LA Itinerary: The Terminator & The Travel Bug
Updated: Jan 30
Travelling the West Coast of the United States of America was a watershed moment for me. A true realisation as to the beauty of travel and the sheer wealth of experiences ready to be found across the globe. I went with a great group that I barely knew at the time, but who have since become very good friends and with whom I ended up travelling to Bali. Pete, a close friend of mine since the age of four, introduced me to some university colleagues and before I knew it, we’d arranged a two-week tour taking in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. I’d only ever been to America once before on a school skiing trip to Vermont in 2008, so needless to say, this was incredibly exciting for me. In this series of memoirs, I'll be recounting my experiences of these magnificent cities and the wonderful destinations we experienced travelling between each one.
N.B This was five years ago, so some things may well have changed. However, where possible I have sourced updated prices and website links as of January 2020 which may help you to get an idea of various costs. It should also give you ideas on how to structure your Los Angeles itinerary and a wider California tour.
After flying out from London Heathrow, the first stage of our tour was set to commence in the sprawling urban metropolis of Los Angeles. Now, I’ve heard mixed reviews of LA before and since, but I must say I absolutely loved it. I can’t really justify why. Maybe it was Venice Beach and Santa Monica with the whole fitness vibe, families coming down to the beach after work and on the weekends, and the exciting notion of being in a city world-famous for the glitz and glamour of its Hollywood stars. Either way, it excited me. It felt like a city that was alive. If I were to move to the US, then Los Angeles would definitely be towards the top of the list.
It wasn’t always like that though. We landed at LAX and, if my memory serves me correctly, it was quite late by the time we arrived at our Airbnb apartment in Venice Beach; a quaint little bungalow in the back garden of a larger accommodation. Two of the group were flying in late from Richmond having attended a wedding, so the remaining three of us decided to take a walk down to the beachfront to see if we could find anywhere to eat and explore the local area. I was completely unprepared for the quirky, eccentric Venice Beach. Before I go on, I must say over the rest of my time in Los Angeles it quickly became one of my favourite places, but on first impressions sitting down in a restaurant waiting for some food, I must admit my first thoughts were, “where on earth have I come?”. I was surprised and saddened by the plight of the many homeless people setting up shelter for the evening, and the sight of a devout Christian family with young children preaching about the end of the world with signs proclaiming, “Judgement is coming for us all” did little to reassure me. As it was, the night passed peacefully with good food and a few beers, setting the tone for a great two weeks.
Over the course of the next few days, I really adapted to Venice Beach and it’s bohemian vibe. I was fascinated by the skating bowl and the talent on show; it seemed to draw many people together with a real community feel. Youngsters and veterans alike wowed the crowds with all manner of tricks as they sped around the bowl. It was also a window into another lifestyle, with many of those demonstrating their skills having a talent for surfing. My group was also firmly converted to Paddle Tennis, an amalgamation of Ping-Pong and Tennis, that saw us spend many an hour down on the beachfront courts. I’d highly recommend taking the time to play this game; it has the same rules as tennis and proved to be a good laugh. If I recall correctly, admission was also free - you can’t complain about that!
For more information on Venice Beach, check out the LA Parks website here.
Golds Gym - Presence of a Legend
Being a big fan of bodybuilding, albeit not having the physique to match, Venice Beach held a particular place of significance for me as the location of the original Golds Gym and the world-famous Muscle Beach. These were the area’s where Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbo and a host of other legendary athletes trained during the 1970’s; a beach and weights lifestyle captured in the classic Pumping Iron documentary. On the first day, I was wide awake in the early hours as a result of my body clock not yet adapting to the time, and thought I’d check out on google maps how far away Gold’s Gym was. Lo and behold, it was eight minutes walk away. Literally, right around the block. It was a no-brainer then, I was going to go and train at Golds Gym Venice Beach! With everyone else asleep, I got changed and let myself out, following the map and arriving outside this world-famous venue. Arnold and a number of other bodybuilding heroes had trained at this location over the years, so I wasn’t about to pass this up! For those interested, a one-off training session at Golds Gym Venice Beach is $25.00; yes, it is quite dear but ultimately when you consider the history of the gym and the quality of equipment inside it, I thought it was worth it. The gym is huge. There’s so much to do. So much so, that I actually went two days in a row, paying the entrance fee each time.
I can’t remember whether it was the first time, or second, but what happened next is a regret of mine. I was lifting some weights in front of the mirror when I noticed someone behind me sat down on the arm curl machine with a large man stood next to him. It was one of those moments where you look at someone, or something, then look away before something suddenly registers and you look again! It was Arnold. He was training with his gym partner/minder. I’d come to train at this gym as he was one of my heroes and, here he was, there in front of me! I was stunned.
When in the presence of famous people I don’t particularly like to pay them any attention; maybe it’s a combination of respect for their privacy and my own self-ego not wishing to look like a fanboy. There were many other people in the gym on cross-trainers, treadmills and lifting weights, all minding their own business and getting on with their routines; the last thing I wanted to do was be “that guy”! As it goes, someone else was “that guy” with Arnold taking the time to have a picture and chat to him. I carried on with my workout elsewhere in the gym, and after pondering on what had happened, decided it was probably the only chance I’d ever get to meet him. Much to my chagrin, he was nowhere to be seen! I’d deliberated for way too long, so much that by the time I summoned up the courage to go back and speak to him, he’d left. Needless to say, my friends did not believe me upon my return to the apartment telling them my story over breakfast and, to this day, I wish I’d asked him for a picture.
Cycling to Santa Monica Pier
Another highlight of my stay in Los Angeles was hiring bicycles on Venice Beach and riding up the beachfront to Santa Monica. I understand that in the opposite direction, you can head down to Long Beach. The ride was fantastic, cycling on the winding path as it takes you through palm tree’s running adjacent to volleyball courts and multi-fitness areas. There’s a number of stores offering rental and it was very reasonably priced. The ride isn't strenuous at all, especially as you take your time taking in the sun, sea and beautiful surroundings.
We made our way up the path and into the more affluent Santa Monica finishing up at the pier. Opened in 1909, it plays host to a classic seaside amusement park with attractions including a ferris wheel and arcade whilst retaining a fresh but vintage vibe. It's clearly a popular tourist attraction with a number of restaurants from which you can eat whilst enjoying an ocean view. We had a fantastic dinner in Bubba Shrimp, before grabbing an ice cream during our walk along the promenade enjoying the fresh seaside breeze and views of Santa Monica beach.
Admission is free, so I’d highly recommend this ride and location if you’re looking to visit! Be sure to visit the official website before you go as numerous events are held on the 110-year old venue all-year round.
One of my favourite moments of the entire trip was visiting the Griffiths Observatory and witnessing the astounding views it affords across LA. The city is one large, sprawling cosmopolitan mass stretching as far as the eye can see. That day was particularly hot but clear, enabling us to pinpoint locations including Downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. It really is an impressive view and one which will stay with me forever. In future, I’d like to return at sunset to see the city lit up in all it’s glory. High up in the hills, it's also a great location to spot the Hollywood sign, offering the perfect backdrop for a photograph with this iconic landmark.
Griffiths Observatory Opening Hours (as of January 2020)
Admission to the grounds, building and telescopes is free. You can also check out the museum inside that plays host to a number of fascinating exhibits.
Opening hours are as follows:
Weekdays (Tuesday-Friday) - Open 12:00pm-22:00pm
Weekends (Saturday-Sunday) - Open 10:00am-22:00pm
Mondays - Closed
There is also a low-cost bus transit service running regularly between the Griffiths Observatory and Vermont/Sunset Metro Red Line Station. A link for more information on this can be found here.
For more information on the Griffiths Observatory, visit the official website.
I always wanted to go to Universal Studios in Florida as a child, fascinated by the adverts on television showing the Jurassic Park ride as you float on a raft down river with dinosaurs grazing either side of you. As a massive fan of the franchise, this was always something on the bucket list and when the opportunity arose to experience this legendary ride at Universal Studios Los Angeles, I was always going to take it!
We spent the whole day touring the location (including multiple rides on the Jurassic Park attraction for this 25-year old child) jumping on rides such as the Mummy, Transformers, King Kong and Fast & Furious. We also took the fantastic studio tour; a wonderful 60-minute experience driving across four acres of sets, props and thrilling 3D rides. I particularly liked the old school, but probably somewhat dated Jaws ride where it looks like the monster Great White is about to attack the boat. Again, this was probably down to nostalgia having seen the ride on TV as a child rather than due to it’s quality. The studio tour provided my legs some welcome respite after a full morning of walking across the theme park trying each ride, as well as a very heavy lunch at Krusty Burger in The Simpsons zone!
At the time, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was under construction, but having since been to it’s sister site in Florida, if it’s anything like that then I can also highly recommend it. Be sure to pick up a pint of butter beer, it’s absolutely delicious but I’d probably suggest sharing it as it can be quite sickly after a little while. Rest assured, that’s the only circumstance under which I’d share a pint.
Finally, WaterWorld was also a really good show, with all the dramatics and death-defying stunts you’d expect from it’s settings. I’m not normally one for shows but at 20 minutes long, it’s jam-packed full of action and I actually really enjoyed it. Throw in the fact that this show fires off approximately 168,500 pyrotechnic effects per year and you just know you’ll be fixated on the unfolding events.
Universal Studios Ticket Prices (as of January 2020)
1-Day General Admission $109-$129*
2-Day General Admission $$149-$169*
VIP Experience from $349
(*Different dates such as weekends can determine higher prices)
Universal Studios Hollywood is open from 10:00am-18:00pm with CityWalk open from 11:00am-21:00pm. You can purchase tickets from the official website here.
Of course, a trip to Los Angeles wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the world-famous Hollywood Boulevard. We traversed the sidewalks around the area checking out the five-pointed stars of major musicians, actors and directors from across the entertainment sector. At over 2,600 stars spread over 15 blocks, its fair to say you’re guaranteed to recognise a name or two! The Hollywood walk begins at the famous Sunset Boulevard before crossing into Hollywood Boulevard and onto Vine Street. With over 10 million tourists visiting every year, it’s a pretty iconic location where you can also visit attractions including Grauman's Chinese Theatre (now known as the TCL Chinese Theatre), which has been home to many major movie premieres including a personal favourite of mine; the original Star Wars film in 1977. Madame Tussauds also have a museum in the area.
Like any highly popular tourist location across the world, there’s always going to be people looking to make quick cash. We saw a few people handing out what appeared to be “free” CD’s as if looking to get their name out and increase exposure to their music, before saying they’d sign them and aggressively coercing the tourist into paying money. Like anywhere and anything, a polite no will always suffice.
To summarise, I’d absolutely recommend visiting LA. It was like no city I’d ever been to, and still remains unique amongst the various locations I’ve visited around the world to this day. With it being a two-week trip visiting multiple cities, we only had 3-4 days there, but managed to pack quite a lot in. That said, I’m sure there’d still be plenty more places to explore and experience if we’d opted to stay the course of the week. Ultimately, the city is so vast that there are plenty of things to do, explore and experience.
With the benefit of hindsight, I’d definitely like to spend more time in Santa Monica, drive around Beverly Hills and explore the fantastic hip-hop heritage the city has to offer. I’ve read about tours of some of the biggest hip-hop locations in the city, previously frequented by the likes of NWA, Snoop Dogg and Tupac, so that’d be pretty cool to check out in future. There's no doubt I'll return and that these will feature on any future Los Angeles itinerary I have. I'll likely explore more of Southern California taking in the likes of San Diego, rather than heading north up to the amazing San Francisco like I did on this occasion. Whichever way you go, California has so much to offer - LA is a good place to start.