This may not be the best time in history to be writing about travelling to the US, but my recent trip to Los Angeles was great – I had a fantastic holiday. I spent two weeks in LA and one week travelling around.
Before I left, heaps of people told me I’d only need two or three days in LA, as it turned out I ran out of time to do all the things I wanted to do. The biggest surprise was the outstanding art museums and architecture. LA is so much more than theme parks and Disneyland, although I had fun there too – so here is my list of things to do in LA.
If you are flying from New Zealand, you can’t beat Air New Zealand. This was the best long haul flight I’ve ever taken. Boarding at 11 pm, dinner, a movie, settle down to sleep and waking up two hours out from LA. The time change is a bit deceptive as NZ is 19 hours ahead of LA, which means we are three hours and one day ahead so the actual jet lag is minimal, and I did like arriving on the same day I left.
Arriving at LAX
I had lots of horror stories about this, but it turned out to be easy. I applied for my ESTA visa a few months before. As it was my first visit, I had to go through the immigration desk rather than using the electronic entry. This takes your fingerprints and the staff, although uninterested, were helpful.
The queue to get out was long and slow, and no duty-free shops to wander through on the way in – unless I somehow missed them.
Instead, you are tipped out into a narrow concourse with an endless cacophony of horns as cars, trucks, and taxis battle each other to drop off passengers at the kerb. But I didn’t care because was in LA!
Everyone was emphatic that I had to get a car in LA, but I wasn’t keen to get off the plane and straight into a left-hand drive car. If you do want to rent a car, the car rental places are about 15 minutes away from the airport but they have regular shuttles that you jump on outside the terminals.
Fortunately, my friend Lisa, whose Airbnb I was staying at, was a great source for advice. I had to get the Flyaway bus from directly outside the airport to Union Station, and from there catch the Metro Gold line up to Mt Washington, where she lives.
It was so easy! The bus pulls up, the polite driver loads your bags, and about 35 minutes later, you pull up a Union Station. Payment is about USD10 and by credit card at the booth at Union Station.
From there, you walk through a tunnel into the station which is well sign-posted. I got a TAP card, from one of the ticketing machines – a tap and go style system. The machine spits out a card, which you load from your credit card, and then tap every time you head onto a platform. It is a really simple system.
Mt Washington is only four stops up the line, and within 20 minutes, I was walking to Lisa’s Airbnb and the start of my LA adventure!
Where to stay
The problem with LA is it’s so big and there is so much choice! Coming from Wellington, where you can reach most things within 30 minutes, I honestly had no concept of the size of the city. It’s huge, and for the first few days, I wandered around like a country bumpkin with my mouth agape I felt so overwhelmed.
I had decided to use public transport as much as possible, so a place near a Metro station was ideal. Mt Washington is a cool suburb, northeast of Downtown. It is a mainly Latino neighbourhood starting to be hit by gentrification, and I loved the local supermarket which had the best guacamole and made their own tortillas ($1.50 for 36!). Nearby Highland Park has plenty of cool cafes, and Pasadena is only a 20-minute drive away, depending on traffic (everything in LA depends on traffic).
I mapped out where I wanted to go first, and as most of the museums and galleries were also fairly central, Mt Washington was ideal.
Airbnb is much bigger in the US than NZ, and the choice can be overwhelming. My guideline is check reviews, check locations, host feedback is really important, and parking if you’re planning to get a car.
Hotels are in abundance too, so it comes down to budget, what you want to do and how long you want to stay. Because it is so big, my advice would be stay close to the things you want to do – near the beach if that’s what you want, or near the theme parks if that’s your main attraction.
As mentioned, LA is big – really big – and coming from New Zealand where it’s right-hand drive, I was in no hurry to get a car – frankly, I was a bit terrified. Fortunately, Lisa gave me local details about using the Metro and after a few days, I had mastered the system. The network is relatively small compared to the Tube in London, but it ran efficiently and was easy to connect
across to the other lines at Union Station, which was the main hub. It’s also cheap. The Blue Line takes you out to Santa Monica – which was great, although weirdly, the train stops at intersections for cars, which seems like madness to me.
Security seemed tight on the trains – twice people were taken off by LAPD or the Sheriff’s when they seemed threatening. There are some interesting types on the Metro, and people begging in the stations, but I felt safe travelling, although I used cabs if I was going anywhere after 8 pm or so.
Aside from normal taxis, Uber and Lyft are widely used, I preferred Lyft so used that and it was so economical compared to cabs in New Zealand. The major advantage is that you and the driver are both using google maps so it takes away the fear of being driven the long way as the google maps app tells you the best route, and the drivers need their ratings to be high.
By the end of the second week, I had built up the courage to try a left-hand-drive car. There are rental cars in abundance, and they are all priced competitively. I picked up mine from Alamo and they were great – easy to get to, pay and drop off. Do not try to save money by not getting collision damage insurance, although most companies include this. It is just not worse the risk.
The LA traffic is legendary, and my first drive on the freeway was terrifying, but all part of the adventure. It is either going stop/start or frighteningly fast.
It took me about three days to adapt to the left-hand drive, and google maps was my best friend as it tells you which lane to merge into, how far to go etc. I loved it. Make sure you get a car with a console that links to your phone – so much easier although it never mastered my Kiwi accent, so voice commands never went well.
Things to do
Okay, what now? If you want a great orientation to the City of Los Angeles, head to Union Station where the incredibly friendly people at the Tourist Information Desk will give you all the advice and brochures you need. A big shout out to those guys because they were lovely!
The charming man who helped me drew routes on the maps to all the place I wanted to go, gave me great suggestions for others and even helped orientate me in the right direction. Coming from the Southern Hemisphere, my sense of direction goes all screwy so north and south get a bit confused.
Union Station itself is worth a visit. I love that building, every time I walked through it, I felt like I was in a movie – which happens a lot in LA! It’s a beautiful building, so make time to just wander around, have a drink at the bar and take in the surroundings which are a mashup of Art Deco, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne style. One day, when I’m rich and famous, I’m going to have a party here!
If you want to get a great 360 view of Los Angeles, head out of Union Station take a ten-minute walk to City Hall and wonder that so few other people, apart from tourists and office workers, also walking. LA is a city of cars, not pedestrians. Head into the public entrance on Main Street; you’ll have to go through metal detectors, then take the awesome Art Deco lifts to the 22nd floor, jump into another set
of lifts on the 26th floor and take a flight of stairs up to the Tom Bradley Room, where you can play act at being the Mayor of Los Angeles before heading out to the outside deck and walk al the way around and take in the stunning views from the sea to the mountains.