A Little Misunderstood…Fall in Love (or at Least Like) with Los Angeles

Sometimes I hate Los Angeles. From the delightful orange smog coating the city skyline to a general lack of public transport, truly hellacious traffic (I’m not particularly prone to road rage, but the closest I come is when forced to navigate an LA rush hour) and the “Fake Factor” of plastic people and botox, there is a lot to hate

But I also love Los Angeles.

Cali Palms line the Street
Cali Palms line the streets of Los Angeles straight up into the clear blue skies.

And I feel like backpacker or passing travelers can easily come to LA and see all of the bad. But! with the eye of a local (I lived in the city for exactly and precisely two years to the day), it can be an incredibly fun city with awesome spots that aren’t in any guidebook.

So in defense of Los Angeles, and because I truly recognize it’s a hard city to love as a tourist (and this is partly referencing scathing words by another travel blog recently), I’d like to outline my perfect day in Los Angeles…and yes, it probably requires hiring a car to get it all done…or better yet, Couchsurf in the city and your host just might show you around! :-)

Spend a Day in Los Angeles…Shannon Style

So, here it is my friend, my perfect day in LA. Now that I no longer live in the city, these handful of spots are the “must-visits” every time I return. This will take you from breakfast until dinner and all of the snacks and fun you need in between…and if you visit just one of these places, make it lunch at Aroma…it’s truly my favorite LA restaurant.

Breakfast at an LA Institution, The Griddle Café

Start the day out right with a jaunt into West Hollywood for pancakes at The Griddle Café…the line can be absolutely ridiculous (just skip this recommendation if you’re visiting on a weekend…you’ll perish of hunger before you’ll be seated). On a weekday though, the experience is worth the small wait – they’re known for their enormous pancakes but the French Toast is also worth a try…this place makes my list of top ten breakfasting experiences.

A Trendy LA Lunch at Aroma Café

Located in Studio City (in the Valley) the Aroma Coffee & Tea Company was walking distance from my house while I lived in LA and has some of the best food in the city. It’s healthy, it’s quirky and even the fact it’s unbelievably trendy can’t take erode my love for this café.

Even during the very busy lunch rush you can usually snag one of the mismatched tables; then order up the Goat Cheese + Walnut Salad (my personal favorite – the dressing is killer and the herb encrusted goat cheese is generous and comes out pleasantly warm and candied walnuts hide underneath the layers of spinach), and either people watch (always fun in LA) or read a book.

Hike Runyon Canyon for a Look at the Hollywood Sign

Hopefully you’ve let your food settle and thoroughly relaxed at Aroma for a couple of hours because now it’s time for some exercise…LA style. Runyon Canyon is located right at the base of the Hollywood Hills and walking distance from the main touristy sites on Hollywood Boulevard – the Canyon has two main hikes (don’t go left at the start unless you want to partake in what my friend Jenn and I dubbed the Suicide Trail…it’s a bit hard) the path straight and then to the right is enough to get your blood pumping and also offers three awesome views:

  • A fantastic vantage point for the the Hollywood sign and all of the mansions in the Hollywood hills.
  • Clear views over Downtown LA, Hollywood, and straight out to the Pacific unless it’s a smoggy day.
  • Full opportunity to people-watch and hunt down some of those “plastic fantastic” people I previously mentioned…as well as the opportunity to see that LA really does have normal people too…they’re up there sweating and puffing just like you. :-)

Oh, and there’s never a dull moment in Los Angeles; in February 2010 the Hollywood sign was hijacked in an effort to stop the current plans to develop houses on the hill around the famous sign. People changed the Hollywood sign to say: “Save the Peak”.

The Hollywood Sign
The Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles saying Hove the Weak

Then, over the subsequent days after the hijacking it morphed. I caught site of this last month:

I can’t promise you’ll get quite so entertaining version of the Hollywood sign to look at, but you will get some great pictures.

Head back home after the hike for a shower (or stop off first at all of the touristy attractions in LA on nearby Hollywood Boulevard). Relax before heading out for dinner and drinks out in the city.

Feast on LA’s Best Indian Food at Electric Karma

It’s tasty and the closest you’ll come to feeling like you’re dining in India… Electric Karma has a great ambiance and opt for dining on the covered back patio at the low tables with cushy pillows. As for food ideas – their palak paneer (one of my favorite Indian dishes) is incredible and the garlic naan is spot on.

Head over to Venice Beach or the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica

Sunset on Venice Beach
Sunset on Venice Beach

Both Venice Beach and Santa Monica make a fun date night if you’re a couple. Stroll the along the boardwalk on Venice Beach and you’ll pass the very full paddle courts, games of volleyball and tons of street artists…don’t forget to dodge the roller-bladers though!

Santa Monica would be the more kid-friendly option. The Santa Monica pier is walking distance from the promenade…or you can hunt down any of the spots bars and nearby clubs for dancing and drinking.

Once you’ve digested all of your amazing Indian food, you CANNOT leave the Third Street Promenade without a visit to Pinkberry. They have this delicious frozen yogurt chain all over LA in case you’re all “foodied out” at this point…but make sure you don’t miss it.

Wrapping up the Day

At this point, the more party-tastic might be looking for the current hot-spot club in LA…and honestly, they can change monthly so it’s best you Google it…but you could easily entertain yourself for the whole evening in Venice or Santa Monica if you’re not seeking out the “scene” in LA. And I love the Getty Center, which has beautiful views over the valley, the city, and the ocean, so if you’re more into museums than beaches, check out my review of the Getty Center.

So that’s it! That’s my perfect day. I’ll be honest though, there’s no regard for budget here, just my favorite spots so doing all of them in one actual day could be pricey.

Oh, and cheers and thanks to my LA friends who cart me around to these spots now when I come to visit…would cry if I had to skip dinner at Aroma. 

Photo thanks to jleighb and rlerdof.

Quick Tips: Visiting Los Angeles

Transportation: Although I recommend renting a car if you’re comfortable with U.S. city driving and have a lot you want to see outside of the downtown/Hollywood area, there is also great public transportation for the major tourist sites in Hollywood. If you’re road-tripping California, you’ll definitely be driving, in which case—get ready for parallel parking as that’s the norm in L.A.!
Budget: If you are on vacation and planning to sightsee, then budget at least US $100 per day to properly enjoy the city. You can get by on a lot less though if you couchsurf for free accommodation!
Flights: For internal US flights, consider leaving from Burbank airport in the Valley, it can be a lot easier and faster.
Sightseeing: Consider being a movie extra, or studio audience! There are also some great City Passes that save money if you plan to visit many of the tourist spots: Hollywood, Southern California, and other great ones.

A Little Search…The Whimsy of Degas

Degas PaintingNearing exhaustion and having already wandered about the Metropolitan Museum of Art for hours, I finally spotted a lone Degas painting on the wall – one of his classic ballerina studies.

Like a dog onto the scent I darted a quick look around the room, scanning the paintings and then moving my eyes to the small white attribution plaques under each painting. I’d been searching the met for about 45 minutes already for the section of the museum holding a large collection of Edgar Degas’ works (yes, I should have just asked…don’t ask me why I didn’t).

At this point my search seemed ridiculous, I had already explored the Met for about four hours and it was on my way out that I spotted a postcard in the gift shop of one of my favorite Degas paintings – I really love Degas and had no idea the Met had some of his artwork in their collection so I unbundled myself from my jackets and scarves and headed back into the labyrinth in a long and drawn out search for his artwork.

And then I spied a large sculpture in the middle of the adjoining room.

Suddenly I was surrounded by a roomful of Degas paintings on every wall – and that’s when the contentment set in.

I don’t fancy myself a connoisseur of fine art, but there is just something that I really, really like about his dancer drawings. There’s a whimsy to them and a grace that draws me into the ballet studios where his dancers practice – I can almost hear the music as they go through their paces.

Elegant Ballerina Sculpture by DegasMucha Painting

So, although I was nearing a hungered exhaustion, I stood and stared, thought, pondered, dreamed, wandered, and then pondered some more.

And I concluded that I like his artwork even more now that I’ve seen a larger representation of his work.

I spent the entire hour long metro ride home appreciating the unexpected lift in spirits that seeing his artwork left me with :-)

Other highlights from The Met included works by Mucha (above) statues, chariots, and other delights.

Ancient Bronze ChariotAttributed to Michelangelo

A Little Challenge…What Do You Love in New York City?

Blossoms and Chrysler Building 1I’m heading to New York City at the end of the month and I’m actually probably as thrilled to head to NYC as I am to the more exotic locales in Central America that I’ll visit in February.

I’ve been to NYC a grand total of once – for the three days surrounding my 18th birthday. And while I jam-packed in a Broadway show and a handful of the most popular sites…I’ve never really seen the city.

Which begs the question:

What’s your favorite place in New York City?

I’ll be staying with a friend for the week and he will certainly show me his favorite haunts. And yes, I realize there are hundreds of NYC-musts lists, but I’d really like to know your favorite spots.

Oh! And to make this more challenging, you only get one answer per question!

So, what’s your favorite:

  1. Ethnic/vegetarian restaurant (I’ve been craving great Indian in particular!)
  2. Spot to relax (be specific so I can find it!)
  3. Place for nightlife (pubs, clubs, and bars – I like a variety)
  4. Traditional “must” visit place
  5. Hidden gem (the secret spot you take all your visitors when they come visit!)

Leave your feedback and tips in the comments below and I’ll collect up the recommendations over the next couple of weeks, try them out once I get to NYC, and let you know how I fair!

Photo thanks: hajime7

dinosaur-world-review

A Little Review… Is Dinosaur World in Tampa Worth a Visit?

As a born and raised Floridian, I’ve visited a whole lot of theme parks in my day. The only one in the entire state that I hadn’t by the time I reached adulthood was surprisingly close to my hometown of Clearwater: Dinosaur World. This theme park actually has a few locations across the south, and until I visited with my nephew, I only knew it as the location off of I4 marked by an enormous, life-sized T-Rex visible from the highway. Now that I’ve visited, let’s dive into what it’s like, if you should visit, and tips on how to avoid paying full price.

should you visit dinosaur world florida - worth it
My nephew—an avowed lover of all things dinosaurs—was completely enthralled with the trip.

What’s Dinosaur World Like?

Dinosaur World is not your average Florida theme park. Located near Tampa, Florida, some have called it a “slice of roadside Americana.” That’s actually about the best description you can muster for it because it’s unlike anything else in the state. 

When I drove to Los Angeles and back, I stopped at all sorts of cheesy roadside attractions (Davy Crockett statue and “The Thing,” I’m looking at you!), and Florida’s Dinosaur World is along those same lines. It’s certainly not an amusement park like nearby Busch Gardens, Disney World, or Universal Studios. And it doesn’t try to be any of those parks. Dinosaur World was exactly what you would expect from a roadside attraction in Plant City, Florida. It was a relaxing, wholesome experience with just the right amount of Americana kitsch.

dinosaur world review
My nephew Little Eric is posing like a T-Rex at Dinosaur World, outside of Tampa, Florida.

Dinosaur World is surprisingly low key; there’s not even a hint of the Disney World mania present there. My family and I mostly had the park to ourselves—no queues or rides. We meandered through the park at our own pace. It’s a small place, so there was plenty of time to let the kids go slowly and crawl all over some of the dinosaurs. They could pick out what they like and skip along the shady boardwalks until they found a dinosaur scene that struck their fancy. It’s ideal if you want open space and few crowds—you can easily create distance between yourself and other families in the park.

We visited Dinosaur World trip for my five-year-old nephew Little Eric. It’s my last weekend in town before my round the world trip, and I am spending quality time with my family before I head out. So, even though we’ve all lived near Dinosaur world for 25+ years, this was our first visit. You see, Little E is at a stage where he adores all things dinosaur related. It’s his enthusiasm throughout the afternoon that made the trip worth it.

My nephew had a great time looking at the park’s many dinosaur replicas. And like any good five-year-old fan, he knew most of the dinos by name. He also regaled us with random dino facts, as well as spot-on dinosaur roars every time we happened across a T-Rex. The T-Rex is his favorite and in the pic you can see that he is pretending to creep up on his prey just like he imagines a T-Rex might.

Some of the replicas surprised me. At one point, we walked past a scene of carnivorous dinosaurs feasting on one of the slow-running guys. They had decked out the scene with fake intestines and blood—even my die-hard fan of a nephew was a bit taken aback by the gory details.

Should You Visit Dinosaur World?

For other families in the area pondering a visit, if you need to fill an afternoon then it’s worth it. Dinosaur World is a cute park with huge shade trees, a completely family vibe, and tons of the much-promised dinos. The park is well landscaped too, and my dad was impressed by the variety of well-marked native Florida plants.

As cute as it is though, two hours is about all you need to wander through. Even Little Eric—with his deep love and fascination with dinosaurs knowing few bounds—was antsy by the time we left. So yes, it’s worth a visit but this is not a Florida theme park where you pack a bag and plan to be gone for 12+ hours. If you’re road-tripping the state, or making the trek between Tampa and Orlando, then this is a good way to break up the drive for your kids.

More than anything, it was nice to hang out with my parents for the day and get in some face time since they work all of next week. The time is ticking away—I take off on Saturday for Los Angeles, en route to Australia for the first days of my world travels!

How to Visit Florida’s Dinosaur World

Where: Located just north of Tampa, Florida. The Dinosaur world exit is well marked from I4 with a giant (and I do me huge) dinosaur at exit 17.

When: The park is open year-round and it’s very shady. This means it’s nice to visit year-round too, even in the hottest months there are breezy areas where you can eat a picnic lunch and enjoy.

How much: Check the website for the latest prices. Also, look for a coupon in the Entertainment Book if you’re a local. And locals may also receive a reciprocal discount if they have annual passes to a list of other local museums, zoos, and parks.  Otherwise, check the kiosks in your hotel for a brochure and coupon—they usually have several deals floating around so you likely won’t have to pay full-price if you put a bit of effort into researching it ahead of time.

Read: Pick up a copy of Oddball Florida: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places; this guidebook is a true gem for anyone road-tripping the state in search of neat attractions and off-the-beaten path things to do.