It's all true, it's all false. It's Hollywood.

City of the padded shoulders, dream merchant to the nation, pop-cultural capital of the Free World, land of sun and scandals and skin conditioners, and mecca to the megamogul -- Hollywood may not be all it ever was, but it still believes passionately in itself. To visit it is to partake of a particular American elixir, half froth and half undauntable determination, heady and airy -- and yes a little air-heady -- but remarkable for its properties of cool exhilaration.

Hollywood, among all the other things it represents, resonates with hope. It's a city that considers all the opportunities and all the alternatives, and not just in terms of sexual experimentation, either. In San Francisco, they tend to be rather smug and snooty; you'd think the city was a porcelain egg balanced on a mantelpiece. But in Los Angeles, the city has a purely practical function. It's there as a backdrop to fervently held, sometimes desperately held, dreams of glory.

Washington worships power. Hollywood worships fame. Isn't worshipping fame a lot more benign? Maybe it isn't so frightening after all that Hollywood is where Ronald Reagan learned about life.

Times have certainly been better in Tinsel Town, which is just one of Hollywood's many jocular monickers (others: Jollywood, Follywood, Gollywood, Lust Angeles, El Lay, La-La Land and so on). This "mining town in Lotus Land" that so bemused and bewitched F. Scott Fitzgerald is in danger of losing its lotus crop. In 1985, for the first time, more major studio feature films were made outside California than inside it. High labor costs and movie-luring campaigns by other states, and Canada, are among the factors.

Yet Hollywood retains its status as the spiritual epicenter of organized escapism, and it still sets the world's standards for wish-fulfillment and exploitation.

At the moment, of course, the biggest and most concentrated display of Hollywood memorabilia is not in Hollywood but at the Smithsonian Institution here. "Hollywood: Legend and Reality," in the National Museum of American History, evokes Bogie and Garbo and Fred and Ginger and Tracy and Hepburn and ghostbusting and close-encountering, and halcyon days of they-went-thataway.

You have to go thataway, though, to Hollywood itself, to see the wild life in its natural habitat, to experience the special campy quality of this most persistently, cutting-edged cuckoo of cloud-cuckoo lands.

Hollywood history isn't the only kind of history echoing along its boulevards and across its vaster vistas. After all, Atlanta burned here, Rome fell (repeatedly, in fact), the Titanic sank, the stock market crashed, King Kong escaped and Chaplin made dinner rolls dance. Here are the ruins of Atlantis and Xanadu and Shangri-La and Oz; here Sabu looked through the all-seeing eye and a Cowardly Lion found his courage and fountains made of girls once rose up from studio seas.

What a marrrvelous place. What a wonderful place. What a big fat spot, you realize once you get to it, Hollywood has in your heart of heart of hearts.

Of course when we talk about visiting Hollywood, we mean visiting Los Angeles. Hollywood is not an incorporated city. It's just the major portion of the 13th council district of Los Angeles, roughly 15 square miles nuzzled up against the Hollywood Hills (where the famous, now restored, Hollywood sign is). Geographically speaking, the term "Hollywood" has to be used fairly loosely. These days, for instance, only one major studio (Paramount) is technically located within Hollywood proper, if "Hollywood proper" is not a contradiction in terms.

The hills are Hollywood's only natural boundary. Its other three boundaries are set, somewhat arbitrarily, by streets. The western boundary is La Cienega Boulevard (which goes all the way to the airport); that's where West Hollywood begins. This heavily gay burg continues on to Doheny Drive, where Beverly Hills begins. From there to the ocean, out Sunset Boulevard, it's Bel-Air, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and Malibu. And then Hawaii.

To complicate things, on the other side of the Hollywood Hills, there's a community called North Hollywood, but it has little to do with anything and, though Bob Hope and Jonathan Winters have homes in North Hollywood, you don't want to go there. You also don't want to go to downtown L.A., a 20-minute drive south from Hollywood, except maybe to partake of the nouvelle cuisine at Rex, one of the most beautiful Italian restaurants not in Italy.

Until fairly recently, if you said you were going to vacation in Hollywood, you never would have meant that you would stay literally in Hollywood, because there were no really decent hotels in which to do that -- only seedy, shady and seamy motels, for the most part. But as the spearhead for an ongoing $922-million Hollywood redevelopment project recently approved by the L.A. City Council -- one phase of the project has seen the old chorus line of prostitutes across the street from Hollywood High on Sunset Boulevard at least momentarily scattered by the cops -- the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, on Hollywood Boulevard, recently reopened with the requisite fanfare and after $36 million in renovations. It has reportedly been doing boffo business.

The hotel, in whose "Cinegrill" the likes of Mary Martin and Bing Crosby once performed, is across the street from Mann's (formerly Grauman's) Chinese Theater, the mucho rococo movie palace whose ersatz oriental courtyard is still paved with the footprints, handprints and, in Lassie's case, pawprints of The Stars.

Although the hotel population in Hollywood itself remains tiny, a hotel in West Hollywood -- where Bette Davis lives -- has long been a movietown legend, and has official landmark status. The Chateau Marmont, just at the beginning of the Sunset Strip, looms over Sunset Boulevard and its battery of billboards like a decaying mythic castle. The Marmont used to be the great place to stay in Los Angeles -- away from touristy crowds, centrally located and as quaint as it was cheap.

The place reverberated with Hollywood lore; in its heyday, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were said to have had a great spat on one of its balconies. In more modern times, Richard Gere could be seen reading scripts in his bathing suit, and Robert De Niro had the penthouse, with its panoramic views of the city below, for three years or so. Laurence Olivier has been spotted in the Arthurian lobby.

But then, in early 1982, John Belushi died in one of the Marmont's once-cozy bungalows, and the place has seemed a little gloomy ever since. The vibes soured, and the Marmont neighborhood lost luster when Schwab's, the famous drugstore where Lana Turner was allegedly discovered (and "allegedly" is good enough, out here in mythotopia), closed down, so you could no longer saunter over there from the Marmont and hobnob with the out-of-work character actors who used the Schwab's soda fountain as an office and watering hole.

A decade or so ago, the neighborhood was more thriving. It was then that right next door to Schwab's there existed what always seemed a perfectly Hollywood gratuitous luxury: an all-night florist. Just the thing for those who, at 4 o'clock in the morning, have an insatiable craving for a geranium. The florist closed down well before Schwab's did.

The Marmont still has atmosphere aplenty, but in these hedonist-materialist times, one may as well go all out and stay in Hollywood's bedroom, the out-again, in-again community of Beverly Hills, whose plush and cushy affluence somewhere along the way lost its stigma. Los Angeles is not the ideal place for a family vacation -- it's much better for singles and couples -- but families that do come here can very comfortably be put up at the Beverly Hilton, a big, flabby, convenient hotel on the line between commercial and residential Beverly Hills, and within walking distance of the famous shops of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive.

Not far from the Hilton, which commands the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards, is godawful Century City -- a sprawlingly developed cold, commercial eyesore carved out of what used to be the 20th Century-Fox backlot -- and its Century Plaza Hotel, which is even bigger than the Hilton and twice as impersonal. It caters more to businesspersons than to families.

Of course, what fun is coming to the land of lavishness if you can't live lavishly? The luxury hotel business is booming, and so the tonier haunts like L'Ermitage on Burton Way in Beverly Hills, and the Hotel Bel-Air, tucked into the residential forests of posher Bel-Air (where Johnny Carson's ex, and ex-house, are), bask in popularity. Bel-Air is just west of Beverly Hills and very verdant. Not long ago, Tony Curtis was spotted checking out of L'Ermitage, where every room is a suite, after a long weekend, and skinny Rick Ocasek, lead singer of the Cars, could be seen perched on the diving board of the hotel's cushy rooftop pool.

Best of all the luxury hotels, arguably, is also the most venerable, a veritable mother ship: the Beverly Hills Hotel, a huge pink-and-green hacienda plopped down along Sunset Boulevard, and home of the famous Polo Lounge, where I once saw Beverly Sills lunching with Barbara Stanwyck. And that's only the beginning. The Beverly Hills is a new-money place with old-money charm. At its illustrious pool, just recently renovated, deals are wheeled by men with gray chest hairs who haggle in a sea of chaises on many of which pose supine starlet carcasses lacquered to blinding sheens in coconut oil.

Life doesn't get a whole lot better than this.

To be here is not only to be definitively poolside, but to be indubitably power-poolside, to savor what Jack Carson in "A Star Is Born" sarcastically referred to as "the hurly-burly of the silver screen." But the hotel has its quieter charms, too, like the pristine deco soda fountain in the basement, a place to have breakfast or a light lunch and read The Trades (Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter). The pink room, the pink counter chairs and the pink waitresses behind the counter all would look at home in a Busby Berkeley musical circa 1933 -- even though those were in black-and-white.

As surely everyone knows, L.A. is not a walker's town. It's a driver's. And since you have to rent a car, you might as well do it with some style. Budget Rent-A-Car on La Cienega in Beverly Hills, and a few other agencies like it, will rent you not the standard Ford Fairlane but a Mercedes, a Porsche, at dizzyingly stiff rates, or even a Rolls-Royce or a Ferrari. In the land of you-are-what-you-drive, you don't want to risk that dread social curse, the scorn of the valet parker.

Since many permanent residents rent or lease their fancy cars, and wear them like designer jeans, you need feel no hesitancy about doing the same. Besides, if you're traveling alone, you will find that assignations can and are arranged from car-to-car while traffic is stopped at red lights (sometimes even in motion). It's best to have the kind of car into which someone in the next lane is likely to want to look.

There are haves and have-nots here, but more than that, there are lookers and looked-ats.

If you go to Hollywood, you probably do not want to look like a tourist, but the town is such a magnet for those perennial Hollywood hopefuls that newcomers are anything but spurned. Walking along Hollywood Boulevard (but only in daylight hours) and checking out the stars planted in the sidewalk is perfectly acceptable behavior. The flora and fauna who promenade along this street don't usually mind being stared at in disbelief, either.

In addition, there are other blunt and unashamed tourist attractions that really are worth the trouble.

Most prominent and inescapable of these is the Universal Studios Tour, a triumph of canny merchandising that has little to do with moviemaking, but much to do with divesting touristas of their hard-earned pesos. Ah but it's so much fun to waddle along in a "Glamor-Tram" and behold such bona fide cultural icons as the spooky old house from "Psycho." Other studios sold off backlots for cash, but Universal managed to turn its into an amusement park. Amazing.

A new attraction this summer is the King Kong exhibit, obviously celebrating the Universal remake of the film (that awful bombola with Jessica Lange) rather than the RKO classic. Still, Universal promises a giant ape with 27 different mechanical movements ("lifelike," no doubt) and a helicopter crash and -- who's this? -- ABC News correspondent Sander Vanocur appearing on a TV screen to warn that the big monkey is loose again.

Only about 10 or 15 minutes from Universal Studios is another must-see for the Hollywood first-timer: Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where not only are such movie greats as Clark Gable and Walt Disney and Mary Pickford interred, but where a collection of aspiringly religious artifacts is on display in what would seem -- and did seem to Evelyn Waugh when he wrote "The Loved One" -- the ultimate in Hollywood Gothic and American kitsch.

In one of the buildings on the grounds, "The Last Supper Window," a 30- by 50-foot stained-glass replica of Da Vinci's painting, is flooded with reverential lights and accompanied by a 15-minute musical sound track. In another of the chilly marble halls, "The Crucifixion" is on view, billed as the world's largest permanently mounted framed painting on canvas, and lit up in various sections while sonorous narration booms.

Forest Lawn, so often referred to in comedians' monologues, is the Disneyland of funeral parks, but if you enter thinking the bad taste will make you giggle, you may also discover that it is on some level remotely moving. It's the Forest Lawn in Glendale, not the smaller park in Burbank, that is the one to visit. And hey, this cemetery is not just for dying; a spokesman says 25,000 couples have been married in Forest Lawn's "Wee Kirk o' the Heather" chapel.

In garish Anaheim, the Disneyland of Disneylands is also, obviously, another of those tourist attractions that is truly attractive, but one must fight one's way to the place through a commercial landscape so junkily honky-tonky that an appalled Unca Walt made sure with his next park, Disney World in Orlando, to buy up all the surrounding land as well.

Hollywoodians work hard, or so they are always insisting, and play hard, and they eat well. Very very well. Sushi bars are a dime a dozen now, but for more rarefied meals there are certain standouts. In Hollywood itself, Musso & Frank's Grill is a landmark, a rough-and-tumble kind of eatery where even if you have a reservation, and unless they really know you, you can expect to wait half an hour for a table at dinner or lunch. Indeed, Musso's has the city's most formidable and feared maitre d's.

But it's a great place for hullabaloo and plain, hearty food. At the front table, one day years ago, I saw the late Jack Webb in red socks, surveying the scene before him, and not long after, there was old Barnaby Jones himself, and old Jed Clampett himself, Buddy Ebsen, sitting not at a table with friends, but all by himself at the counter. The Chef's Salad is splendido.

For fancier dining, and star-watching, the "in" restaurant of the moment remains Spago, a smart boi te hung from a hill over Tower Records on the Sunset Strip. Hard to get into unless you Know Somebody, the place is a passion among the local stars. On a recent evening, Sally Field and Michael Caine were among the celebrity diners. Vincent Price gets a good table -- over by the windows, looking out on Sunset. The menu includes bizarre varieties of pizza.

Spago is bright and new and hip. For the old established elegance -- casual elegance, since this is still L.A. -- you can't quite beat Chasen's in Beverly Hills, where tradition is so meticulously observed that they still do not accept credit cards (you can open a charge account, however). The food, like the clientele, is substantial. You can sit in a big cushy booth and spot Kristy McNichol or CBS Entertainment President B. Donald Grant.

Upstairs, in one of the private rooms, Orson Welles once threw flaming sterno cans at John Houseman as the climax to a now-famous Hollywood tiff.

One does, let's face it, want and expect to see stars when visiting Hollywood, and dinnertime is a good place to do it, providing you don't mind paying the fee. One night recently at Jimmy's, near Century City (and one block from the Friars Club), it was possible to waltz past Loretta Young on one's way out and then bump into Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager on their way in. As it turns out, this glamorous pair were but the herald trumpeters for the big catch of the night: Elizabeth Taylor herself, a seemingly floating vision of piled-high hair and eye-misting gems. She was sparklier than the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, she was, she was.

It was a good night at Jimmy's.

A walk along Rodeo Drive, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl during summer months, a saunter through the UCLA neighborhood of Westwood (where almost all the best movie theaters are now located) and a Sunday afternoon spent ga-ga people-watching in wacky-daffy seaside Venice -- all these are entertaining undertakings for the Hollywood visitor.

But just as diverting, at least to this incurable returnee, is the chance to observe firsthand the spectacle of Southern Californians practicing their -- and the word was invented just for them -- Lifestyles, and loving the proverbial every minute of it. This is a city where the cars are clean all the time, all year 'round; where people really do have orange trees growing in their back yards; where you can't go broke if you're in the bottled water business or the valet parking business or run a clinic for curing cocaine addiction; and where people will spend a good 30 minutes arguing with a dry cleaner about a blurred stripe on a white-and-purple satin baseball jacket.

People are crazy here, yes, just as you'd expect, but a lot of them are happy-crazy, and it can, cheeringly, get to you. America, after all, gets most of its bad news from the East and most of its good news -- its escapist fluff and its show biz chitchat -- from the West. People come to Los Angeles to seek their fortunes still looking upon it as the Lourdes of the wounded ego. It's a place to find, and perhaps fall in love with, your own possibilities.

Old snobbishness about Hollywood vulgarity seems irrelevant now, especially with Hollywood having taken over the White House. Mike Nichols said years ago that he made "The Graduate" to protest "the Los Angelisation of the world." He might have called it "Californication." Whatever it is, the process is by now virtually complete. Show biz values and television standards have infiltrated everything. Hollywood can't be looked down upon quite so confidently as in years past.

Of course the weather is practically perfect, but it's more than that; it's metaphorical. On a typical day, morning may find the city laboring under a cloud cover, but by noon the clouds will have burned off, and the sun runs riot from then until dusk, all in keeping with the things-will-get-better philosophy. In "California, Here I Come," Al Jolson sang of being beckoned here by "a sun-kissed miss." Those sun-kissed misses beckon, and are beckoned, still. And that big, opulent monument you see alongside the San Diego Freeway as you speed north from the Los Angeles International Airport on your way to Beverly Hills? That's Al's grave.

Some people move to L.A. and never quite adjust. They can't take the width of this CinemaScopic metropolis. They're vertically oriented, and the worst kind of L.A. drags are those who insist they miss New York and wish they were there. What are they, masochists? Others say they dislike L.A. because they miss the change of seasons. But they're so very wrong. There is more changing of seasons here, not less. Every Monday morning, you get up, you go to the window, you peer outside and, look -- spring again.

Oh Auntie Em, it's no place like home.