The historic Los Angeles Theater lights up Broadway.
The historic Los Angeles Theater lights up Broadway.

Photograph by Lisa Romerein
48 Hours Los Angeles: The Best of a City in Two Days
By Amelia Saltsman

What's New is Old in L.A.

The City of Angels buzzes with refurbished architecture, creative cooking, walkable neighborhoods, and world-class museums.

In trend-setting Los Angeles, old is in. From restored Victorian homes in Angelino Heights to the 1956 Superior Oil Building’s transformation into the Standard hotel in downtown L.A., Angelenos have rediscovered their past and are dispelling the myth that their city has no history. "It's an exciting time and long overdue," says preservation consultant John English. "All the restoration work begun downtown 25 years ago is coming to fruition, and it’s taking off now." But to paraphrase Diane Johnson in her novel Le Divorce, if you don’t know where to look, you could pass your whole visit with no sense of what you're missing. Someone has to show you where to find L.A.'s cultural advantages. Founded in 1781 (it's much older if you consider that Pleistocene-era La Brea Tar Pits still bubble up mid-city behind the L.A. County Museum of Art), El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora, la Reina de Los Angeles is a vast quilt of ethnically and architecturally diverse neighborhoods. This sprawling patchwork is a key to understanding the city, which is why when artist Robbie Conal wants visitors to understand L.A., he "puts them in a car and takes them on a tour of Koreatown, Little Armenia, east to Monterey Park for Hong Kong food and culture, and to the multiplex-and-outdoor-mall scene at the bustling Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica."


Los Angeles is more a state of mind than a geographical entity. Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood are separately incorporated cities that lie mostly within L.A. Much of the San Fernando Valley is officially Los Angeles but geologically split off by the Santa Monica Mountains. "Take a drive to the top of Mulholland [the mountain range's backbone road] to see how big the city really is," advises urban landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power.


Start with a walking tour downtown, the city's "thick, coiled root" as author Carolyn See describes L.A.'s original core. The Los Angeles Conservancy offers 11 city tours, including City Hall, the Broadway Theater District, and Angelino Heights. Or pick up a free Angels Walk brochure at Metro stops for a self-guided stroll of Bunker Hill, Chinatown, Union Station, and Hollywood. Downtown's latest additions include the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new home, Frank Gehry's billowy Walt Disney Concert Hall (opening in October), and the provocative concrete-and-alabaster Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

In historic Little Tokyo, the Japanese American National Museum chronicles the community's history and includes a World War II internment camp barrack. Browse the district's food markets and shops—especially the Kinokuniya bookstore for gifts and handmade paper—then regain serenity at the pocket-size Seriyu-en (garden of the clear stream). A few miles southwest of downtown, the Natural History Museum is the only West Coast stop for "Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas" (through September 7), the first such major exhibition in the U.S.

L.A. is a company town—showbiz, that is—where waiters are actors and manicurists have agents. The Warner Bros. lot tour offers more intimate behind-the-scenes glimpses than Universal Studios, but you're more likely to spot celebrities shopping at Barneys. In Hollywood, cinephiles flock to the 1922 Egyptian Theatre's American Cinematheque and 1963 Arclight Cinerama Dome for Sergio Leone retrospectives and talks by filmmakers such as Chicago director Rob Marshall.

The sage-scented Santa Monica Mountains, which run right through the city, "are our Central Park," says Power. Hollywood locals hike Runyon Canyon; Westsiders (those who live west of downtown L.A.) ramble Will Rogers State Historic Park for panoramas from the San Gabriel Mountains to Catalina Island.


L.A.'s current shopping and dining hot spot is the Mid-City area, made up of North Robertson, La Brea, and Beverly Boulevards, West Third Street, and Melrose Avenue. Noodle Stories outfits locals in stylish fashions and designer shoes. Shelter's 20th-century furnishings and Soolip Bungalow's Asian-influenced housewares accessorize your home just so. Notable in Santa Monica is Eames Office Gallery, locus for Charles and Ray Eames products including lunch boxes imprinted with Eames fabric and furniture designs. In Venice, Luna Garcia Pottery studio has colorful, handcrafted dinnerware. For sweet treats, such as huckleberry scones and Parisian-style croissants, check out SugarPlum Bakery.


"You can't beat the Jazz Bakery in Culver City [in the 1931 Helms Bakery] for excellent sound," counsels musician Ry Cooder. Museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Getty Center, have "late nights" for viewing exhibits, and free outdoor concerts that are wonderful on balmy summer evenings. L.A.'s eclectic bar scene runs from martinis and manicures at the Beauty Bar, a pseudo-sixties "salon" in Hollywood, to draft artisanal beers and burgers at Father's Office in Santa Monica. But the sine qua non for debonair drinks are luxury hotels, notably the elegant and expansive ocean-view lounge at Casa del Mar hotel in Santa Monica.


Angelenos are retro loyalists. Philippe the Original on the border of Chinatown claims to have invented the French dip roast beef sandwich in 1908, and the 1938 Du-Pars, now dwarfed by the Grove mall, still serves pancakes and boysenberry pie to screenwriters "taking meetings." For state-of-the-art hamburgers locals prefer the Truman-era Apple Pan's hickory burgers brushed with barbecue sauce. Mini-malls house some of the city's best ethnic cuisine. In West Los Angeles, try Echigo's traditional Tokyo sushi (a sign reads: "No California Rolls!"), where the glistening sushi rice is warm and the albacore and toro are fresh daily, or Guelaguetza for a tamale oaxaqueno (banana leaf-wrapped chicken and masa cloaked with Zapotec-style mole negro made from chilies and Oaxacan chocolate).

A.O.C., Suzanne Goin's sleek new wine bar/tapas-style restaurant, features robust Mediterranean small dishes like trout with jamón and almond salsa to complement the large wine selection. Don't miss the house-made pâté de campagne from the charcuterie bar.

At the bustling Empress Pavilion in Chinatown, the chicken bao (steamed buns filled with chicken and ginger) are proclaimed the "best" by Angels Walk Chinatown tour writer Lisa See. And, if you find yourself at the vibrant 1917 Grand Central Market, try the zesty Michoacán-style tacos at Tacos…Tumbras a Tomas.


For a quintessential Hollywood experience, nothing beats the venerable Chateau Marmont, where celebrities such as Greta Garbo and John Lennon have checked into its private garden cottages and bungalows since 1930. Trendies stay at the Standard, Downtown L.A., where rooms start at $95 and the "humongous room" packages come with large glass-enclosed showers and big screen TVs. In Beverly Hills, the Avalon's early fifties aqua-and-lime palette and free-form pool attracts recording and fashion industry types. Traditionalists prefer the quiet, 188-room circa-1927 Hilton Checkers, which has a rooftop pool with a view of the city and sits next to the historic Central Library. Rooms at the art deco Shangri-La Hotel —opposite Santa Monica's palm-fringed Palisades Park, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean—include kitchens and some have balconies.


Sightseeing, Culture, and Shopping

Angels Walk LA, +1 213 744 0016.
Arclight Cinerama Dome, +1 323 464 4226.
Barneys New York, +1 310 276 4400.
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, +1 213 680 5200.
Eames Office Gallery, +1 310 396 5991.
Egyptian Theatre, +1 323 466 3456.
J. Paul Getty Museum, +1 310 440 7300;
Japanese American National Museum, +1 213 625 0414;
Kinokuniya, +1 213 687 4480.
La Brea Tar Pits, +1 323 934 7243.
Los Angeles Conservancy, +1 213 623 2489;
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, +1 323 857 6000;
Luna Garcia Pottery, 800 905 9975 (U.S. and Canada).
Museum of Contemporary Art, +1 213 626 6222;
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, +1 213 763 3466;
Noodle Stories, +1 323 651 1782.
Palisades Park, +1 310 454 1412.
Shelter, +1 323 937 3222.
Soolip Bungalow, +1 310 360 1512.
Universal Studios, +1 818 622 3801.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, +1 323 850 2000.
Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour, +1 818 972 8687.
Will Rogers State Historic Park, +1 310 454 8212.

Restaurants, Bars and Food Shops

A.O.C., +1 323 653 6359.
Apple Pan, +1 310 475 3585.
Beauty Bar, +1 323 464 7676.
Du-Pars, +1 323 933 8446.
Echigo, +1 310 820 9787.
Empress Pavilion, +1 213 617 9898.
Father's Office, +1 310 393 2337.
Grand Central Market, +1 213 624 2378.
Guelaguetza, +1 310 837 1153.
Jazz Bakery, +1 310 271 9039.
Philippe the Original, +1 213 628 3781.
SugarPlum Bakery, +1 323 934 7900.
Tacos…Tumbras a Tomas, +1 213 620 0477.


Avalon Hotel, +1 310 277 5221; $169-225 U.S.
Casa Del Mar, +1 310 581 5533; $380-615 U.S.
Chateau Marmont, +1 323 656 1010; $299 U.S. and up.
Shangri-La Hotel, +1 310 394 2791; $170 U.S. and up.
Standard, Downtown L.A., +1 213 892 8080; $95-275 U.S.



Click here to go to National Geographic Traveler Online Click here to subscribe to National Geographic Traveler