After months of planning and anticipation, we were finally headed to California on July 19, 2018, for a three week road trip between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco and San Diego.
Day 1: Traveling from Copenhagen to Los Angeles
I’m not sure you can call this the official first day, as most of it consisted of being on an airplane and getting stuck in LA traffic.
Flying to Los Angeles
We flew with KLM from Copenhagen, Denmark (where we live) to Amsterdam, The Netherlands (where I’m from) first. This flight only takes around an hour and a half. We always joke that there’s just enough time in between takeoff and landing to eat your Dutch cheese sandwich or cookie.
We were supposed to have a two hour layover, but due to some delays it turned out to be around three. Also, Camilla had the infamous SSSS on her boarding pass. I learned from a Dutch-Egyptian game developer who travels a lot that this means that you’re guaranteed to get “random checked”. And she did, which meant getting frisked, her shoes checked and her bag swiped and scanned.
From Schiphol Airport we flew directly to Los Angeles, in about 11 hours. It’s great not having a layover in the United States, so you don’t risk getting stuck in immigration and cutting it close to or missing your connecting flight. We watched a couple of movies and landed at LAX at around 4 PM.
Getting to the hotel
I installed the Uber app on my phone before leaving Denmark and after finding the correct pickup location, we took our very first Uber ride to our hotel on Sunset Boulevard, with Rudi in his Toyota Sienna. As always, Los Angeles traffic was terrible, so it took us way longer than necessary to get to our hotel. On the way there, while waiting in front of a traffic light, a pretty rough fight unfolded between a driver and a pedestrian right next to us. Not the best first impression for Camilla on her first visit to the city.
Our hotel was a simple, motel-style accommodation called Dunes Inn – Sunset, right on Sunset Boulevard and relatively close to the touristy part of Hollywood Boulevard. Because we were pretty tired after this long trip, instead of going to there, we grabbed a quick bite to eat a block away and went to bed early, hoping the jet lag wouldn’t get to us the next day.
Day 2: Picking up the car and heading to Santa Monica
Our first real vacation day! After waking up relatively early due to the time difference with Denmark, we went to the nearest Jamba Juice for breakfast and then took a bus to the Hertz office on Pico Boulevard. We reserved a convertible there because it was way cheaper than getting it at the airport and we didn’t need it the first day anyway. Long story short: only rent a car from rental car locations that are airports or other larger hubs with a big fleet, if you care about what type of car you get.
Even though we reserved and paid for a convertible over five months in advance, this Hertz location failed to provide us with one and did not make any effort to make things right. After debating with the staff here and customer support over the phone, we decided to accept another car so we could get on with our day and try to fix it later. Left disappointed and angry by the fact that our convertible road trip vacation started off without a convertible, we headed off towards Santa Monica to enjoy the sun and check out some of the sights we marked on our map beforehand.
3rd Street Promenade
The 3rd Street Promenade is essentially a shopping street. It’s only a couple of blocks away from the Santa Monica pier and has a lot of restaurants and big brand stores. It starts at Santa Monica Place, an open-air mall with a food court we had Mongolian barbecue lunch at, and runs northwest for a couple of blocks. Even if you’re not looking to shop, you can just enjoy the cozy atmosphere created by its design and several street performers.
Santa Monica pier
The pier is of course the most famous attraction in Santa Monica. The area closest to the beach contains a small amusement park called Pacific Park, complete with a roller coaster and ferris wheel. There are also several restaurants, including the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. The pier is over a hundred years old and reaches into the Pacific Ocean towards the southwest. While walking to its end, you’ll encounter many street performers, food/drink salesmen and fishermen. From the end, you’ll have a nice view of the coastline’s buildings and beaches. The pier can get pretty crowded, especially around the amusement park, but not to the point of being uncomfortable.
Venice is an area further down the coast from Santa Monica. You can walk there by just following the beach from the Santa Monica pier, but it’s quite the walk. We decided to take a bus there and then walk back. One of the most characteristic parts of the area are the Venice Canals. These are basically three rectangular residential block islands, surrounded by water and only connected by walk bridges and a single through-street for cars. You can look at the cozy houses, boats and bridges while walking around the outer edges of the islands.
Venice Beach Boardwalk & Muscle Beach
From the Venice Canals, we walked back to the beach and then followed it back up to Santa Monica along the Venice Beach Boardwalk. This is a very long promenade with lots of small stores and restaurants. It is also the home of Muscle Beach, an open-air gym where muscular people work out in the sun and participate in bodybuilding events. There are also other outdoor sports facilities around, like basketball fields, tennis courts and a skate park. We didn’t use any of those and just went for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream instead, before grabbing a bus back towards where we parked the car in Santa Monica.
Day 3: Downtown, parks and Hollywood Boulevard
For day 3, we planned to start off in LA’s downtown area. Because parking there is tricky and/or expensive, we decided to leave the car back at the hotel and take the subway to the city center. You’ll need a TAP card (Transit Access Pass) to be able to use public transport and this card is valid for most buses and metros. You can get it online, at specific stores and at all metro stations. There are also several ways to top up the card’s stored value, including at metro station vending machines. You can also load it with a timed or number of trips subscription, but that seems to be limited to a single public transport agency.
Downtown Los Angeles
Our trip started off at Hollywood/Western, transferring from the red line to the blue line at 7th St/Metro Center, and ended at Pico, on the far west side of Downtown. Here we started our journey on foot towards Chinatown in the north. There are of course many things to see and do in the center of such a large city, but there’s a selection of what we went for:
- Los Angeles Convention Center: Every June, the biggest gaming event in the world (E3) takes place here and I attended that several times as part of my job in the games industry. It looked way less impressive without the giant poster ads and street events going on, though.
- OUE Skyspace LA: This is one of the tallest buildings in LA and has an observation deck at the top, including a glass slide. There’s also a bar and an interactive exhibition about the city. We found the 25 USD (22 EUR) entry fee, which does not include the slide, a little steep so we didn’t go up. The building itself is a pretty iconic part of the LA skyline, though, and can be seen from pretty much anywhere.
- Grand Park, with Walt Disney Concert Hall and Los Angeles City Hall: Grand Park is a nice open square at the north end of Downtown. It has some cafes and a fountain, so kids can play in the shallow water in front of it while their parents have some coffee. On the corner on one end is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is an interesting, shiny piece of architecture. On the other end is LA’s city hall, which you’ll have a nice view of from anywhere in the park.
- Chinatown and Chego: When you cross the highway north of Grand Park, you’ll be right at the edge of Chinatown. While not as cozy as for example San Francisco’s Chinatown, it still has a lot of Asian food and souvenir stores and matching atmosphere. Camilla got a lucky cat for her sister here, before we went for lunch at Chego. Because our first choice, the popular Howlin’ Ray’s, had an enormous line, we decided to go for this less crowded Korean-Mexican option. The Asian fusion prime rib sandwich and sriracha chocolate bar did not disappoint, even though this dessert turned out less spicy than expected.
After lunch, we took a bus back to our hotel, to continue by car for the rest of the day. While you’ll probably be fine in downtown LA during the day, there are some higher risk areas. According to SafeAround, you should always avoid Skid Row and also the areas around it when it gets darker. None of the locations mentioned above are in that neighborhood and we visited all of them during the morning and early afternoon.
Griffith Park & Observatory
Griffith Observatory is an iconic building in the hills north of the city. There’s a planetarium, exhibits and telescopes, but we mostly went here for the view of the city and the Hollywood sign. Apart from parking and some events in the planetarium, everything is free. The roads leading up to the building with parking space on the sides get congested quickly during the busiest hours, giving the impression that parking will be hard. After giving up on parking in a sloped corner, we drove all the way up to the observatory and were surprised to find more than enough parking space there.
You’ve probably seen this building before, because it’s featured in many movies (e.g. The Terminator, La La Land, Gangster Squad, Transformers and many more). I “recognized” the area from my time spent in Los Santos (Grand Theft Auto V), in which it’s called Galileo Observatory. You should definitely take a stroll around the towers, enjoying the city view from their balconies. You can also go inside and onto the roof.
The building itself is not that big, but there’s plenty to explore around it. It’s located in the very south of Griffith Park, a large hill area with lots of walking paths and other sights, including the Hollywood sign. Even though there are better spots to see that from, the sign is pretty visible from the observatory and you can even walk to it. We gave up hiking into the park quite quickly, because it was way too hot and there wasn’t much cover to provide shadow.
Mulholland Drive & Runyon Canyon
Mulholland Drive is a long and windy street through the fancy neighborhoods in the hills north of Los Angeles. If you’ve played GTA V, you’ll most certainly have driven through what’s supposed to be this area. The street starts and ends on Highway 101, going for 34 KM/21 MI from the Woodland Hills on the west end to the Hollywood Hills on the east end. Some of the most expensive houses in the world can be found along this road and it has amazing views of the city and valley. Just like Griffith Observatory, it’s been featured in many movies, most notably in David Lynch’s 2001 film of the same name.
If you follow Mulholland Drive west from the 101 for a little bit, you’ll come to the north entrance of Runyon Canyon Park. It’s way smaller than Griffith Park, but has a lot of nice walking paths and scenic overlooks. Because it’s located more to the west compared to Griffith Park, you’ll have a better view of the Santa Monica area and the ocean. We took the paved Runyon Canyon Road down to where it meets the Inspiration Point Hiking Trail, about halfway through the park. You can take several paved or unpaved pathways further down, ending at the park’s south entrance.
Hollywood Boulevard & The Walk of Fame
Hollywood Boulevard is probably the most famous part of Los Angeles. The most touristy section of it is between the Chinese Theatre and Vine Street, which is roughly the same area as the Walk of Fame. You can find the iconic stars with names of movie stars and other celebrities embedded in the sidewalks on both sides of the street, but due to how crowded it is here it can be hard to actually look at any of the stars. There’s plenty of other stuff to see and do on this street and it looks pretty when everything is lit up at night. You’ll also run into some of your favorite movie characters, such as Spider-Man, Darth Vader, Batman and Jack Sparrow.
There’s also a Hard Rock Cafe in this part of Hollywood Boulevard and they’re known for having some pretty decent burgers, so we already picked that as our dinner location beforehand. I tried their Local Legendary during an earlier visit, so decided to go for something else this time. That wrapped up our stay in Los Angeles, as the next day we would head to Las Vegas. Still without a convertible…
We bookmarked way more things ahead of time than we were able to do during our stay in Los Angeles. Here’s a quick overview of the things we missed out on:
- Pershing Square: A small city park plaza in the middle of downtown LA, with modern design and public art. It was being renovated and closed when we walked by.
- Beverly Hills & Rodeo Drive: Probably the most well-known residential neighborhood of Los Angeles, with the famous shopping street full of the most expensive brands in the world.
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art: We put LACMA on our map because of the Urban Light installation outside, which you can visit for free.
- The Getty: A museum campus west of LA. It has many exhibitions, but with impressive architecture, gardens and views of the city, the site is worth visiting just for itself.
- Eggslut: This gourmet food concept, “inspired by a true love for eggs”, became all the rage and a the go-to place for a hip breakfast/lunch. They have locations in Venice, Downtown and Beverly. When visiting the downtown location, it was super crowded and we decided not to wait in line.
- Gyu-Kaku: A restaurant chain specializing in Japanese-Korean barbecue. It was recommended to us by several people, but we never got to try it out, even though it has many locations in southern California and the whole US.
- Howlin’ Ray’s: Ray offers authentic Nashville hot chicken. I don’t know exactly what that means, but this place in LA’s Chinatown was mentioned in a podcast, including the fact that it is always super crowded. It was indeed when we got there, so we decided to go for Chego instead.
- Dave’s Hot Chicken: This was mentioned on the same podcast as Howlin’ Ray’s, as an alternative for good chicken if you find the wait at Ray’s too long. Unless you have a car, it’s not exactly quick to get from the one place to the other.
- Saddle Ranch Chop House: The Saddle Ranch is a pretty iconic restaurant on Sunset Boulevard and serves typical American food (burgers, ribs, steaks, wings and more) in a Western setting, including a mechanical bull inside. I’ve been here once before, but had to skip all other times. Parking here is usually impossible, so you’re better off not coming by car.
- Maple Block Meat Co.: I added this barbecue place to our map after seeing tasty Instagram pictures from a friend during her stay in LA a couple of weeks before ours, but we just never got close enough to it.