In the first of our Essential Tips series, Journalist Alice Price-Styles brings us a modern-day Californian travelogue. Read on for tips on where to see and be seen in LA, Santa Monica, Hollywood, San Francisco and Palm Springs, and for the most cost-efficient business travel, with the best insider perks, contact Essential Travel now.
I may be biased, but, I feel there is a utopian quality to California. On a recent trip, I was struck once again by how rich and encompassing the landscapes here are, whether both natural or man-made. Stunning coastlines, sublime mountain ranges, sprawling deserts, and urban delights are all within relatively close proximity to one another. When you consider the size of California (California is just a little shy of being twice the size of the UK), the idea of such breadth and diversity becomes plausible, but, nevertheless entirely magical.
My return journey started out in a city very close to my heart. I love visiting in autumn, as – typically – this is when San Francisco enjoys it’s warmest days and clearest nights. Leaving a few layers at home and being able to stay outside after dusk without freezing brings with it a sense of freedom, and you can feel that ignited on the atmosphere. It's when the local spirit seems most alive.
My family lives up by Twin Peaks, which, if visiting San Francisco for the first time, you are unlikely to reach. But, if you're looking to explore in a bit more depth, a drive or hike up to the peak offers very worthwhile panoramic views of the surrounding Bay Area – especially if you happen to make it on a rare, clear evening.
I cannot say that I planned it so, but I was particularly fortunate this year to have visited during the World Series. San Francisco won and, as you might expect, the energy in the city leading up to the final was magnetic. I was lucky enough to watch a game against Kansas City Royals from a friend’s boat right between Pier 40 and the AT&T Park where all the action was taking place. You could hear the roar of the crowd, and it was thrilling to be there with native San Franciscans as the Giants edged closer to their eventual victory.
Sailing out onto the water is great, and really provides a unique view of the peninsula. If you ever find yourself in Sausalito, a quaint town over in Marin County, I recommend you ride the ferry across to San Francisco around sunset. You will see the most dramatic view of the fog enveloping the mountains behind you, almost chasing you to the city like in an old film noir.
The Ferry Building itself has long been one of my favourite places in San Francisco, and I always tell people to check out the Farmers Market on a Saturday if possible. The selection of Californian produce and food vendors there is certainly expansive and of a very high quality. On many occasions, my friends and I have made an entire lunch out of the delicious free samples. Classy!
The Saturday night I was there I partied in the Mission, checking out Charli XcX at Slim's and then Moodymann at Public Works with some friends from the East Bay. Both Slims and Public Works are popular venues and really good places to keep an eye on for shows and events.
I always spend time on Valencia Street, as I love the plethora of independent cafes, boutiques, and bars that line it. I discovered the best Thai Massage at a place called La Nee Thai up by 26th Street, and enjoyed re-visiting favourite spots such as Virarocha (antiques), Dog Eared Books, Xanath (ice cream), Elbo Room (bar), Stuff (furniture), and Four Barrel (coffee shop).
Close by, and just as synonymous with San Francisco, is the Castro district. There's a pretty authentic spot there for drinks – it's called Cafe de Flore – where you can take the weight off before catching a film at the Castro Theatre, with its amazingly grand, old-school interior. That's an experience in itself.
After a final boozy brunch with an old friend in the Mission, I flew down to Los Angeles and met another buddy at LAX. We promptly drove out to the desert, our stereo appropriately stocked up with Devendra Banhart and Mojave 3, while catching up on films and music we were feeling at the time and creative projects on the go.
We stayed at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club – a stargazer's paradise. Seeing so many stars will always leave a city-dweller like me stricken by natural beauty. Luckily the Ace’s pool stays until until 2am, so I was able to take a midnight swim in the turquoise waters underneath cosmic shimmers of a crystal clear night sky. Hanging out in the hot tub afterwards, I got chatting to some members of a large group who were also staying at the hotel that night. Turns out they were there on a shoot for American Eagle, which seemed pretty fitting to me somehow.
The next day we did breakfast at the King’s Highway at the Ace – a great spot to indulge your American roadside diner fantasies and spark gloriously hypothetical debates and strands of thought.
The Ace in Palm Springs is a very cool and well-curated spot, and the achingly cool line up of events there made me sad to not be staying longer. But, I felt lucky to have spent a little time there and hope to have the chance again someday.
After checking out we meandered back to Los Angeles, stopping off to check out the infamous Pioneertown, grab date shakes, and goof about with the giant roadside dinosaurs.
From there, I headed out to Santa Monica for a glorious few days by the beach. There is an idyllic feel to the white and dove grey exterior of Shutters on the Beach, and arriving there in balmy afternoon sunshine felt like something of a dream, perhaps from another era or lifetime, back when I was a character in a Fitzgerald story.
Laid-back coastal luxe seem to be the words used to describe Shutters, and I would have to go along with that. Exquisite without being overbearing, the quality and attention to detail in the hotel are faultless. My room was beautiful and elegant, as well as being comfortable and cosy, too.
I sat on the balcony with my best friend drinking wine from the minibar (so luxurious and lazy), taking in the view and talking about life and lost loves. For dinner we headed to Abbott Kinney Boulevard, which is a really great destination for restaurants, cafes, and boutiques, before hitting the hay back at the hotel, where I caught the Supa Lowery Bros playing in the lounge downstairs. The talented jazz trio are residents at Shutters and perfectly offset the evening’s atmosphere.
Waking up early the next morning, I caught a few rays on the sun-deck and in the pool at Shutters, where the view out to the ocean is spectacular. Only sand and a few palm trees stand between you and the water.
The surrounding area of Santa Monica has a lot to offer. As well as the beach itself, there is the Santa Monica Pier full of amusements (my personal favourite is the psychic Zoltar), and third street promenade. One absolute highlight of my trip was having lunch at Casa Del Mar’s Terrazza with Michael Sheehy, the entertainments manager. The view, food, and conversation were all scintilating, and it was such a pleasure to hear about the two hotels (Shutters and Casa Del Mar) from somebody who knows them so well. Both are truly inspiring places with great histories. I can understand the reasons why so many artists have stayed here, gravitating towards the unique aura.
To round off my stay by the beach, I enjoyed a fantastic dinner with friends from the East Coast at an Italian spot called Piccolo on Dudley Avenue, just off the beachfront. Red wine flowed, as did life advice from my friends, some of it classically Californian: 'There are a number of important decisions you will need to make in life. As well as your chosen career path and the city you live in, take care over choosing the first person you marry.' Noted.
Back in Hollywood, I went trailing in Griffith Park one day with a friend I made the week before in San Francisco. A brief conversation at the Moodymann show and we just clicked, and it turned out she was moving to LA as I was travelling Southern California, too. Serendipitous, if you like. I had never made it to the Observatory before, so we ventured up there and dipped inside to take in just enough space trivia (did you know scientists estimate that there are 100 sextillion stars in our universe?) to feel really small, which is one of my very favourite feelings, before stopping for lunch at the Trails Cafe, which is a really cute spot to visit.
Another hike I would recommend is heading up to Runyon Canyon for very breathtaking views of Los Angeles. I started the longer hike late afternoon and was blessed with such a beautiful palette of colours as the sun set; it was as if Monet had interpreted modern day Los Angeles with neon watercolours.
If you want a great view without the physical exertion, then definitely go for drinks at SoHo House in West Hollywood. The panorama afforded by the floor-to-ceiling glass planes is very cool, and looking out from within the urban sprawl offers a completely different feel to the view you get from a mountain or canyon peak. Looking down and being so close to LA’s infamous traffic has quite a hypnotic effect and made me think of Cronenberg’s brilliant film, Crash.
To bring this little adventure to an end, I spent some time hanging out in Downtown LA, which I have always thought of as cool, but understand that a few years ago that wasn’t the case at all. Located on South Spring Street, The Last Bookstore is an incredible place. You can easily spend a few hours digging for gems and obscurities in their collection, particularly the colour-coded sections upstairs where you really can expect to find anything. We flicked through high school yearbooks from Connecticut, pocket-size guides on how to happy, personal finance books from the '80s, and eastern philosophy texts.
I was lucky to catch a couple of great events on my last night in LA, making it a truly unforgettable farewell. The first was an outdoor screening of Blade Runner at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which was a perfect setting seeing as the film is set in Los Angeles in 2019. I love outdoor screenings, with picnic blankets, wine, stars and planes overhead. It's just an altogether more communal experience.
The second was getting to see Slowdive play at the Ace Hotel Downtown. Slowdive are one of my favourites, and again, the setting was magical. The Theatre at the Ace is a beautifully restored 1920s movie theatre, and has such breathtaking Gaudi-esque architecture inside. Inhaling hazy shoegaze surrounded by such stunning visuals was a perfect way to round off my latest Californian adventure. I'lI be back, as a famous Californian once said. Sooner rather than later, I hope.
Want to get to LA and California for incredible prices? Book with Essential Travel London for the best prices, the best perks, and the best insider experiences. Essential offers the best business travel in the UK