I’m a Southern California native, and I lived in Los Angeles from 2001 to 2019 until I moved to Orange County. I’m jaded and grew up skeptical of LA because I grew up in San Diego (America’s finest city, duh!) and LA was always this big crowded, smoggy, traffic filled mess in my mind. It kind-of still is, but I’ve made the best of it and had some incredibly special memories here. So here’s my advice on where to stay and what to see.
I’ve realized that I have so much to say about my favorite little part of Los Angeles – The South Bay – that I’m going to break this up into two parts. This one will focus on the best part of LA – the area West of the 405
Where to stay
I can not stress enough how mind-suckingly awful the 405 is. Traffic really is that bad. What you should do is look on a map at what you want to see and pick something that’s close. And I think it’s totally fine to pick up and move hotels around a lot. If you’re following my travel hacking tips, you know that you get point bonus when you check in to a new Marriott. So earn yourself a free vacation sooner, and save stress and time on your vacation. An hour in the car in LA is not the same as an hour in the car in the midwest. It hurts, it’s draining, it’s numbing.
If you want me to get even more specific than that – I definitely recommend staying West of the 405. My running joke is that if I’m going East of the 405, I’m probably in an airplane. There are some valuable things to do on the East side, and that’s obviously where the majority of the city is, but I freak out about traffic and I spent most of my time in the “South Bay Bubble” which is the area West of the 405 between LAX and Torrance.
LAX is the closest airport to being West of the 405, but it’s a huge pain. They’re going through major upgrading construction, and while I love being able to use the convenience of rideshare – since they started allowing them the traffic getting in and out of the airport has become abysmal. I’ve often said that it would take the same amount of time for me to drive from my office (2 miles south of the airport) to John Wayne Airport in Orange County than to drive to and through LAX. As of late October 2019: you can get dropped off by rideshare at LAX, but you can’t get picked up by rideshare at LAX – you have to take a shuttle. They’re still working out the kinks on that as I hit publish, so I’m going to come back with an update.
I’m an American Airlines person, so I usually fly through Terminal 4 or 5, and sometimes through Tom Bradley (the international terminal). I know the Southern part of the airport (higher terminal numbers) a lot better. The terminals are connected with walkways underground on the air side (after security), so if you have a long layover and a lounge access in another terminal (Priority Pass!) then you can walk and snack, drink, and relax for free! I think Terminal 5 has great food options: Lemonade is great because it’s actually healthy (cafeteria-style, also available outside of the airport) and Rock & Brews is a great option for a beer – I go to their restaurants in El Segundo and Redondo Beach very very frequently! I love their kale salad, and the pretzels are good. The fake food truck in Terminal 4 and the Vegan restaurant are my favorite choices there. We don’t have a lot of Dunkin Donuts in California, but you can find one here, with a hefty line!
If you look at the LAX road map from above, you’ll see that it looks like a “U” with a bunch of ladder rungs. Some times, especially if you’re in Terminal 7, it can be quicker to take a left and cut across the middle. That’s not always the case, especially for the last cut-over, because of the way the lights are timed. Seriously, leave way extra time for getting to LAX. When you’re leaving or are on the bottom level, there’s a road that goes from the very bottom of the “U” straight up the middle (so like a W?) that not many people take and the traffic isn’t as bad because people aren’t pulling over and picking people up. You can get there from any of the cut-overs on the bottom side, not just the middle.
Other airport options are Long Beach (LGB) which is convenient and small and easy to breeze through. There’s also Ontario (ONT) and Burbank (BUR) but since they are so far east I’ve never used them.
I’ve had some fun days on the Amtrak in Southern California. The Pacific Surfliner runs from San Diego up to Santa Barbara. (You can go farther North, but I think you have to transfer in SB). In my OC Blog I talk about the stops south of LA, but I don’t think I’d recommend it to get around LA county itself – because, you guessed it, it veers so far east. The Downtown Union Station is a really cool building and a lot of people go take their engagement pictures there, so it’s a good option to go there and take the train North to Santa Barbara or south to the OC or San Diego.
Generally, public transportation in LA sucks. There’s no good subways or bus lines, and it has to do with how big of a sprawl LA actually is. The city is a big mesh of freeways (we call them freeways here and not highways) so if you want to get from Point A to Point B, you’re probably going to have to transfer or walk a bit, and it can take forever. I remember when I moved ten years ago, I looked into if there was a public transportation option, and a 30 minute drive would take me over 2 hours.
The number one rule of driving in California is that if you’re not going to “vroom vroom” then stay out of the vroom vroom lane. Unless you’re going 80 mph, or staying immediately behind the car in front of you, stay out of the left two lanes. If you get passed on the right, you lose a turn and have to merge right one lane.
Because of the layout of the city, you’re really going to need to use a car to get anywhere. But I hate rental cars (especially Avis, never use Avis) so I think it’s worth while to check and see if it would be less expensive for you to take rideshares the whole time you’re here instead of a rental car. Once you add in gas and parking, it might be the cheaper option – plus you’ll be allowed to enjoy some yummy California wine or beers safely and save your sanity on the 405. This works especially well if you follow my advice to stay near your points of interest.
Definitely carpool – the carpool lane can save you fifteen minutes on a thirty mile drive. Locals with an ecologically friendly car can apply to go in the carpool lane solo, if you see a solo driver in the carpool lane with stickers on their bumpers that’s why. Unfortunately that’s not an option with rental cars. Another perk for solo travelers to use Rideshare.
Something that freaks out visitors is that motorcycles are legally allowed to split lanes on the freeway in California. It’s dangerous and it can startle you. You need to consciously pay more attention to your side view mirrors and keep an eye out for them, especially when merging. If you see one coming, skooch to the side to give them a wider berth.
Usually my favorite thing to do in LA is leave. If I’m still going to stay in LA County, I love going to Catalina Island. There’s a song that goes “26 miles out to sea, Santa Catalina is the Place to be!” It’s not the cheapest option, but you can hop on the Catalina Express from three locations in LA or the OC and go to Avalon or Two Harbors. It’s great for a day trip. I’ll do a separate blog post about it, but walking around Avalon Harbor, eating ice cream, having lunch, all area plenty to fill your day. Catalina doesn’t allow very many full size cars – most drive golf carts – and you can rent them and do a tour. Definitely recommend for a great view. I like taking out a glass bottom boat for those that don’t want to snorkel or dive. You can also go horse back riding, the golf is good, and there’s great camping there. Hotels are expensive.
The scuba diving in Catalina is REALLY good – they have gorgeous huge kelp forests that you can swim through – it’s like hiking underwater! There is a lot of cool wildlife that you can’t see anywhere else. It’s also a great idea to get on a dive boat out of LA to go to Catalina for scuba – you’re not going to get to explore the town and eat ice cream, but the views above and below water are great!
The first weekend in October is Buccaneer Days – literally a giant drunken party where everyone in Two Harbors is dressed like a pirate. Two Harbors is absolutely TINY, so if you go you need to be on a live-aboard boat or you’ll probably be camping. Also note that the boat schedule to take the ferry over to Two Harbors is not as prolific as the one to Avalon. It’s a lot of fun though.
And of course there’s the fucking Catalina Wine Mixer. (It wasn’t a real thing until the movie Step Brothers, and it wasn’t even filmed in Catalina, but now they’re making it a real thing).
This whole blog is really about my love affair with the South Bay
If you have only a short layover at LAX or you want to find a better more local-centric option for your Los Angeles trip, my top tip is to go to the South Bay. The South Bay is the area south of LAX through the elbow that Palos Verdes makes across the coastline. I found this judgemental map and I think it’s hilarious.
I’m going to break it out by city for Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach, but the one big thing that unifies them all is the Strand. It’s a sidewalk that goes right along the sand that all of the locals will be walking, biking, rollerblading, and chasing their dogs on. You should totally plan on walking there and checking out the houses as one of your top things to do no matter where you stay in the South Bay. It’s a huge bike culture, so if you’re staying in Manhattan and want to bike down to Naja’s one weekend afternoon, it’s totally the thing to be done! There are lots of places for rentals, usually concentrated near one of the piers.
I have lived in Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, and Hawthorne, so I know the area pretty well. Here are the tips for each area.
- Manhattan Beach is probably my #1 recommendation because it’s the thing I’m most likely to do based on where I am in my life. It’s the most posh place. In fact, most of the Lakers and LA Kings live in this area. It’s where a lot of the “Real Housewives” types live, but not those that are trashy enough to be on reality TV. Very nice bars and restaurants, and gawking at the houses is amazing! I’d recommend getting dropped off at the pier (or park in one of the two structures off Morningside Drive to the North of MB Blvd) and make a day of walking around looking at the houses – you’ll get to people watch a lot of locals do because strolling/biking/roller blading The Strand is what people do. Watch the beach volleyball and the surfers too! If you walk East along MB Blvd you’ll find so many great places to eat and drink.
- Strand House is really the only one with a decent view of the ocean, but it’s a little more upscale and downstairs turns clubby at night.
- Shellbacks is a dive bar that is a total singles’ scene for the late twenties/thirties/plus crowd.
- Brewco has great craft beer and good food options.
- MB Post is FANTASTIC and you must eat the cheesy biscuits. Great cocktails too, reservations recommended.
- Nick’s is fancy and good, I’ve even seen a former Bachelor from the TV show there.
- Petros in the same complex has great seafood.
- Also in the same complex is the Shade hotel – I’ve never stayed there but I’ve gone to local and private events and the bar is good. They have recently opened one in Redondo that has a great view of the harbor.
- Simmzy’s is very popular all up and down the coast here, they have a location here, I believe it’s the original. Great burgers and Belgian Beers, very very popular with locals.
- Love and Salt is great for foodies. It’s Italian and really good wine and cocktails in a restaurant with great design and trendy people watching.
- If you want to go slightly off pier, The Arthur J is one of the most amazing, and high end, steak restaurant experiences I’ve ever had. But it’s not snotty high end. They have a great rat pack aesthetic.
- Fishing with Dynamite is small and hard to get into, but a must if you’re into bomb seafood.
- I also like the Rockefeller, but the Hermosa location is bigger and less loud than the MB one.
- For desert/candy/cupcakes/ice cream there really is nowhere else to go but Manhattan Beach Creamery.
- Away from the pier – if you want the best coffee, and good breakfasty non-alcohol quick brunch, check out Two Guns. It started on PCH in Manhattan but other locations are popping up. Very New Zealand take on good coffee. While you’re there, if you’re starving, Big Wok shares the parking lot and has great Mongolian BBQ.
- More Manhattan Beach – the area at the north end of town along the coast is called El Porto, and it’s also a great area. There is a lot on Highland Ave just north and south of Rosecrans Ave that are amazing options, and perhaps just slightly quieter than the Manhattan Beach Avenue area.
- If you grew up in the 90s like me, you remember when the crew from 90210 moved out of Beverly Hills and was living at the beach – the house they used for the exterior shot is at 3500 The Strand – directly at the border between Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach. If you’re walking the strand, keep an eye out for it!
- Hermosa Beach is party central, but it doesn’t have to be. You can get pretty much anything out of Hermosa depending on when and where you go. This area has more apartments and houses for rent than many of the other beach communities, so you’re going to have a younger crowd – which is going to lead to bars and parties. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, or that you can’t have a sober or family friendly time there, but if you’re going to take your kids out to a street full of bars at 1am know what you’re going to get I guess? Brunch culture is huge in Hermosa, so on the weekends you’re going to see a lot of people playing volleyball on the beach and then day drinking. You’re going to see a lot of costumed pub crawls on the weekend too. Anywhere you go, some people are going to be assholes, but this is mostly harmless fun.
- Starting at the top – The North End is where the LA Kings brought the Stanley Cup and it’s their home bar. Great sports bar option.
- Martha’s 22nd Street is a mainstay for breakfast (more than brunch). Huge lines and more traditional diner breakfast food.
- Good Stuff is one of the few places that have a patio with a beach view. Great for breakfast or lunch, and their food is as the name implies – good stuff!
- The Deck is a locals dive bar shit show. It actually used to be called The Poop Deck. If you’re three sheets to the wind and want to play flip cup on the back patio, go here.
- Hennessy’s is an Irish Bar local chain and your best spot for outdoor seating. The best is if you can get a spot along the glass upstairs and look out over the pier. Outside downstairs is nice too. It’s a good sports bar, but you’re not going to get mind-blowing food or drink.
- The food at Silvio’s is good, and they have good canned craft beer options.
- Palmilla is trendy modern Mexican fusion and they’ve recently expanded. Really really hot bartenders. They have a good spicy cucumber martini.
- Last time I spent a lot of time up there, Tower 12 was THE HOT SPOT to go. It’s upstairs so you get good people watching on the pier, the food is great, cocktails are good – mimosas are HUGE. It has a really great aesthetic – 60s California Beach Bungalow chic. Hard to get into. There are two main sides to the restaurant because of the structure of the building. The back side gets a dance floor in the evenings.
- Go to Watermans if your name is Chad and you want to pop your collar.
- If you saw La La Land you know about The Lighthouse Cafe – dive atmosphere and great live music, and good jazz!
- Greenbelt is good – yummier healthier food, good beer and wine.
- There are people that are die hard about Molloy’s, but it’s pretty much just an Irish sports bar.
- Sharkeez is probably the mainstay of the pier, and what you’re going to get there is going to vary wildly by what time of day it is. But it’s always going to be a bit of a shit show. Honestly, their Mexican food is pretty good and it’s a good value. If you go for brunch they have bottomless mimosas and a bloody mary bar. Late in the afternoon and early dinner are good. But it’s a SCENE late at night with a huge bar vibe with bouncers and long lines. If you’re old enough to drink there, you might feel like you’re too old for it. Very crowded, and the bathroom is to the back and upstairs and sort of weird… You’ll get it.
- American Junkie is like Sharkeez – it’s a clurb at night. You go there to see people and get fucked up. Totally fine to go have a drink and chill during the day, but watch it for a bit to decide if it’s what you’re in the mood for before you go in.
- Rebel Republic is newer, and I really miss the restaurant that was there before. Outside patio but has so far been underwhelming.
- Now to the bars along Hermosa Avenue north and south of the pier… I feel like locals poo poo Rok Sushi, but it’s a great date night spot and I’ve always liked the food there.
- Laurel Tavern is new and trendy and fun.
- Dia de Campo is great for brunch or a date or cocktails or pretty much anything.
- If you want an amazing burger, live music, and a good whiskey/whisky selection, check out Standing Room. They have seats too. Live music is local and awesome
- Chelsea and Underground are connected and very popular. Good beer, good drinks, and somewhere you can dance later in the evening. Good for playing pool and crowded later.
- We finally have our own real brewery – check out Hermosa Brewing for decent beer and bar nibbles. Buy a shirt to show your local flavor.
- South on Hermosa – Paciugo has great Gelato, and it’s popular to go to the Comedy & Magic Club, especially since Jay Leno performs there frequently.
- Barnacles – I’m not even going to link it. I remember going to Barnacles a lot, I rarely remember leaving. Dive bar with fried pickles and sort of the end of the night debaucherous place.
- Back to Eastbound along Pier Avenue – Steak & Whisky is fun, trendy, and its name kinda says it all.
- I love my Starbucks, but I also like supporting small coffee shops, Java Man is ours that’s in the area.
- Abigale is a hot spot for people to plan their birthday dinners. Good cocktails and they’re also a brewery, and the food is incredible. You’re up the hill a little and there’s a hint of a view. Moreso if you go to their upstairs part which is called Ocean Bar. This place feels more like Hollywood and I don’t have the patience for it. But I do really like Abigale.
- Uncorked is a wine shop that has a tasting room in the back – lots of fun.
- Fritto Misto is the best Italian food. This place is GOOD.
- I mentioned the Manhattan Beach location, but if you want the best deal for a mimosa brunch, you go to Rockefeller. They have different flavors of juice that goes with it, and it just keeps coming. They have great craft beer and really yummy food.
- Hook & Plow is a nice Farm to Table type place if that’s your jam. It’s certainly mine!
- The best hippy cafe is The Source – good for vegetarians and vegans and juicers and coffee drinkers. It’s all around good stuff, a good place to go even if that doesn’t fit your description.
- I fell in love with Peruvian food on my trip there, and some of the best in the states is at El Pollo Inka
- Hermosa does an amazing concert series in the summer and here is the schedule. If you’re around when this is happening, I totally recommend it! Everyone and their families comes out with camp chairs (the lower ones are better) and picnic baskets and beach towels and just camps out and socializes and listens to music. It’s one of the reasons that I love the South Bay the most! (Note that you’re not allowed to have alcohol on the beach or in public – if you choose to take the risk, be discrete!)
- Fiesta Hermosa is another blast that I totally recommend! It’s every Labor Day and Memorial Day and it’s so fun. (As long as you don’t live immediately nearby and aren’t hoping to find any parking. There will be no parking. It’s a huge street fair with swapmeet-style popup shops and a beer garden and food and games and music. All the bars and restaurants have specials, and it really is the place to go! Check the link for details on getting the bus, or take a rideshare.
- If you happen to be in the area on the 4th of July – this is my favorite spot in LA County for sure. And it’s pretty much everyone else’s too. It’s crazy crazy crowded on the beach for miles. There will be no parking. There are a lot of house parties everywhere, but most of them hire security, so don’t think about crashing if you don’t have an invite. But you can go sit on the beach and walk around to the bars and restaurants. Everything will be crowded! But it’s fun! There is a house a few blocks south of the pier that may not do this anymore, but they are facing the strand and have a huge balcony, and every year after sunset they would put on a huge free lip-sync show for people sitting on the beach – ALL MICHAEL JACKSON – and it’s glorious. Again, why I love this city! Follow the crowds.
- I mentioned briefly but Beach Volleyball is HUGE in Hermosa and Manhattan. So if you play, be sure to secure a court. I don’t play, so I can’t really give you advice on how the locals do things. But I know a lot of my friends have made their groups of friends when they first moved to the area by signing up for Volleyball classes (just Google it!) and I think it would be a fun thing for visitors too!
- Redondo Beach is the next town as you keep going South from Hermosa Beach. Technically, Hermosa is a little bubble that Redondo wraps around. I have lived here and it’s a really nice neighborhood. There are a lot more homes, so it’s more family oriented and stable. But definitely worth hanging out, especially at the pier!
- Naja’s Place (or simply Naja’s to the locals) is one of my favorite bars in the world. It’s a total dive with only a few fried food options on the menu (so plan your meal elsewhere!). They have a lot of really rare beers on the menu and a huge variety, with something like 88 taps. They also have a great bottle selection. There’s live music, and it’s a bit of a dump, but I love it. If you’re overwhelmed (happens all the time) see if they have something from Russian River. The bartenders are very helpful with helping you find something you’ll like.
- R10 Social House is right next door to Naja’s and it’s fun if you’d rather have wine or a cocktail instead of beer. Good gastropub type nibbles.
- If you’re there at the pier with all the boats around, you might be thinking about getting out on the water! Excellent idea! My personal jam is always trying to find a way on a boat. South Bay Sailing (you can see it in my Naja’s picture above) usually has Groupons so you can either take a sailing lesson, or you can have a Captain take you out on the water for a short sail. I like the latter option because they let you bring your own wine and snacks and you can just sit back! You can also easily rent a paddle boat or stand up paddle board. There are lots of sea lions in the harbor, so they’re fun to see when they’re sunning or making lots of noise.
- Old Tony’s is an institution. You must go and order a mai tai. You get to keep the glass. All the South Bay residents have to have several Tony’s glasses in their cupboards or they know you’re a fake and kick you out.
- Hudson House is one of my favorite restaurants, and the chef was a finalist on Top Chef! It’s a dark quiet gastropub place with great craft beer, wine, and cocktails. Very very good whiskey drinks.
- I really want to publish this today, so I’m going to leave this as a placeholder that you should look into: Baleen & Portofino, PCH & PV Blvd (Riviera) – Rock & Brews, HT Grill, Bottle Shop
Torrance isn’t as exciting as the other beach cities in the South Bay. However, they have a LOT of breweries and doing a crawl is super popular. I’ll come back to this too!
Out of the South Bay
Since I mentioned diving in Catalina – there are a bunch of options for shore dives in LA, but none of them are ideal. It’s generally surge-y with low visibility and not as much to see as elsewhere.
I feel like most tourists have heard about Santa Monica and Venice and think that they want to go there. But the locals who live outside of the area aren’t so quick to go to hang out. The traffic is bad, parking is rare and expensive, and it’s packed to the gills with tourists. We were in the Santa Monica recently and did make a good time of it – West 4th and Jane is a good beer bar, I like the Dude’s Brewery and the mall around it is pretty fancy (Dudes has multiple locations). If you want a fancy brunch, check out The Ivy for the ambiance, food, and champagne. (Their original location in West Hollywood is known for celebrity sightings, though I’m not sure if it’s still the current spot.) Both Venice and Santa Monica have large homeless populations – not saying that is intrinsically bad or dangerous, but visitors should know that this place isn’t going to match your Instagram picture in your head of what this location is really like.
If you want to pamper yourself, Terrenea is a gorgeous resort, and the spa they have there is amazing. It’s down in Palos Verdes which is the elbow of the Los Angeles coastline. It’s really pretty with great sweeping views and big old expensive houses. Worth a drive through, and there are some good hikes there. (This may technically still be the South Bay, but I don’t count it)
It’s west of the 405, so I’ll mention in this blog that Malibu is really pretty and something I’ll go to for an event or to take visitors to see, but it’s not something I go out of my way to go to. But honestly, that’s because it’s so far and the traffic is so bad. I can’t really give you any better advice than you’d get off Pinterest. If you do go to Malibu, please skip seeing Stanley and the wine safaris. Stanley is the giraffe from The Hangover and he’s Instagram famous. He’s on a gorgeous bit of property that has a winery that is just OK. I’ve been to two weddings there and they were stunning and it’s been featured in shows like The Bachelor. But then the Woolsey Fire happened. The owners of this property decided to evacuate their classic cars and leave all their exotic animals, including Stanley, behind to die so they could recover the insurance money. LUCKILY, the fire came right up to the edge of his pen and he was unharmed. But the thought of that poor giraffe being trapped alone in a cage with a fire raging right next to him and being terrified makes me sick to my stomach. I think those people are absolute fucking assholes and I hope they lose their business, and you shouldn’t give them money.
The Getty is also West of the 405 and a thing I like to do! There are actually two – the museum and the Villa. The museum is on the hill as you drive North from Santa Monica to the Valley and it’s free to visit. You just have to pay for parking. The museum offers tours of the gardens and of the architecture of the building that I’ve really liked. It has a great view of LA and a really nice lawn to sit and snack on. The museum itself had some controversy a few years ago about stolen antiquities, so I haven’t been in awhile, but I’m going to have to educate myself on that more. I haven’t been to the Getty Villa but it looks lovely and I’d like to go!
Near there I would TOTALLY recommend going to Los Liones for a hike! Great views of the water!
Is it safe?
This question always gets asked in the travel groups that I’m in, so I’m going to try to include the answer in all of my blogs. As a local – everywhere in the South Bay is Super Safe. I feel comfortable walking anywhere alone at night. But in Hermosa with so many bars, you should always be alert or have a buddy if you’re partying at night. Same goes for anywhere. I would say that Santa Monica and Venice (depending on the part) are not as safe as the South Bay.
What to pack
It’s weird for me to think about packing to visit my own home, but I’ll pass along the advice I give my visiting friends. Even if you’re going in the middle of the summer, the temperature always drops by the water at night. A light sweater or jean jacket are a good idea. It’s a totally different feel than being on the ocean on the East Coast. It does get chilly in the winter, but I still wear flip-flops all year long. Everywhere I recommended is really quite casual – you can wear those flops to all of them.