Los Angeles has international allure for obvious reasons. Perfect weather. Endless beaches. An exploding culinary scene. A laid-back lifestyle where fashion and style still reign supreme. And that's to say nothing about the chance to bump into a celebrity -- famous or infamous -- at every turn.
But what is part of the challenge of visiting L.A. -- its expanse and often vast distances between eclectic neighborhoods -- is also what gives a visit here the potential for diversity that's tough to rival anywhere else. You can't go wrong with tried-and-true tourist venues in Los Angeles. But here are alternative L.A. experiences that still offer a genuine and memorable snapshot of Southern California's jewel.
Skip Rodeo Drive, See Abbott Kinney: Rodeo Drive is a shopper's paradise in the heart of Beverly Hills, but the ritzy storefronts might relegate most of us to little more than window shopping. In nearby Venice, Abbott Kinney Boulevard has quickly become a trendy epicenter for popular shops, gourmet dining and hip galleries. Surfing Cowboys features urban furniture, The Tasting Kitchen draws big brunch crowds and Elvino offers wine-tasting daily. Every month, First Friday brings out shoppers on the hunt for unique wares en masse.
Skip Malibu, See Pacific Palisades: Malibu is gorgeous, stretching along the Pacific toward the northernmost stretches of L.A. County. But neighboring Pacific Palisades is an alternative seaside, celeb-laden community. Much smaller and anchored by famous Sunset Boulevard, it's home to Tinsel Town names like Matt Damon, Steven Spielberg, Goldie Hawn, Bill Cosby and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And special local attractions abound, from the original Getty Villa, the peaceful escape known as the Lake Shrine and bucolic Will Rogers State Park.
Skip Tinsel Town, See Thai Town: Hollywood is an obvious draw. But nearby Asian-inspired towns are burgeoning and also worth a visit. Further down Hollywood Boulevard is Thai Town, home to a growing number of authentic markets, spas, silk shops and restaurants (Palms Thai Restaurant features a Thai Elvis impersonator every weekend). And it makes sense, since L.A. is home to the largest Thai population outside Thailand. Want more Asian flavor? Check out Little Tokyo, located downtown, Koreatown, along the popular Miracle Mile, and Chinatown, north of the Hollywood Freeway.
Skip Santa Monica, See Larchmont: OK, it's tough to suggest skipping Santa Monica, so don't. But for another special L.A. oasis, visit Larchmont Village, a diverse neighborhood defined by a leisurely air and wonderful specialty shops. Flanked by upscale estates and nearby Paramount Studios, Larchmont Boulevard is home to salons, florists, gourmet food shops, toy stores and cafés. Visit the farmers' market every Sunday morning.
Skip the beach, See the island: Anchored just 22 miles off the L.A. coastline, Catalina Island is an easy day trip. You can take an express one-hour ferry ride from Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach or Dana Point; paying a little more gets you a quick chopper ride over the water. The main town of Avalon offers leisurely strolls -- by foot, bike, golf cart or Segway -- as well as eateries and shops. Golf, hiking and a new zipline will appeal to adventurers. And, yes, there are beaches here, too. Catalina enjoys a touch of Hollywood; more than 500 films have been shot here (remember "Ben Hur"?).
Skip the drive, See the skies: It's tough to avoid renting a car if you want to cover a lot of ground in L.A. But since freeways can get real old, real fast, why not fly, instead? L.A. is home to several flight schools, including Encore Flight Academy at Van Nuys Airport, just off the 405 Freeway. In a 90-minute session, you get instruction from FAA-certified instructors, time in a high-tech flight simulator and, best of all, time in the sky. Fly at sunrise or sunset and get sweeping views of the Hollywood sign, Malibu coastline and Downtown L.A.
Skip the bar, See the winery: Thirsty for fine wine? L.A.'s many new wine bars will satisfy. But you could take a day trip and see the real thing. An hour south of L.A. is Temecula wine country, home to vast vineyards and elegant tasting rooms. And 90 minutes north is the Urban Wine Trail in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, where more than 20 tasting rooms and several working wineries welcome thirsty visitors daily. At either location, myriad transportation options between tasting rooms, from limos to pedicabs, are a smart way to go.
Skip the "stars," See the stars: Celeb spotting is a favorite L.A. pastime. But don't forget about the stars above. Griffith Park is open until 10 p.m., making it ideal for a night of hiking and sky watching, and the onsite Griffith Observatory offers celestial glimpses up-close.