After traveling, it's always a little hard to return to my home in Los Angeles. Back to the old grind and all. So I thought, well, after all the touristy things I did around the world this autumn, what would I really recommend to a visitor who came out here? Most folks never see the good stuff: it's always the usual (Hollywood, Universal Studios, Disneyland, Santa Monica - ho hum). So I thought I would write this list of the lesser known but more enjoyable sights to see in town, mainly for those who might find this through search engines. I'll even throw in some searchable terms like "unusual sights" and "tourist attractions" and "off the beaten path" to help them find this list more easily. These are just my favorites.
- The Bradbury Building. This 1893 architectural wonder - in the middle of an unattractive chunk of downtown (behold Broadway: shabby shops selling cheap junk to throngs of Mexicans during the day, completely abandoned at night) - looks like just an old brick building from the outside. But inside! Huge skylights, glossy woodwork, Italian marble, and those famous cast-iron elevators are what attracted Ridley Scott to film much of Blade Runner here. It's jaw-dropping. And it's free! Just poke your head in and wander around. It's on Broadway and Third. Not too far from other downtown tourist attractions like the new Disney Concert Hall, Olvera Street, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and so forth.
- Westwood Memorial Park. Not everybody is up for visiting cemeteries, but this tiny graveyard, right off Wilshire, in the heart of UCLA-crowded Westwood (which is good for an afternoon, thanks to the very decent Hammer Museum of Art as well as a slew of movie theatres and restaurants), is nothing less than star-studded. And it too is free. Most people come by to see Marilyn Monroe's tomb, but here are buried dozens of other luminaries, from Natalie Wood to Truman Capote, from Mel Torme to Dean Martin, from Burt Lancaster to Frank Zappa (in an unmarked grave). John Cassavettes is right next to Eva Gabor. This surreal pairing is worth a visit alone.
- The Gamble House. It's not free, and it's not in Los Angeles, but for the tourist Pasadena is a mere jump away (half an hour in good traffic). I've been to a lot of quaint historic homes across the US, but the Gamble House - designed by Charles and Henry Greene in 1908 - is one of the best. Well-preserved, its classy, nearly all-wood interior is a dream for anybody interested in architecture, design, or just good-looking homes. Old Town Pasadena is just a couple miles away. More shops, restaurants, and another great art museum (the Norton Simon).
- The Huntington. Since you're now in the Pasadena area, why not spend an afternoon here? I went to someplace in South Carolina that touted itself as one of the world's most beautiful gardens - and charged me $17 to see for myself. Nuh-uh. The Huntington, the San Marino-based former estate of real estate mogul Henry Huntington, blows it out of the water (and only costs $9-10). Hundreds of acres of cultivated gardens, including a cactus garden that feels like an alien landscape and seemingly goes on for miles, as well as lovely Japanese and rose gardens, are just the start. You also have several art museums, a hall for special exhibitions (Huntington collected rare books, so you can see a Gutenberg Bible, one of the earliest Canterbury Tales in print, and assorted oddities like letters from George Washington, original drafts of the US Constitution and so forth), a tea house, and a book store. This place rules, especially on a warm summer day.
- The Watts Towers. Back in South LA, these impressive towers are the results of decades of obsessive artmaking by one man: self-taught Italian immigrant Simon Rodia. Explore his beautiful, Gaudí-like sculptures of cement, broken glass, and pottery. It costs a couple bucks for a tour, and may be the only thing worth getting out of your car for in dirt-poor Watts. (Yes, the neighborhood is safe.)
- Griffith Observatory. For now, put this on your "future visit" list, as it's closed for renovations until late 2005. But this remarkable building overlooking the city is one of my favorite LA things to do, day or night, for people-watching, soaking up the view (on non-smoggy days), exploring the exhibits (which were rather dated, but should be great in 2005), and taking pictures. Much of Rebel Without a Cause was filmed here. They even have a bust of James Dean. A cool place, and sure to be even cooler when it's all spruced up and open to the public again. They're even going to have a planetarium named after Leonard Nimoy. The big question is, will admission remain free?
- The Museum of Jurassic Technology. I admit, I am not one for museums. I always go, almost out of duty, but get bored quickly (except for the Musem of Science and Industry in Chicago, and the more notable art museums worldwide). This place is quite different. Essentially a giant art installation, the exhibits - most of them fictional - blend science, history, art, and plain weirdness. CalArts grad David Wilson gets an NEA grant yearly to keep this place up, which is amazing in itself. On Venice Blvd. in Culver City, a place where nothing much else is happening (though there is a tasty Indian restaurant nearby).
- The Getty Center. The one "obvious" tourist destination on this list, the Getty isn't so much a great art museum as it is just a wonderful place to hang out. A spectacular view, fascinating gardens, bold architecture, a neat-o tram that takes you up the hill from the parking lot to the Center, nice people, and a bit of culture. And it's free! This place pretty much encapsulates everything that Los Angeles is (supposed to be) about. It's just got a good vibe to it.
- Don't forget to eat! Like all cities, Los Angeles has its share of famous restaurants, and not all of them are as expensive as Spago or as yuppie as Border Grill. Try Zankou Chicken (several locations) if you like garlic. Its hummus is the best ever made. Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles (also several locations) is exactly what it sounds like, and is a kick. Then there is Pink's Hot Dogs on La Brea, all the Thai restaurants in Hollywood, all the Persian places in Westwood, more Chinese restaurants than may be in China out east of LA in the San Gabriel Valley... If you leave this town unsated, it's your own damn fault.