Whenever I think of the West Coast, I normally picture beaches, Hollywood and the Kardashians. California is of course, so much more than that. To see it for myself, I relinquished my East Coast loyalty for a week during my sabbatical, curious at what the Golden State had to offer.

The vibe in Los Angeles was not what I expected it to be. It wasn’t this hustling, bustling city like I had pictured. In fact, there was a certain calm to Downtown LA in the deep night as I arrived at my friend’s apartment complex. Unlike Manhattan, everyone actually switched off here, which at 1 am with a new timezone, suited me fine.

If you’re looking to put together an itinerary for a few days, make sure these spots are on the list:

  • Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • The Hollywood Sign
  • The Griffith Observatory
  • Broad Museum
  • OUE Skypace LA
  • Santa Monica Pier
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Los Angeles Uncovered

For some reason, I imagined Hollywood to be this luxurious, palm tree-lined boulevard – the kind you see in glossy magazines. Instead, it was more of a chaotic area, which I didn’t warm to – think Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus. Apparently, most visitors have the same kind of reaction so I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.

It was also hard to ignore the level of homelessness and people approaching you for money and food. Just a few minutes from where I was staying was Skid Row, which really was an eye-opener. The contrast between the business-like vibe of Downtown LA right next to roadside tents and families living on the streets was a startling reminder of the epidemic the city faces.

People envision making it big and fulfilling dreams in Los Angeles. It saddened me to see and hear the defeat as some come to terms with the reality of their situation. You can’t help but do a little soul searching when you’re travelling alone and even though I had come to California wanting to escape this lull I was experiencing, I was actually gaining perspective and I suppose the courage to make some concrete decisions.

As much as I enjoyed city dwelling, Santa Monica really stole my heart. It’s the epitome of California. Strolling by miles of beach felt like being in a completely different world from Downtown LA. I honestly could have stayed there for hours – or maybe that’s just me and my affinity for the coast.

The view from the Intercontinental Hotel

That’s not to say Los Angeles doesn’t have good spots to check out. Spire 73 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Downtown LA is the tallest open-air bar in the Western Hemisphere. Definitely not the cheapest place but if you’re looking to splash out, get a glass of wine and LA in its entirety beneath you. There are plenty of more cost-effective bars where you can take advantage of happy hours too. Taco lovers won’t be disappointed either. Blue Plate Taco on Ocean Avenue does a great lobster taco and an array of tequila drinks – try La Piña, one of my faves!

Always Take the Scenic Route

Road-tripping in California is a must. A lot of people advised the Pacific Coast Highway, but given my short stay, we opted for a drive to San Diego.

Two and a half hours away from LA, we drove past some of the most gorgeous beaches. See (and smell) seals sunbathing on the shore in La Jolla. If you’re feeling super brave, you can venture closer and grab a photo with them as some tourists were doing – I stayed a safe distance away.

Then there’s Laguna, a well-known coastal city that featured reality TV shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills, which is known for its beaches and art galleries. Being so close to the coast naturally means fresh, delicious produce. We dined at Driftwood Kitchen, but there are so many places to choose from – all with gorgeous beach views and of course, locally sourced seafood.

Whenever you hit up the West Coast, In-N-Out is also a must. The menu hasn’t changed in years and frankly, it doesn’t need to. Apparently, the double-double is where it’s at, but I went for the cheeseburger meal, which was equally as delicious. There was something just so zen about sitting back, savouring every bite of a simple burger with no time constraints or urgency to be somewhere.

We stayed in the Gaslamp District in San Diego, which for starters, felt safer than LA. The historic quarter area was bought with the intention of being created into a city centre next to the bay. The Gaslamp became a symbol for the district. Today, it’s a buzzing hub for nightlife with bars and also theatres that feature comedy, drama and music.

The Start of My Cali Love Affair?

This is definitely not the last I’ll be visiting the Golden State. There’s still so much to see and do in California. Transportation isn’t near as vast as you’d get in NYC, but there’s something nice about having the freedom of hiring a car and going about your business as you please – and remembering to drive on the right side of the road! Surprisingly enough, it’s a great place to get away from the chaos and lose yourself a little. Whether it’s during a stroll on the beach or cruising on the I-405, even if you’re not looking for it, clarity is never too far away.