Know Before You Go: Los Angeles

Dorothy Parker famously called Los Angeles “72 suburbs in search of a city.” True Angelenos beg to differ (and so does the city government, with plans to link downtown and the Pacific Ocean by subway). Still, L.A.’s sheer sprawl and urban diversity make it a tough city to grasp. But have no fear. With these simple steps you’ll be hanging like a local in no time.

>> When to go: 

Fall: Summer may seem like an ideal time to take advantage of the city’s much-touted beaches, but natives know that the dreaded marine layer shrouds much of L.A. from May to July (locals call it June Gloom). For clear skies and still-better-than-where-you-live weather, visit the City of Angels in the late summer and fall. Winter is nice, too, but the rains come in January and February, so make sure to bring an umbrella.

>> Getting There:

The Greater Los Angeles Area boasts five (five!) airports that provide access to the region. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the nucleus of the airport network, but Bob Hope Airport (BUR) and Long Beach Airport (LGB) aren’t too far from areas like Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Orange County’s John Wayne Airport (SNA) and Ontario International Airport (ONT) are each about an hour outside of the city, but a good fare can justify the trip.

>> Getting Around Once You’re There:

Drive. In the city of the big screen, it can be said that public transportation hardly plays a supporting role. A meager (albeit improving) rail system seems to placate public works expectations more than it serves the working public and, though buses abound, traffic kills their potential. Sad, but true, the car is still king (and the only way to access many of the area’s must-do attractions). That said, be prepared to pay to park virtually everywhere you go in L.A., a place where valet is practically an art form (and cabs are as rare as unicorns).

Learn the Big Five. Los Angeles is not a grid city. But if you’re directionally impaired, there’s a remedy: learn the thoroughfares. Five major east-west boulevards (Pico, Olympic, Wilshire, Santa Monica, and Sunset) span the distance between downtown L.A. and the beach and connect many of the city’s hotspots. So wherever you’re headed, it’s likely that at least one of them will get you where you need to go.

Weigh Your Options. Surface streets or the freeway? It’s a question pondered by even the most seasoned L.A. drivers when they’re on the go, but one that might not occur to the casual visitor. Skip the headache and let the state’s department of transportation do the heavy lifting. Caltrans’s QuickMap analyzes traffic conditions so you’ll know in advance whether to make a dash for the freeway or how to get around the latest Sig Alert (a term, coined by the L.A.P.D. in the 1940s and widely used in Southern California, denoting heavy traffic). There’s even a mobile app.

>> Three Essential Tips:

Get in a Golden State of Mind. You’re in California now, so slow your strut, smile, and relax. Indelibly influenced by the entertainment industry and built on big dreams, this is a city that values first impressions, self-confidence, and showmanship. Play the part and keep it cool. Cliché? Probably. Superficial? Maybe. But it’s an unshakeable part of L.A.’s surprisingly endearing social fabric.

Take a Hike. The Santa Monica Mountains slice directly across the city’s core. Combine that with blue skies and a fitness-conscious culture, and hiking’s rising popularity becomes a no-brainer. Local favorites include lush Temescal Canyon in the Palisades and Hollywood’s go-to-be-seen Runyon Canyon and Hollyridge Trail (which ends right behind the big sign). Though you may be more likely to spot a celebrity than wildlife while you’re on the trail, strapping on your hiking boots will give you a glimpse into another side of L.A. Plus, higher altitudes provide a rare and welcome overview of the original city of sprawl.

Go Afield. Cruise up the Pacific Coast Highway (or U.S. 1. Note: West Coasters say “THE 1,” as in “take the 1”) to Malibu and watch the waves froth up just feet from the blacktop, then head to the top of Mulholland Drive at night for an unparalleled light show. Don’t forget to take a spin through the In-N-Out drive-through for a “Double-Double” and a shake.

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Or, take a true pause from the big city and experience another side of Southern California. Hop the ferry to Catalina Island, ride Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner along the coast to Orange County or San Diego, ramble up U.S. 101 to explore Santa Barbara’s booming wine country, or head east on Interstate 10 for some R&R in Palm Springs.

Do you have Know Before You Go tips for your city? Share them in the comments below or use the #B4UGO hashtag and shout us out @NatGeoTraveler on Twitter.

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Alex Markoff, an editorial intern at National Geographic Traveler, provided reporting for Know Before You Go: L.A. 

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