12/26/2018 - 12/27/2018
This was our third Christmas break trip, and I needed a good follow-up to 2016's Nicaragua and 2017's Yucatan. I initially was set on Lima but eventually decided that our exploration of the city would be limited by personal security considerations. Having three small kids to manage would put a huge target on our backs for petty criminals. It was too soon to go back to Mexico or Central America, and it's really hard to get excited about the Caribbean given that we've already visited most of the larger islands. There was only one option within the US if we didn't want to get frozen solid, and that was Southern California. I'd been there a couple of times in my twenties, and never felt much affinity for the area. Los Angeles seemed kind of spread out, generic, and soulless. San Diego felt to me like a midwestern city transplanted to the Pacific Coast. But now, having explored most of the warm areas in the Western Hemisphere, it seemed like our best option. I knew there was a lot of Asian culture in LA and I figured that at the very least we'd be able to get some authentic Thai and Vietnamese food for a change.
Once I started doing my usual advance research, I quickly realized we were going to find a lot more to do than eat Asian food. I was amazed by the number of ethnic neighborhoods I saw on the map, from Little Armenia to Filipinotown. I was surprised to find we would be within easy reach of a different farmers market on every day of our stay. There were also lots of options for kids edutainment, such as the La Brea Tar Pits Museum and Kidspace. Finally, many of the nearby suburbs like Santa Monica and Pasadena have lots of attractions in their own right. By the time we were ready to go, I had a full schedule of activities for our four full days in LA as well as three days in San Diego. I'd created a daily schedule that was more rigorous than usual in order to minimize trips across the city that would expose us to LA's legendary traffic jams.
We arrived in the early evening after a fairly rocky flight from Miami, and picked up our rented Ford Explorer uneventfully. I knew from the forecast that Los Angeles would be a lot cooler than Miami, but I'd forgotten how cold 50 degrees Fahrenheit felt when we were used to the 70's and 80's. We'd packed warm coats and long pants, but I hadn't brought anything but sandals and my feet felt frozen for most of the trip.
We didn't have to meet our Airbnb host so we went straight to dinner from the airport. Los Angeles and San Diego have both been eager participants in the food hall movement, with LA particularly having an abundance of options. We love food halls because we can mix different cuisines into an amazing fusion dinner, there's great energy, and we don't have to worry about how much of a disturbance the kids are making. It was the perfect solution to fill our stomachs after an exhausting day of travel. The food hall closest to our Airbnb was called Squaremixx, a collection of small restaurants that are all franchises of Korean chains. While the food may not be the highest level of Korean cuisine, it's indisputably authentic. At one stall at least, no English was spoken. Squaremixx occupies much of the third floor of a shopping center called Gaju Market. The ground floor is given over entirely to a Korean supermarket which we browsed for half an hour after eating our fill.
Los Angeles isn't a cheap place to stay, and over the last couple of years Airbnb has been catching up with hotel rates. However, Airbnb is still by far the best option for a couple with three kids since we need two bedrooms. The kitchen and large refrigerator are also indispensable, and we love the way Airbnb makes us feel like we're living in the city we're actually only visiting. I had a decent jump on the crowd and was able to get a great place in the central neighborhood of Westlake for just about $150/night with everything included. The area might have been a little working class for travelers who needed to feel submerged in LA glitz and glamour, but it was the perfect location for us. As one can see on the map, we were just a few minutes drive from all the amazing Asian neighborhoods in LA: Koreatown, Filipinotown, Chinatown, and Little Tokyo. We were also about halfway between Santa Monica and Pasadena, the two most far-flung suburbs that we had plans to visit. This made it easier to focus on specific areas of LA on each day of our stay and avoid the traffic.
Our cottage turned out to be very pleasant, with a lot of character. There was a fire pit on the front porch which we never had time to use, a spacious living room, and two comfortable bedrooms. Space heaters in each room ensured that we wouldn't have to worry about the cold temperatures when we were indoors. The owners were collectors of old cameras, many of which were placed on the shelves around the house. A sign on the refrigerator reassured us that none of the cameras would be filming us during our stay, a possibility which had not occurred to me until I read the sign. Street parking proved impossible, but fortunately the hospital next door allowed long term parking for about 5$/night.
We kicked off our first morning with a huge breakfast at Du-Par's. a 24 hour diner within the Original Farmers Market. The food was amazing, including possibly the best buttermilk blueberry pancakes I've ever tasted. I probably didn't push the kids to eat as hard as I usually do so that there would be more left over for me. The interior of the diner had a very classical, warm feel that made the meal even more enjoyable.
The back door of Du-Par's is also the threshold of the Original Farmers Market, where there are no longer any farmers but rather a large array of specialty restaurants, gourmet food vendors, and some miscellaneous boutiques thrown in. Many of the food stalls looked so appetizing that I regretted having gorged myself at breakfast. The Cajun food and the French seafood restaurant that was attached to a fish market were particularly appealing, but the quantity and variety of restaurants was overwhelming. Since we couldn't eat any more, we spent a half hour in the French gourmet market Monsieur Marcel, which had the same ownership as the French restaurant and fish market. The employees were very gracious to the kids, who were high on sugar and insisted on touching and demanding samples of practically every item in the store. After we were sure we'd explored the entire market, we left but vowed to return for dinner at Monsieur Marcel. The video is actually from our return visit a few days later.
Just a couple of minutes south of the Original Farmers Market are the famous La Brea Tar Pits and museum. We spent some time in the pleasant park that the museum shares with Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is a beautiful building surrounded by some interesting landscape art.
The Tar Pits themselves aren't much to see, being fenced off and largely obscured by leaves and grass, but the museum has a very unique design. The ground level containing the exhibits is encased within a shallow hill reminiscent of a primitive burial mound. At the top of the hill is a metallic ceiling structure with relief images of Pleistocene mammals. From here, one can look down into the central atrium of the museum. The kids couldn't tear themselves away from rolling down the hill until their clothes were coated in broken grass.
Inside the atmosphere was mainly that of a kids' museum, which was fine by us. The kids mostly ignored the static displays and skeletons in favor of interactive exhibits like a mammoth tusk battle and the animal poop quiz. The gift shop was a big hit as well.
After La Brea we had a couple of hours to kill before our first farmers market, and the perfect piece to fit into the gap was the Griffith Observatory. The observatory is a Los Angeles landmark, visible high up on Mount Hollywood from most of the city. Griffith Park itself is an amazing feature of Los Angeles. It is one of the country's largest municipal parks and contains the Greek Theatre, the Los Angeles Zoo, and countless miles of hiking trails. We had fairly easy driving until we got into the park at which point traffic slowed to a crawl. It took another half hour to reach the observatory, where we found the entrance to the parking lot barricaded and police directing cars to continue down the road to a large parking lot at ground level. It took another twenty minutes or so to hike back up to the observatory but the effort was more than worthwhile for the glorious views of Los Angeles which unfolded beneath us.
The observatory was ferociously crowded, to the extent that movement was difficult in the anteroom containing the Foucault pendulum. I'm not sure if it's always like that, or if it was just a function of the holiday season. I found myself wishing that there had at least been a nominal admission fee to diminish the hordes. The indoor exhibits looked interesting, but trying to keep my eye on the kids amid the throngs proved too stressful and we quickly found our way to the observation decks. Oddly enough, the famous Hollywood sign isn't on Mount Hollywood but rather Mount Lee to the west. Never fear, Mount Hollywood is the one with actual views of the sign.
The observatory had several decks, with the wind getting steadily stronger and colder the higher we climbed. It was all worthwhile because the views of the city kept getting more amazing. There aren't many major American cities I can think of with mountains close enough to give a view of the skyline. I was impressed by how restricted the skyscrapers were to the downtown area. The rest of Los Angeles looks practically rural in comparison.
I already mentioned that there were so many farmers markets in and around LA that we were able to visit one each day of our stay. Why do we care about farmers markets when we travel? It's the embodiment of our anti-tourism travel philosophy. Aside from satisfying our love of food and its diversity, farmers markets are great places to interact with locals and people watch. They're also often a good alternative to a restaurant meal when you have three ebullient, squabbling kids. The best market I could find on a Thursday was in South Pasadena, just outside the northeastern boundary of the City of Los Angeles. Although it was 12 miles away, it only took us half an hour to get there. In fact, we never encountered any of the horrible traffic that LA is famous for. Maybe it was because we were there between Christmas and New Year's, or maybe we were just lucky. Somewhere along the way I spotted an odd statue of a man or troll diving down a wall next to a disembodied fist which may have been punching through. Was it a recent commentary on the border wall controversy, or something older that was completely unrelated? We only had a moment to snap a picture from the window, and I wasn't able to discover anything about the sculpture online afterwards.
The South Pasadena farmers market was huge, one of the biggest true farmers markets I've seen in the United States. The large majority of stalls were devoted to produce and all of those were operated by the actual growers. The diversity and quality of the fruits and vegetables were awe-inspiring, and the neighborhood was beautiful.
At the back of the market was a collection of food stalls and food trucks that was a level above the usual simplistic tacos and fried foods. We had finally finished digesting our enormous breakfast and we were ready to try out the selection at the market. The combination of barbecue, Thai soups, and Mexican food was so good that we obliterated any chance of going out for another meal that evening. By this point is was dark and getting steadily colder, so we were happy to call it a night at seven. Even though it was early, we'd done far more in our first day in Los Angeles than on an average day of travel.