Los Angeles doesn't always get the best wrap – because it can seem like a great big suburban sprawl with choked highways and no soul. But that's just the surface – LA has so much to see and do and even the current dodgy Aussie dollar doesn't have to be an issue.
The LA most tourists stay in and see is made up of a whole lot of villages – from the laidback vibe of Venice Beach to the uber swanky Beverly Hills, from having Baywatch flashbacks at Santa Monica to hitting galleries in the emerging cool of Downtown.
And while everything you read will say that LA is not a walking city – and, yes, that is true – you can drive or cab to any of these "villages" and then walk and walk. Here are our top suggestions of what to do in LA right now.
It is virtually impossible not to spot someone you've seen in the movies or on TV while you're in LA. You may not know their names, or remember the show they were in, but you'll know their faces. [My personal biggest celeb spots: Jeff Goldblum walking his dogs along the Venice Beach boardwalk and Faye Dunaway buying shoes in Beverly Hills.]
Here are some places that Discover Los Angeles (the official tourism organisation) recommends for star spotting.
Studio City Farmers Market - These laid-back markets, held every Sunday rain or shine are a draw card for the stars who live and work near the area's film studios.
Musso & Frank Grill – This legendary LA dining spot was famous long before it featured in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And director of this movie, Quentin Tarantino, is a regular, as Johnny Depp and Sean Connery. Take up a spot in one of its iconic red booths, order a steak and wait on your favorite celeb to walk through the doors.
Venice Beach – No visit to LA would be complete without spending a day on this gorgeous stretch of Pacific coastline, whether you see a star or not. It's bohemian and arty, while also just a little tacky (particularly along the boardwalk where souvenir shops sit next to tattooists which are next to cannabis outlets – because marijuana is legal in California). Muscle Beach and the basketball courts make great spectator sport – but you can also jump in for a work out or lay-up yourself. Hire a bike, an electric scooter or a pair of rollerskates and head up to Santa Monica.
A Lakers basketball game at Staples Center – Some big Hollywood names can be spotted regularly courtside watching their fave purple-and-gold basketball team, the LA Lakers. Recognisable faces like Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington and Andy Garcia. And on the team itself is A-list celebrity LeBron James who hangs with the Kardashians and is the highest paid NBA player for the 2019-20 season, earning $134.9 million US. If you book in advance from sites like Ticketmaster you can get tickets for as low as $60 and don't panic about being high up – the atmosphere is still electric.
There's no end of places to really stuff your face in LA – from diners, to food trucks, to the best tacos ever to swankier restaurants.
But a tip: if you're in LA you MUST have Mexican, and if it's a Tuesday, then hit up one of the Mexican restaurants for "Taco Tuesday". Even the local hole in the wall will be serving up top notch tacos priced as low as $1.
Veranda – Located overlooking the pool in the historic and uber cool Hotel Figueroa, it's Mexican food fiesta every night of the week at Veranda – but on Tuesday, their delicious takes on the taco take centre stage. From 3pm tacos filled with all sorts of meat and vegie options hit the tables priced at just $3 each. Wash these down with $4 beers and $5 margaritas, and during summer there may even be a DJ (playing Hotel California, of course) to set the music scene.
The Original Pantry – this is a 24-hour diner/restaurant located in Downtown that claims to have never been closed or empty since 1950. Queues start forming at this iconic joint, which completes the diner experience with formica tables and murky lighting, early in the morning and the place remains packed until the wee hours. Don't expect any trendy avo on toast here – it serves up giant plates of hearty fare like buckwheat pancakes, eggs sitting on ham that hangs off the plate. And these giant serves come at a budget price. Spend $12 and you won't be able to eat until dinner.
NoMad LA – In the lobby of a stately 1920s Downtown building, is this elegant restaurant (apparently a laid-back version of its New York older sister) serving up simple but classic dishes with an Italian accent. Tip #1: go for the home-made tagliatelle with white truffle butter and topped with shaved white truffle ($45) – 3 ingredients that has now become my restaurant unicorn for deliciousness. Tip #2: If you don't finish with their now cult dessert Milk & Honey – ice cream and a brittle served on honey-oat shortbread ($12) – then did you ever actually eat there?
Now to Love stayed at Hotel Figueroa, which is right in the middle of a rejuvenated Downtown, near museums, galleries and the funky fashion and arts districts.
The concierge Fredo sums up the feel of this historic hotel, saying that native Angelenos have "wept" when walking into the Figueroa – because it reminds them of a Los Angeles of old.
Sympathetically restored to retain the look from when it was built 90-plus years ago, this Downtown hotel has become a cool and chilled place to hang – always buzzing with a speak-easy feel, but never so busy you can't bear to be there.
But it is its pro-feminist history that is really resonating with today's guests and patrons. Because it was built in the 1920s by the YWCA to provide safe haven for women travelling for business or arriving in LA as aspiring actresses.
The design is Spanish colonial with art deco touches retained in the four-year, $60 million property overhaul. Some of the rooms boast arches and exposed beams – all have beds like clouds – and the pool outside is heated, inviting and next to the very cool Mexican restaurant, Veranda.
If your visiting LA and hoping to see a Lakers basketball game (and possibly a celeb or two) at Staples Center, visit a museum or gallery or check out LA's emerging beer brewery scene, the Figueroa is moments' walk from it all. [Prices for Classic Double start at USD$180 a night.]