Five days in Los Angeles, California: Our first time at Universal Studios, Exploring Hollywood, Venice and Santa Monica, and a little bit of downtown.
We were WAY overdue for a visit to Los Angeles. Paddy had never been, and I hadn’t been since 2000 when I was a poor college student on a trip with my best friend. We were under 21, poor, stayed in a hostel on Venice Beach, and ate the cheapest food we could find. We had a blast, but I was definitely ready for a more “grown-up” trip.
Day 1: A bunny museum, a little shopping in Burbank, a fantastic dinner at the historical Formosa Cafe, and drinks on Sunset Strip
We doubled up this trip with a trip to visit my parents in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, so we drove in from the east with a rental car. I have an obsession with odd museums, so when I discovered that there was a bunny museum in Altadena, CA, I decided we had to stop there along the way.
The Bunny Museum is a $12.00 admission per person, and is full of bunnies. Stuffed bunnies, bunny figurines, and even a few live bunnies roaming the back area of the museum.
It was definitely odd and interesting, however it was way creepier than I expected. There were some heavy religious vibes, and in the upstairs loft area there was a (shrine sculpture??) of a wedding dress with stuffed bunny body parts and a lot of candle wax. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it was one of the most bizarre and creepy things I’ve ever seen.
I can’t say I recommend the Bunny Museum one way or the other. If you’re looking for a bizarre museum experience, you will find it here.
We were on the outskirts of LA now, and after a long drive we were ready to return the rental car and get checked into our hotel. However, I had to make one shopping stop at my favorite shop’s only brick and mortar location in Burbank: Unique Vintage. Unique Vintage has lots of women’s clothing in retro styles for all sizes. If you like that sort of thing and you’re in Burbank, check it out. Otherwise you can order from them online. It looked like there were a lot of other cool shops in Burbank, however we didn’t have time to browse. We will definitely be back!
We dropped off the rental car at the Burbank airport, and took a Lyft to our hotel, Mama Shelter in Hollywood.
I did a lot of hemming and hawing about what hotel to stay at in Hollywood, and I will tell you that they are all expensive unless you go for a super budget option. I landed on Mama Shelter because it had funky style, breakfast included, and was in walking distance to a lot of things we wanted to do and see, as well as the LA Metro.
Mama Shelter was a pretty good choice, albeit a little hipster. The bed was comfortable, and the room came with fun details like copies of popular movie scripts, Star Wars or super hero masks over the lights, red mood lighting, and even free porn (pretty bad porn, we took a look out of curiosity-but it’s free). The best part of our room though was the great view of the Hollywood sign.
We had a little time to check in and unpack, and then we had to jump in a Lyft and head to our dinner reservation at the famous and historical Formosa Cafe.
In the reservation comments, I had said that it was our first time there and could they please give us the best table available (I do that sometimes because you never know). Lo and behold, they read it and reserved us the Elvis Booth! We were delighted.
The Formosa Cafe has been around since 1939, and many Hollywood legends have dined and danced there, including Elvis of course–hence the booth. There is even an old restored train car inside the restaurant with dining booths that you can sit at. After taking a jaunt to the bathroom, I can confirm that there really isn’t a bad seat in this house. The booths and train car are pretty fun, but the whole restaurant is fantastic.
The food is Chinese themed, and we honestly didn’t know what to expect. However, it exceeded our expectations. We ordered the chicken salad, the braised pork belly, and the marinated cucumbers. Everything was fantastic. The drinks were also fabulous. If you’re visiting Hollywood, this historic landmark is not to be missed. They even have tiki mugs and fun merch for sale (of course we couldn’t leave without one of their mugs). The Formosa Cafe was a perfect first dinner in Los Angeles.
After dinner, we headed to the Sunset Strip to have a drink at the Rainbow Bar and Grill. This was one of Paddy’s bucket list stops, as the Rainbow is a huge part of Los Angeles’ rock n roll history. Open since 1972, it was a frequent hangout for rock musicians through the 1970’s and 1980’s. There is a ton of rock memorabilia lining the walls of the restaurant, and an open air bar outside called “Lemmy’s Lounge,” named after Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead. The last two decades of his life, Lemmy was a fixture at the Rainbow. He is now memorialized there in a life-sized bronze statue.
We were there on a Monday night, so there wasn’t a lot going on. On a trip to the bathroom, I walked by the door to the stairwell leading upstairs to the famous VIP lounge where all the 80’s hair band stars used to hang out. The door was open, and I almost walked up to see what was up there, but then opted not to. I have regrets about this decision.
After a drink, we walked down Sunset Strip to see the famous Viper Room, Whiskey a Go-Go, and the Roxy. There was nothing going on that we wanted to attend (or nothing going on at all, being a Monday night). However, it was fun to just see it for it’s historical value. It would be nice to come back and go to a show sometime. We called it a night a bit early, because we had a big day at Universal Studios the next day.
Day 2: Universal Studios, Trejo’s Tacos, and a couple Tiki bars
We are not theme park people. We hate lines, overpriced bad food, crowds, and screaming families. So we looked into the best possible way to see Universal Studios, and I think we were successful:
- Go on a Tuesday
- Splurge for the Express Pass. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s worth it.
- Get there right when they open in the morning
- Buy your passes online in advance, it’s cheaper. You can also compare prices for different days and weeks to see what the best deal is
- Don’t go on a blazing hot day if you can help it
We arrived right after the park opened at 9:30, with our pre-booked express passes. We were given a paper ticket with a QR code that allowed us each one skip the line ride on each of the attractions except for the brand new Super Nintendo World/Mario Kart ride.
Our friend advised that we do the studio tour ride first thing, because sometimes it breaks down or they are filming something and the ride will be limited or out of commission for a while. So we did.
As big movie fans, the Studio Tour was actually our favorite part of the park. It was so fun to see the Jaws shark, the town from a lot of movies such as Gremlins and Back to the Future, famous movie vehicles, etc. The earthquake subway portion complete with fire and flooding was pretty intense as well. There were also higher tech portions of the ride that involved 3D video screens such as dinosaurs from Jurassic Park or the Fast and the Furious.
Next, we were ready to try some other rides. We did the Mummy–which was super fun and very short. The car goes into the “tomb” and then goes out backwards. The backwards part made me nauseous, but it was over very quickly. The sets in the Mummy ride were pretty cool.
The Jurassic Park ride was another favorite. Prepare to get wet. Somehow we didn’t get that wet, and we’re still not sure why. It’s a standard “log ride” sort of ride where you go forward in a boat car pulled through a river, and then a big waterfall plunge at the end. The animatronic dinosaurs were fun.
Paddy is a big Simpsons Fan, so we walked around Springfield, and had lunch at Bumblebee Man’s Tacos. The tacos were overpriced, but not crazy. They were tasty, but not anything to write home about.
After lunch we did the Transformers ride and the Harry Potter ride. We’re not fans of either, really, but they were fun. These two rides relied a lot on 3D video effects in conjunction with motion to make you feel like you are flying around. I felt pretty queasy after Transformers, and had to shut my eyes for a lot of the Harry Potter ride so I wouldn’t lose my lunch. If you are prone to motion sickness, be warned about these two.
The Harry Potter ride was pretty cool, but after that craziness I couldn’t handle any more rides or I would get sick. Paddy doesn’t get motion sickness like I do, so he went on the Kung Fu Panda ride (he said this one was kind of meh), and the Simpsons Ride. I was feeling a bit better and thought maybe I could try the Simpsons Ride, however when we approached the entrance there was a sign stating that it is a “very aggressive ride.” So I got ice cream at Phineas Q. Butterfat’s Ice Cream Parlor while Paddy went on the ride. Per Paddy, The Simpsons is a fun ride, but definitely not for me, or anyone else with severe motion sickness.
It was about 2:00 PM, and the crowds were definitely in full swing by this time of the day. We didn’t have to wait in line at all the whole day with our express pass, however Paddy said there were enough express pass people in line on the Simpsons ride by this time that it did take about 15 minutes of waiting in line before he got on the ride. Regular queues around the park had signs advertising about a 45 minute to an hour wait at the popular rides.
We were getting tired, and we had all the crowds we could handle at this point. During the last two hours, we almost got ran over by aggressive moms with strollers about five times. (They don’t stop, they just keep going until you jump out of the way).
We caught a Lyft back to the hotel to rest for a while. Overall, the express pass saved us hours of standing in line, and we would have been a lot more tired and fed up with people had we not splurged on the express pass. It was 100% worth the extra money. It was also extremely helpful to get there first thing in the morning, and not on a weekend.
For dinner that evening, Trejo’s Tacos was located just around the corner from our hotel and we had been dying to try it. We are fans of the actor Danny Trejo and his food did not disappoint.
Paddy tried three different tacos, and I had a shrimp taco and the tortilla soup. The tortilla soup was the best tortilla soup I’ve ever had.
After dinner, it was tiki time. There are a few tiki bars in Los Angeles, the most classic being Tiki-Ti. However, I was very sad to discover that Tiki-Ti was shut down for the month for some reason. So I guess we will have to come back another time.
Tiki-No and Tonga Hut were open, however.
We started with Tonga Hut in North Hollywood. We had been to Tonga Hut’s sister bar in Palm Springs a few years back. Tonga Hut has been in business since 1958, and is a very classic spot.
Drink prices at Tonga Hut are a lot more affordable than other spots in LA. Drinking in LA is EXPENSIVE. At least, if you want to go to popular bars and get craft cocktails it is. Expect a lot of cocktails to cost about $16-$20 each, and wine to be about $10-$15 a glass. Beers seem to be about $7-$9 each. Because of this, we didn’t imbibe as much as we normally would on a vacation.
We tried the Bermuda Dunes and the Doctor Funk, both had classic tiki flavors and a healthy amount of rum.
Our second and last tiki bar was Tiki-No, also conveniently in North Hollywood, a quick Lyft from Tonga Hut.
Tiki-No is a newer Tiki Bar, but we actually enjoyed the chill vibe there a little more than at Tonga Hut. It was pretty empty on a Tuesday evening, and the bartender was super nice.
We tried their most unique-sounding cocktails on the menu: The Toasted Marshmallow and the Angry Olmec. Both were delicious. My Toasted Marshmallow actually came with a marshmallow on fire, and fire makes everything exciting. I enjoy a good burnt marshmallow once in a blue moon.
Overall, I would recommend checking both bars out if tiki bars are your thing. They are pretty close to each other, so it’s easy to do.
Day 3: Sauntering around Hollywood and Melrose, Lunch at the Pink Taco, Korean fried chicken at a famous spot, strippers, and a 70’s bar
After breakfast at our hotel, we walked over to Amoeba Music to do a little record shopping. If you’ve never been to Amoeba, it’s not just another record store. Amoeba is full of all kinds of records and media, including a lot of rare finds. If you like music and movies, definitely check out Amoeba Music.
After record shopping, we headed to Funko to explore. Paddy’s bandmate used to work for Funko and project-managed the build of their Hollywood location. Even if you aren’t into collecting their “Pops” or figurines, it’s a fun and free place to spend some time and get a few photo ops. In an expensive city like Los Angeles, free fun is hard to find. You can find it here.
We checked out a couple more shops, then hopped in a Lyft down to Melrose Avenue.
Now, I remember Melrose Avenue being very fun with lots of vintage clothing shops back when my friend and I visited in 2000. However, it was pretty disappointing. Unless you’re looking for stripper-wear or 90s mom jeans, don’t bother.
After walking around Melrose for an hour and finding nothing cool, Paddy was getting a little annoyed with me. And we were both getting a little hangry. But I had a lunch plan, and I redeemed myself at the Pink Taco on Sunset Boulevard.
We walked in tired and thirsty, and were delighted to find that it was happy hour.
And guess what? They actually serve pink tacos.
The food was delicious, and even better, they serve pink margaritas in a pineapple with a signature umbrella. What more could you want when you’re tired and hangry?
The Pink Taco was a favorite stop on our trip, and we absolutely recommend it. It is also right next door to the famous Chateau Marmont, where all the celebrities stay. If you can’t afford to stay there, you can at least do a walk-by after lunch.
Later that evening, after a much needed post-lunch siesta, we headed back out for dinner to another old Los Angeles historical spot: The Prince. The Prince is located in Koreatown not far from a metro stop, so it was easily accessed by just taking the LA metro.
The Prince is a 100-year-old establishment that has been in a lot of movies and TV shows, most notably the TV shows The New Girl and Mad Men. Big red leather booths, vintage wallpaper, dim, sexy lighting, and old Victorian paintings make up the sultry dining and bar area. There’s even a suit of armor.
If you expect this place to have delicious, swanky cocktails, you would be right. I can’t remember what we ordered, but it was sort of like an old fashioned with still-smoldering burnt rosemary on top, giving it a unique aromatic nose and flavor.
As for the food, the menu is Korean, and the specialty of the house is their Korean fried chicken. And it is fabulous. We ordered the half and half chicken, which is half regular, half spicy and comes with a “salad” of cabbage and dressing. We also ordered shrimp fried rice and a side of kimchi. I’ll warn you that the spicy chicken is pretty spicy, but not unbearable.
Great ambiance, great cocktails, and great food. It is worth the trek to Koreatown. We would love to explore more of Koreatown on our next visit.
Continuing our journey through historic Los Angeles, we moved on to Jumbo’s Clown room for a cocktail, a bikini strip club founded as a Hollywood dive bar in 1970. It got it’s cabaret license in 1980 and has been showing bikini stripper entertainment ever since. Bikini strip bars don’t actually get nude, they strip down to a string bikini. So as far as strip clubs go, it’s a pretty tame one. Rumor has it Courtney Love used to strip here in the 1980s.
We exchanged our 20s for a bunch of 1 dollar bills from the bartender when we ordered a drink, sat on the edge of the stage for a bit and happily tipped the dancers. Tipping is expected, especially if you are sitting on the edge of the stage, so plan accordingly and bring cash. It was a fun time, but also a good way to go through a lot of money quickly, so we didn’t stay long.
Our last stop of the evening was not part of historical LA, but it was one of the most fun bars we visited on this trip.
Back in Hollywood proper, not far from our hotel is Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, a 1970’s themed bar. All I read was that it had a 70’s theme, but it was so much more impressive than that.
First of all, to get to the bar, you arrive at a facade of a 1970’s garage, and enter through an old REFRIDGERATOR DOOR.
Once you arrive inside, the bar is set up like a 1970’s house with a living room area, a “kitchen” (which is the main bar), and a large outdoor patio with astro turf and an airstream trailer bar.
A DJ was spinning some disco, and the young crowd seemed to be just starting to arrive. We got some drinks and settled into a (moderately) comfy avocado green couch.
Not long after, a live band played a 45 minute set in the “living room”, and they were good. Once they finished, the DJ picked back up with the disco and people danced.
I think we might have been some of the oldest people at this bar, and I think Paddy was the only person there who was actually alive in the 70s. But we had a great time and would definitely recommend coming here.
Day 4: Venice, Santa Monica, BARBIE, Musso & Frank’s, and a magic show
Thursday, we wanted to see the beach, so we hopped in a Lyft to Venice. The drive took over an hour in LA traffic, but was still relatively affordable because Lyft charges by distance and not time (I think). There really is no quick way to get to Venice from Hollywood on the Metro.
We started with the iconic Venice canals, LA’s tribute to Venice, Italy. It’s a nice place for a morning stroll. The water levels were pretty low when we were there, it is a little more picturesque when they are higher.
After finishing our stroll through the canals, we walked around and poked into a few vintage shops before heading to the Venice Beach boardwalk.
The Venice Beach boardwalk can be a little overwhelming when it’s crowded, especially on the weekend. But it is also very fun and VERY LA. Lots of shops, stalls, restaurants, rollerblade and bicycle rentals, and all kinds of people to watch. If the surf’s up, head to the shoreline and watch the surfers. Take a dip in the ocean if you want–but don’t expect the water to be warm.
We were starting to get tired of all the walking, so we got another Lyft for a short ride up the beach to the Santa Monica Pier for more sight-seeing. We didn’t ride any rides, but there are great views of the beach from the pier.
Fun fact: Santa Monica pier is also the end of historic route 66.
If we’d had more time in Santa Monica, we may have ridden the ferris wheel. However, we had tickets that afternoon to the World of Barbie Exhibit in downtown Santa Monica.
Paddy wasn’t exactly thrilled to go to the Barbie exhibit, but I told him he didn’t have a choice. Overall, he was a pretty good sport.
The exhibit was full of instagram influencers in over-the-top Barbie inspired outfits, and a whole mess of little screaming girls in pink dresses with their moms. And us.
We walked through a life-sized Barbie dream house, saw a life-sized Barbie camper, posed in some Barbie boxes, saw lots of iconic Barbies and their cars and historic dream houses on display, and Paddy even played the Barbie guitar.
Our favorite part however, was the Barbie Interstellar Airways:
The Astronaut Barbies have a special place in my heart. I own several.
We were pretty hungry after all the Barbie and all the walking, and there just happened to be a Trejo’s Tacos around the corner from the exhibit. Bingo.
The Lyft home from Santa Monica to Hollywood took over an hour in traffic as well. There is actually a metro that runs from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, and a connecting metro that runs from downtown to Hollywood, however it would have taken longer and we were tired.
That evening, we had a swanky date night planned, starting with dinner at another classic Hollywood restaurant, Musso & Frank Grill.
Musso & Frank has been in operation since 1919– over 100 years! All the Hollywood legends have eaten there at one time or another, and countless movies and TV shows have been filmed there. A couple more recent movies with scenes filmed here were Blonde and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. When you step into the restaurant, you feel like you are stepping back into the 1920s. The original booths and decor of the restaurant are still in use, although I’m sure they have been restored several times. The wait staff wears red jackets and black ties, and carries trays of food up in the air in the most classic way.
Something Musso & Frank are known for here: Their martinis. When you order a martini here, you can specify gin or vodka, with a selection of gins and vodkas to choose from. I ordered a dirty martini, and asked the waiter to please recommend a vodka (I can’t remember which one it was, but it was smooth). My martini came perfectly dirty and ice cold, in a small martini glass with a vial of martini on ice for me to refill my glass with. This was so the martini never gets cold. Outstanding.
Paddy went with an old-fashioned, also made perfectly.
Another relic of the past: the menu. Steaks and seafood mostly, but you can find very old timey dishes like liver and onions and grilled lamb kidneys. They also have quite a few pasta dishes, including the original Fettuccini Alfredo from Italy (see their website menu about the story). Dishes are all served a la carte, with sides to share like creamed spinach, asparagus, potatoes au gratin, and other classic options. The menu may sound a little bland to some, however we can assure you the food was definitely not bland. Everything was perfectly done.
Paddy ordered the swordfish, I ordered the scallops, and we shared a side of broccolini with hollandaise, and potatoes au gratin. The sides were large, and we didn’t make it through all of them, but everything was delicious and perfectly cooked.
For dessert we shared a classic crème brûlée.
If you come to LA, make this one of your splurge dinners. Make a reservation, dress up, have dinner and a cocktail and feel like a 1920’s Hollywood star. It’s worth it.
After dinner, we had purchased tickets to a magic show at a tiny bar down the street, Black Rabbit Rose. This was a delightful experience. The bar is tiny and serves craft cocktails and appetizers, and has a very small and beautifully decorated theater for magic shows a few nights a week.
This event paired perfectly with a swanky dinner at Musso & Frank. Not only was it right down the street, but it also feels very old timey and they request that you dress up for the magic show. We splurged for the VIP tickets, which included a cocktail as well as a seat up in the front near the stage.
The show was fantastic. Funny, lots of mind-boggling magic tricks, and great audience engagement. We loved it.
Day 5: Hollywood Walk of Fame, more tacos, historic Olvera Street, and a unique bar in downtown LA
Friday was our last day in Los Angeles, and while there were a myriad of things we could do, we had done so much walking in the last few days that we were tired and sore. We opted to sleep in, but felt we still had to go see the biggest tourist attraction in Hollywood before we left: The historic Walk of Fame. Fortunately, this was easily done, since it wasn’t far from our hotel.
The Walk of Fame actually extends down Hollywood Blvd from Gower to La Brea, and down Vine street from Sunset to Yucca. This is where you can find all the celebrity stars lining the sidewalks. However, the main part of it is in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. This is the theater where red carpet movie premiers have been happening since the 1920s. The Academy Awards and other movie premiers are held at the adjacent Dolby Theater, which is fun to see as well.
In front of the Chinese Theater is where you can find famous Hollywood stars’ feet and hand prints in the cement.
It didn’t take long before the hot sun and the masses of tourists on Hollywood Blvd were wearing on our nerves, and we were also getting a bit hangry. We started walking back in the direction of our hotel in search of a place for lunch, but everything looked pricey and touristy. Soon enough, we were back at our hotel and remembered that Trejo’s Tacos was one block down. The prices there were decent and the food was great, so we sought refuge at Trejo’s. It was the right choice. Trejo’s Tacos will always be an Oasis waiting for you just off Hollywood Blvd.
Later, there was another historic place we felt we couldn’t miss on this trip: Olvera Street.
Olvera Street is the location of the original settlement of Los Angeles, dating back to 1781. Today there is a park and the main street is pedestrian only, filled with Mexican handicraft and food vendors. Olvera Street is pretty much a daytime-only operation, with vendors packing up shop around 6:00 PM.
My plan was to come down to Olvera Street around 4:30, and get an early dinner at one of the Mexican restaurants around 5:00 before they closed up. It was an easy metro ride from Hollywood to downtown, and Olvera street is just a couple blocks from the main metro station in downtown Los Angeles.
When we got there, some vendors were already starting to pack it up, but most were still open. I would recommend coming here during the day and getting lunch instead to get the full experience. It’s a very fun little taste of Mexican culture and old Los Angeles history.
We opted for food at El Paseo Inn. It was good, but didn’t blow our minds. Prices were a little high, however it was a good sit-down table service option on Olvera Street.
Our last stop of our trip was a unique bar venue that used to be a downtown cafeteria, Clifton’s Republic. It is now a three story night club with an immersive, exploratory experience. It opens at 6:00 PM on the weekends and doesn’t charge a cover until 9:00, so getting there early worked out well.
The main reason we wanted to come here is because they have a tiki bar called the South Seas on the upper floor. However, when we arrived, we were greeted with a sign that informed us that the tiki bar was closed for renovations. Cue sad trombone.
But we were here, and the place was pretty unique. Only the first two floors were open, but there was a lot to explore.
I can’t really figure out how exactly to describe Clifton’s. There are so many nooks and crannies and features, antiques, taxidermy, and cozy corners. It’s an adventure. Cocktails were $20 and up, so we just had one each. A bit ridiculously priced, but hey–it’s Los Angeles. Drinking is expensive in this town. If you like to drink and want to come here, maybe have a few in a dive bar nearby or at your hotel beforehand. Overall a very unique place, albeit a bit pretentious. I bet it’s an interesting place when the dance floor gets going later on in the evening.
We had a great five days in Los Angeles. There is so much more to see, we will definitely have to go back. I’d like to stay a few nights in Venice next time and explore that neighborhood a bit more, and it would be fun to do the Warner Brothers studio tour. Universal Studios was fun, but once was probably enough. Maybe next time we’ll rent some rollerblades and skate up the Venice boardwalk, and perhaps try and get an up close view of the Hollywood sign. We would love to check out more restaurants in Koreatown. The options are endless. Los Angeles is full of adventures.