I’m coming clean with the fact that I, a native northern Californian, have become a total LA fangirl.
Sibling rivalry is strong in California. I’m from the north, land of geeks, tree huggers, fog and earnestness. Southern California is home to sun, surfers, avocados and cosmetic enhancements. We’re all family, but like many close geographic rivals – northern and southern Italy, Yankees and Southerners, Ohio and Michigan – each side is a wee smug about being the better of the two.
The truth is, I only see LA in short, euphoric visits. I’ve been to LA maybe eight times over a decade for annual-ish girls weekends with three of my closest friends, mostly for less than 48 hours at a time. No doubt we’d have a blast anywhere, since those are the only times we all get together. And maybe it doesn’t take much to stay entertained for 48 hours.
But every trip is better than the last. The City of Angels is full of treasures – miles of powdery beach, breathtaking art, kitschy architecture, outrageously fresh and creative food. True to reputation, the city is also a sprawling congested mess, so it pays to navigate it wisely. We have a formula that works for us, but we also always work in something new. There’s never a shortage of choices in LA.
My friend Celeste, a native New Yorker who lived in Los Angeles before settling in San Francisco, got the LA party started when we planned our first weekend 10 years ago. She missed the sun of southern California, and the warmth. She missed the creative energy of LA. She missed the sushi. People, she said, were just happier in LA.
It’s true. We are ridiculously elated as soon as we get off the plane and shed our coats. We gorge on sushi, walk the beach, catch up on life. Sometimes there’s art, sometimes exercise, always some shopping and plenty of food, coffee and cocktails. It’s perfect for us.
Forty eight hours might not seem like much. But I kind of love it. We plan our itinerary to minimize travel time and prioritize the things we want to do the most: sushi for Celeste, art for Nicole, food and vintage shopping for me, and sweet Anne lives in LA and happily goes along with anything.
Sometimes we talk about reuniting in New York City, where we all met, lived and worked years ago. Like LA, NYC is also easy to fly to, and a prime location to pack in a lot of activity in two days. But when we consider New York City in January vs Los Angeles in January, it’s never much of a contest.
So here’s a slice of Los Angeles for your late-winter fantasies. It’s not a comprehensive guide, or even a best of. It’s just a template for a happy weekend, pulling in energy from a new place, enjoying new experiences, and sharing great food with friends whose simple presence brings comfort, inspiration and joy.
Unless it’s a rare rainy spell, we stay in Santa Monica for the beach, the farmers market and the proximity to the airport. First stop is always Sugarfish for sushi.
After famed sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa closed Sushi Nozawa in Studio City in 2012 (we used to get carsick on the drive over the hills to get there during Friday rush hour), he opened this chain of casual value-oriented sushi joints, featuring fixed menus of his most celebrated creations. So now we have Sugarfish options all over town (currently 10 locations in LA and one in NYC).
It’s still Nozawa sushi, so even the value version isn’t cheap – Nozawa’s “Trust Me” menu runs $32 – but the quality is sublime. Perfectly fresh fish, carefully draped over warm, seasoned sushi rice, drizzled with bright, citrusy ponzu sauce. We sigh with happiness the whole meal.
Sometimes we go again the next day. Once we got takeout, but it’s really much, much better when you have it fresh at the restaurant.
Celeste and I match extra sushi orders after Anne and Nicole fold. I do my best to keep up, but invariably Celeste wins, regrets it and declares it time to get out and walk it off.
High above beach level, Santa Monica has a wide pedestrian walkway along Ocean Boulevard that is ideal for walking and enjoying the ocean views. Basking in bright sun and breathing in sea air, it’s hard not to feel good about life.
You just don’t get this level of relaxation on the northern California coast, which tends to be wild, scenic, windy and freezing cold.
To get down to the beach, you can walk on a pedestrian overpass to cross the Pacific Coast Highway. There are a few crossover points, the biggest carrying cars and a crush of people to the Santa Monica Pier.
Bike and pedestrian paths run along the beach, passing through the amusement park of Santa Monica Pier, the outdoor fitness center of Muscle Beach, and long stretches of sand and surf. We walk and talk forever.
And take bad selfies.
The Original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, proudly billed as “the birthplace of physical fitness boom of the twentieth century,” has some of the best people watching/gawking around. Regulars casually practice jaw-dropping acrobatic feats on gymnastic rings, high bars or just flat ground.
Who are these people? It’s like accidentally walking into Professor X’s school for mutants. In northern California you’ll find plenty of hikers and bikers, conventionally fit and conventionally dressed. This is like a daily open-air circus, and it’s been going on since 1934.
The bouncy, tightrope-like slacklines, installed here in 2013, are super cool. I stare mesmerized by the tricks people do on them, bouncing and flipping and turning, and realize with a laugh that I’m holding my breath.
Muscle Beach is strictly an observer sport for me, but kids aren’t afraid to have a go at it (this pic not from a girls weekend).
We skirt the crowds at Santa Monica Pier, but I do love the lights at night.
Saturday mornings we walk to the Santa Monica downtown farmers market and stock up on citrus and pistachios for snacking and the plane ride home. The abundance is such a wintertime delight, with more varieties than you knew existed of oranges, tangerines, lemons and grapefruit. As with northern California, farmers markets operate year round here.
The dried fruit vendor has everything, including sweet and chewy organic dried strawberries. They are shockingly expensive – $25 a pound – but I’ve never seen them anywhere else, and they are oh so good.
We try to fit in a little culcha. Nicole has a passion for art, so it’s always fun to learn from her.
If someone gets motivated, we might have a targeted itinerary. Other times we roam freely until things shut down.
It’s always over too quickly. Nicole and I stay up late talking after Anne and Celeste crash. And then she’s up before dawn and on a plane back to Boston.
LA is always a colorful adventure. But even better than the place is taking time to get away with people that fuel my creative and spiritual energy.
You could do a weekend anywhere – biscuits and live music in Nashville; cheese-and-caramel popcorn and comedy in Chicago; huevos rancheros and artisan markets in Santa Fe. It’s all about the time, and the people.
Between kids, work, commitments and spouses, getting away takes real effort. But these few weekends are vivid, sparkling memories for us, and they have deepened friendships into bedrock.
Northern California will always be my home, and New York City will always have my heart. But thanks to my girls, LA has become my happy place.
I didn’t even get into the food in LA, except for sushi, which is as much tradition for us as food. It pains me to admit that food in LA is so much better than the food in the San Francisco Bay Area (don’t hate on me, SF people, we have pockets of greatness but also long stretches of bland suburbanness). But I’ve gone on too long already, so I’ll be getting to food in my next post (see Best of LA: Gjusta & Sqirl).
1345 2nd St, Santa Monica
11:30a-10p Mon-Sat; noon-9p Sundays
Original Muscle Beach
Ocean Front Walk, Santa Monica
Santa Monica Farmers Market
Saturdays 8a-1p, Arizona Ave at 3rd St
Wednesdays, 8:30a-1:30p, Arizona Ave at 2nd St
LA is an expensive town, and Santa Monica, with its central location and proximity to the beach, is pricey. There are a number of nice hotels along Ocean Boulevard – The Georgian, Shore Hotel, Oceana Beach Club, Loews Santa Monica, Fairmont Miramar, Shutters on the Beach – that are expensive but very convenient.
Airbnb is a great alternative to hotels these days, especially for longer stays or family travel.