'Ugh, the 405!' It’s the cry of many visitors to Los Angeles, beleaguered and befuddled by the seemingly neverending traffic jams on one of LA’s most congested freeways. When vacation time is limited and you just. want. to. get. there, the frustration’s almost enough to make a holidaymaker get right back on the plane.
And imagine how Angelenos feel about living with the nation’s worst traffic: GPS maker TomTom calculates that the average LA commuter spends 95 hours per year in traffic above normal drive time.
Coming to the rescue of locals and visitors alike though are new services that make it easier to forget about renting a car, traffic jams and parking hassles – and to be more environmentally sensitive too. Public transportation options are expanding, neighborhoods like Downtown, Hollywood and Santa Monica/Venice are increasingly pedestrian- and bike-friendly, and LA leads the country in the use of app-based ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.
Keys to LA transport
For the bargain price of $8, Flyaway buses (www.lawa.org/FlyAway) connect Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) with Downtown LA (estimated travel time: 35min) and Hollywood (1-1½hr). Buses depart from the lower (arrival) level of each terminal, under the green signs. Purchase tickets online or on board the bus (Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted).
Once you’ve got to your preferred destination, public transportation is handled by LA’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (known as Metro), or, in Santa Monica, the municipal Big Blue Bus company (bigbluebus.com). Metro’s base fare is $1.75 ($7/25 for an unlimited day/week pass). Big Blue Bus fares are a cool $1.25.
On the Metro Rail network of light-rail and subway lines, the Red, Gold and Expo Lines are most useful for visitors as they travel to the areas with most tourist-friendly attractions.
Use of Uber or Lyft requires a free smartphone app and advance registration. They’re a convenient and generally inexpensive (if traffic-dependent) way to get around the city, although Uber is subject to “surge pricing” at peak demand times, when fares can rise steeply. At the time of writing, the mayor had announced that the super popular Uber X will be able to pick up from the airport in the next month or two.
Flyaway Shuttle buses let you off at Union Station, LA’s main rail terminal, built in 1939 and well worth a peek for its Spanish-Mission-meets-Art-Deco design. From here it’s a quick rail connection (or about $5 via ride share to save hauling your baggage) for a stay at hotels from old school (Millennium Biltmore) to too-cool-for-school (Standard Downtown and the new Ace), on the Red and Expo Lines.
Barely a decade ago, locals would have told you that there was no reason to go Downtown unless you worked there – no one says that anymore. Visitors throng to the area for the new Grammy Museum and restaurants at the adjacent LA Live, all reachable on the Expo Line, as are some of LA’s top museums around Exposition Park, including the California Science Center where you can see another (once) futuristic form of transport, the Space Shuttle Endeavour, one of only four on exhibit in the world.
Hop cultures along the Gold Line to Olvera Street (the city’s original settlement, now like a trip to Mexico without the passport), Chinatown, and the ethnic-meets-hipster cultural mashup of Little Tokyo. Or take the Red Line to check out landmark architecture from the Bradbury Building (Blade Runner was shot here) to Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Downtown’s dining scene has exploded too, in restaurants like Baco Mercat and Bestia alongside trusty standbys Philippe the Original and the rejuvenated, gourmet-chic Grand Central Market.
The FlyAway bus to Hollywood terminates near the Metro Red Line subway stop at Hollywood & Vine. The Red Line also connects to the intersection of Hollywood Blvd and Highland Ave, from where it’s just steps to the TCL Chinese Theatre, where generations of stars have enshrined their foot- and handprints in the cement; the Dolby Theatre, home to the movie world’s biggest night, the Academy Awards ceremony; and the humble-jumble Hollywood Museum, chockablock with film history.
West Hollywood is just a couple of miles away and well worth a visit: take a ride share; ride on Metro bus line 2 down Sunset Boulevard; or head down to Fountain Ave near La Brea Ave to pick up the free daytime CityLine shuttle buses operated by the city of West Hollywood. WeHo, as it’s known, is one of LA’s great walking neighborhoods by day, and great party destinations by night, primarily along the Sunset Strip (largely straight) and Santa Monica Blvd (largely LGBT). It’s also fun to (window) shop and dodge paparazzi amid the fashion boutiques on busy Robertson Blvd between Melrose Ave and 3rd St.
Stop for lunch or daydrinking at the Abbey (often called the world’s best gay bar – maybe it’s the hunky bartenders), the celeb power lunch spot the Ivy or, for adventurous ethnic cooking, the new District by Hannah An (thedistrictbyha.com), where Vietnamese cuisine takes a California turn with banh mi sandwiches and ‘shaken’ beef with homemade noodles. Or simply ensconce yourself at a café on Santa Monica Blvd to observe an only-in-LA street scene of muscle boys, tiny dogs, hipsters and the occasional tourist family wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into.
WeHo-based Bikes and Hikes LA (bikesandhikesla.com) rents bikes and offers cycling tours of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, stars’ homes and a signature 32-mile ‘LA in a Day’ route for fit cyclists, covering WeHo to the ocean.
Santa Monica & Venice
Santa Monica melds beach culture with big city sophistication. The Flyaway Bus takes you to the Civic Center area or the Expo Line from Downtown drops you at Santa Monica Station - from either it’s an easy walk to ocean views and the mini-amusement park atop the world famous Santa Monica Pier, or some of LA’s most spirited street life on the pedestrianized Third Street Promenade and the adjacent Santa Monica Place.
Art lovers can head a couple miles east by Big Blue Bus line 4 or on the Expo Line to 26th Street to Bergamot Station for dozens of art galleries and the Santa Monica Museum of Art in a former rail yard.
Just south of Santa Monica is Venice, cool since the days when Jim Morrison lived here and now restyling itself as a hipster haven, particularly along Abbot Kinney Boulevard. On weekends especially, the Venice Boardwalk is a wacky seaside carnival and LA must-see. To get here from Santa Monica, take Metro bus 733 down Ocean Ave and Main St, or it’s a classic California stroll along the ocean of about 1.5 miles (30 minutes).
On the Santa Monica side, stop for farmers market-inspired menus in an urban-meets-rustic, indoor-outdoor vibe at M Street Kitchen, Japanese musubi (rice balls with assorted flavorings) at Sunny Blue, or get your three squares at Three Square Café & Bakery.
As well as being highly walkable, Santa Monica and Venice are also easily cyclable. Numerous shops rent bikes including Santa Monica Bike Center and stalls along the beachside South Bay Bicycle Trail (22 miles).