The City of Angels—the pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles—has shown its glamour-puss face to the world for so long that way too many people come expecting some kind of palmy celebrity zoo. That's the illusion the city creates every Oscar night—a happy little village called Hollywood, full of friendly stars eager to wave back at us.
What too many people don't expect is the real Los Angeles, a hyperactive metro area of nearly four million people, a Babel of 80-plus tongues, and an entertainment industry carried on mostly behind closed doors and locked gates.
The city stretches 40 miles (64 kilometers), from 5,000-foot (1,500-meter) mountains to the Pacific, and claims 467 square miles (1,209 square kilometers). That's 20 Manhattan Islands, or ten San Franciscos, or two Chicagos. Within a three-hour drive you can ski, hike alpine wilderness, fly cast, or surf.
Even bigger is the Angeleno concept of L.A., which annexes adjoining self-governing municipalities. Thus Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Culver City, and Malibu are seen as nice neighborhoods belonging to the Big Pueblo. Ditto Burbank and the San Fernando Valley, where the ditsy dialect known as Valley Girl arose.
Despite its diversity, L.A. delivers on its stereotypes. That's because it is America's most status-obsessed, trend-addicted city. Why else would so many people drive black cars in a desert? (L.A. is a desert in denial. Just look up at the scrub in the Santa Monica Mountains.)
Also, at any moment, nine out of ten Angelenos appear to be on cell phones. Take a café table anywhere west of downtown, and within an hour you'll see most of the city's archetypes—agitated men and women speaking loudly on cells (producers and agents) and dropping names so you'll know they're Somebody; unhappy-looking guys in baseball caps (screenwriters); and upscale moms flush-faced from yoga class, flip-flopping along with foam mats under their arms, sipping nonfat decaf lattes while driving huge SUVs (black ones).
You'll see wanna-be actresses and actors everywhere. Thousands arrive every year, having been told one too many times that they're really good-looking, convinced that stardom is their birthright. That's why most waiters look like soap opera stars, and your waitress keeps checking her newly augmented lips in any reflecting surface she can find and forgets your drink order. That's why food service in L.A. is generally poor. They're only biding time, waiting for the Big Pager Beep.
For me, L.A.'s most affecting symbol is its great plain of lights, so vast it makes some feel that no one can really matter much here. Others see it differently. Disney Company chief Michael Eisner likens this "massive twinkling carpet" to the lanterns, or farolitos, put outside after dark in Spanish colonial days to greet travelers.
"Whenever I fly in at night," he says, "I'm dazzled by the light show the city puts on to welcome me back. It's not an illusion. Los Angeles is an expansive metropolis, spreading in all directions, ever modern, shining with the light of cultures from around the world."
L.A. has welcomed so many that one in three Angelenos is foreign-born—a phenomenon most evident downtown, once the Wall Street of the West, now reinventing itself piece by elegant piece, starting with the new Museum of Contemporary Art. L.A. will soon have a Hispanic majority. Enclaves of Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Orthodox Jews, Pacific Islanders, and Russian immigrants are growing. There are so many Persians here some call it Irangeles.
Hollywood, seeking an identity ever since the studios left for roomier digs nearby, has gussied itself up and will host the Oscars next year for the first time since 1960. It isn't the center of the movie industry anymore, but it's full of cinematic treasures—museums, revival houses, and vintage theaters.
Don't be shy about doing touristy things. That's L.A. Attend a Hollywood Bowl concert if you can. Window-shop Beverly Hills, that snazzy little principality of cash and cachet, as integral to L.A.'s personality as Vatican City is to Rome's. Book a studio tour, buy a map to stars' homes and drive by (don't ring doorbells, though). Stroll the UCLA campus in Westwood, and have lunch at the magnificent new Getty Museum overlooking West Los Angeles.
You also must drive out Sunset to the Will Rogers estate, now a state park, and picnic under eucalyptus on the fairway-size lawn of Rogers's 1920s ranch house. On summer weekends they play polo there, as Rogers did when he was America's preeminent humorist. This is Old Hollywood—at old Hollywood prices: three bucks for the day.
Take a walk into the Santa Monica Mountains to Inspiration Point, over-looking Rogers's estate. The panorama embraces Los Angeles. Among the homes below is Steven Spielberg's, a reminder that big dreams do come true here.
Contributing editor MARK MILLER is a screenwriter and a Los Angeles-based columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.