9 Incredibly Cool Places in L.A. You’ve Never Heard Of
1. The secret world of L.A.’s speakeasies
Like all great cities, L.A. has a hidden side, an underbelly that goes largely unnoticed by workday folks going about their business but that’s nonetheless ever present. It’s always been this way. There have always been secret passages, secret passwords, and dark places where drinks are served and deals are done.
But you don’t have to be a Prohibition-era gangster to sip scotch at a finished hardwood bar. Just hunt down one of L.A.’s many speakeasy bars, dress to impress (many of them enforce a dress code), and come prepared with any password you may need. For more about L.A.’s hidden bars, check out this guide on Discover Los Angeles.
My pick is Blind Barber — enter through a really real barber shop (where with your haircut you get a craft cocktail from the back room) and open the unmarked door on the back wall. Turn the corner round a dimly lit hallway and you’re there — in a 1920s-styled, black-and-white-checker-tiled speakeasy with friendly bartenders and a grilled cheese sandwich menu with over a dozen iterations of melty goodness.
2. Frogtown and the L.A. River Greenway Trail
A seven-mile stretch of the L.A. River Greenway Trail runs between Glendale and Elysian Park. This is where the waterway transforms into the best version of itself, with heron hunting for fish on the edges of overgrown islands covered in unruly plants that have grown unchecked for years. Ducks and geese preen and flap and float in the water and pond turtles sit motionless on sun-warmed stones. It’s along this stretch of the Greenway Trail, into a little neighborhood called Frogtown, that you can find some of the most pleasant pedaling in L.A. It’s really easy to veer off the bike path and onto one of many side streets abutting it, and once you’re in Frogtown there are a handful of tucked away businesses that are worth the stop:
- FrogTown Brewery is a so-new-they-may-not-be-open-yet brewery at 2931 Gilroy St. that sells homebrew supplies for at-home alcohol alchemists.
- Elysian serves food so delicious and so beautifully presented it will utterly ruin and remake you in the same friggin’ bite. Bike in for brunch Sunday 10-2.
- Spoke Bicycle Cafe opens right onto the Greenway Trail / bike path and caters to the cyclists, joggers, and dog walkers who love this trail. The space is colorful and welcoming and owners Laurie and Richard are super friendly.
3. The bonfire pits of Dockweiler
To the best of my knowledge, Dockweiler State Beach is the only public beach in L.A. County where you can have a fire on the sand. And to this guy that makes Dockweiler holy ground.
The three-mile stretch of beach is directly under the takeoff flight path of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), so you have the added bonus of experiencing the roaring underbelly of a 747 as it climbs into the sky. The beach also has RV camping by reservation — if you’re rolling through L.A., you could do a lot worse than to pull your rig into Dockweiler.
The fire pits are big cement rings separated by a few hundred feet of sand and supposedly close at 10pm. Bring your own firewood, clean up after yourself, and come early (before dark) on the weekend if you want to grab a fire pit. I don’t have to tell you how awesome it feels to gather round the warm orange light of a crackling fire as the ocean surf roars in the dark just a few feet away.
4. Compton BBQ
BBQ is so much more than a way in which to cook meat. It’s a psychology of cuisine that sacrifices time on an altar of burning applewood for something that nears spiritual transcendence…at least that’s the way it feels when perfectly cooked pork rib meat is sliding off the warm slick bone between my sauce-stained fingers. A mound of beef brisket steams next to a pile of potato salad that sits next to a square of fragrant corn bread. This. Is. Heaven. Who knew heaven was in Compton?
Bludso’s BBQ is known as one of the best in Los Angeles. Kevin Bludso has cooked his meat low and slow since opening in Compton in 2008; this keeps the lines long and the BBQ aficionados coming back for more. But I’m not eating pork ribs and beef brisket at Bludso’s because they were SOLD OUT when I drove up (when they’re out, they’re out), which is when I found my way to…
…Robert Earl’s BBQ — a tiny slice of a restaurant with a big old BBQ pit belching smoke in the back parking lot. Pit master and owner Robert Earl took a moment from tending the pit to check in on each table as his patrons destroyed mounds of gently charred meat and sides of beans and macaroni and cheese in styrofoam containers. “How is everything? Everything good?” he asked me. I tried to form a sentence around my cheeks full of ribs, but all I could manage was a mushy “Sooo gooooood.”
5. The Bronson “Bat” Caves
A hundred years ago, a sliver of Griffith Park called Brush Canyon was a rock quarry that supplied the raw materials for L.A.’s city streets. After the quarry closed in the ‘20s a few short caves were left behind, and ever since, the old quarry has been a filming location for dozens of films and television shows, including the original Batman series, where the cave was the mysterious entrance to the Batcave.
To visit the Bronson Caves, just park in the free public parking spaces at the Bronson Canyon entrance to Griffith Park. Remember to be out by dark, or you’ll get a ticket and maybe locked in the park. The caves are up a short dirt path and are actually pretty cool…for five minutes. There’s a lot more to explore in the area, but now you can say you’ve been to the Batcave. I’ve seen coyote, deer, and a large number of noisy ravens in the quarry, as well as several commercial film shoots. Two steep trails climb the edges of the yawning quarry and connect at the top. From here, the Bronson Ridge Trail leads deeper into Griffith, towards the Observatory.
6. The Time Travel Mart
On their way from the present to the past, a time traveler may find themselves in need of a centurion helmet, a dead language, or an Evil Robot Memory Eraser. But where to pick up the supplies and sundries that savvy time travel requires? Why the Time Travel Mart in Echo Park and Mar Vista of course! Browse for a new buggy horn, ray gun, robot toupee, or a portable black hole in this fantastical convenience store for time travelers.
All proceeds go to supporting the free programs at 826LA, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the creative and expository writing of kids age 6-18. Non-time travelers welcome.
7. The Wayfarers Chapel and Rancho Palos Verdes
Compared to the cityscape of Los Angeles, Rancho Palos Verdes feels like another country. The grid is gone and open spaces, huge views, and squiggly roads that access deserted coves dominate this coastal oasis. Located just south of Torrance, RPV’s most prominent feature (besides the affluent homes) are the Palos Verdes Hills and the ridge of sea-facing cliffs that look out over the Pacific. Some of L.A.’s best views of the ocean are in RPV.
Among my favorite places to pull over are the Point Vicente Lighthouse, Pelican Cove Park, and Terranea Resort’s cliffside restaurant, Nelson’s, where you can see gray whales migrating past Long Point during the spring. Farther south, towards Portuguese Bend, Abalone Cove Shoreline Park is a popular spot for beachcombing and sits across the street from one of RPV’s more famous structures — Wayfarers Chapel.
Designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) as a “tree chapel,” the Wayfarers Chapel is set among a stand of redwoods with large, elegant windows that blend the spaces of the sacred inner sanctum with the majestic outer natural beauty to create a transcendent sensation of being both outside and inside.
8. The end of the Old Mulholland Highway
Since the 1920s, the Mulholland Highway has famously wound its way for 30 miles through Los Angeles County from Leo Carrillo State Park on the coast to Calabasas. From there Mulholland Drive, takes over for 25 miles, five of which is a dirt road in Topanga State Park only open to hikers, cyclists, and equestrians. The eventual end of the whole Mulholland shebang is the 101 freeway in Hollywood.
The route is beautiful and serpentine, but what many people don’t know is that the true end of the Mulholland Highway is a series of dirt trails that lead into Griffith Park. Near the entrance of the Hollywood Reservoir, a dirt path diverges from Montlake Blvd and heads uphill. This unassuming trail is actually the nearly forgotten tail end of the Old Mulholland Highway.
The OMH trail rises through dense cacti and succulents, and there’s a willow tree that throws lovely shade before a branch in the trail. Right will take you to Durand Drive and past the stately Wolf’s Lair Castle. Left will continue on the OMH trail and soon you’ll discover, as I did, that chunks of roughly paved road are protruding from the sage and wild mustard at odd angles. These pieces of road are so out of place on the dusty single track path that you check Google Maps — and yup — it says you’re standing on the Mulholland Highway. It’s a short but supremely pleasant walk to the end of the secret OMH trail to Canyon View Drive and the Lake Hollywood Overlook, where dozens of tourists are taking photos of those nine famous white block letters. Flanking the end of this magical little stretch of Mulholland Highway is Castillo del Lago — a gorgeous Mediterranean-style estate.
Park at the Hollywood Reservoir or the Lake Hollywood Dog Park to walk the end of the OMH trail.
9. El Matador State Beach
Blink and you’ll miss the entrance to this teeny coastal park. So keep your eyes peeled on Pacific Coast Highway a few miles north of Malibu for the turnoff into the small parking lot. Although this park doesn’t have a big footprint, it’s very popular with locals, photographers-in-the-know, students from the nearby Pepperdine University, and commercial and film crews. So be prepared for a full parking lot.
Why are people competing for space in this little park when one side of the whole state is a beach? The rocks. The cluster of shallow beaches is reached by descending a trail into a world of towering spires of stone. Up and down the beach, a series of enormous rock features stand among the sand and surf. A few of the large rock features have natural caves and caverns that have been scoured out by millennia of seawater and are really fun to duck into.
El Matador is an eminently photographable location, and you’ll see shutterbugs from all walks of life looking for the right light. Bring a camera and make a few #travelstoke memories yourself.