Los Angeles, together with New York, is one of the most famous American cities. However, they are so different that sometimes it is hard to believe that they are located in the same country.
Now, everyone loves NYC, but feelings towards LA are much more complicated. Plenty of people totally dismiss it as an attractive place. They only see ageing freeways chock-full of traffic, a sea of suburbs without anything interesting to see or do, smog, gangs and silicon people. All this is, at least partially, true but there is so much more to this huge and complex metropolis. In fact, I would argue that it is difficult to understand modern America without a visit to LA. It is here where many trends were, and still are, created and where American culture is constantly transformed. It is definitely a place worth visiting.
Having said that, I have to admit that all my visits there were on a way to, or from, somewhere else as it is simply one of the best places to start a tour of the west coast. Flights to LA are cheaper than to anywhere else on the west coast and car rental is often dirt cheap. But I never regretted stopping by in LA.
My first visit there was a brief but eye-opening one. I was on my way to a summer camp in Sierra Nevada where I was about to spend the whole summer. I flew to LAX (probably the only airport in the world known more by its IATA code rather than name) and then had to catch the Greyhound bus to Fresno. But I didn’t know that the coach station in LA is located in a not-so-nice neighbourhood. Additionally, because of some mess-up, I had to wait until the following morning before getting my bus. I quickly realized that staying at the station wasn’t the best option. It was full of homeless and really dodgy characters and outside the station the situation was even worse (burning bins and crashed shopping trolleys anyone?). On the notice board inside the station I found the number to a nearby hotel where I finally ended up. It was probably the strangest place I have ever slept in. I was served by a Sikh receptionist hiding behind bulletproof glass and who asked me for a fingerprint along with my passport. The whole place was full of pimps, prostitutes and god knows who else, definitely not the sort of people with whom you strike up casual conversation by asking what their profession is. Anyway, my room was OK and the view was actually quite nice as the hotel was located just outside the downtown LA.
My next visit a few months later couldn’t have been more different. With my friends we strolled along Hollywood Boulevard looking at stars of the Walk of Fame, drove past the mansions of Beverly Hills and generally enjoyed the better side of Los Angeles.
But it was during yet another visit when I ended up in probably the best part of this metropolis, its coastal communities. I stayed in a small independent hostel in Venice, located just a few minutes from the ocean. It is here where you can experience the archetypical southern California lifestyle. There isn’t really any single attraction to recommend, it is more about soaking up the atmosphere, preferably while strolling the Venice Beach boardwalk along the famous Muscle Beach (where Arnold Schwarzenegger used to train) all the way to Santa Monica and its historic pier. People-watching is the prime activity here, and it is fascinating. Attractive lifeguards, old people playing chess, skateboarding teenagers, surfers, hippies, you name it, they are all there.
LA is so huge that it is difficult to realize where it really ends. The city itself is home to about 3.7 million people but the whole metropolitan area approaches 18 million people living in more than two dozen independent communities covering vast areas of deserts and mountains. Again, the most attractive communities are, like in the city of Los Angeles itself, located on the coast. Among them is the energetic Huntington Beach (a real surfer’s paradise) and pleasant Newport Beach. Inland LA is dominated by sprawling residential suburbs and towns.
Here I have to mention that renting a car is absolutely essential in LA. Yes, technically there is public transport but, let’s be honest, it is rather skeletal and not really useful. A car will give you independence but you’d better be an assertive sort of driver as Angelenos become absolutely crazy once behind a wheel. They ignore most of the rules, especially the speed limits, and they seem to think that indicators are there purely for decoration. The LA freeways are legendary. The first thing you notice is how vast they are, often 12-16 lanes wide with 5-level junctions here and there. The second thing you notice is that there are only two ways of driving on them; stuck in a slow moving (or not moving at all) traffic jam for hours or dodging fast driving cars, most of them trying to take you out. The first option is safe; the second will take you from A to B quickly.
Outside LA Southern California is a land of contrasts. South along the coast, all the way to San Diego, there is string of small and large beach communities. The best way of enjoying them is a lazy drive (preferably in a convertible) along the coastal highway, stopping here and there whenever you feel like. The weather is usually perfect but beware that traffic can often be maniac.
On the other hand just a few miles north of Los Angeles are located San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. Reaching 3000 and 3500 metres respectively, these are wild and rugged areas offering great hiking or skiing. Because they are heavily forested they look more like Oregon than stereotypical California. In the mountains are located small resort towns where LA folks escape the heat of the summer or go to enjoy the winter sports. One of them is tiny Twin Peaks where we drove once with my friends because one of them was a huge fan of the famous TV series. Unfortunately, after asking locals, we learnt that the show wasn’t located or shot there (apparently we weren’t the only ones asking). However, driving up there was fun as the road from San Bernardino was very scenic, rising a crazy 1700 metres in about 15 miles.
But my favourite parts of SoCal are its deserts. One of the best places to experience the desert environment is Joshua Tree National Park. Located just 2,5 hours east of downtown LA it is easy to reach, yet far enough to escape the crowds. My visit there was actually quite accidental. In 2009 I did a big tour of the western US. Towards the end of it I was planning to stay for a few days in San Francisco but after just a few hours I got tired of crowds. So, I opened my old trusted atlas and looked for something interesting and wild, but not far from LA, where I had to catch my return flight.
And that’s how I ended up in Joshua Tree NP, an amazing and very varied park the name of which comes from the alien-looking plant, Yucca brevifolia.
During my visit, in early June, the park was virtually empty. It is one of a few places in the US where the high season actually comes in winter as summers are simply too hot. I pitched my tent at one of the best landscaped campgrounds I have ever seen. Tent sites were nicely spread between the rocks and boulders to avoid any feeling of being crowded, but it wasn’t an issue as I was one of only two or three people there. The landscape of the park is simply breathtaking. In addition to Joshua tree forests, the western part of the park includes some of the most interesting geological displays found in California’s deserts. The dominant geological features of this landscape are hills of bare rock, usually broken up into loose boulders. The flatland between the hills is sparsely forested with Joshua trees. Together with the boulder piles and Skull Rock, the trees make the landscape otherworldly. The only palm native to California, the California Fan Palm, occurs naturally in five oases in the park, which are perfect destination for a hike. But due to the oppressive heat it was possible to hike only late in the afternoon and around sunset. During the mid day I was hiding in the air-conditioned malls of Palm Springs which is located just outside the park. One more thing I simply have to mention is an absolutely amazing night sky, so full of stars that it is impossible to describe.
I really had a great if unexpected time in Joshua Tree.
In general the word “unexpected” is one of the best to describe SoCal. Yes, you will find there such icons as Hollywood, Disneyland, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica but also plenty of hidden and unknown gems, a multi-ethnic population and great cuisine (of course there is still plenty of junk food available). Most importantly, there are many ways of having fun out there. Surfing, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, beach-going, cruising along the coast in a convertible, shopping, those are only a few ways of experiencing the legendary SoCal lifestyle.
Also, a visit to southern California always gives me a sense of deja-vu. Everything seems familiar as the region is the setting for countless movies and dramas. For me this is a big attraction: the possibility of finding all those places I have already seen on screen. For example a simple drive across the Vincent Thomas Bridge (yes I now, I’m writing about yet another bridge) in LA harbour brings back memories of Nicolas Cage in “Gone in 60 seconds”. I love this feeling.
I might prefer some of the other parts of the US myself but it doesn’t change the fact that SoCal is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. And absolutely deservedly so.