Los Angeles epitomizes the car culture of America—it could never be called pedestrian-friendly. But there is one L.A. neighborhood that's eminently walkable: hip and happening West Hollywood. People familiar with Greenwich Village in New York City or the Castro District in San Francisco will feel right at home in West Hollywood. Its residents skew young and artistic, lots of them work in fashion and entertainment, and many are gay.
West Hollywood (the locals call it WeHo) is 1.9 square miles and a world all its own. Here you'll find Sunset Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard's gay and Russian communities, and the Avenues of Art & Design District (Robertson Boulevard, Beverly Boulevard and Melrose Avenue), with over 1.5 million square feet of showrooms, shops and galleries, presided over by the eye-catching Pacific Design Center (known as "the Blue Whale").
The district houses over 300 eclectic businesses, including 30 art galleries, 100 antique and contemporary furniture and interior design stores, 30 restaurants and coffeehouses and over 50 high-end fashion and lifestyle-related businesses.
A few favorites only steps from each other are Urth Caffe (8565 Melrose Avenue), which serves up organic teas and coffees (Mahattan Mudd is a good choice), and the Bodhi Tree bookshop (8585 Melrose Avenue), which specializes in books on religion and spiritual life.
Another type of business that thrives in WeHo is frozen yogurt. A yogurt war of sorts is under way, with Snowberry, Kiwiberry, Fiore and Berri Good trying to dislodge Pinkberry (868 Huntley Drive) as the market leader. Pinkberry—which is basically Korean-style sour frozen yogurt—started this craze, which is now spreading across the country.
The chain had its beginning in the U.S. in West Hollywood, and its flagship store has lines of customers going out the door waiting to order one of two flavors: plain or green tea. The trick is in the toppings, which range from fresh fruit like kiwi and mango to childhood reminders like Fruity Pebbles. The taste is so addictive it's been dubbed "Crackberry," and celebs like Jerry Seinfeld and Paris Hilton are among those hooked. With toppings, a large serving will cost about $10.
Also in West Hollywood, Santa Monica Boulevard is home to Los Angeles' liveliest gay and lesbian scene, with gay nightclubs, bookstores and cafés. Some of the most popular gay-centric bars and lounges are The Abbey (692 Robertson Boulevard), RAGE (8911 Santa Monica Boulevard), 7969 (7969 Santa Monica Boulevard) and the i Candy Lounge (7929 Santa Monica Boulevard).
Veering off into a different atmosphere altogether, and moving west on Santa Monica Boulevard, you'll find yourself in L.A.'s largest Russian-speaking immigrant community, surrounded by delis, restaurants and community centers, sharing the sidewalk with people speaking Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew.
West Hollywood's nightlife is centered on the Sunset Strip, where such famous nightspots as The Roxy, Whisky A Go Go, Viper Room, Key Club and House of Blues are located.
For a movie town, L.A. and especially West Hollywood have a surprising number of live theaters. You can buy half-price tickets from LA Stage Alliance (www.lastagealliance.com) up to a week in advance to more than 100 plays, operas, concerts and other performances. Tickets are available for major venues, such as the Ahmanson Theatre, as well as L.A.'s numerous 99-seat theaters. Every Tuesday, tickets for performances through the following Tuesday are released by the theaters and posted online. Ticket buyers can order, pay by credit card and print confirmations to take to the will-call window on the day or night of the performance.
If you're renting a car at LAX for the first time, Southern California's freeways can be pretty challenging, so you may want to fly into a smaller airport, such as the one in Long Beach. It's like arriving at a small Caribbean airport, and though it's 18 miles south of LAX, the extra driving time is worth it, since the freeway isn't as crazy. Also, if you're driving around L.A. for the first time, be prepared to go from 70 mph to 30 in a heartbeat—it's a peculiar traffic condition Californians call "ghost traffic," because you never actually see what causes the slowdown.