Greater Los Angeles is a sprawling, amorphous agglomeration, spread over a huge flood basin, subdivided by freeways and bound by ocean and hills—on its western edge, by 160 miles of Pacific coastline, and then, clockwise, by the Santa Monica, San Gabriel, San Bernardino, San Jacinto and Santa Ana Mountains. Laid over this landscape is a dizzying variety of cities and neighborhoods. Precisely what constitutes Los Angeles is a matter for interpretation.
As you drive, you may be confused by signs pointing to Los Angeles. They're here because the city of Los Angeles is a distinct settlement within Los Angeles County. Together with Riverside, Ventura, Orange and San Bernadino Counties, Los Angeles County is part of the Greater Los Angeles metropolitan region, a daunting aggregation of 34,000 square miles and 15 million people. Los Angeles County contains 88 incorporated cities, each with its own jurisdiction; among them are Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Pasadena and Los Angeles itself. To add to the confusion, some areas (for instance, East LA and Marina del Rey) are unincorporated, under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County but not the city. While West Hollywood is an independent city, Hollywood is just one of many neighborhoods in the city of Los Angeles.
Matters are muddled further still by other broad area titles, such as the Westside (which, confusingly, contains a separate area called West LA) and South LA (home to many black and Latino cities and neighborhoods).
LOS ANGELES BY AREA
Santa Monica & the beach towns North to south along the coast, affluent Malibu, desirable Pacific Palisades, comfortable Santa Monica, arty Venice and tidy Marina del Rey all have their own distinct characters. The area isn't at its best in late spring and early summer, when they're swathed in morning clouds known as June Gloom.
Brentwood to Beverly Hills Moving inland, LA soon reveals itself to be the glamorous city of popular legend, though you'll have to pass likeable Culver City, dull West LA and office-dominated Century City to find it. Wealthy Brentwood adjoins, to the west, university-dominated Westwood and, to the north, moneyed Bel Air. To the east, Beverly Hills lives up to its upscale reputation.
West Hollywood, Hollywood & Midtown Separated from Beverly Hills by Doheny Drive, parts of West Hollywood are nearly as swank as its neighbor, but Beverly Hills doesn't have the nightlife to compete with West Hollywood's Sunset Strip. Due east is resurgent Hollywood; to the south are the shops and eateries of the Fairfax District; the museums of Miracle Mile; stately Hancock Park; shiny Koreatown; and just-waking Westlake.
Los Feliz to Echo Park Northeast of Hollywood, Los Feliz is home to funky shops and restaurants, and is the main entrance into vast Griffith Park. Further east, Silver Lake is artier, while neighboring Echo Park is characterfully down-at-heel but rapidly gentrifying. North across the Los Angeles River, between Downtown LA and Pasadena, lie unsung but interesting districts, among them Mount Washington and Highland Park.
Downtown Stretching south from the eastern end of Sunset Boulevard, Downtown is the site of the original city and home to most of LA's political and financial institutions. Wealth (the Financial District) sits side by side with extreme poverty (Skid Row); modern skyscrapers loom over old theaters. Also here are Little Tokyo, Latino-dominated Olvera Street and a small-ish Chinatown.
East Los Angeles East LA has traditionally been the heartland of LA's Latino communities. It remains that way, but things are changing, as people with varied backgrounds move to the area in search of affordable housing.
South Los Angeles Officially renamed from South Central by a city anxious to rescue its image, South LA is a jumble of neighborhoods. While the popular cliché about the area holds true in places (chiefly in long-troubled Watts), it's blown out of the water in neighborhoods such as affluent Crenshaw and cultured Leimert Park. At the area's northeastern tip, close to Downtown, is the cultural hub of Exposition Park and the USC campus.
The Valleys The San Fernando Valley, northwest of LA, and the San Gabriel Valley, to the northeast, are often mocked for embodying the hot and smoggy horrors of West Coast suburbia. While this holds true in the former, several of the San Gabriel Valley's neighborhoods, chief among them Pasadena and Claremont, are actually quite charming.
Heading South When Angelenos speak of the South Bay, they're usually referring to the coast-hugging cities south of LAX: El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach. Across the Vincent Thomas Bridge from San Pedro is Long Beach. And to the southeast, Orange County attracts 40 million visitors a year, many heading directly to Disneyland.