I must admit that when the prospect of writing about an inexpensive visit to Los Angeles was proposed to me, I laughed (to myself, of course). L.A., inexpensive? Somehow those two concepts didn't mesh. After all, I'd just spent three weeks taking three houseguests around to sushi bars, dance clubs and other trendy spots. By the time we got to Knott's Berry Farm (where Barbie -- yes, the doll -- was celebrating the release of her music video promoting world unity), my precisely budgeted bank account was nearly depleted.
It was time to rethink the situation. This is the city I was born in, the same place I'd worked on summer vacations for minimum wage. Surely there were more affordable ways to amuse myself and my friends than the usual pricey tourist haunts.
There were, indeed. Los Angeles County had 62 million visitors in 1989. And while they spent nearly $8.37 billion, I now know that they didn't have to pay for every sight they saw.
Of course, exploring a city with more than 3.4 million people (7.5 million in the county), stretching over 465 square miles, can be daunting -- and that goes double for the traveler on a budget. It's no wonder I haven't seen it all in the 25 years I've lived here.
Venice, the funky beach community about 10 miles west of downtown, is a good place to start. The boardwalk here is a kind of living stage for all kinds of acts, from stand-up comics and mimes to limbo- and break-dancers, and visitors are asked only for donations. (Warning: The man who walks on broken glass canceled his show after collecting only $5 from the more than 50 people gathered around him. No, he did not return the cash.) Getting your palm read or your fortune told while looking at the ocean will cost you a few dollars, but it's part of the California experience for many.
I used to live in Venice, within walking distance of the boardwalk, and the community eccentrics remain vivid in my mind. One summer afternoon, during a family cookout, a man dressed as Santa Claus dropped by my yard, passing out fruits and vegetables from his large white sack. My mother thanked him and told him to stop by again sometime (the friendly California way). He did, later that night. His sack was nearly empty and so he began giving away dollar bills. I think I got a zucchini.
A unique set of people frequent Venice, and a beachside table at the Sidewalk Cafe (1401 Ocean Front Walk, with breakfast specials for as low as $2.25) provides an amusing view of the passing show. But don't count on seeing many stars. In the hundreds of times I've roller-skated, walked or biked (even the police ride bikes here) along Venice's boardwalk, I've only seen one actor -- Ernest Thomas, a k a Roger from the television series "What's Happening!" You may be asking yourself, who? Exactly my point. I've seen more stars having lunch at the open-air mall in Century City.
Boardwalk souvenirs are fun and affordable: Sunglasses and T-shirts start at $3, clothing ranges from beachwear to leather, and there are great prints to be had. My Boston friend's first purchase was a framed Salvador Dali poster for $15.
Up the coast a few miles, in Santa Monica, there are more cheap thrills: carnival games and a hand-carved carousel ride (only one of a dozen in the country) on the Santa Monica Pier. Palisades Park on Ocean Avenue offers a gorgeous ocean view from the cliff (the Santa Monica Visitor Information Center is located here), which tourists share with the homeless people who live here.
California is known for its sandy beaches, of course, and most visitors want to swim despite the weather conditions. (My friend from San Francisco feels I cheated her during her vacation because I didn't want to "lay out" -- get a tan -- in 50-degree weather.) There are 72 miles of coastline from Malibu to Long Beach, but beachgoers proceeding up the coast along Pacific Coast Highway ("PCH") to Malibu find cleaner and better-kept shores. The drive up PCH, especially in the evening, is beautiful. You can sit in your car along the highway and watch the sun set, or just watch the crashing waves.
In Malibu, Zuma and Leo Carrillo are popular swimming beaches; Malibu Lagoon State Beach, also called Surfrider Beach, is good for surfing. Keep in mind that parking can be hard to find.
Hiking is another eminently affordable pastime, and Malibu Creek State Park, off Malibu Canyon Road in the Santa Monica Mountains, is a good place to explore. And for that California touch, you can look around the campsite where the television series "M*A*S*H" was filmed -- a jeep and other props still remain.
Driving is the quintessential California pastime, and it costs nothing to drink in the scenery. Sunset Boulevard starts at PCH at the ocean. The winding curvy road takes you through Pacific Palisades, Westwood and Beverly Hills (past the Bel-Air estates), eventually leading to Hollywood, movie capital of the world.
Billboards on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard are larger than life and tout everything from movie and album releases to the Marlboro man. Checking out the signs can be entertaining. One December night a few years back, a friend and I spent the better part of an evening driving along the boulevard, looking for a "Winkie" billboard that was the site of a typically Californian stunt: Contestants, wearing Winkie sweatshirts and accessories, lived on the billboard. When we cruised by that night, sure enough, there were a dozen or so people camped out up there, complete with tents and sleeping bags. The winner, as I recall, remained on the billboard for six months and received a screen test, a trip to Europe and a new car for her efforts.
Running parallel to Sunset Boulevard is Hollywood Boulevard, home of classically corny -- not to mention free -- Hollywood diversions. There's the Walk of Fame, where you can stroll among the more than 1,800 stars imbedded in the sidewalk, representing actors from Charlie Chaplin to Janet Jackson. At Mann's (formerly Grauman's) Chinese Theater, you can compare hand- and footprints with the stars. Bonus: Free tickets for television tapings at area studios are distributed here.
As long as you're downtown, devote some time to learning about the city's history. The free one-hour walking tour starting at the Los Angelitas Docent Center (130 Paseo de la Plaza) takes you to the city's oldest house, Avila Adobe; the oldest church, Old Plaza Roman Catholic Church; and Pico House, the city's first three-story building and once L.A.'s most luxurious hotel.
Once you've gotten your bearings downtown, consider spending a day at Griffith Park, about 10 miles north. The second largest city-owned park in the world (it spans more than 4,100 acres), it can be a relaxing, educational and relatively inexpensive place to hang out. Aside from horseback riding and hiking on mountain trails, you can visit the Los Angeles Zoo (admission for adults is $4.50), the Observatory and Planetarium ($3.50), a bird sanctuary (free), Travel Town (an outdoor museum with train rides, also free) and the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum ($4.75), with exhibits on the Old West and the history of western films. In the evening, the Laserium light show with synchronized colored lasers and music at the planetarium is expensive ($6) but worth staying for.
More ideas for budget entertainment can be found in the L.A. Weekly, a free publication distributed at many stores. While the publication is on the trendy side, the listings of events -- everything from movie listings to museum exhibits to theater performances and concerts to dance clubs -- give you enough information to decide for yourself.
As for cheap accommodations, they are few and far between in this high-priced city, although there are a few chain motels. Downtown is less expensive, but it's crowded and somewhat rundown, with large numbers of homeless people and too many one-way streets. For those with open minds, though, the Park Plaza Hotel (607 S. Park View St., 213-384-5281) is a historic landmark, and affordable at that. The day I stopped by, there were movie crews outside, a regular occurrence: Scenes from three "Rocky" movies were filmed there, as was "Harlem Nights," "Wild at Heart" and "Marked for Death." In the hotel's heyday, guests included Bing Crosby and Eleanor Roosevelt. Today it's less glamorous, but room rates run from $35 single to $60 double.
As for meals, I always take my guests to Yamashiro, a traditional Japanese restaurant on Sycamore Avenue atop a winding road in the Hollywood Hills. Although the restaurant itself is quite pricey, a drink in the bar and an appetizer from the sushi menu is an affordable way to enjoy the most spectacular view in the city. There are enchanting gardens within and outside the restaurant, which is a replica of a mountain palace in Japan.
When it's time to go back to reality, the Original Pantry (877 S. Figueroa St.) and Gorky's Russian Brewery (536 E. Eighth St.) are dives with a certain flair. Both are open 24 hours a day, both are cheap, and neither accepts credit cards.
With fast-food outlets on every corner, visitors are bound to eat a few hamburgers. The original Fatburger (450 S. La Cienega Blvd.) and Pink's Famous Chili Dogs (711 N. La Brea Ave.) are worth a visit. And for ultimate California cuisine, go to California Pizza Kitchen (121 N. La Cienega Blvd.), where wood-fried pizzas, priced from $6 to $9, come with toppings ranging from Barbecue Chicken to Southwestern Burrito to Peking Duck.
For more information, contact the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, 515 S. Figueroa St., 11th Floor, Los Angeles, Calif. 90071, 213-689-8822.Jill Walker is a special correspondent in the Los Angeles bureau of The Washington Post.