Ask anywhere, from Patagonia to Siberia, what's the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the words "Los Angeles," and chances are, they'll say "Hollywood." Yes, L.A. is the epicenter of "the industry," as Angelenos call it. But there's whole lot more to the City of Angels than swimming pools and movie stars.
Sure, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Laurel Canyon, Benedict Canyon, the Hollywood Hills and Brentwood are world famous as enclaves of the very, very rich and famous. But L.A. is one of the most diverse cities in the world, with more Koreans than anywhere else outside of Korea, ditto Thais, Mexicans and many more nationalities. Dodging the shopping carts of the hordes of Eastern European housewives, you might think you're in Odessa or Prague — but with palm trees.
But this is also the perennial city of the future, the unwitting model for megacities from Johannesburg to Sydney. The future happens first here, which is why films like Blade Runner and Her can be so eerily real.
As L.A. has become more and more urbanized (it's even got a subway!), the old description of "200 suburbs in search of a city" no longer applies. Long shunned and shuttered, Downtown L.A. is bustling, while skyscrapers clusters define several other major business districts, such as Wilshire, the Fashion District and Century City.
At the city's western edge, Venice Beach still has plenty of curvy roller bladers in high-cut Daisy Dukes dodging old people's strollers. Bodybuilders still work out in full view of lusting ladies (and gents!). Even the hippies are still selling crafts. But like much of the rest of West L.A., the area is changing as real estate prices turn once-marginal areas into desirable ones.
The sprawling San Fernando Valley has always been considered a vast suburb but it is also home to NBC, Walt Disney and other entertainment giants. Universal Studios' theme park, just over the Hollywood Hills from West Hollywood, is a must-see. Drive further out on Ventura Boulevard, and you can still see horse farms.
Few visitors trek to sprawling East L.A., which is too bad. They're missing out on vibrant, open-air markets, Mexican food without the upscale stuff ruining it, and truly amazing graffiti murals.
As for the gayborhoods, first and foremost, of course, there's West Hollywood, which has become a byword for a type of buff, manicured, handsome archetype. As soon as WeHo incorporated as a city in 1984, it became one of the best-known gay-dominated cities in the world. WeHo has become much more diverse in recent years, including within the gay community.
The archetype ("stereotype" might be more appropriate) for men living in the hilly gayborhood of Silver Lake, a few miles east of WeHo, is an older, more overtly macho type. Leather is big here, and bears are welcome, although they've become an endangered species with the rapid influx of yuppies.
One cliché about Los Angeles that does ring true is this is a city ruled by the automobile. Angelenos drive. A lot. But believe it or not, there are plenty of places where people park the car and walk. Among the more pedestrian-friendly enclaves are Santa Monica Boulevard and Sunset Strip in WeHo, university-dominated Westwood, haute-bohemian Hancock Park and Venice.
About that car: It's relatively easy to park in most of L.A., but not so in many places, particularly WeHo, where locals have to go to City Hall to apply for permits to stick on guests' cars if they're planning a party. Since this such a car-dependent town, the LAPD looks hard at drivers very late at night, so either designate a driver or cab it.