Village life in Los Angeles: Cycle rides, star-spotting and public transport in Venice
I never wanted to go to Los Angeles. Ever. As a non driver I couldn't imagine a worse place to spend any time, let alone a holiday, than this sprawling, car-heavy metropolis that houses just shy of 4 million people and sprawls out over 470 miles. Drive-thrus, drive-ins and seven-lane freeways? No thanks. How wrong I was.
Ditch the car: Gary and family had the run of the sights using just public transport and cycles
Forget the urban myth that you can't survive here without a car, that the public transport hardly exists and is dangerous to use. With just a little work you can uncover a pretty good network of buses and trains that cover the city. Most locals we met didn't encourage it - and some were shocked we were even considering it - but I found it safer and just as useful to get around as the public transport in New York.
Of course it matters where you base yourself. We - my wife Jo and ten-year-old son Luca - chose a small house in Venice Beach on the coast through the website airbnb.com for $80 (£50) a night.
Actually small is an exaggeration. It was tiny and a little shabby, but cheap and, in Electric Avenue, right in the heart of the burgeoning Venice community - so great for walking - with its explosion of new trendy restaurants and bars on Abbot Kinney such as Hals, Gjelina, The Tasting Kitchen, Zinque and Wasabi-Sabi.
American boy: Luca enjoys the spectacle of a Dodgers game
We were also very close to the beach, and the boardwalk and cycle routes that were made for our hired bike rides up and down to nearby Santa Monica and beyond.
It also meant that we all burst into the Eddy Grant song Electric Avenue every time we set off or returned from a journey, in the false belief that he'd written the song about the road - there is a recording studio at the end of the street. In fact, the song was about a street in Brixton, but don't tell my son...
Settled in, my mission on the first Sunday of our stay was to watch the Dodgers, the city's top baseball team, play a home match at their legendary stadium high on a hill overlooking Downtown, just using public transport.
It was easy. The 733 bus left just down the road on Venice Boulevard to Union Station every 15 minutes or so, and then a free trip on the Dodgers Express bus got us from the coast to the stadium in an hour and three-quarters.
If you ever want to experience the heart of the US, go to a ball game. The excessive food consumption, patriotism when the crowd stands for God Bless America, the sporting endeavour on the field and the razzmatazz that accompanies every play encapsulates the country and makes for a great day out, even if, like us, you may not be able to work out all the rules.
Art is everywhere: Gary and Luca admire a plaster mural on Abbot Kinney in Venice and, right, the entrance to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, one of the city's Art Deco treasures
Our trip also lead us to discover that the 733 passes through the art deco splendour of Culver City with its burgeoning cultural scene. From here, you can pick up a new overground metro system that can take you to the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the glorious majesty of the art deco Memorial Coliseum stadium, home of the 1932 and 1984 Olympics - the only stadium to host them twice. Work has started on extending this line down to the coast at Venice. I can't wait.
War wounds: The space-battered Endeavour was a sight to behold at the Science Museum
Later in the week we took the overground from Culver to the Science museum where there was a fantastic exhibition based around the last Endeavour space craft, which had been flown into the city on the back of a jumbo jet and then gently, inch by inch, wheeled through the streets to take up permanent residence at the museum. It's incredible to get up really close to something that has been out into space. The fact it looked quite worn out and scorched added to the experience. Back in Culver we popped into one of the many galleries, Corey-Helford, which had a colourful street art exhibition on.
Flex those pecs: Muscle Beach still attracts plenty of al fresco work-out enthusiasts
From Santa Monica there's also a freeway bus Downtown which is much quicker than the 733 at just over 30 minutes and there's a great service to West and central Hollywood from there as well, where, after a quick tour of the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a view of the iconic Hollywood sign in the hills, we headed underground (yes, there is quite a wide-ranging, little touted Metro system) for the short hop to the 'must visit' Universal Studios.
We couldn't get our son out of The Simpsons Kwik-E-Mart, or off the Simpsons and Jurassic Park rides, and we barely did justice to the rest of the park, although we did manage the studio tour and were chased by Anthony Hopkins' knife-wielding character from Psycho which was fun, and saw Jaws rise up from the deep.
Back in Venice, our favourite bike ride was on the buzzing boardwalk, which took us past the basketball courts, kooky shops and performers. There were rollerblading babes in bikinis as well as the straggle of homeless who have ended up here. We wheeled past famous Muscle Beach and the creaky Santa Monica pier, which has been immortalised in endless movies.
Bring me sunshine: Luca laps up the California rays on Santa Monica beach
Santa Monica itself is a gem. Full of designer shops and restaurants with pedestrianised roads, it's immaculately tidy and feels like a smart English country town moved to California. It's the Hove to Venice's more raffish Brighton. There's even an old fashioned English pub - the King's Head - radiating patriotism, serving fish and chips, sausage and mash and the new British national dish, the curry. Next door is a shop selling everything a British expat might crave from home, from Marmite to Heinz tomato soup, though I wasn't sure about the Bird's custard powder. Apparently Vinnie Jones is a regular.
Ah yes, the inevitable star-spotting that is part and parcel of a visit to LA.
A gurning, topless Mel Gibson cycled past on the boardwalk and later popped up at a table next to us in a Greek restaurant on the way back from a trip to Malibu... stalker. Charlie Boorman was also on two wheels on the boardwalk, eschewing his favoured motorbikes for pedal power, and we cycled past Helen Hunt while she was being filmed learning to surf for her new movie Ride. And there were numerous sightings of people we recognised but couldn't remember their names from hit TV series.
Fun, fun, fun: Relaxing in The Roosevelt pool, said to have inspired Hockney and, right, meeting a Minion from Despicable Me at Universal Studios
Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins both also live around the corner from our house. And more stars are discovering the beautiful canals a block back from the beach. Until a few years ago these were run down and many derelict. Now, mostly renovated and enlarged, they cost millions and are in an idyllically quiet spot for such an urban location.
To break up our visit, we treated ourselves to a couple of nights in swish hotels for a bit of luxury, cycling to The Shore in Santa Monica - they have their own bike racks - and catching the bus to The Roosevelt on Hollywood Boulevard back in the heart of Tinsletown, with its famous pool immortalised by David Hockney - and much loved by my son.
Having seemingly broken one myth about LA, we were shocked to find another is not true. Think of LA and it's hot beach weather all year round.
Not true. At the end of July, we found ourselves shivering on the beach one day in Venice, huddled under towels as if we'd visited Cornwall on a cold spring day. The temperature had dropped suddenly to 60C as a sea mist worked it's way up the coast from Santa Monica. Other days were cold and overcast, too, on the coast. And the sea - watched over so carefully by the legion of 'Baywatch' lifeguards - is quite chilly.
It just goes to show you can't believe everything you're told... especially in Tinseltown.
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