Most people don't talk about how a city smells, because most cities smell the same: like diesel, dog crap, and garbage. You'd probably add that LA also smells like "smog", but I don't know what smog smells like – maybe I've been here so long that I've become desensitized to it. In any event, I actually find Los Angeles and its environs to be unusually fragrant for a metropolis. Here are the nine odors that will always say "LA" to me.
- Jasmine. Come here in May and find a city filled with aromatic blossoms, from orange and lemon to magnolia and alyssum. But above all, LA will smell strongly of jasmine, thanks to the many varietals planted around homes and businesses. These flowers (some are technically "false jasmine") bloom throughout the summer, but the scent peaks in late spring.
- Night-blooming jasmine. It's vastly different from regular jasmine, and it's my favorite smell in Los Angeles. True to its name, this flower makes its presence known after dark. Walk through a residential neighborhood on a warm summer night and you will be rewarded by wafts of this sweet scent, somewhat reminiscent of Tart 'n' Tinys.
- The hills at night. I'm not sure if anybody knows just what creates that cool, sage-like bouquet that fills your nostrils as you're driving through Laurel Canyon after sunset with your windows rolled down. If you're lucky to be invited to a house party in the Hollywood hills one evening, go: inhale the air deeply you will know what I'm talking about.
- Trail dust. What other city has so many vigorous hiking trails smack dab in the middle of it? Those same hills that smell so magical at night take on another distinctive fragrance on a hot sunny day. It's what you smell as you trek through Griffith Park, Runyon Canyon, or the Santa Monica mountains: an oaky, desert-ish smell. Some would call it "chaparral".
- Tar. I'm sure you'll find, in most other cities, the occasional crew coating someone's roof with hot, bubbly tar. You can recognize that thick stench from blocks away. LA certainly has plenty of that, but it's also home to the La Brea Tar Pits, one of our only public spaces that feels like a proper city park: grassy, shady, calming, clean. And yes, you will find plenty of genuine tar in this park, bubbling up from the bowels of the earth in unexpected places. Nearly every out-of-town visitor I've taken to the La Brea Tar Pits has named it their favorite sight in LA. Go figure.
- Cigars. While we're on the subject of smoky SoCal stinks, let's skip over the obvious "wildfire" and "marijuana" and talk about... cigars. It's a scent you might equate with Miami or Havana, but Los Angeles? Well, try driving around West LA on a warm day: you will eventually find yourself behind some rich old white man in a convertible, the funk of his stogie filling the street.
- Bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Step out one night in a busy neighborhood like Hollywood and you're sure to come across an aging Latina selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs from a tiny metal cart. It's a thing out here. You can imagine the aroma, though in reality it's as redolent of grilled onions as it is roasted meat. (Roasted meat is a pervasive LA scent in general, whether it's from a Korean barbecue or a taco truck selling carne asada.)
- Manure. One month out of the year – November, to be precise – much of residential Los Angeles (and, even more so, Beverly Hills) reeks of manure. That's when gardeners cover their clients' lawns with the stuff, to fertilize the grass before the winter rains. It's a bad time to take a tour of our wealthier neighborhoods. You've been warned.
- The ocean. Naturally, as a seaside town, we have our seaside scents – although you have to be within a half mile of the beach to smell the Pacific, and that's if you're lucky. Still, we lack that seafood stench found in other coastal cities. With the exception of the Venice Beach Boardwalk and its myriad odors (fried food, incense, cannabis, sunscreen), most of our shoreline smells only of saltwater and dry sand.