Los Angeles was one of those places I always heard a lot about but didn't have the chance to visit until recently. For every person who loves it, I'll hear another describe it as a "hippie hellhole," "boring wasteland," or something along those lines. LA's obvious draws were the beaches, year-round sunshine, and Hollywood history, but reading articles such as Reasons why Los Angeles is the Worst Place Ever or The 10 Sickest Burns about Los Angeles made me realize how hilariously hated and polarizing this city is. I was excited to finally visit in January and find out for myself.
I stayed with a friend, her husband, and their two dogs in their beautiful house in Beverly Hills for a week. My friend is sort of a role model to me. She's older, spiritual, works in publishing, and also into fashion, so we bond over stuff like hating unflattering ruching on department-store display dresses.
Driving in LA
As much as I avoid driving on trips—and I'm car-less in my own city—I'm glad I had the foresight to rent a car in LA. I picked it up after I landed at LAX. Without one, I wouldn't have done 70% of the random things I ended up doing here. In LA, car equals freedom. The neighbourhoods are so spread out, and even walking a couple of blocks feels like forever. I almost rented a convertible to be cliche, but my logical side won out. I wouldn't have liked the sun burning the crown of my head and then getting some weird forehead tan.
Where I stayed was simply north of the airport and pretty central to the places I wanted to visit, so I managed to avoid highways. That's probably why I actually liked driving in LA, in spite of all the complaints I hear of the traffic. I especially enjoyed cruising around Beverly Hills, where the residential streets are quiet and lined with palm trees. Picture it: sunshine, windows down, sunglasses on, music blasting, going nowhere fast.
LA Tourist Traps
The only touristy thing I wanted to do was see the Hollywood sign. On the second day, I drove toward it, saw it, done. I also checked out the Hollywood Walk of Fame, even after being warned it would suck. Boy, did it ever. It seems to be a soulless tourist trap. I'd thought the cheesy stuff would be fun, but in reality, it's more on the depressing side. On the Walk of Fame, I took a few steps over the stars and immediately went back to my car.
There are better things to do in this city. What these things are might not be apparent to many first-time visitors because there isn't a part of town where tourists can congregate. In most major cities, this would be downtown, but I didn't go to Downtown LA because I didn't feel like doing typical city stuff on this trip. I simply wanted to be embraced by California's laid-back vibes and enjoy the good weather.
Underrated Place to Visit in Los Angeles
I also liked driving down the scenic Mulholland Drive. My friend's husband takes this route to work and told me the views on both sides are spectacular. I wanted to check it out mainly because Mulholland Drive is also the crazy David Lynch film of the same name that stops making sense halfway through. It is gorgeous here. I stopped at a lookout point at sunset and took this picture. I can see why Lynch was inspired by this winding road—it feels dreamy and surreal, almost sinister. I would be spooked driving alone here at night.
Another place that cinched the slow nightmare feeling of the city for me was a visit to Greystone Mansion and Gardens. I wanted to go somewhere high up on a hill with a nice view. I considered a few places, including the Griffith Observatory, but decided to drive up to Greystone because it seemed secluded and mysterious.
The main house, which is the largest private estate in Beverly Hills, is a venue for city events, weddings, and films. Unless you're here for a special event, only the gardens are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Photography is not allowed on the property without a permit, but I didn't know that when I took the photo above. Only a handful of visitors were scattered around the park when I came one morning. I recommend coming here for a peaceful stroll through the gardens and a beautiful citywide view.
The estate itself is a magnificent palatial manor house built in the late 1920s. I felt as if I was stepping onto the set of a Hitchcock movie. You can see a list of the films, TV shows, music videos, and commercials that had been shot here. Owned by an oil tycoon, the estate is not only home to decadent decor but also a murder mystery. This is also not a place where I would want to hang out at night.
LA is an interesting city. For all the sunshine and palm trees, you would think it's a happy place, and it is. However, I do feel a darker energy in certain areas, including the places mentioned above. It doesn't bother me, and I find the contrast quite interesting, but it's there. I heard LA is built over cemeteries, which would explain things.
I didn't always visit places with creepy history; I also went to "happy" places such as Venice Beach and Santa Monica.
I found the famous Venice Beach Boardwalk way too crazy for me. I preferred Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which is home to a bunch of hip stores and delicious vegan food. At The Butcher's Daughter, I ordered Matcha pancakes and a mimosa. I sat at the bar, and my plan was to edit my short story that afternoon. An older woman with a little dog in her lap started talking to me, and I learned she was also working on some short stories. She turned out to be a journalist and a high school writing teacher, and we ended up talking about our favourite books for the next hour. While I always worked on fiction on and off, recently, I started to take it seriously again and want to finish writing a book. I took meeting another writer in Venice as a sign that I was heading in the right direction.
On another day, I went to Santa Monica because my friend recommended the Tikkun Holistic Spa. The spa is not big or super fancy but they have everything you need. I had the best deep tissue massage, and I took advantage of their hot tub and the various therapeutic rooms such as the Himalayan salt room, infrared room and Korean clay room.
As I was lounging around drinking tea, I read some press about the spa and laughed when I learned this was the infamous V Steam spa that Goop says "you have to do" when you're in LA. Well, I didn't do it, but I did see women wearing Korean gowns going in the private room to sit over the steam. After learning more about V Steaming, it sounds less weird. Korean women have been doing it for hundreds of years, and the Chinese herbs used balances hormones and help the uterus. Don't worry, men. They have something for you too: the A Steam.
While Venice Beach is more suited for hip twenty-somethings, Santa Monica seems to be a family town. I didn't spend much time on either beach because I'm more mountain babe than beach bum, but I did eat food-truck tacos on a bench and enjoyed the view of Malibu during sunset.
LA Vegan Food
The health and wellness industry is huge in LA. Due to my friend's influence, I ate mostly vegan food and went to three yoga classes in the short time I was in town. Coming from Toronto, where it had been so cold our lake had frozen over the week before, the West Coast sunshine, organic food, and all the yoga made my winter skin glow.
Vegan food is so accessible and delicious in LA, I can probably go vegan here without even noticing. Another restaurant I really enjoyed was Cafe Gratitude, the popular vegan chain. I'd heard that if you order, say, the "Dazzling" Kale Caesar Salad, your server would say something like, "Oh! You are dazzling!" with no irony. So I really wanted to have that ridiculous experience. We did go one night, and while our waitress did call me "magical" with a straight face, I actually found it more pleasant than funny. For one, the Beverly Hills location was unexpectedly chic, full of beautiful people who looked so clean and dressed up. Plus, the waitress seemed nice and sincere. I guess you get used to this sort of thing in LA?
I found the sincerity surprising in men. Is it just me or are some LA men more comfortable expressing their emotions? After thanking my male massage therapist for the massage, he looked me in the eye and gently said, "Thank you for sharing this experience with me" with no trace of irony whatsoever. And there was the bartender who kept calling me "friend" with warmth and genuine affection. The sincerity prevents all this gooey feel-good stuff from being funny. In fact, it makes me feel overly cynical.
I went to Culver City one afternoon because I was in the area and wanted to stop by the Reformation location there to pick up some sustainable pantyhose. The store turned out to be part of the PLATFORM outdoor mall, where the rich hipsters hang out. It's a fun place to have lunch and spend an afternoon. They even have a Van Leeuwen, which sells good vegan ice cream.
To find more sustainable fashion, see my ethical store guide for LA.
Back in Beverly Hills, I poked around The Beverly Hills Hotel one morning. I got to see the hotel's iconic banana leaf wallpaper and their famous pink and green motif. It's a cute hotel. Howard Hughes used to live in a Bungalow here. I bet a lot of secret Hollywood trysts and dealings happened here too.
I got addicted to La Provence Cafe's decaf lattes with almond milk. Before this trip, I did not drink coffee and rarely ordered lattes. Now I'm full-on into them. I don't know how La Provence does it. Their lattes have this naturally sweet and burnt taste. I've been trying to find a cafe in Toronto that makes something similar. I sort of found a place, but they don't have the balance completely right. Oh and La Provence's food and French desserts are incredible too. Since this place was close to my friend's house, I came here all the time.
My thoughts on LA
I think LA is more suited for living than tourism, and each neighbourhood seems to be a village of its own. Similar to Toronto, it's a place that reveals itself to you little by little, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, if you're open to meeting it half way. I can see why people would stay in their own areas, especially since traffic can be brutal, but locals and visitors alike can have an array of interesting experiences, should they choose to.
Despite the stereotypes, LA is a city that's hard to categorize and mired in contradictions: shallow but spiritual, glamorous but ugly, sunny but creepy, vegan but a land of In-N-Out Burgers, and so on. So I don't believe it when I hear that LA is the best or the worst. Complaints about locals being superficial and overly injected with botox are probably valid, but humble people with no artificial body parts can also be found. If you think Angelenos are a bunch of aimless beach bums, perhaps don't hang out with kids with drug problems? The city is what you make it, and that seems to depend on your industry, neighbourhood and community.
On my first trip to LA, I was exposed to more of the luxurious side, which I am definitely not complaining about. I still don't think LA is a great place for tourists because everything is so spread out. This city doesn't age well, but it's also got this retro, nostalgic quality that contributes to its charm. I wouldn't come back to "do" stuff, but rather chill out some more, perhaps go on a hike, eat more vegan food, have a drink at Chateau Marmont or listen to a concert at The Viper Room.