Look Over the City

Did you know that LA is gigantic? I knew this in theory, but I didn’t have a real sense of how big LA was until I noticed that we would be driving 15 miles from Highway 1 (“the PCH” as they say in LA) to the flat we were renting in Silverlake. This was notable to me because you can’t drive 15 miles across San Francisco without ending up in the ocean, in the Bay, or in a different county.

griffithparkviewview of LA from Griffith Park Observatory

Getting a better sense of LA was one of my goals on this trip. Although I’d been to LA before, I didn’t know it very well. I didn’t have a real sense of LA as a city  – its size, its smells, its neighborhoods, parks, or streets. I’d never given LA the time or attention that I’d given to other cities.

Like many northern Californians, I’d long dismissed LA. I thought it was polluted, car-centric and generic — a city made up of strip malls and chain stores that you could find anywhere. And there were parts of LA that still felt that way to me on this trip.

what so much of LA looked like

We had coffee and pastries at Single Origin, which was in an outdoor area full of food stands called the Farmers Market. It’s a place could be (should be!) cool, but it’s surrounded by big parking lots and giant big box stores that lend it the feeling of a mall food court. We went to a Santa Monica café that’s owned by someone who’d trained at Tartine Bakery in SF. But while Tartine is in a neat, old building, this cafe was in a totally non-descript building that could easily have been a location for the Gap.

But the majority of LA that I saw on this trip wasn’t generic or mall-like at all. We had coffee at two different, (mostly) independent coffee shops in Silverlake. On tree-lined North Vermont Street in Los Feliz, we went to an indie bookstore and admired an ornate old theater. We went to 826 LA in Echo Park. (826 has locations across the country and they’re all different and absurd in their own special way: 826 SF is a pirate shop, 826 NYC is a superhero supply shop, and 826 LA is a time-travel shop that sold items like cans of mammoth chunks, shown below, and travel posters for Pangea.)

Across the LA River in Atwater Village, we ate croissants from Proof, a great local bakery, and checked out the old Beastie Boys’ G-Son studio. We also ate really well in the industrial-looking Downtown Arts District, where we had coffee at Handsome Coffee, fantastic tacos from Guerrilla Tacos (a weekly pop-up at Handsome) and a slice of pie at the adorable Pie Hole (pictured below).


And while we certainly spent our fair share of time in the car, we also took long neighborhood walks through Silverlake and spent time exploring the many little stairways in the hills around where we were staying. I’d mapped out one stairway walk before we left (The Music Box steps, which are featured in the classic Laurel & Hardy movie; we roughly reversed the directions posted here), but we stumbled on all kinds of other stairways, like the Landa stairs that we happened on one night and led us to a great view of the city lights.

la-stairwayStairs at Micheltorena and Sunset Blvd

We barely scratched the surface of the city on this brief trip, but it was enough to counter many of my assumptions about LA. Yes, there was the glossy mall-like experience of LA, but there were also grungier areas full of old warehouses and unique neighborhoods that felt like small towns. As expected, we did a lot of driving on long, four-lane boulevards and many, many freeways. But we also walked a lot and spent time on suburban-feeling streets lined with single family homes, down sidewalks that were often plagued with dog poop, and up bougainvillea-covered stairways in the hills.

And I left LA this time wanting to come back so I could see more.


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