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Visit Los Angeles, California

Hollywood Hills hikes and cycling along Santa Monica Beach on a tailor-made holiday to Los Angeles

A glittering network of districts basking in the Californian sun, the City of Angels is synonymous with Hollywood glamour and movie sets. While you can tour Hollywood Boulevard to see the names of revered silver-screen icons, there are plenty of things to do in Los Angeles beyond its cinematic roots.

The hills surrounding the city provide a playground if you want to escape the streets. The golden sands and surfer culture of Santa Monica and Venice Beach can be explored on foot, by electric bicycle or from the backseat of a 1960s Cadillac. And, the high-end boutiques and restaurants of Beverly Hills can be contrasted with street-food markets that showcase the city’s multicultural influences.

My memories of Los Angeles are sun-kissed beaches, the relaxed surf culture and exceptional local restaurants. You can always find something to do no matter what your interests, from hiking to the Hollywood Sign, to theme parks or shopping in Beverly Hills.

USA specialist Amy

Things to see and do in Los Angeles

Sunset hike in the Hollywood Hills

The Griffith Observatory and Los Angeles city skylineOnce the heat of the day has waned, you can join a late-afternoon guided hike up into the Hollywood Hills to the summit of Mount Hollywood. Covering 6.4 km (4 miles) and ascending 282 m (925 ft) in elevation, you need some level of fitness for this, but your guide will set a relaxed pace and there’ll be plenty of time to stop and take in views over the city.

The hike begins at the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, northeast of Hollywood. Along the way, your guide will tell you about the history of Hollywood and why early film companies based themselves here. The striking outline of these hills was part of the location’s draw as they formed a natural backdrop to any set. You’ll also be shown photographs and film clips from the early days of Hollywood, so you can compare the landscape you see today with how it used to be.

On reaching the peak’s summit, the whole of downtown LA stretches before you in a glittering haze, and the deep blue of the Pacific can usually be seen in the distance. A short walk away is another viewpoint, where you can take an obligatory photograph of the Hollywood sign, which is set across a nearby hill.

As the sun sets, the city and surrounding hills are bathed in a warm glow, and long shadows creep across the landscape. Watch as streetlights and buildings become illuminated as dusk descends, then head over to the Griffith Observatory on the mountain’s southern slope. Here, you can enjoy astronomy exhibits and visit the auditorium. There are also public telescopes where the observatory team are on hand to help you identify stars and planets.

Electric bicycle tour of Santa Monica and Venice Beach

The beachside communities to the south of LA show a more laid-back side to the city. One way to explore them is by joining a two-and-a-half-hour electric bicycle tour, which takes you along the oceanfront of affluent Santa Monica, past Muscle Beach and through the Bohemian district of Venice Beach.

You’ll learn about the history and culture of these sun-kissed areas from your guide, Barb, a Santa Monica local. You’ll glide along on your 500-watt bike, following the beachfront cycle path while taking in views over the ocean. The terrain is mostly flat, and the power of the bicycle means minimal fitness is required.

Santa Monica beach bike path, LA CaliforniaIn Santa Monica, you’ll pass plush beachside resorts, manicured parks and seafood restaurants looking out over the ocean. This area has been a popular spot for celebrities to set up home since the early days of Hollywood, and Barb will point out a few notable residences. You’ll also see the illuminated outline of the Ferris wheel and rollercoaster on Santa Monica Pier, while at Muscle Beach you’ll see California’s fitness movement in full swing as tanned, toned bodybuilders work out on the beachside gym equipment.

At the end of the route, you reach the town of Venice, founded by tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney in the early 20th century. Canals were specially dug around the town to resemble the Venice of Italy, and you can cycle around them while learning more about the resort’s history. You then head to Venice Beach, popular with artists, skateboarders and surfers. In contrast to Santa Monica’s designer boutiques and fine-dining restaurants, here you’ll pass tattoo shops covered in graffiti, trendy bars and street stalls selling locally made arts and crafts.

Private 1960s Cadillac tour of Los Angeles

You can also explore the beachside suburbs of LA and further afield by Cadillac. With room for up to five passengers, and a retractable roof, you can soak up the Californian sun and feel the breeze in your hair as you’re chauffeured around by a local driver/guide. Your guide will point out key sites and landmarks along the way, filling you in on LA’s history and culture, as well as what it’s like to live there.

The tour can be tailored to whatever interests you most about the area. You might like to cruise down Sunset Boulevard, see the mansions of Beverly Hills, or stick to the coastline for views over the twinkling ocean.

Hollywood behind-the-scenes walking tour

Hollywood Boulevard is unashamedly busy with visitors at almost any time, and a one-hour guided walking tour is a good way to get the most out of your visit. You can learn about key events and players in Hollywood’s history as you take in the street’s main sights.

Many of the guides themselves are aspiring actors, trying to win their big break, and have a genuine passion and interest in film. You meet your guide and the rest of the group outside Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. It was here Hollywood’s first movie premiered (1922’s Robin Hood), and your guide will tell you more about the event and who attended. The tour also includes exclusive access inside the theatre, giving you a chance to sit in the same seats as countless actors, directors and producers.

Start of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, LA CaliforniaYou’re then led down the boulevard as your guide relays the history of Hollywood (via audio headsets so you can hear over the sounds of the street). There’s time to stop and take photographs of any notable stars you pass on the pavement, and you may be able to glimpse the Hollywood sign up in the surrounding hills.

In-between walking, you’ll make stops at the El Capitan Theatre, the venue for many modern-day film premieres, and the Dolby Theatre, home to the Academy Awards. The tour ends at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where, outside, the pavement is covered in signatures, imprints and messages scrawled by the Hollywood elite, from George Clooney to Clint Eastwood and Star Wars droids.

Greystone Mansion and Spadena House, Beverly Hills

Among Beverly Hills’ mansions, two that stand out are Greystone Mansion and Spadena House. The former is a sprawling 55-room Tudor Revival manor house dating back to the 1920s, tucked away in the hills. Despite its idyllic exterior, the house was the scene of a murder-suicide involving its first owner, Ned Doheny, who was found dead in the guest bedroom just months after moving in.

More recently, it has appeared in a long list of movies and television shows, including X-Men, The Prestige and The Bodyguard. You can stroll its manicured, leafy grounds, now a public park and open daily unless closed for a special event.

Spadena House has a somewhat different look. Dubbed ‘the Witch’s House’, its 1920s storybook style makes it look as though it has popped out of a fairy tale. Its craggy, whimsical rooftops slope unevenly into steep triangles, with small shuttered windows peeking out haphazardly.

The house was built as dressing rooms and offices for a silent-film studio in Culver City, before being moved to Beverly Hills a few years later. While it has been a private residence ever since, you can stop by to admire its unusual façade, which stands out on an otherwise everyday suburban street.

Shopping and eating in Los Angeles

On Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, whitewashed European-style buildings house designer shops and high-end boutiques like Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, while street sculptures, palm trees and hanging baskets of flowers exude the feeling of wealth and glamour.

The three streets surrounding Rodeo Drive — Santa Monica Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard, and Canon Drive — form a shopping district known as the ‘Golden Triangle’, which draws in affluent residents and curious window shoppers alike.

Grand Central Market, downtown Los AngelesAs a contrast, you could head to the historic district of Olvera Street. Set between Chinatown and Little Tokyo in the oldest part of the city, the area used to be the heartland of LA’s early Spanish settlers and, later on, its Mexican community. Buildings and stalls are adorned with piñatas, sombreros and puppets, and you’ll find a vibrant Mexican marketplace filled with craft stores, authentic Mexican restaurants and street musicians.

You can sample fresh produce reflecting the diverse range of cultures in LA at the Grand Central Market in the downtown area, where food vendors have gathered since 1917. Open daily from 8am to 10pm, the market offers you the chance to taste everything from wood-fired pizzas and handmade burritos to Japanese bento boxes, gourmet oysters and good old-fashioned burgers.

Arts and culture at the J. Paul Getty Museum

Split across two sites (the Getty Center in Brentwood and the Getty Villa near Malibu), this museum is dedicated to conserving and displaying outstanding works of modern and historical artwork. J. Paul Getty acquired a passion for art while touring Europe as a young man, driven by the revelation of first seeing Titian’s Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi Gallery.

At the Getty Center you can browse collections of European and American paintings, medieval manuscripts, photography of the 19th and 20th centuries, and a range of contemporary sculptures set out in its gardens. Designed by architect Richard Meier, the building is a masterpiece in itself and offers views over the city and its coastline.

The Getty Villa, meanwhile, focuses on classical arts and culture. Built to replicate the Roman villas excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and complete with white stone pillars, frescoes and a central garden trickling with fountains, it houses a collection of Roman, Greek and Etruscan sculptures and everyday objects from antiquity.

LA’s theme parks and film studios

Universal StudiosWhile undoubtedly attracting large crowds, Universal Studios, Warner Brothers Studios and Disneyland each offer excellent days out for families and film lovers.

Take a VIP tour of Universal Studios to skip the queues and see what happens behind the scenes of film sets. Your guide will tell you stories of what went on during the making of films and TV shows, and you can walk through sets that have been kept as they appear on film.

You can also visit Universal’s Archive and Collections Department, where a vast collection of props, documents, costumes and photographs spanning decades of films are stored. Your tour includes unlimited access to rides and shows, breakfast and lunch, and valet parking.

At the Warner Brothers Studios, you can take a two-hour tour of working film sets and television studios in groups of no more than 12. Exploring by electric buggy, your guide will point out buildings and streets that have been built specifically for the screen, including a typical New York street. You can stop by the Transportation Museum to see vehicles used in productions, such as Batmobiles, and tour the Memorabilia Museum for an insight into past and present filmmaking.

Finally, Disneyland and Disneyland California Adventure Park offer children and adults alike the chance to meet some of their favourite Disney, Pixar and Marvel characters. The parks are huge, so you may want to spend a couple of days here. From exhilarating rides to live shows and firework displays, entertainment is around every corner.

Best time to visit Los Angeles

LA generally enjoys mild temperatures year-round. May and September are the best months to visit Los Angeles as it’s warm but not too hot, and there are fewer visitors than during the summer months (June to August).

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