Those of us who live in San Francisco or Los Angeles (or both) know all too well that we’re flying headlong into tourist season — or we’re already there. Actually, someone else is doing the flying: our visitors from beyond, whether they originate in the Heartland, the East Coast, or foreign climes. And all of those who show up, especially first-timers, want the quintessential experience of each city. That means a variety of things, depending on the jolly travelers themselves.
Last month, I began actively musing on my twin HQs as vacation destinations that boast emblematic attractions. I was spurred by the news that the easiest hiking route up the Hollywood Hills all the way to the iconic “HOLLYWOOD” sign was now permanently closed by local officials at the behest of residents in the area. Apparently, hikers and countless tourists from Toledo to Tokyo can be a bit of a bother as they tramp past your little hillside bungalow or multi-million-dollar showplace home, shout at one another, snap selfies and Instagram landmark studies, snack, drink, and litter liberally.
To be fair, the 45-foot-tall sign looks better from a distance than up close, but there is something to be said for tactile interaction with something so legendary. “Hey, Maw! I done touched the ‘HOLLYWOOD’ sign and got me some stardust under my nails!” Not that it’s legal to get very near the sign, which had some fencing to block actual physical access to it the last time I was up there and prowling around the chaparral. Still, the currently closed pathway to the sign has some fantastic views of the giant white letters on the way up and of L.A.’s urban bustle below as seen between the ridges and hills on the way down. You can still clamber through the Hollywood Hills streets and into the park area under, over, and around the sign. However, the best way has become a no-go.
It’s not quite the S.F. equivalent of telling people, “Sorry, folks. The road to Coit Tower is closed indefinitely.” That would deny everyone entry to one of the true historical monuments in the Bay Area. The powerful, noble WPA murals inside the tower can’t marvel at themselves, can they? And how about that 360-degree vista? Certainly, an edict banning pedestrians from going up past the fancy houses and apartments on Telegraph Hill to see one of the most beautiful views in the known universe would be tantamount to tourist-cide for the city. Ain’t gonna happen.
I asked genuine citizens of S.F. and L.A. what they thought would be the ultimate experience of their respective hometowns for someone new to the terrain. As you might expect, I received a diversity of answers. Everybody’s got a very personal view of that which makes their city unique and worth a visit. And more than a few go beyond the traditional.
If you check the standard guidebooks (or talk to your great-aunt), the San Francisco Experience definitely means gazing upon postcard views of an increasingly skyscrapered downtown and the Golden Gate — bridge, bay, and beyond — from the top of Coit Tower. Most would also agree that it’s about riding a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf and having a bowl of clam chowder served in a hollowed-out, oversized roll of sourdough bread. Chinatown with its history of mystery and North Beach’s Little Italy of pasta restaurants, espresso cafes, and one-time beatnik enclaves such as City Lights Books still have an allure. And then, there’s the hippie-storic Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park as seen, I assume, from the top deck of a tour bus.
My music-oriented buddies said that they would definitely recommend the Haight tour if it included a stop at the respective houses that served as headquarters for the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane back in the late ’60s. They also recommended scoping out the current iteration of the Fillmore Auditorium and some of the past locations that presented legendary rock shows, including the Avalon, Winterland, Mabuhay Gardens, Old Waldorf, I-Beam, Deaf Club, and so on.
Reaching toward Marin and points north, there’s the thrill of actually walking the Golden Gate Bridge, and I suppose we could discount a hike up Mt. Tamalpais, or bayside dinner in Sausalito. And that doesn’t even cover an excursion to Wine Country. Perhaps it’s enough to gaze upon the diminishing majesty of the Transamerica Building — once a symbol of modern San Francisco, but now dwarfed by a handful of taller monstrosities that are being constructed in the wake of the most recent tech boom. There is one recently erected jewel on the SoMa waterfront — AT&T Park, and you don’t have to be a rabid sports fan to recognize it as wondrous, timeless Americana. If you are a baseball fan, checking out the thrice-champion Giants in their cozy ball as they take on all comers is a treat, whether the home team is on top or struggling.
Does the millennial brand of tourist want to go to the Mission to find a Yelp-adored taqueria, and also to be in the playground of the young techies? Looking south, are wannabe hipsters on vacation going to prowl Echo Park, Silverlake, and DTLA for the best bars and eschew more traditional Los Angeles diversions?
L.A. has its own obvious sights to see, beyond the “HOLLYWOOD” sign. Sticking with Hollywood, one must walk over the stars’ markers embedded into the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard (as immortalized in songs, most notably in the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes”).You stroll past ornate Grauman’s Chinese Theater (complete with the handprints of famous actors in the concrete of the plaza), the Dolby Theater (where the Oscars are held), and the scruffy street performers cavorting for tips, and amble over to Vine Street where the Capitol Records building stands, designed to emulate a stack of vinyl long-players, and where the stars honoring the four Beatles (former Capitol recording artists) are positioned near the entrance.
If it’s the movie industry that tells you “You’re in L.A., baby,” there are studio tours where you can see where classic films were shot and new ones are in progress, and there are still bus tours that drive by past and present stars’ homes. If you come upon those Paramount Studios arches while motoring down Melrose, it can give you a jolt of recognition, as well as trigger a sense of pop-cultural connection. There’s also the theme park aspect of the Universal Studio Tour and Park. Or you could go all-in and do a day-trip to Anaheim in Orange County to visit the granddaddy of theme parks, Disneyland, with the newer California Adventure offshoot next door.
There are movie and TV locations that range from Griffith Park Observatory (James Dean’s star-making vehicle, Rebel Without a Cause) and Mulholland Drive (director David Lynch’s mystery thriller Mulholland Drive) to the Bradbury Building (Blade Runner) and L.A.’s City Hall (TV’s Dragnet and the original Superman series). And, as in S.F., music fans have places where they can connect with bygone rock and roll glories, including the Troubadour (the folk-rock spawning ground), and the clubs of the Sunset Strip, where the Whiskey a Go-Go, the Roxy and the Viper Room remain open for business, while Gazzarri’s, the defunct showplace for L.A.’s hair-metal band scene, is only an echoing memory.
For some reason, one of my friends was vehement about recommending the bubbling prehistoric weirdness of the La Brea Tar Pits, right in the heart of L.A., and complete with the presence of a life-size wooly mammoth model stuck in an actual pool of tar. It may be strange, and not my cup of tar, but seeing it is definitely a tourist experience unique to L.A., with no blocked hiking trails to circumvent.