Exploring Los Angeles by bike and on a budget
Touring Los Angeles by bike and on a budget of $100 a day.
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LOS ANGELES — When I told people I was visiting Los Angeles for a week without setting foot in a car, one word came up more than any other: "Impossible."
The county covers more than 4,000 square miles. It has seemingly endless, overlapping multi-lane highways and only a tiny number of bike lanes. And it is bisected by a mountain range.
Taken together — not a great place to get around on a bike.
But what if you can't afford to drive? What if, in fact, you wanted to visit the city on about $100 a day?
That was my mandate — one I quickly learned would be impossible to achieve if I rented a car, which could run me $40 a day, not to mention gas and parking. So last month, armed with padded biking shorts and determination, I went to Los Angeles to take in the sights on two wheels.
Seven days and six nights without a car turned out to be not only possible but in many ways afforded me a more unfiltered view of Los Angeles than I would have gotten from highways and the buffer of a windshield and a loud radio. I could pedal down the Pacific Coast, pause at food trucks and pop into parks uninterrupted by the need to find a parking spot — or worse, a valet. Los Angeles felt within reach.
And as the days passed, I realized that, for a city known for its car culture, Los Angeles can be managed on a bike. The small number of dedicated bike lanes and marked bike routes are scattered around somewhat unhelpfully, but Google Maps' bike mapping beta for mobile and Web does a fairly decent job of making sense of them. Widespread, though not ubiquitous, signs around the city urge drivers to "share the road" and give cyclists three feet leeway. Though I occasionally hopped up on sidewalks when I felt uncomfortable in traffic, I found drivers to be reasonably accommodating.
To be fair, my view may have been skewed by the fact that I chose Santa Monica as my base of operations, in part for its coastal bike path and relatively calm streets but mostly because I landed a $28-a-night bunk at an outpost of Hostelling International, the brand for youth hostel associations around the world. The 260-bed hostel on Second Street, just two blocks from the beach, had come highly recommended by an Angeleno I'd met on a recent trip to the Caribbean.
Once settled in, I searched the Internet for bike shops in the area and went with Bicycle Ambulance, which, in addition to offering rental rates as low as $22 a day with taxes, had stellar online reviews. That left me with $50 to play with, half of which I'd spend on eating in all those good spots foodies and taco connoisseurs had recommended to me, and the rest for recreation and for bus and train fare. (I had sworn off cars, after all, not public transportation, which in Los Angeles proved to be a nimble system that welcomes bikes on the light rail trains and on all buses.)
To maximize my biking and taco-sampling and bus-hopping, I kept to a fairly regimented schedule. Below is how I spent four of those days, biking anywhere from 15 to 40 miles a day and making it back to my base well before any leg cramps set in.
Beverly Hills and Hollywood
On Sunday morning at 7:45, I set out east on Santa Monica Boulevard toward Beverly Hills. At that hour, the street was so empty that it looked like one big bike lane. By the time I neared my destination about a half-hour later, traffic had picked up a bit, and I discovered an actual bike lane, which lasted for about 20 blocks before disappearing again.
I headed a few blocks to Rodeo Drive, pausing to window-shop at Porsche Design, Harry Winston Jewelers and Bijan. The stores were not yet open — not that it really mattered; they're not exactly frugal territory. Sweaty and clad in just a T-shirt and tight biking shorts, I'm not sure I would have been welcome anyway.
I worked my way through some small side streets over to a place that would sell goods I could actually afford: the Beverly Hills Farmers' Market. It was the first of many frugal food destinations recommended to me by friends and colleagues. (As I would learn during my trip, the incredibly varied cuisine of Los Angeles is a frugal traveler's dream, as long as you don't mind buying from stands and trucks.) One good thing about a traffic-clogged city is that there are plenty of signs to lock your bike to. After doing just that, I wandered the market, where I fueled up on fresh grapefruit juice, Mexican chilaquiles and British scones for just over $10.
My brunch over, I could embark on my entertainment for the day: a tour of stars' homes. Instead of paying $40 to take a tour in one of those open-topped vehicles, though, I set off on my own version of the tour, using as source material the bike route laid out in the "Beverly Hills Star Home Loop" section of the book "Bicycling Los Angeles County" by Patrick Brady (Menasha Ridge Press).
Although the book overall proved useful, this particular tour was plagued with errors, telling me to turn left when I should have turned right. It did guide me to houses once inhabited by George Burns, Frank Sinatra and the Menendez brothers. Judging from the hedges hiding it, the Sinatra house was probably extravagant, but the other houses hardly looked more outrageous than those of any other upscale suburb. It was the broad, empty streets, the Maseratis in the driveways and the utterly impeccable landscaping that suggested something different. Well, that and star-tour vehicles that crawled past me, their passengers staring my way as if I could have been a star myself.
From there, I cruised a few smooth miles east toward Hollywood via back streets parallel to major thoroughfares, where, even on a Sunday afternoon, traffic was looking like a challenge. (A smart phone with Google Maps or other GPS-like applications is an invaluable help, although I believe they still make maps on paper as well.)
Once there, I made a turn on Vine for a quick stop at the Cactus taco stand, recommended by a college friend, for three tacos, one each of carnitas, moist goat and spicy al pastor. And then I was off to gawk at Jack Nicholson's footprints outside Grauman's Chinese Theater, in the middle of a crowded retail strip a couple of miles north of the taqueria — and a lifetime away from the calm residential streets I'd navigated in Beverly Hills that morning. My final stop that evening was at Jitlada, a foodie-anointed Thai restaurant a few more miles east of Grauman's. I stuffed myself with the Crispy Morning Glory Salad and the pork kua kling, ordered in its second-most spicy version (which I would characterize as "blazing inferno").
Thoroughly decongested but exhausted, I performed a routine that became easier as the week progressed: I waited for a bus, then when it arrived, I caught the bus driver's eye, lowered the bike rack on the front of the bus, and fastened my bike into place. Then I boarded, resting my legs on the ride back to my bunk.
It would be crazy to try to see the 15-mile coastline between Santa Monica and Redondo Beach on anything but a bike. It's flat and almost entirely traversable if you use the dedicated bike paths that run along the beach. You can turn back any time you want, and you can go any day of the week at any time, since you won't have to compete with rush hour (or even weekday) traffic.
By bicycle, it was an easy trip. I was joined by Jeff Hartleroad, an old college roommate — now a neonatologist — whom I hadn't seen in well over a decade. Jeff is a serious biker. I was temporarily intimidated by the fact that he was wearing shoes that actually clipped into the pedals, but I got over it.
We started out at the Santa Monica Pier and rode the curvy, well-maintained path that heads down the coast. Even on a weekday, there were plenty of cyclists out, though not enough to make things crowded: My only complaint was that the path got a bit sandy in parts. In just a few minutes Jeff announced we were in Venice Beach, though I suppose he needn't have: Along the boardwalk, one after the other, was a medical marijuana clinic, a Botox-on-the-beach clinic and a toe-ring specialist. It was midmorning, and Venice Beach's homeless population was still camped out. I love it when iconic spots turn out to be exactly as I imagined them.
Right after Venice, the bike route turns inland and then runs alongside Marina del Rey, which is one of those places that I'd heard of a million times but never imagined actually existed. It looked pretty fancy, and Jeff once again became intimidating when he mentioned that he owned a boat docked in the marina that gives the neighborhood its name.
From there we biked on, first past Ballona Creek and the power-plant eyesore between Dockweiler State Beach and Manhattan Beach, until we finally rode by the enticing beachfront homes along Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach. When we turned inland in search of a lunch break at Redondo Beach, I was charmed by the shops and outdoor cafes lining the walkable streets of its town center.
For lunch, Jeff suggested El Burrito Jr. in Redondo Beach, a cheesy-looking structure with a red A-frame roof and yellow awnings and a few tables to the side. I had the chili verde burrito with pork, he had the super-deluxe burrito with carne asada, both around $6. We laid down our bikes along the round tables and dug in. Mine was mediocre, his was much better, but when you're not used to biking for 19 miles or so, it really doesn't matter.
Downtown and beyond
I knew that Los Angeles had a real skyline full of tall office buildings and bustling activity, but on my brief previous trips I had never bothered to go there. In my mind, it had become like the view of Emerald City just before Dorothy and the gang run through the poppies: a faux backdrop. So I was curious to see what it was all about — and the No. 10 express bus covered the 16 miles from Santa Monica to downtown's Union Station, saving energy to bike up and down the hilly downtown.
I found that close up, downtown Los Angeles is even more dazzling than it is from afar, with architectural baubles like the Bradbury Building, its cast-iron interior staircases almost as stunning as the metal-sheathed exterior of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.
My first stop off the bus was for lunch at Traxx, an Art Deco restaurant right inside Union Station that is credited with reviving the downtown food scene. Though bicycles are allowed inside the ornate, soaring station, I locked mine at the bike rack out front and braced myself for a potential confrontation with the maitre d' over what I feared might be a no-bike-shorts dress code. "Don't worry, it's a train station," he said. The menu was good — I went with the asparagus appetizer and contemporary version of the Mexican pork soup called pozole. And because I happened to be visiting during dineLA restaurant week (twice annually, in October and January), my fanciest meal of the week set me back $22 plus tax and tip.
Right across from Union Station is Olvera Street, which goes through El Pueblo de Los Angeles National Monument, a collection of historic buildings at the site where in 1781 a few dozen settlers established the community that would ultimately become this sprawling metropolis. My trip down history lane was disappointing, though; unfortunately the buildings were largely obscured by horrendous tchotchke-selling stands set up along the middle of the street.
I hurried along to the heart of Chinatown. I biked through its central plaza — closed to car traffic but not to me — enjoying the kitschy feel of pagoda-influenced architecture and (after locking up my bike) wandering into shops with names like Phoenix Imports selling novelties like morning stars, ninja outfits for Halloween and deformed coffee mugs reading "I got smashed in California." Tempted as I was by the chocolate-flavored cigarette wrappers, my only purchase was some mediocre pork buns and pastries from the Wonder Bakery.
The rest of the day, however, was more challenging, as I set out for the vast, nontouristy immigrant neighborhoods west of downtown. I was especially interested in Koreatown, with its strip malls packed with Korean businesses, some without English-language signs. I also had received a great dinner idea from Margy Rochlin, who writes about food (and other things) in Los Angeles: stop off for a taco appetizer along West Third Street at dusk, then head south to Koreatown for the main course.
These traffic-clogged and unevenly maintained roads were not meant for biking, so I was glad I had chosen a sturdy hybrid Trek model from Bicycle Ambulance. My attention darted from pothole below to braking cars ahead to Guatemalan bakery windows to the side. This was definitely not cyclist heaven.
At Taco Movil at Third and Mariposa (every day, 4 p.m. to midnight), I downed a surprisingly ungreasy chorizo taco (ungreasy being a relative term for chorizo; it generally means the orange ooze drips only onto the ground and not down your arms and onto your shirt). But the torta de milanesa de res — or breaded beef cutlet sandwich — was the highlight, bathed in beans, topped with white cheese, jalapeños and avocado on a roll dusted with flour.
For the Korean course, I went to Beverly Soon Tofu. It was also fantastic — a bubbling cauldron of tofu and kimchi and a side of galbi (Korean short ribs) that tasted almost like candy. By this time, it was after 8 p.m., and I was in no mood to bike the rest of the way back to Santa Monica. So Google Maps led me to the No. 920 bus, a straight shot back to Santa Monica via Wilshire Boulevard.
Pasadena is about as far away from Santa Monica as you can get in Los Angeles area, but I wanted to enjoy a sporting event while I was there. Fortunately my budget and my interests aligned: Why would you go see the Lakers when you could see a football game at the Rose Bowl? And though paying $36 face value for reserved seating at a UCLA game would have still been extravagant, Craigslist led me to a guy named Steven willing to part with his reserved seat for that Saturday's Washington State game for only $15. We met in a Von's Supermarket parking lot just 40 blocks inland from my hostel.
I planned a day in Pasadena, figuring if I got there early enough, I could fit in breakfast at Marston's, home to a reputedly legendary breakfast, and at least a short visit to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, which opened at 10:30, before heading to the 12:30 p.m. game. The trip from Santa Monica to Pasadena was just under 90 minutes via the No. 10 express bus to Union Station and then up an elevator to the bike-friendly Gold Line train to Pasadena.
Marston's Restaurant, set in a cottage across the street from Memorial Park, is one of those upscale comfort-food brunch spots that attract lines on weekend mornings. But as a single customer, I almost immediately got a spot at the counter, where I ordered their good coffee and sourdough French toast crusted with cornflakes and topped with strawberries, and was off, through the tree-lined, bike-friendly-at-least-on-weekends streets of Pasadena and just over the border into San Marino to the Huntington.
I locked up my bike on the convenient racks in the Huntington parking lot, which I noted was more elegantly landscaped than most New York City parks; the gardens themselves — especially the mind-blowing Dr. Seuss-like cactuses of the Desert Garden — concentrate more landscaping effort than some nations. The 90 minutes I had were not enough to begin to cover the gardens alone, but I also managed to sneak in a visit to the one of the dozen existing vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the midst of the Huntington's awesome collection of ancient books.
It was a 40-minute bike ride to the Rose Bowl from the Huntington, which I thought more than justified buying a $7 grilled pork banh mi sandwich from the Nom Nom Vietnamese food truck stationed in the parking lot when I arrived.
With no bike racks visible among the sea of cars filling up the $15-a-space lots, I locked my bike to a parking sign, gazed admiringly at the Rose Bowl sign and headed inside to my seat in the corner of the stadium, where I was surrounded by the powder blue T-shirts of fans whose wild enthusiasm suggested they were recent graduates. It was hot and the stadium was not full, so I was eventually able to move up under the shade of the press box, where older fans, almost as enthusiastic although somewhat more wrinkled, were enjoying the game in the shade.
When my week drew to a close, I turned in my wheels to Bicycle Ambulance, packed my bag and hopped the No. 3 bus to the airport. To be honest, I had expected getting around Los Angeles by bike and public transportation to be a barely tolerable chore — a money-saving second-best way to see the city.
Why, then, was I feeling so elated about my trip and smitten by a city I had never particularly liked before? No, it was not just the endorphins, or the sightseeing — as much as I had enjoyed the palm trees and beaches of the coast, the glittering facades of the mansions of the stars in Beverly Hills and the footprints rendered in concrete in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater. What I had really liked were the moments in between: the strangers who shared secrets on the buses, the dog walkers and Dutch tourists who stopped to chat with me along Rodeo Drive, the aspiring actor I struck up a conversation with on Santa Monica Boulevard, as he cycled to an audition and I cycled to pick up my UCLA football ticket. These were true Los Angeles moments — moments that most visitors, stuck in freeway traffic behind the steering wheel of their rental car, never get to experience. Or, at most, happen only when they stop their car at a taco truck.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.