In 1946, the California historian Carey McWilliams wrote that "the abuse of Los Angeles has become a national pastime"—and it's more or less still true. Perhaps this is because, for most of America, a stereotypical vision of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and the Westside has become synonymous with the city itself. This is the blonde, rich, sometimes glamorous, but often dumb Los Angeles that's been romanticized, mythologized, satirized, and perpetuated in films and TV shows: Sunset Boulevard, Annie Hall, L.A. Story, Beverly Hills Cop, and Entourage, to name a few.
The real Los Angeles is a far more multifarious creature. The sprawling metropolitan area that makes up Los Angeles County is home to more than 10 million people—it's the most populous county in the U.S.—and 88 incorporated cities, each with its own distinct character. In other words, Los Angeles, a collection of microcosms, offers numerous versions of itself.
In Los Angeles, you can watch gray whales swim off the coast of Point Dume in Malibu, or rub shoulders with incognito starlets ordering vegan takeout at the trendy . You can drive up into the Santa Monica Mountains, along Mulholland Drive, enjoying, by day, panoramic views of multimillion-dollar homes perched on stilts—or, at night, the lights of the city twinkling below. You can cruise downtown to the cheerful bustle of Olvera Street's quaint Mexican marketplace, where vendors arranged along a brick-paved corridor sell brightly colored piñatas, serapes, trinkets, and sweets.
The catch is that because Los Angeles is so enormous and diffuse—its many neighborhoods connected by a complicated network of boulevards and freeways that are often congested with traffic—it can be challenging to navigate. To put it in cinematic terms, it's nearly impossible to see Los Angeles in one epic, sweeping shot, much better to view it in a concentrated series of close-ups. In this, the visitor has an advantage. If you don't have to fight rush-hour traffic—it's as bad as people say—you can get around without much difficulty. Good thing, because with cabs pricey and public transportation inadequate, the only way to fully experience L.A. is by car.
Where to start? Stalking the ghosts of Old Hollywood is as legitimate an approach as any to the vastness of Los Angeles. "L.A. is the place from which popular culture emanates," says artist , whose multimedia work takes the city as its subject. "It's the creative center of the world." Myths and stories of the past overlay the actuality of the present-day city, imbuing the landscape with a spooky duality. One of the best ways to experience this phenomenon is to drive west on Sunset Boulevard, the 22-mile artery that stretches from Figueroa Street downtown all the way to the beach. On the Sunset Strip, you'll pass notorious clubs (like the , where the Doors played) and iconic hotels. The most famous is arguably the shabby-chic , where everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Billy Wilder has been a guest. These days, its paparazzi-free garden is a kind of wildlife preserve for celebrities.
But to get overly preoccupied with Hollywood lore would mean missing what's exciting about the city now—its vibrant arts scene. "To me, it's a myth that Los Angeles is a one-industry town," says Billy Lehman, the principal at . "We have a lot of cultural hubs, everything from aerospace to art to architecture." Some of the most important architects of the 20th century have worked here, including Rudolph M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, and John Lautner. "Most of the innovative American architecture of the postwar era was coming out of L.A.," says , one of the city's most sought-after architects. "There was the high modernism of the Case Study movement; and Frank Gehry's own house, which popped the cork on the L.A. School of the late 1970s and '80s."
Worth a close look are Schindler's 1922 , a live-work space for two couples, which was radical for its time, as well as midcentury-modern classics like the , with its façade of color-block windows, and , with a living room that follows the contours of its hilltop site. Finally, don't miss Gehry's wildly eccentric , the architectural equivalent of Russian nesting dolls.
For fine art, too, Los Angeles is fast becoming a world-class destination. Five years ago, the was said to be a "nascent Chelsea." Today the area is in full bloom. Spend an afternoon browsing the cluster of galleries that has sprung up like mushrooms—highlights include , , , and . Then, to grasp the scope of the contemporary-art scene, hit and in Beverly Hills, followed by the influential , now in new, 20,000-square-foot Hollywood digs; Raymond Pettibon and Catherine Opie belong to Regen's impressive stable.
Artists are drawn to L.A. because it's still possible to find affordable housing and studio space here. But they also feel liberated by what Bestor calls "the promise of the West." The lack of an old-school artistic establishment gives the city the freewheeling atmosphere of, say, New York City in the '70s and early '80s. "L.A. is magical in a lot of ways, because you can do anything you want," says fashion designer , whose clothes have been worn by Michelle Obama and Tilda Swinton. "There aren't any rules. It's still very open."
Food critic describes the L.A. restaurant universe as similarly unencumbered by tradition. "When I was working in New York, I often felt like I was describing the amusements of the rich," he says. "In L.A., there's a casualness that's taken for granted. Plus, the variety of food available is stunning." Los Angeles might not have "expense-account French," to use Gold's term, on par with New York City's Le Bernardin (though and come close). But, he says, the city has seemingly endless choices in ethnic cuisine. He singles out Thai (), Mexican (), and Chinese (Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village) as exceptional. Not surprisingly, you'll have to drive to Thai Town, Koreatown, or the San Gabriel Valley, respectively, to try them.
There are a growing number of L.A. chefs gaining national renown: some for their experimental cuisine, such as Michael Voltaggio at (named "best new restaurant in America" by GQ); others for their inventive use of local ingredients, à la Travis Lett at and Ray Garcia at . "Food is so connected to the way people live here," says Gold. "People actually have gardens and grow things."
Since Los Angeles is largely devoid of street life, Angelenos spend a lot of time at home, and are deeply invested in what those homes look like. But because this is L.A.—western, free spirited, often just weird—they want interiors that are unique. "There's what I call a 'dwelling adventurism,'" says Leh-man. "People express themselves through how they live." Explains Brooke Hodge, director of exhibitions at the : "The fact that there are so many large houses with wealthy owners who want to work with interior designers, and that there's so much space in which the owners can create a particular aesthetic—that's definitely different from New York City, where living is more apartment-based."
is the place to find furniture, antiques, and rugs, whatever your particular aesthetic. "It's basically the Main Street of design in Los Angeles," says antiques dealer , whose eclectic showroom is located in the heart of the district. Unlike in other cities, where designers' showrooms are perched loftily above street level or are open only to the trade, LCDQ is approachable and welcoming of the public. "Rather than walking through a cavernous design center, you're walking up and down a tree-lined street," says Stanton. The casual, democratic vibe of this neighborhood is an apt metaphor for the Los Angeles design world. Many decorators—Rose Tarlow, Kelly Wearstler, Peter Dunham, Nathan Turner, among them—have shops in the vicinity where the public can purchase a bit of their usually exclusive sensibility.
If Los Angeles has arresting domiciles mastered and magnificent outdoor landscapes to spare, it has not quite conquered the urban public space. Until recently, the city didn't even have much of a downtown, only a crime-ridden husk where downtown had once been. But a renaissance is afoot. One gets a sense of a city striving for civic legitimacy. The massive entertainment complex, which includes a Ritz-Carlton hotel and a passel of restaurants with sidewalk dining, was completed in 2010, in a formerly desolate area near the Staples Center. In 2014, the long-awaited , designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro, is set to open on Grand Avenue, next door to the stainless steel sails of Frank Gehry's ; architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff has called the new Broad "the final component of a kind of cultural acropolis." (The museum will house Eli Broad's impressive contemporary-art collection, which he has declined to donate to any public institution until now.) With the recent opening of the 12-acre , the city finally has a dynamic public space, with a wading fountain, a performance lawn, and a community terrace.
On a recent afternoon, the area around the L.A. Live complex teemed with people lining up to see films at the ; others were drinking and dining at sidewalk cafés. Across the street from the Ritz-Carlton, a taco truck and palm reader had installed themselves. The atmosphere was carnival-esque, humming with people from all walks of life. It was crowded, disorderly, high, low, new, old, urban, and suburban at once. It felt like Los Angeles.