Friday 12 May 2017

The LA You Don't Know

This article was originally written for the magazine of a travel agency, which was later bought out and never published it. So here it is, for your enjoyment (Disclosure: I've generally been assisted by the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board when visiting LA).

If you ask travellers what they know about Los Angeles, they’ll mention some obvious elements off the top of their heads. There’s Disneyland, of course, and the Pacific coast. Hollywood, the home of the movie industry. And linking them, plenty of spaghetti-like freeways.

These are all there, of course, but there’s much more to LA once you take the time to explore its lesser-known districts and its quirkier attractions. Here are several things to try when you’re next in the Californian city.

Eat a French Dipped Sandwich

This classic sandwich has been a popular LA treat since 1908, and the best place to eat it is Philippe the Original. An old-fashioned diner on the edge of Chinatown, it boasts retro decor, sawdust on the floor, and an old-school candy counter.

Its famous French Dipped Sandwich was created when a roast beef sandwich was accidentally dropped into a roasting pan. The customer who ate it loved the result, so since then the beef-and-gravy sandwich has been on the menu.

Nowadays it’s prepared with a rich jus which has been rendered from roasting pan drippings and beef stock over two days. Eat it with pickles and potato salad at one of the long timber tables, maybe with a beer on the side.

Soak Korean-style

West of LA’s Downtown is Koreatown, a sprawling neighbourhood populated by migrants from South Korea. It’s a great place to try Korean food, of course, but also to immerse yourself in a jjimjilbang.

The main attraction of this traditional Korean bathhouse is its series of heated baths. They’re segregated by gender, and it’s an all-nude experience – no swimming costumes allowed. After soaking, patrons get dressed in the provided T-shirt and shorts, and head to the communal relaxation areas which offer dining and entertainment options.

One of the best places to experience the Korean bathhouse in LA is Wi Spa, located near MacArthur Park.

Stroll along Broadway

In past decades the Downtown district was a dodgy part of Los Angeles, and best avoided. Now it’s returning to its past glory as gentrification takes hold, and is worth visiting for the impressive old cinema facades along Broadway.

Owned by the city’s famous movie studios a hundred years ago, these picture palaces were once the showcases of Hollywood’s finest output. Now they fulfil a variety of uses, from shopfronts to live music venues, and some still screen films.

At 10am each Saturday, the Broadway Historic Theatre and Commercial District Walking Tour heads along this street, showing off its architectural highlights.

Meet a Different Kind of Star

There are plenty of stars in Hollywood, but you can raise your eyes to the original stars at Griffith Observatory. Situated on hills overlooking Los Angeles’ busy sprawl, this scientific complex is a beautiful example of art deco architecture.

Acting as an astronomical museum, its interior includes exhibits both old and new, along with a planetarium. From the outdoor terraces there are great views over the city, and you can also spot the famous Hollywood sign.

Carry a Tune in a Music Hub

On the western edge of the Downtown is LA Live, a complex of entertainment venues and restaurants. Within its contemporary architecture you’ll also find the Grammy Museum, dedicated to every aspect of music.

Over several levels, visitors learn about music genres from rock to soul, via interactive displays and audio recordings. There are also exhibits dedicated to particular singing stars.

See a Real Spaceship

The California Science Centre is the home of many fascinating exhibits involving science and nature. The most impressive of these by far is the Space Shuttle Endeavour. This enormous real-life spacecraft is suspended above the heads of visitors, allowing for a sweeping view of its sleek exterior.

Beyond this spectacular sight, it’s also possible to get up close with the early years of space travel. Encased within transparent shells is a Gemini 11 space capsule, and an Apollo capsule similar to the one that first took men to the Moon. For some hands-on excitement, you can also experience a mission within a Space Shuttle simulator.

For more details of LA's attractions, visit

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