WHEN I DECIDED TO MOVE from New York to Los Angeles 10 years ago, some of my East Coast buddies insisted I was making a huge mistake. They claimed L.A. was a superficial city lacking good restaurants, interesting neighborhoods, an appreciation for arts and culture — and a bunch of other total nonsense. My experiences over the past decade have proven them all completely and utterly wrong.
Los Angeles is a world-class city. A mashup of cultures, mind-bending art, natural beauty, and killer food — it’s all here. And it isn’t hard to enjoy a perfect day in L.A. Just come prepared with an exploratory spirit, an open mind…and an empty belly. Here’s what my ideal itinerary looks like.
Watch the sunrise in Griffith Park.
Griffith Park is basically L.A.’s version of New York’s Central Park — a huge chunk of land set aside for public recreation, and one of the biggest urban parks in the country, to boot. It’s incredibly (and justifiably) popular and usually swarming with people during sunrise and sunset, especially near the Griffith Observatory. Instead, I recommend sneaking away from the crowds and over to the much quieter east side of the park to enjoy your sun worship in relative solitude.
A few different paths (including a 3-mile round-trip hike from a trailhead at the end of Cadman Drive) lead to Beacon Hill, a small rise that offers not-quite-360-degree views that feature both the Verdugo and San Gabriel Mountains, downtown Los Angeles, and even the Pacific Ocean on a clear day. The earlier you start, the less likely you are to encounter other people, and the more likely you are to spot rabbits, deer, and coyotes out for their own morning stroll.
Fuel up with breakfast at Square One Dining.
The best part about hiking (other than, well, hiking) is the sweet, sweet joy of stuffing your face afterwards. My refueling outlet of choice after a morning hike is Square One Dining, where you’ll find Intelligentsia coffee and a largely locally sourced menu. I head straight for the decadent huevos rancheros, and have been known to lick the last bit of salsa verde off my plate.
There are two different Square One locations, but I’m partial to the Fountain Avenue outpost, not only for its sunny back patio, but also the front-row view of the massive blue Scientology building across the street.
Get naked with strangers at Wi Spa.
According to my very wise friend Melaney: “It’s liberating as hell to be naked with strange women.” To be fair, you don’t actually have to get naked at Wi Spa, a classic Korean day spa, unless you want to soak in one of the hot or cold tubs located in the separate men’s and women’s spa areas. You can also don a pair of regulation-issue cotton shorts and a t-shirt to enjoy the co-ed facilities, which include a gym, restaurant, and an array of saunas that range from super steamy to downright meat-locker-esque.
While you can pay extra to schedule any number of spa treatments during your visit, I prefer to spend most of my time completely blissed out while burrowed under hundreds of tiny mud balls in the clay sauna.
Explore the menu of North African fusion at Revolutionario.
L.A. is considered the birthplace of Korean tacos (thank you, Kogi BBQ!), but the owners of Revolutionario have added another feather to the city’s impressive foodie cap with North African tacos. Come hungry, because it’s impossible to leave this tiny-but-colorful neighborhood joint without stuffing yourself to the max.
The first time I visited, I was so overwhelmed by the distinctive (and affordable) menu that I ordered enough for three people: a hearty chickpea-and-sweet-potato tagine bowl, falafel tacos, yellowtail ceviche, and fried cauliflower. I then dutifully smothered much of that with several of Revolutionario’s outstanding sauces (red harissa, I love you), threw some pickled veggies on top, then sat back with a contented exhale (and possibly a small burp) once I polished it all off. I was so smitten, I had to go back a week later for more.
Engage your senses at The Velaslavasay Panorama.
It’s a short drive (or long waddle) from Revolutionario to relax and digest at The Velaslavasay Panorama, an exhibit located inside the Union Theatre building. The “panorama” itself is an anachronistic oddity, a reminder of a pre-Internet age where entertainment was a bit…simpler. To enjoy this creative throwback, creep up a dark, claustrophobic staircase and take a seat in front of a hand-painted, three-dimensional, 360-degree art piece accompanied by a light and sound show that makes for a somewhat trippy viewing experience.
When you’re ready to come down, head through the historic theatre into a lush garden courtyard, and then stop in the small room adjacent to the lobby to view whatever rotating exhibit is currently on display. During my last trip, the space was transformed into a cozy “Arctic Trading Post” that knocked the socks off any museum exhibit I’ve seen.
Stop in at the world-class Natural History Museum.
Speaking of museums, anyone who thinks L.A. is nothing more than traffic jams and neon lights should make a stop at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. While there’s an undeniably great selection of special exhibits, I think the museum’s dreamy permanent collection is where it’s at. There are enough dino bones here to thrill a small army of 6-year-olds, and bird nerds will find plenty to ogle.
Personally, though, I always head straight for the furry stuff. The African Mammal Hall is my favorite section of the entire museum — every time I’m there, I stare into the über-realistic dioramas, lock eyes with a giraffe, and secretly wish for my own personal Night at the Museum experience.
Feast with friends at Papa Cristo’s.
In L.A., the question “Where should we have dinner?” can lead to a three-hour debate. If you’re asking this question on a Thursday, however, the answer is simple: Papa Cristo’s. On that magical evening, Papa Cristo — yes, he’s a real man (and a real character) — and his team rustle up a family-style Greek spread that’s not only big and fat, but also fun and delicious.
Make sure you block out a few hours and wrangle a few friends to join you, because the portions are epic…and the courses just keep on coming. A pre-dinner wine tasting will induce a joy-filled haze before you’re shocked into reality with an avalanche of tasty, tasty food. Dolmades, pita bread, potatoes, chicken, lamb, baklava — you name it, you’re going to eat it. Enjoy your post-meal food coma with a hearty helping of traditional music and hypnotic belly dancing, then give Papa Cristo a hug and check out the adjacent market before crawling out the front door.
Drink like a pirate at The Redwood Bar & Grill.
If you’re not incapacitated after eating 30 pounds of Greek food, make your way downtown, bypass all of the fancier watering holes, and grab a stool at The Redwood Bar & Grill.
This unpretentious, pirate-themed dive bar provides a seedy maritime ambiance and cheap well drinks, along with classier libations for the more discerning landlubbers among us. They host live music nearly every night of the week, it seems, but truthfully, I keep returning for the happy-hour specials, excellent jukebox, and atmosphere of general skullduggery.
Channel your inner superstar at Max Karaoke Studio.
In my book, no perfect day in Los Angeles is complete without heading over to the outskirts of Little Tokyo to commandeer one of the private rooms at Max Karaoke Studio. Since it’s located inside of a mall, you can visit any number of stores to load up on snacks (hello, Pocky!) before renting a room.
Once inside your private musical paradise, you’ll find nothing more than a vinyl booth, a small table or two…and one of the best song collections in the entire city. My friends and I come here so often, we’ve taken to adopting theme nights to mix things up. You want ‘60s soul? Check. You love ‘90s hip-hop? Check. ¿Quieres cantar en español? Check. You want to throw down with an amazing version of Meatloaf’s 12-minute opus “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”? Actually, please don’t.