Rediscover Los Angeles: a guide to LA's hidden highlights

Prowling mountain lions and a cinema full of dead people: it must be…Los Angeles? Discover a new side to the City of Angels with Lonely Planet’s guide to LA's unexpected highlights.

Go urban mountaineering along Runyon Canyon

Runyon Canyon is a protected urban wilderness of sheer rock face, hidden trails and parched scrubland in the Hollywood Hills. To the east, there’s the famous Hollywood sign and triple-domed Griffith Park Observatory set against desert brush. To the west lies the vast circuit board of LA’s grid, with the city’s major boulevards cutting skyscraper-lined paths to the Pacific shoreline.

Getting to the top is quite a workout: in fact, the locals use it as a gym. Look out for dogs running free of their leads, as well as coyotes, rattlesnakes, bobcats and even the very occasional mountain lion.

Get there: Runyon Canyon’s entrance is at the top of Fuller Avenue in Hollywood – turn north from Sunset Boulevard. It’s open from dawn until dusk.

Los Angeles at its neon-lit, nocturnal best, viewed from Runyon Canyon. Photograph by Mark Read

Experience the food truck revolution

Lunch trucks, also known as ‘roach coaches’ due to their reputation for less-than-perfect sanitation, have always been a part of life in LA. But the mobile food concept has taken on a new meaning since the recession. Kitchen staff were made redundant and aspiring restaurateurs weren’t able to launch new concepts. Hence the ‘gourmet lunch truck’ revolution was born.

Each truck is a work of art selling everything from cheese steak sandwiches at Lee’s Philly to Korean barbecue tacos from the Kogi BBQ truck. The city’s finest food is now available for not much more than the cost of the ingredients – albeit outdoors, without seating and on paper plates.

Eat al fresco: For locations of gourmet food trucks, visit la.truxmap.com or follow these individually on Twitter: Lee's Philly (@LeesPhilly), Baby’s Badass Burgers (@babysBBs), Sprinkles (@sprinkles), Kogi BBQ (@kogibbq) and Let’s Be Frank (@letsbefrank).

Catch a movie in a cemetery

In summer, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard hosts outdoor film screenings on Saturday and Sunday nights from Cinespia, which celebrates ten years of events this year. Here, movies are projected onto the white marble wall of Rudolph Valentino’s tomb. But the real appeal lies more with the random conversations you strike up, the DJs performing before and after the screening and the creepily peaceful beauty of the place.

Get there: Cemetery movie screenings are operated by Cinespia during the summer. Check cinespia.org for details.

Play detective at an estate sale

For many Angelenos, the most satisfying way to shop isn’t at one of the city’s many pristine outdoor malls, but at ‘estate sales’. These events are held every weekend at the homes of the wealthy and powerful, typically not long after their obituary has appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Of course, it’s often the homes – many of them in aggressively gated communities with godlike views over the city or ocean – that are the real draw, not the dusty old curiosities on sale.

Sniff around: See estatesales.net and pacificestatesales.com.

Cook and driver Zak Aldridge with his gourmet food truck, one of many in LA. Photograph by Mark Read.

Spot whales and dolphins on Zuma Beach

When LA locals want a day at the beach, they tend to avoid Santa Monica and head further west up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu. Specifically, they go to Zuma Beach – an unbroken, two-mile-long stretch of white sand, clean water and churning surf.  Zuma was an ancient hunting ground for Clovis man – the prehistoric Paleo-Indians who populated America about 13,000 years ago. It’s also home to many dolphins – they will swim alongside you if you get out far enough – and during winter it attracts migrating whales.

Dive in: Zuma Beach is about 25 miles west of Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s quiet on weekdays and off-season, but expect crowds in August.

Drink like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

There’s an extraterrestrial vibe to The Prince, near downtown LA, thanks to a bloody paint job, creaking leather, oil paintings and suits of armour. Arguably the biggest moment for this underground lounge came in the mid-1970s when one of its red leather booths was used in a scene featuring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. LA is full of historical hangouts, among them the bordello-themed drinking room of Hollywood’s newly restored Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, which hosted the very first Academy Awards in 1929. The hotel itself is vast, dark and superbly atmospheric thanks to its Spanish-Gothic architecture which defined the city in the 1920s.

Raise your glass: The Prince (Blue Hawaiian £6, valet parking £1.50; 3198 ½ West 7th Street; 001 213 389 2007). The Roosevelt/25 Degrees (Guinness milkshake £5, valet parking £12 maximum; 001 323 466 7000).