It took me three attempts in order to finally fall for this seemingly boundless city. During my previous visits I was somewhat blinded by the downside of urban expansion, air pollution and heavy traffic congestion. However this February we had the chance to experience the city through our friends eyes who have been living there for quite some time and were surprised by the beauty of it.
Where to sleep
#1 Santa Monica Beach - Ocean Lodge Hotel: Finding a hotel at the beachfront of Santa Monica is not very easy unless you are willing to spend a fortune on ridiculously over-priced accommodation. I have to admit that at a first glance the Ocean Lodge Hotel looks quite sketchy with a filthy parking lot and creepy lobby. However the hotel has a prime location for all the activities in and around Santa Monica and the beach and pier are just a short walk away. The rooms are nothing special but they are clean and that's all we needed for the weekend. Fun Fact: many scenes of the Amazon’s 2016 legal drama series Goliath were shot on the balconies of this kitschy retro hotel.
#2 Downtown - Freehand Los Angeles: I am absolutely in love with this place! The Freehand began as a hostel-type hotel in Miami, but according to Sydell Group CEO Andrew Zobler 'the idea of Freehand is more about capturing the culture of a hostel—meeting people and socializing, having unexpected interactions—than it is about being one'. The setup is great for friends traveling together or families with small children like us. Our kids loved the cosiness of the bunk beds and the roof top pool is just unbeatable. The roof top bar and the on-site restaurant The Exchange (see more details in below section 'Where to eat') offer great culinary options for the whole family.
#3 Venice Beach - Su Casa Venice: This oceanfront location offers families both one-bedroom and fully furnished studios equipped with kitchen, microwave, stove and table settings. The location can't be beat, the access is secure and convenient after hours and the place is always clean. The Figtrees Café is one of the must do breakfast places on the boardwalk and the convenience of it being part of the hotel is just perfect. Bike rentals are only steps away and the proximity to the Venice Beach Boardwalk (including all its attractions), Marina Del Rey and Abbott Kinney Boulevard make it a great place to explore. Be aware that it can get a bit noisy at night and the boardwalk feels somehow sketchy after sunrise (lots of homeless people are gathering at the boardwalk in order to to sleep there), but this did not really matter to us because with the kids we weren't out and about late night.
Where to eat
The city's geography, economics, agriculture and multiculturalism makes LA a top dining destination. So you will definitely not lack a choice of all kinds of culinary experiences.
#1 Espresso Cielo: A cute little coffee shop with delicious coffee and real french butter croissants (check out the avocado toast, yummy!). There are two locations (Main and 2nd Street). Perfect for a cozy start into the day.
#2 Joe's Pizza: Only steps away from the beachfront, this whole in the wall is a low-key NY style joint offering thin crusts with a selection of toppings. Perfect for to-go or a quick eat at one of the few red bar chairs.
#3 Figtrees Café: This beachfront Café is a healthy food oasis amongst the fast food options that line the boardwalk. The menu includes organic vegetable, seafood, sandwiches, salads, pastas, all-day breakfasts and turkey burgers. Sit back and enjoy watching all the weirdos and tourists passing by the Café.
#4 Le Zinque: With its rustic atmosphere this coffee and wine bar spreads a very relaxing vibe. We were there for a great breakfast but it is apparently also known for its french charcuterie platters, sandwiches and quiches.
#6 Gjelina: According to Zagat 'it may be easier to get blessed by the Pope than to snag a seat at this buzzing American hot spot on Abbot Kinney Blvd'. So be sure to make a reservation in advance. We ate an incredible brunch in their patio but the place is mostly known for their rustic farm-to-table cooking particularly their excellent wood-fired pizzas.
#5 The Butcher's Daughter: Located on Abbot Kinney Blvd, the place offers something for everyone, with a takeout window for dog-walking locals, a big dining area centered around a large communal table and a little shop stocked with a distinctive mix of beauty products, fitness gear and goods for the pantry. The kitchen is offering vegetarian (mostly vegan) dishes and juices in a very relaxed space.
#7 Broken Shaker: While the pool is only available to guests of the Freehand Hotel, the roof top bar is open to public and I highly recommend to go there and enjoy some guac n' chips and a handcrafted cocktail while watching the sun setting behind the high rises. It really is an oasis in the heart of Downtown LA!
#8 The Exchange: Located in Downtown’s Freehand hotel, it serves an array of salatim, eggs and grain bowls for breakfast, Middle Eastern salads, sandwiches and burgers for lunch or dinner. Check out my favorite salatims: burnt eggplant and beets, they are heavenly delicious.
#9 The Counter: This chain serves 'build-your-own' burgers, beers and big screens with sports games. I would not call it a must go but it is a easy place to go out at night with kids (paper and pens are distributed when you are seated and the place is quite noisy so you do not have to worry about your kids screaming around).
What to do
#1 Venice Beach Boardwalk: No visit to L.A. is complete until you’ve had a chance to stroll the world famous Ocean Front Walk. Home to palm and tarot card readers, sand sculptors, performance artists, street hustlers, buskers and bodybuilders, it is one of the best places in Los Angeles for people watching. Try to keep an open mind as you explore the boardwalk and don’t be surprised to find yourself being hit up for tips. It's perfectly safe and a lot of fun.
#2 Santa Monica Pier: The red and yellow Ferris wheel is a city icon and although it is totally overpriced you should not leave wihtout a ride. The Pier offers a mix of amusement park, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops, as well as an entertaining arcade with more than 200 games. Our kids also loved the historic Hippodrome Carousel. The views of Malibu and the South Bay are pretty outstanding and it is a great spot to watch the sunset with a beer in hand.
#3 Santa Monica Beach: No matter if you plan to walk, ride a bike, watch the countless people doing all kinds of sports or just sit and read a book while your kids play in the sand, it is a great place to spend a sunny day at the beach.
#4 Venice Canals: Winding through a neighborhood of picturesque (and very expensive) houses, the canals feature arched bridges and great LA photo-ops.
#5 The Last Book Store: This iconic bookstore is housed in the grand atrium of a former bank. The marble pillars and mile-high ceiling did remain, but in place of well-kept cash, shelves line the walls artfully displaying all kinds of books.
#6 Grand Central Market: This downtown landmark offers a great shopping experience, featuring 100% local vendors and a diversity of produce, ingredients and prepared foods. Make sure to stop by in order to grab some tasty street food such as the tasty fish tacos from La Tostaderia or the incredible Eggslut burger.
#7 Griffith Observatory: The Southern California’s gateway to the cosmos! Visitors can look through telescopes, explore exhibits, see live shows in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium and enjoy spectacular views of Los Angeles and the Hollywood Sign.
#8 Disney Land: Enter a magical kingdom where you can sail with pirates, explore exotic jungles, meet fairy-tale princesses, dive under the ocean and rocket through the stars! The park is more than a hour drive away from Downtown LA so you might consider staying there over night (you can find guidelines and directions on the Disneyland website)
#9 Abbot Kinney Blvd: If you are searching for a truly eclectic shopping experience, look no further than Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. This is a popular destination for Boho chic shoppers, one-of-kind local goods as well as internationally recognized brands. During the first Friday night of each month the boulevard becomes a street festival filled with live music, food trucks and more.
How to get around
The City of Angels is a extremly wide spread city, stretching 20 miles from Santa Monica Beach to the edge of the San Fernando Valley. Getting around takes time and patience, especially if you drive with a car. Highways and side streets are often choked with cars no matter what time of the day. My strong advice therefore: choose a hotel located near attractions you want to visit.
#1 Walk: In order to avoid driving back and forth and being able to walk as much as possible, we decided to switch hotels during our stay in LA. I know the thought of packing and unpacking all the suitcases sounds very exhausting, but I think it is far less tiring than travelling back and forth with your kids.
#2 Taxi/ Ride share: if you need to drive, try to get a ride share in order to save a lot of energy and nerves.