Sightseeing in LA doesn't have to be all about celebs and seaside posing: for those keen to experience a different side of the city, that glossy veneer conceals a world of cultural riches
Los Angeles suffers from a reputation of vacuous simplicity, from celeb-obsessed Hollywood to the hippie vibe of Venice Beach. Few newcomers to the City of Angels visit for its museums, its art galleries or its cultural heritage. But it’s an opportunity missed, because spend a little time in this city of half a million wannabe actors and three million hangers-on, and you’ll discover a treasure trove of unique and extraordinary experiences.
The amount of time you spend in LA will dictate how much you can see (the city is enormous, at just under 500 square miles), with sights and attractions spread far and wide from the Santa Ana mountains climbing upwards from the Malibu coast to the less salubrious areas of South Central and Watts. On my visit I opted for a variety of sightseeing visits dotted around the city in an effort to take in the multicultural topography alongside the attractions themselves.
First up were the legendary Watts Towers, located, as the name suggests, in the enclave of Watts, probably best known for the infamous riots that took place here in 1965. But look beyond history and you discover an extraordinary testament to the creative vision of Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, who over a 33-year period from 1921 to 1954 constructed a collection of 17 interconnected structures.
“I had in mind to do something big and I did it,” is how Rodia described his extraordinary masterpiece, built from steel pipes, wire mesh, mortar, tiles, glass and a variety of other materials he sourced locally or found discarded. His wasn't exactly the happiest story: Rodia suffered abuse and vandalism at the hands of his neighbours, many of whom thought his towers were secret antennae used to communicate with the Japanese, and abandoned his project in 1955.
Targeted for demolition, it was only in 1959 that the site was bought by two enthusiasts who campaigned for its preservation and the towers now exist as a National Historic Landmark, undergoing renovation until their reopening in March 2009. When I visited, one was under scaffolding but the rest was clear to see and is ably supported by an excellent visitor centre next door, guided tours and a very enthusiastic staff, able to answer any and all questions visitors may have.
At the other end of the scale, and not far from the other side of the city, sits the extraordinary billion-dollar Getty Centre, gifted to the city by the eponymous industrialist. Nestled high on the hills above Bel Air, accessible only by electric tram, it houses one of the world’s most eclectic collections of art, sculpture, photography and a constant cycle of different exhibitions. I spent an entire day there and had to be “politely” asked to leave as the doors were closing and I hadn’t finished looking around. The building and its grounds are a work of art in themselves, with views that stretch all the way across the city to the Pacific beaches of Santa Monica and beyond.
The highlight for me included the amazing permanent photography exhibition documenting the history of California and the development of photography as an art form. But for lovers of more traditional classic art, the museum is stuffed full of Van Goghs, Gaugins, Monets and more, all viewable up close with friendly and cooperative curators, as only Americans can be.
And if the museum is not enough, the Getty Villa in Malibu is equally impressive, if only to equate just how important the billionaire philanthropist was to the cultural heritage of California. Be warned though: the Villa is popular and tickets need to be booked well in advance.
Offering equally stunning views of LA, but from a totally different viewpoint, is the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park. It sits on Mount Hollywood, alongside the legendary Hollywood sign, and is as famous for its Rebel Without A Cause setting as for its credentials as a world leader in public astronomy. One of the highlights of my stay, the 300-seater Samuel Oschin Planetarium is unquestionably the best in the world and for 60 minutes takes you on a journey through the universe the likes of which you have to experience to believe.
Once I'd enjoyed the show, the perfect juxtaposition was a picnic lunch in the grounds by James Dean’s commemorative statue, soaking up the sun and drinking in the views across Hollywood to Century City and Venice Beach beyond it. It also gives as good a view as you’re likely to get of the Hollywood sign and makes for the perfect photo opportunity.
The last visit on my whistle-stop tour was something a little more morbid – a stroll around the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard, “the resting place of Hollywood’s immortals”, where the most elaborate and exceptional mausoleums sit alongside the graves of hundreds of “ordinary people”. It may sound a little weird, but wandering past the graves of Jayne Mansfield, Cecil B DeMille, Rudolf Valentino and, my personal favourite, Johnny Ramone, makes for a unique experience, fringed by the glamour of Paramount Studios, which is located on the back half of the grounds. If you’re there in summer, the cemetery even screens classic films outdoors in the grounds – just don’t go if Poltergeist is on!
A few days cruising around LA and I soaked up as much culture as in any other city I’ve ever visited yet had barely scratched the surface of what was on offer. And the best thing about these attractions? Every single one of them is free – now you can’t say fairer than that.