt of the Chinese Theatre, just next to the pavement, are the footprints and hand-prints of Hollywood celebrities. I think that these are really cool. I enjoyed comparing celebrity shoe sizes with my own (Hugh Jackman and Christopher Nolan have huge feet; John Travolta’s are tiny; Emma Stone’s just show the points of her high-heels (I liked that)).
Today the Chinese Theatre is an IMAX cinema, with one of the largest screens in America.
You can do a tour of the Chinese Theatre, but we didn’t have time to do this. It’s currently $14 for a lobby and hand-prints tour, $18 for a tour of the whole theatre. I think if we had had more time this would have been a fascinating tour to do, a unique insight into the golden age of cinema.
You can book tour and IMAX cinema tickets at www.tclchinesetheatres.com.
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Jimmy Kimmel Live films most week days in a theatre opposite the Chinese Theatre, and apparently it’s pretty easy to get tickets for a filming. You can either pre-book them online or, like when I worked on Trisha, apparently they often have empty seats in the studio they need to fill, so they will just drag in people from the street (not literally). All tickets are free. I think if we go back and stay for a bit longer, I might get some tickets for this. Filming takes about three and a half hours (16.00 – 19.30ish), but you could get to see someone really famous!
Ripley’s Believe it or Not – Odditorium
Ripley’s Believe It or Not odditorium is a museum which contains strange exhibits. The Ripley’s in Hollywood is located across the street from the Metro stop. You can’t miss it as it has a dinosaur growing out of the roof.
I’ve always presumed that the Ripey’s were Madam Tousaud’s type places, with wax-works etc. – but this actually looks quite interesting. They have a vampire hunting kit, crazy art and shrunken heads. We didn’t have time to go on this visit, but if we go back I think I’d like to go here – even just as a nod of respect for the odditorium pun: www.ripleys.com/hollywood.
Santa Monica Pier
When we were planning our trip we decided we wanted to focus on the must-sees of LA – the truly iconic things that make this city unique. We really wanted to get to a beach and to a pier if we could. Venice Beach, Muscle Beach, Long Island, Santa Monica – the names are world-famous. We really wanted to see at least one of these beaches and the Pacific Ocean.
However, we really didn’t think we’d be able to get to a beach and also go to Hollywood, as Hollywood is in the north-west of the city, we were staying downtown and the beaches are in the far west of the city. We thought that the only way to get between districts was in a private car and we had been told the traffic was horrendous; that it would take at least an hour to get anywhere.
Luckily for us, about a month before we went on this trip, I saw an article in the Guardian newspaper all about the new Santa Monica light-railway (Expo-line) which runs from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica pier. It was perfect for us and allowed us to access this side of the city.
As we were only travelling with hand luggage (backpacks) we were able to carry this with us and so we went to Santa Monica on our way to L.A.X. for our return flight home.
Santa Monica is the epitome of another California cliché: palm trees, golden beach with lifeguard huts, hazy hills, silver sparkly ocean, a pier with a roller coaster, the sound of people and seagulls screaming, crazy buskers, roller-skaters, bustle and hub-bub. It was in Santa Monica that we saw the long boulevards lined with tall palm trees, almost designed to be cruised in an open top, classic sports car.
Having the bags and not having a lot of time, we really did just walk to the end of the pier at Santa Monica, then we went to a food court for our tea before catching the flight home. I think it was worth it though. Santa Monica pier is interesting as this is where Route 66 ends, it was fun to see the crazy buskers and it felt symbolic to end our trip at the end of the pier, over the rolling Pacific Ocean.
After our walk on the pier, we went to the food court at Santa Monica Place mall to have some food; then we caught the bus from the back of the food court to the airport.
Apparently, the original muscle beach is just next to Santa Monica pier, so again – we’ll have to come back. We’ll also have to come back for a walk along the promenade, outdoor cinema, the beach, the pier’s Pacific Park, shopping and surfing. www.santamonica.com.
What we didn’t on our holiday
We were only here for 24 hours, so we missed most stuff. We are so going to have to go back. Below is a list of the key tourist sites in LA city that we missed.
There were two things that we planned to do but didn’t get round to. The first was to visit Angels Flight, a tiny funicular located in downtown LA. This tiny, 116-year old, narrow gauge railway runs from Hill Street to California Plaza. It has bright orange gates and cars and just looks fun and joyful. It has starred in many famous movies, most recently La La land.
Angels Flight reopened the day we arrived in LA, after a long-refurbishment; sadly it closed the next day for more refurbishment after they discovered a problem with it – this is why we weren’t able to go.
It has since reopened again though. Tickets cost $1 a ride, 50c with a metro pass.
The Last Bookstore
Surprisingly it was Jeff who wanted to go to the Last Bookstore. I say surprisingly as it’s usually me who is book obsessed. I think what attracted him was not so much the books, although they do have an enormous selection of first and second hand books (they have over 100,000 books for $1) but the decor. They use the books to form gravity-defying arches and integrate publications into their decorations.
This was the second thing that we had planned to do but didn’t, as we simply didn’t have the time. Oh well, we shall have to go back: lastbookstorela.com.
LA has loads of cool book stores. The LA Times has a good article on ten of the best.
Disneyland is in Anaheim, which is to the south east of LA centre.
Universal Studios, Hollywood
Warner Brothers, Universal, Sony Pictures and Paramount Pictures all run studio tours. Lonely Planet has a good article about these.
Warner Brothers is in Burbank, which is situated sort of behind the Hollywood Hills sign. Here you can see sets and stuff from Batman and Harry Potter and sit on the Friends’ set. www.wbstudiotour.com.
The Universal Studios Tour is part of the Universal Studios theme park. Here you can have an experience with King Kong, walk down Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives, visit the Bates Mote from Psycho, visit Hogsmead at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and see something from Fast and the Furious. www.universalstudioshollywood.com.
Sony Pictures Studios used to be the MGM lot, where many famous classic movies were filmed, including the Wizard of Oz. This one sounds more classical than theme parky. The tour is a walking tour led by a guide, and focuses on some of the art-deco features in the studio.
Sony Studios is located in Culver City, which is inland from Venice Beach, in the west of the city (I think we drove through Culver City on our way from Santa Monica to LAX). www.sonypicturesstudiostours.com.
Like the above tour, the Paramount Pictures Studio Tour is mostly a walking tour that focuses more on the studio and the history of the studio and its movies. You can walk the sets and see costumes etc. www.paramountstudiotour.com.
Paramount Pictures is in Hollywood.
La Brea (‘the tar’) Tar Pits
Not a lot of people think about this when they think of LA, but LA is actually an oil town: there’s oil under the ground and we saw a few oil wells dotted around the city.
At the La Brea tar pits, asphalt has been seeping up through the ground for millennia. Over the centuries, animals have become trapped in this tar and then their bones preserved – and today you can go see both the pits and the remains of these ancient animals.
Today the tar pits are located in Hancock Park, which is in the Miracle Mile district, west of Korea Town, south of Hollywood.
The George C Page Museum houses many of the finds from the tar pits. On a visit to the pits and the museum you can see the tar pits, still bubbling away, see excavations taking place, and see the remains of mammoth, dire wolves, bears, ground sloth and the saber-toothed cat, the state symbol of California. Wikipedia has a list of all of the fossils that have been found (it includes a homo sapiens woman).
I think if we return to LA this is something I’d really like to visit as it’s such an uniconic, unexpected thing to find here. LA has some really cool stuff, like this! Anywhere else, this would be unique and famous – here this natural wonder is overshadowed. Personally, I think a visit here would not be the pits (sorry).
Getty Villa and Getty Centre
The Getty Centre has art, architecture and agriculture (nice gardens).
The J Paul Getty Museum, located in the Getty Centre, contains contemporary and classic art, including works by Titian, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Manet, Monet, Turner, Renoir, Gaugain and Van Gogh – all the greats.
The centre is located on top of a hill, in the Brentwood District, north LA. It sits on top of a hill, with amazing views overlooking Hollywood and downtown LA. To get up to the centre you have to get a funicular (that sold it for me). www.getty.edu/visit/center.
The Getty Villa contains ancient antiquities: relics from the stone age to the Romans. The villa is located on a bluff overlooking the sea, in Pacific Palisades – quite a way up the Pacific coast, north of Santa Monica.
The Villa itself is a recreation of Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy. (Herculaneaum was the posh place next to Pompeii). It is a beautiful building which incorporates extensive, lush gardens and even a 500 seater, classic-style theatre.
The California Science Centre
The California Science Centre has the space shuttle Endeavour and entrance to the museum is free (though you do have to pre-book tickets to see Endeavour). It also has an IMAX cinema. californiasciencecenter.org.
The Walk Disney Concert Hall is in downtown LA. It looks like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, all curves and reflected metal – that is because it was in fact designed by the same architect: Frank Gehry. It is the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. www.musiccenter.org.
The Hollywood Bowl is a concert venue, carved into the Hollywood Hills, with the Hollywood sign in the background. They host big name musicians, a lot of classical stuff and comedy shows. It’s outdoor and looks like the coolest music venue in the world: www.hollywoodbowl.com.
The Greek Theatre is in Griffith Park (a.k.a. the Hollywood Hills). It is a seated, outdoor venue, located in a canyon (how cool is that?). They show movies and host concerts, including music and comedy shows. www.lagreektheatre.com.
LA Dodger’s Stadium
I feel a bit disloyal promoting the Dodger’s Stadium as the first baseball game I ever went to was in San Diego; the San Diego Padres vs the LA Dodgers. Obviously I was supporting the home team.
Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed watching a baseball game live and it’s something I’d highly recommend for others to do. There’s so many games that tickets aren’t that expensive, it’s a unique experience, very American and a nice, relaxing way to spend a few hours.
The Dodgers Stadium is located downtown, in Elysian Park (the Police Academy is also in this park).
Find out more and buy tickets at losangeles.dodgers.mlb.com.
The Hollywood Museum has the most extensive collection of Hollywood memorabilia in the world. If you are interested in the history of Hollywood and movie making, this is the place to come to to find out more. thehollywoodmuseum.com
The Queen Mary Ship
So when we were looking for places to stay in Los Angeles, the Queen Mary came up as a possible option. The Queen Mary was one of the world’s great ocean liners, run by the Cunard Line, who used to sail across the North Atlantic from the UK to America. She was launched in 1936, converted into a troop ship during the war, then refurbished back into a transatlantic ocean liner once the war ended. She sailed the seas up until the mid-sixties. She officially retired in 1967 and was moored at Long Beach, where she still is.
Nowadays she is an art-deco hotel that you can stay in and a night here doesn’t cost that much, considering what an icon she is. I just had a look and a mid-week stay in November would be a basic fee of $107, plus a $17 per night resort fee and 15% tax – so $142/ £107.
Hiking in the hills
One of the surprising things about LA is how mountainous it is. The city is surrounded by hills and peaks; the San Gabriel Mountains form the backdrop to the city. Although most of the LA sprawl is located on a plateaux, there’s lots of hills to hike in surrounding the city – particularly to the north.
Just a reminder, LA is hot and a few of these places are quite wild, so if you do go walking take water, a hat, a phone and wear sunscreen.
Where we stayed
Holiday Inn, L.A.X.
After flying on a budget airline, non-stop for 13 hours, all we wanted was a comfortable chain hotel where we could collapse into bed.
The Holiday Inn was comfortable and friendly and they had a shuttle bus from the airport. There was a McDonalds outside in case we had wanted any late-night snacks.
We mostly went for this choice rather than any of the other airport hotels as we’re collecting IHG points; otherwise I think they all would have been as good.
It cost us $130 with tax, which is quite expensive but seemed to be the average price.
You can find out more about the hotel on the IHG website.
Freehand Hostel, Downtown LA
I hadn’t been so excited about a hotel/hostel for a long time but I was really excited to be staying at the Freehand as it is just so cool! From its rooftop pool bar overlooking downtown Los Angeles, to its sophisticated cocktail lounge, this wonderful new hotel/hostel is a funky place to stay in central LA.
Freehand is located in the old Commercial Exchange Building in the downtown area. The Commercial Exchange has a really cool piece of history: to widen the road, they split the building vertically, took a ten meter slice out of the middle, then moved the two halves back together to rejoin them. They moved the whole building! How cool is that? Wikipedia can tell you more about it.
From what I understand, the downtown, for a long time, has been down on its luck and not that cool an area, but it is being revitalised and brought back to life, with new cool bars, shopping, hotels and attractions. The art-deco is being revitalised and the old embraced. Freehand is an example of this. We really liked the downtown area: there was lots to see and do, loads of nice shops, we were in the centre of the public transport network and it was a good place to stop for a night or two. Very convenient.
Freehand hotel has an amazing swimming pool and rooftop bar, overlooking downtown LA. The pool had only opened a week before we stayed here, so it was all fresh and new. The sun loungers were bright pink, there were fun inflatables in the pool, the kontiki bar was fairy-light lit, we were surrounded by skyscrapers, there was clear blue sky ahead, the waitresses were all lovely and the drinks not too expensive. It was so fun. I’d stay at the Freehand again, just for the pool.
The interior of the rest of the hotel was art-deco style, in a converted 50s office block kind of way: the elevator floor sign was a spinning arrow, the corridors were long and low-lit.
We stayed in a six-person dorm room. The beds were comfy, with thick woolen blankets, and each bed had its own plug and light. There was a locker for each bed. Each room had a shared bathroom with toilet, two sinks and separate shower. There was a teddy bear on one bed: I suspect because of the thought they have put into the decorations that he was part of the design (I was very jealous of the person who had nabbed the bear first.)
We did have a few niggles with the room: there was no lock on the shower door, the ladder for my upper bunk wasn’t very well designed and hurt my knees, and we could have done with some more information about the accommodation. However, I have to mention that Freehand asked us directly for feedback after our stay and when we mentioned these things they said they would look into it – and they seemed really grateful for this feedback, like they really do care and want to make things better.
Breakfast was included and was served in a kitchen in the basement. It was rather high-fat and sugary (muffins, cakes, cereal and fruit, coffee) and a little confusing to navigate – but we were glad that it was included.
I got the impression with Freehand that they know how to do hotels, but weren’t quite so sure about the hostel side of things; but they seem to be working on it and any niggles addressed.
I’d highly recommend staying here: it’s a good value, friendly, cool place to stay in downtown LA. The pool alone makes it worth a visit.
We paid $45 each per night for a bed in a six-bed dorm.
Where we ate and drank
We started our trip in an American institution: Denny’s. Denny’s is a chain, diner restaurant which serves good breakfasts, basic meals and lots and lots of pancakes. We went for breakfast here on our first morning and though the food wasn’t the best, it was so American and iconic that we had a great meal here. The pancakes were fluffy and light and delicious, the bacon crispy and good and the bottomless cups of coffee very welcome after our long haul flight and jetlag.
There are Denny’s all across the States. The Denny’s that we went to was close to LAX. If we were transferring through LA and had a few hours, I think I would pop here to get some good, stereotypical American food. It’s only five minutes from the airport. It’s by all of the airport hotels (hence why we were here), so also a good value place to go if breakfast is not included in your room rate.
I-Hop is the competitor to Denny’s, famous for its pancakes and for being a family place that is always there for Americans. There was an I-Hop between the Metro station and our hotel downtown so we popped in here for a pancake snack, but to be honest they weren’t as nice as Denny’s: they were more expensive, the sauces on offer weren’t so good and the coffee was a bit salty.
However, both Denny’s and I-Hop have reawakened our love of pancakes and this is now something we regularly make at home.
Freehand, Exchange Building, Downtown LA
Freehand was our hostel in Los Angeles and I have written more about this above in the Where we Stayed section. However, I am adding it here as it also had two amazing bars which I’d like to mention.
The main bar at Freehand is Rudolph’s Bar and Tea, which is downstairs in the Exchange Building. This is a very cool, comfy, exclusive but friendly bar which served great cocktails and which looked like a nice place to hang out, work, meet friends or just relax with a good book. We didn’t actually drink here but if we lived in LA I might arrange to meet friends here.
The other bar, which was like something from a movie, was the rooftop pool bar: the Broken Shaker. This had only opened the week that we checked in. This pool bar is so coolly decorated – with fairy lights overhead, a kontiki-style bar, interesting decorative features across the walls and in the loos. It was fun and funky and made me happy to be there. The views over downtown LA were really cool and the pool was a welcome, refreshing playground in the hot centre of the city. The prices weren’t too high for central LA and the service was really friendly. They do host private parties, so it’s not always open to the public, but I highly recommend to anyone in LA who has a spare evening to check out this place. You can see opening times and view the menu at freehandhotels.com/los-angeles/broken-shaker.
Golden Gopher Arcade Bar, Downtown LA
We went to the Golden Gopher as it was opposite our hotel, but also because it has arcade games in the tables! How cool is that? They had a nice range of beers and the staff were friendly. It was a bit dark and dingy on a bright afternoon, and looked a bit intimidating from outside, but it was a fun place to be. They have happy hours every day from 5 – 8 p.m.
Apparently, a previous bar on this site used to be owned by Teddy Roosevelt.
Mapo Galmeigi, Korea Town
Our favourite restaurant in South Korea was Mapo. Mapo is a Korean barbecue restaurant which serves amazing marinated meats, kimchi and sides and Korean beverages. There’s a Mapo in LA. As a sign of how good Mapo is, our friend who lives in San Diego drove three hours just so she could join us here for dinner. I know P and I’m pretty sure that she came for the restaurant, not us. Apparently Mapo are expanding internationally and we took a photo of the branch information for all of our Korean ex-pat friends, so they can visit this wherever they live in the world. That’s how much we all love Mapo.
Mapo Galmeigi is in Korea town, which is west of Downtown LA. In Korea town there are many Korean restaurants – something we don’t really have in Spain. There’s also a Japanese town, close to downtown too.
In Mapo Galmeigi the meat is brought to you raw and then you cook it on the barbecue in the centre of your table. There is a ring around the barbecue for eggs to cook in and here they had a plate for the kimchi and cooked meat to be kept warm on. This Mapo was a little different to Mapos in Korea as the waiter cooked the barbecue for us and there were no free mints and coffee for after, but we still had unlimited sides of kimchi, salads and soy sauce. The meal was a little more expensive than SK ($20 each rather than $10), but it was so worth it to be able to eat this amazing food without having to go back to SK – and believe me, we would go back to SK just to be able to eat in Mapo.
All of our California friends raved about In-and-Out burger. Apparently it is famous for its off-menu items (which seems to basically be a special sauce). We were looking for lunch in Hollywood and knew there was an In-and-Out burger chain near-by, so we decided to check it out (or check it in and out?).
This In-and-Out burger in Hollywood was really popular: there were big queues for the drive-through and all of the tables were full, inside and out (in and out). Luckily, turnover was pretty quick and whilst Jeff queued I managed to bag us a table by the car park (or parking lot as they say in American).
The menu at In-and-Out is actually really limited, based upon just burgers, cheese and fries. The difference in the products seemed to be just the number of burgers and cheese you have in your sandwich. I had one of each – Jeff had two.
They were delicious: the epitome of what a take-out burger should be. The meat was rich, tasty and moist, the sides plain but good and the soft-drinks free-flowing, which in hot LA was what we needed. Jeff got the off menu ‘animal fries’ – which is basically just fries with a nice sauce. (It tasted a bit like Big Mac sauce). We sneaked one back to Spain and within a week the packet looked ready to explode, so I don’t know what’s in (and out) it but it looks like it ferments!
I wouldn’t seek out In-and-Out, but if there was one near by, this would be my fast-food choice.
This branch of In-and-Out is on Sunset Boulevard, one street over from Hollywood Boulevard and the central Chinese Theatre area. Even though it was so close to the centre of Hollywood, this was actually quite a pretty residential area – we had to walk past a school to get here.
Atlas Obscurer has a fantastic list of 151 cool and unusual things you can do in LA.(including a shop for those who might be going time travelling and the Museum of Death).
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.